This essay was originally written and performed on KSCO 1080am on the second anniversary of 9/11. It’s not about 9/11 precisely, but more about heroism, about how tragedy bonds, about how tragedy clouds our vision, and about how tragedy can teach. I’ve posted it before, but thought it bore posting again.
My father told me once that he was glad my mother had died first. He loved her too much to wish he had gone in her place, he said. The harder thing was to be the one left behind. He wouldn’t wish the pain and guilt and insecurity and loneliness and self-loathing on an enemy, much less on the woman he loved. Best for her to have gone first, he said. He alone would bear the crushing weight of the following empty years for them both.
This staying behind and suffering stuff is heroic. Being the one who has to continue, guilty that we’ve survived, forcing ourselves to go out and see the latest Jim Carrey movie, buy a new washer and dryer, take a long evening walk and watch a beautiful sunset in an eerily empty sky that we know is being enjoyed by one less person than it ought to be. And as if that weren’t enough, we’re burdened by the responsibility of representing the deceased to the future, the responsibility of ensuring that the rest of the world understands how unfair it was, how unnecessary it was, how tragic it was, what a saint they were. We are all thrust into selfless heroism, for fifteen minutes, by virtue of our survival.
It’s funny how families only reunite at funerals. Well, weddings and funerals, but it does always seem to take some kind of tragedy to get people to hop on a plane or a bus and take a weekend out of their lives to stand around uncomfortably with people they spend the balance of the year badmouthing to their spouses, eating miniature spinach quiche and questionably warm shrimp.
When my mother died, my father and brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles gathered together for the first time in years. The tragic event is spent bonding. Oh, how we bond. We recall how much we miss one another, we re-tell those hilarious stories about Uncle Milo’s embarrassing toupee mishap, we reminisce about the years we spent as the best of friends, and make heartfelt apologies for our lack of communication… we promise to stay in touch. We were so close once… I miss you so… blood is thicker than water, family is everything, how did we let so much time get away, I promised your mother I’d raise you as my own, where’s that waiter with the Seven and Seven.
I went to another funeral, more recently… Not somebody I know, just a guy. The funeral of a guy who knew a guy I knew. Died of liver failure. Drank too much.
It was funny the way everybody completely ignored the way this guy died.
The guy had died a long and painful and unnecessary death of cirrhosis. A self-inflicted death brought on by years of drunken debauchery, parties and drugs and alcohol and general short-sighted irresponsibility.
Not funny. Just true.
What was funny was that those that spoke for him at the service stood up and told tales of a fun-loving, hard-living good old boy. Oh Yes, his old friends from the Program said, and they shifted their beers from one hand to another. They talked about his wayward youth, his motorcycle, the time he made his wife walk three miles to the store on a dark country road at 1am because he’d run out of Jack, he was such a card, what a wacky guy. Boy Howdy, his first wife, his kids, his brother agreed, and they laughed and they clinked their coolers and martinis in agreement. He was a misunderstood man, a dynamic and creative soul who couldn’t be shoehorned into a single relationship, a regular job, a responsible lifestyle. He couldn’t be expected to be something so mundane as a dependable parent or a reliable spouse. They were going to miss him, why did this happen, why hadn’t they seen it coming, they lamented the unfairness of it all, he was so young, it was so unnecessary, and his counselor and his priest and his third wife raised their glasses in unison and toasted the memory of a guy who had no faults.
Not funny ha-ha. Just funny sad.
This veneration, combined with the warm fuzzy feeling we get from our reunion with all the other surviving loved ones is a happy thing, because for a little while all the family drama is gone; we are galvanized anew in our rekindled familial dedication. We are all brothers… we’re filled with unconditional love for one another… the arrogance and dysfunction and the abuse and the misogyny and the hate and the intolerance and the inequity are gone, and we all put stickers on our cars, and play country music, and wave to each other knowingly with secret signals, hand over heart as we pass on the freeway, and we pinkie swear to become blood brothers and we’ll beat the crap out of anyone who questions our god-given virtue. We fool ourselves into believing that the arrogance, dysfunction and abuse and misogyny and hate and intolerance and inequity truly are gone, and that the stickers on our cars are the proof of it. That productizing our grief and pride with t-shirts and country songs and ‘very special episodes’ of Law & Order will make it so.
Clearly the loss is tragic. And it is always unfair. I would rather that no one had to pass, and if they do, it should be in their sleep, after a good meal and a fine sunset and the love of a soul mate.
And the surviving is hard. I would rather none of us had to be survivors, to suffer the going on, the persevering, the slow but inevitable normalizing of our lives and the guilt we feel over the eventual waning of grief.
Or the strange dereliction we feel in remembering with any fondness the closeness and intimacy and vulnerability we will always share with the soul who sat next to us on the couch while we silently watched the images repeat before our eyes in slow motion.
But unlike my father, I’m not happy that my mother died first. I don’t think that being the survivor is the harder role to play. As survivors, we’re given the bitter-sweet opportunity to pursue many things.
The real tragedy in my experience is in how we often don’t do those things. The real tragedy is the way we lie to ourselves.
We lie to ourselves when we think that tragedy offers no lessons, that we needn’t question our virtue. We do ourselves a disservice by insisting that we needn’t entertain introspection … by inferring that there are no lessons left to learn, and that we are the best that we can hope to be. We hurt ourselves when we learn nothing from tragedy but defensiveness and separatism, anger and mistrust, fear and hatred.
My mother has been gone six years, and in the intervening time I’ve punished myself for not being a better son, for not appreciating the sacrifice she made, for not seeing the person she was beneath the mother. And in so doing I’ve set aside the petty differences I had with my father, forged a friendship that is stronger than our disagreements, and bridged our estrangement. I’ve allowed myself the latitude to be wrong, I’ve allowed my father the latitude to be wrong, and I’ve allowed her passing to help me become just a little bit better person, a little bit better father, a little bit better son.
Parents are just people, trying their best. It was a great revelation for me to realize that… and interestingly, being one didn’t do it. Losing one did. That it took my mother’s death to manifest that is a cruel irony, because she is probably the one person who would have taken more joy in this than me.
I miss you, mom. I’m sorry you suffered, guy who knew a guy I knew. I promise to not simply tell your story, to do more than defend and avenge, to do more than grieve, to be more than merely angry. I promise to try to be a different and better person, to be willing to introspect, to call, to visit, and to acknowledge that I am not, and may never be, done.
Our world is a much more complicated place than that. And we are, I hope, much more complicated beings.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.
POSTSCRIPT: In the intervening years, my father sadly and suddenly passed away. I have been so much more emotionally shattered by that than I ever would have guessed, given our difficult and sometimes estranged relationship. It’s the healing and the bonding we were able to do, once we’d each processed my mother’s death in our own ways, that made my loss of him so thunderous. My mother’s passing, and the effects of it, were possibly the only profound things we had ever shared, and without them his death may have been met with far less mourning by me. And that would simply have been wrong.