Friday, November 6, 2015

What the Dead Teach Us

Earlier this year, my best friend from high school who was also my former housemate died.  I say best friend from high school--but best friend doesn't really convey the bond we had.  I came to the school in the 10th grade, and we weren't friends until my Senior year.  It's because of that Senior year that I remember high school fondly.  We had been lonely, and then a group of us found each other.  If you have spent time hiding out in the library because you can't face eating your lunch alone and then you found yourself having several best friends in your last year of school--then perhaps you can understand how "best friend from high school" doesn't really do justice to the relationship.

She was also a housemate for 4 years--but that phrase, too, doesn't really do justice to what we created.  We were an odd family, but a family nonetheless, my spouse, my high school best friend, our undergrad friend, and me.  We ate dinner together most nights. We remodeled houses together.  We took vacations together.  We did the tough work of figuring out how to live in community, and we reaped many benefits.

Here's what I find odd.  This week was her birthday.  For most of the years that she was alive, her birthday came and went, and I seldom thought of it.  This year, I was keenly aware.

Would I have been aware if her birthday hadn't fallen so close to All Saints and All Souls?  I think so.  I find myself thinking of her often.  Just this morning, I put my raspberries and yogurt in a plastic container to take to work.  I thought of the time that we were at Sam's Club and bought the containers for the communal household.  I felt a tinge of sadness as I spooned the yogurt over the berries.

Would I have remembered buying those containers had she not died?  Yes, I would.  But the tinge of sadness is what makes me take note.  Before she died, it would have just been a thought that flitted through my head, and I wouldn't have taken much notice.

My friend is the first of my contemporaries who has died.  Maybe as more of my friends die, I'll spend even more time remembering all sorts of minutes from my past, earlier life. 

But I am similarly haunted by my grandmother.  For the two weeks before Halloween, I kept catching whiffs of her.  I don't know how to say it any other way.  I'm sure that someone around me was using her soap.  At least that's what the rational part of my brain says.

The irrational part of my brain worries that it's a signal of something wrong with me, that I'm hallucinating smell.  The part of my brain that thinks that I don't really understand death and time and Physics thinks that my grandmother has come back to visit me, that no one else would have that unique smell of Dial soap and a morning of baking tinged by sweat.

I think of the religious traditions, like Buddhism, that encourage us to be fully present.  I think of those bells and gongs that are designed to call us back.  I wonder if there are less-talked-about aspects of religious traditions that talk about our memories of our dead that encourage us to be present.

But it's an odd kind of being present--I'm more aware of packing my berries and yogurt in the current moment while I'm also plunged back into the past, the hot August day in a warehouse with a cement floor where we made a decision about the best set of storage containers.

Is this a phase of grieving?  I don't remember studying it in Psych or Religion classes.  Of course, back then I'd have been very young.  What did I know of death and grieving?

I also realize how lucky I am to have made it to this solid ground of midlife before having to think about these issues of how grief affects us and what the dead teach us.

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