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human nature

Death and Transition

This past Saturday, I attended a memorial service for a very dear friend who passed the week before last.  It was one of the more difficult services I’ve ever been to for a lot of good reasons.  Don was kind of a surrogate father for me, as well as a drinking buddy, a reliable and loyal friend, and frankly, a role model for the kind of dirty old man I hope to grow up to be.  Don lived a full, rich life while managing to balance indulgence and restraint, loyalty and freedom, and… how to put this diplomatically… lechery and disarmingly honest charm.

One thing I admired about his memorial service was the family’s insistence that nobody speak except those who knew him.  There was no religious element to it, no homily, no pretense at something “higher.”  It was just a hundred or so people who knew and loved a good man, sharing memories, laughing, and crying together.  And that made it a beautiful experience.

For the most part, there was no attempt to blow smoke up a dead guy’s ass.  Nobody tried to make him into more than he was.  He had his faults, and they were acknowledged.  But the one thing that came through in everyone’s stories was the fact that Don lived every moment of his life, and though he died young (He was 58) everyone felt like if he could give his opinion, he’d be happy with the life he led, and that he passed with no regrets.

Since that service, I’ve been dealing with some life transitions of my own, and some harsh truths about myself.  Greta Christina posted a timely entry that helped to remind me of some of my own core values.  Though I am an atheist, an agnostic, a freethinker, a science geek, and a bit of a hedonist, my primary identification is skeptic.  And over the weekend, I’ve been forced to acknowledge my own skepticism and what it means for me when things are going poorly.  (Sometimes the truth hurts, but we have to do our best to be open to it.)

And that is a good thing.  We live in a world of cause and effect, and sometimes it’s easy to turn a blind eye to our own hand in the causal chain.  Don’s passing was a catalyst for me.  I saw myself in him, in a sense, I saw my father and grandfather in him as well.  In death, he helped me rekindle an interest in my own connection with humanity.

Death and the Non-Believer

In my journey through life, I’ve lost friends and family, and I’ve been with my non-believer friends when they lost loved ones.  And through it all, I’ve been encouraged by one consistent thread.  In every case, there was grief, but it was grief mixed with a sense of looking forward, transitioning, and celebrating the life of those who have passed.  There has been a sense of debt to the departed to live in ways that respect their struggles, triumphs, and losses.  There has been a sense of “beautiful sadness.”  Sadness at losing someone dear, and happiness to have been lucky enough to love them well enough to mourn their loss.

I will never see Don again, and that is very sad.  But his life has had a profound effect on me, and people who know me in the future will feel his influence in me, whether they are aware of it or not.  With some determination and cruel honesty, I will become a better person.  I will become better at self-examination, more determined in pursuit of my goals, and more aware of the fleeting nature of this life.  I will try to live each moment with a focus on the now.  I will try to remember that each time I see my loved ones may be the last.  I will try to be more giving and loving, and follow Don’s wonderful example by telling people exactly how much they mean to me.

I am certainly not alone in this reaction to the death of a loved one.  I have seen it many times.  It’s pretty healthy.  And the beauty of it is that it doesn’t require any belief in the afterlife, reward or punishment, or any kind of “higher meaning.”  In a way, any thought of such things would detract from the remarkable fact that Don was a product of blind evolution, almost five billion years in the making.  He was just a man.  Fallible, flawed, and yet beautiful.  He was loved, and he loved.  He was bits of carbon.  Stardust.

There’s a song from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young that has always held a special place in my heart.  I honestly don’t know what sort of meaning the band took from it, but for me it has always been a challenge to take my place in the universe as a very lucky happenstance, and to take every opportunity to do good, be good, and love well.  To me, “getting back to the garden” isn’t about a literal place, but a basic understanding of our humanity — acceptance of my existence for what it is, and life for what it is.

Goodbye, Don.  Thank you for being part of my life.

Well, I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, tell me, where are you going
This he told me:

Said, I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm
Gonna join in a rock and roll band
Got to get back to the land
And set my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Well then, can I walk beside you?
I have come to lose the smog
And I feel myself a cog
In something turning

And maybe it’s the time of year
Yes, and maybe it’s the time of man
And I don’t know who I am
But life is for learning

{Refrain twice}

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song
And a celebration

And I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes
Riding shotgun in the sky
Turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
We are golden
We are caught in the devil’s bargain
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden



6 thoughts on “Death and Transition

  1. Im so sorry about your loss of someone close to you…


    Posted by PG | August 24, 2010, 2:20 pm
  2. It’s sad isn’t it? The way that the death of someone you love always makes you a better person. But only for about a week…

    For a week, you don’t let anything bother you. Road raged drivers tailgating? You let them pass. Rude people? You just smile back. Sunny days? You soak up the sunlight.

    You wake up every morning-convinced, now, that life is too goddamn short-and you’re determined to live every day like it’s your last. Like I said, that usually lasts a week.

    Then life sets in, and you just wish it would all stop hurting.

    You will be in my thoughts, my friend. I’m sorry for your loss.

    Posted by Watcher | August 24, 2010, 3:25 pm
  3. Hamby, I’m sorry for the loss of your dear friend. I love the idea of beautiful sadness. I hope that people will feel that way about me someday. 58 is a very, very young age. He sounds like he was a good man, and I’m sure he would be honored that his death brought about your wanting to connect more with humanity.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | August 26, 2010, 1:14 am
  4. Watcher, from my own life, I’m convinced that deaths and “mortality moments” add a big boost of living in the moment for a short period, and a small gain more or less permanently. I’ve had several loved ones die, and I really do think I’m a more aware, better person in the long run because of it, but it’s been gradual.

    It might not be the same way for other people. But that’s how it works for me.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 26, 2010, 12:38 pm
  5. No, I agree, Hamby. I agree 100%,

    It’s just that first week that really hurts. I walked around for a week with a lump in my lower throat that felt like a smouldering chunk of coal I couldn’t swallow after my grandfather, Richard, passed.

    Life wouldn’t mean near as much if losing someone you loved so dearly didn’t hurt so much. I even cried 10 months later on New Years night because it was the last calendar day of the last calendar year he existed.

    How stupid is that?

    Posted by Watcher | August 28, 2010, 6:52 am
  6. Heh. Stupid? No. I still choke up on days that were important in my father’s life, and that’s been over a decade. I generally have a good month of depression in February. Part of it is the weather, to be sure. February’s a good month for depression. But it’s worse for me now that February is filled with bad memories. Some years, I forget, and then somewhere around the 20th, I wonder why the hell I’ve been in such a rotten mood. Then I remember, and it makes sense. I’m programmed now to be sad in that month, and I do it even if I don’t consciously remember why.

    Weird, huh?

    Posted by hambydammit | August 28, 2010, 3:45 pm

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