finite: knight of the living dead

a humble view of life means a deeper view of life

The clouds were ominous this morning, a foreshadowing forecast. It's hard not to read meaning into geography when I know that Grandpa is dying. Every glistening puddle takes on a new meaning. I am not thinking of him. I'm thinking of mom and her daddy. I'm thinking of Grandma and her beloved husband. I'm thinking that this is the age of adulthood - when you start worrying about the people whose job it once was to protect you.

I almost fail to show up. It's not that life is too busy or that I am scared of seeing death. It's not even denial. It's this lingering sense that I'm not worthy. He was a much better Grandpa than I was a Grandson. He once spent a week with us and cooked steak every day and on one night we went to Baskin Robbins and had a waffle cone instead of dinner. Now tell me that's not the grandparent echelon of excellence.

*    *   *
We arrive minutes after his last heart beat. I'm glad I went. I'm glad I saw him. He's lifeless, but at peace. I'm reminded that love is not a social contract of equals. It always gives and that's one thing my Grandpa knew well - whether it was as a soldier or father or grandpa.

Everyone cries and hugs. Those closest to him attempt awkward humor and brave stoicism and though we're glad he's no longer in pain, we miss him. I haven't hugged my mom in so long and it's strange. I don't want to let go. I hug my grandma and she reminds me that they were inseparable. “Even when he couldn't golf, he road with us. We spent the last thirty-seven years living for each other and I don't want to go home.” She's lost.

*     *     *
We try and sort things out afterwards, my brother and sister and me. We can breath and talk openly about life and death and family and I'm struck by the reality that these two people have been a part of my story longer than anyone else. And I yearn to hold Christy for a moment and to kiss my kids goodnight. Suddenly lesson plan formats and Linux distributions don't hold quit as much weight.

*     *     *
I drive away in silence. The rain slows to a peaceful drizzle and I open my window to feel the mist. It's hard on such an earthy night to avoid reading deeper meaning into the geography. I think in fragments. Shards of thought piecing together for a memory mosaic.

Grandpa used to hand me a piece of Almond Roca and it seemed so fancy that I felt like a king. Men of his generation rarely said, “I love you” but he made up for it with all kinds of confectionery gifts. He used to sneak a piece of fudge right before dinner time and it struck me, as a kid, that someone so heroic was once a child.

My mind wanders to the time he had to spank me after I had been an absolute punk and I saw him cry and say, “It never stops hurting.” Only years later did I realize the weight of that statement.
One day when I was in college, he pulled me aside to tell me about the gravity of war. He then said,

“Most people don't know that I draw. People who see a lot of destruction have to create.”

I think about Disneyland and the way he smiled when he saw us ride the Tea Cups and how we'd get embarrassed at his subtly racist comments. He was human. I need to remember that.

I think about the camping trip and how I caught bacon and the way we roasted marshmallows and he told me that “sugar is one of the best things in life.” He said that people chase a lot of imaginary things and never experience the joy of s'mores or fudge or Almond Roca.

Finally, I'm able to cry.

*      *      *
Students are viewing images of World War II. As we analyze a picture of a concentration camp, the class is austere, taking in the emotional impact of genocide. It's a serious lesson which will lead into a discussion of hatred, labeling, the Holocaust, Sudan and the hate crimes that are committed on campus on a daily basis.

The next picture includes soldiers spread throughout a battlefield. One student interrupts with, “Are those people dead?" He's completely serious, but I respond with, “Nope, they're just taking a long nap.”
When I told my friend Ed about this, he laughed at first and then told asked, “Who was the ignorant one”

“Well, he was. I mean, he couldn't see if the soldiers were sleeping or dead.”

“I'd say the ignorant one was the person who could look at death, never spending any time in combat, and make a joke out of it.” I could read thousands of books, but Ed knows something about history that I never will, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Knowing it doesn't always mean knowing it.

*      *      *
Brad tells me about a sage of the past who said it was better to be in a house or mourning than a house of feasting. He says that's a small reform he would make in school – teach kids about the reality of life and death. “When you really believe that life is a vapor, you don't waste it on reruns of The Cosby Show.”

Doyle tells his students, “If you touch that you will die. If you don't touch that you will die. Either way, you will die.” He's a science teacher who is not afraid to allow death to slip into the curriculum. It's biology and no matter how many diagrams one shows of the life cycle, I get the sense that he wants his students to know life and death as more than just a theoretical existence.

It gets me thinking about the whole notion of death as a taboo subjects. Perhaps it is too scary, because it tip-toes the line of spiritual and secular. Perhaps it is too uncomfortable, because it involves painful memories. However, I cannot imagine math without believing in the finite and I cannot imagine science without the notion of death and I cannot imagine literature without the deeper themes of life and death and social studies, with all its war and genocide and revolution without the reality of mortality.
I ask students to do a short podcast or video about the dangers of debt. Three separate students write about the “dangers of death.” Yep, death can be very dangerous. Almost as dangerous as naps on the battlefield.

At first I laugh at the misunderstanding, but then I watch the videos. The first student describes how kids his age have a crazy view of life and death and why our culture fails to show people the reality of death. He cites video games and television and makes reference to the military using video games to teach soldiers. Despite his mistakes in proper English, the ideas are profound. The second student does a podcast about people she has known who died and how the most dangerous things (cars, bad food) are things we are not afraid of. The third student does a video about the inevitability of death and her belief in the afterlife (for what it's worth, I agree with her, but she'd have earned the same grade either way).
While the process began with a mistake, it was a quick reminder of how easy it is to censor death and with it censor learning.

*      *      *
A student comes back from Mexico. I ask him what it was like and he answers, “We had to bury my grandpa.”

“Was it a good memorial?”

“What is that word?”

“It's the ceremony honoring the dead.”

“Oh, a funeral. Yes, we had a funeral.”

“Well, a memorial is like a funeral, but you don't actually see the person who died.”

“We buried my grandpa. We set his box in the ground and covered it all with dirt. Everybody told stories of what he was like. I cried. We all cried. Even my dad cried. I had never seen him cry before.”
I'm struck by this notion of burying the dead and the way Americans outsource this process to a group of experts. When my grandpa died, we viewed his name on a large metal box containing his ashes. We looked at the stars and the stripes and heard the gun salute, but we were not a part of the burial process. 

Perhaps that's a good thing, but I wonder if we missed the opportunity to grieve collectively. A wise sage once said that it's better to enter a house of mourning than a house of laughter. I wonder if we've outsourced mourning so that we can be more productive.

The student points out with a smile, “In Mexico, Mexicans bury the dead. In America, you ask Mexicans to bury the dead, too. I guess that's just something we're good at.” I love the lack of a political correctness filter that exists in most seventh-grade conversations.

He asks if he can write about the experience. “My home is too crazy. It's too loud. I want to make sense of out death. I've never thought about how life just ends.” Minutes later, he's talking to his friends about Mexico. “I always forget how dirty it is. There is dirt everywhere. The streets is dirt. The graveyard is dirt. Dirt gets on your clothes, but it doesn't feel dirty. The dirt covers everything and it just feels normal.” Sometimes it takes a trip away from a concrete paradise to recover the earth and the reality that some day we'll all return to it.

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