If there’s one thing that scares me to death, it’s death.
There’s other stuff that terrifies me too such as going to sleep and waking up as a giant insect or waking up Republican, but the visit by the Grim Reaper has —for me— always been The Big Magilla.
The straight up truth is I’m not exactly thrilled none of us —particularly me —-is not going to live forever. The prospect of limited mortality may work fine for some, especially those so-and-so’s who’re always bragging they’re not afraid to die. Me? I think of death in the same way I think of this Spring’s new Paris fashions for women, the skirts with longer hemlines. The concept just doesn’t appeal to me.
I’m nonplussed because death means whatever I’ve always been able to outrun — whatever it is that’s been nipping at my heels all these years–has finally caught up with me and this is one last jam I may not be able to talk or write my way out of.
My discomfit runs deep–so deep that in order to deal with it, I’ve long employed a Strategy of Avoidance. I’d much rather talk about any other frightening topic on the “Universal Male’s List of Subjects to Avoid at All Costs.” This includes female gynecological matters, my last prostate exam, or conversations beginning with “Will, we need to talk.”
In keeping with the avoidance stratagem, I eschew most anything even suggesting ‘The End is Near.’ The list also includes but is not limited to encounters with Death Valley, Sudden Death ball games, pre-need funeral planning services, Death by Chocolate and any other restaurant fare described as “…good enough to die for.” (Nothing is, by the way.)
I’m not especially proud of my lack of courage vis-a-vis death. And while it could be said my fear is irrational (in the same way other people fear circus clowns, or cats or the IRS), nobody’s perfec.
A popular theory regarding Baby Boomers is that all of us have angst deeply rooted in pre-adolescence. This is likely true with my death phobia. Like many other Boomers, I spent a good part of my early years attempting to untangle the essential mysteries or whodunits of life: Why is the sky blue? What’s the moon made of? Where do babies come from? Is there really a Santa Claus? and “How Come We Don’t See Gramps Around Here Anymore?” There’s other mysteries too, but these are the biggies.
Of course, getting an explanation about any of this in a way that makes ‘kid-sense’ turns out to be way easier said than done. When I was a kid, the higher ups in my house answer the questions by telling tales about storks delivering babies, stretchers about Santa Claus sliding down the chimney, fables about Easter Bunnies, and a real whopper about the Moon being made of green cheese. When you’re aged six, all of their explanations have a ‘Pants-On-Fire’ aroma to them. You have the suspicion adults are making it all up, but you being a kid, all you can really do is roll your eyes, sigh, and wonder to yourself, “What kind of fool do these people think I am?!!!”
When it comes to the specific mystery of death, adults mostly ‘tip-toe’ around the subject. “He went off into the sunset.” “He went to the great golf course in the sky.” “He got his wings.” There are about hundred or more euphemisms you might hear when you ask any garden-variety adult the question about Gramps and his whereabouts. Adults, you conclude, mean well but they can be ‘unreliable explainers-of-stuff’. They are much like foreign movies films: they would be better understood, if they had plain – English subtitles.The other thing you conclude is if you can’t rely on adults to tell the truth about Santa Claus, how can you possibly rely on their answers about the really Big Magilla –- death?
In order to cope with this lack of clarity — in order to make sense of it all — me and my Boomer friends oftentimes attempted to stitch together pieces of the truth about the various mysteries that we’ve been able to glean individually. The Truth Squad method has shortcomings though since the most senior of the Fact Checkers is in Second Grade. Once, a half dozen of us small fry, gather in a vacant lot off Ashby Street for the World Cup of Marbles. During halftime, in order to get our minds off the heat of competition, we discuss matters totally unrelated to marbles. By the start of the second half, we’d proudly figured out ‘The Real Truth about Santa’. To wit: It isn’t Santa and the Elves who distributed toys at Christmas, rather it surely must be Santa and new Rock N Roll star, Elvis!
Adding to the confusion are the expressions grown-folks use. A popular idiom of those days is ‘if something happens’ or similarly, ‘in case something happens to me.’
I first hear one of these phrases after I ask Mom why I see her write a check to Atlanta Life Insurance Company every month? Sitting on the side of her bed, she pauses, considers an answer and then responds “Billy, I do this in case something happens to me.” Before I can utter “ like what” she pats me on the head in a loving, self-satisfied way and then suddenly remembers the urgent need to jet to the store to buy pistachios, snow tires, or something else we don’t really need — and that may be entirely out of season.
“If something happens” turns out to be an all-purpose meme. For example, it’s also how my best friend, Booger Wadsworth’s parents reference their constant anxiety about the amorous activities of Booger’s sister who lives away at college. Mr. Wadsworth, (‘Big Booger’), has decreed “ …if something happens (translation: if Eva gets pregnant)” her boyfriend, Roger was “…definitely going marry the girl –and I mean ‘right away’ too.” Big Booger’s determination, (Little) Booger relates to me is backed up by both barrels of a 30 gauge shotgun sitting in the corner of the Wadsworth foyer.
Every Wednesday afternoon, the student body at Our Lady of the Pines Catholic School (not it’s real name) practices Civil Defense Drills. When Sister Mary Katherine gives the signal, each of us crouches under our desk, hands covering our heads. The nuns and the U.S. Department of Civil Defense specify ‘Duck and Cover’ as the move we’re to make ‘if something happens’ (translation: the Cold War turns hot and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev launches Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles towards America.) Thing is, the drill has a certain built-in hilarity unnoticed by the nuns. For one, the ‘crouched-down, hands-over-head, under-desk’ position naturally engenders grins, giggles, giddiness and laughter among Baby Boomer kids even though the nuns take a dim view of such behavior. The other hilarious thing is the nuns’ self-affirming, self-important belief that OLP is at the center of a Russian missile bulls-eye and that there surely is at least one Soviet missile aimed at the little all-black parochial school –a cradle of democracy and antithesis of Godless communism” –in southwest Atlanta, Georgia!
By the time I am about ten, whenever I hear ‘if something happens”, I don’t know whether to call an Atlanta Life insurance agent, jump under the nearest desk because Khrushchev has launched the missles or Duck and Cover because Big Booger has launched a shotgun volley at Roger, his about-to-be-new-son-in-law! All I know is ‘one way or another’, if something happens, somebody is about to die especially ‘if the something that happened’ is that, as Booger says, “…my sister has missed her period.” (Both Booger and I are so exasperated with grown-folks’ explanations about Santa, the Moon, death and the like, neither one of us has the nerve to ask Big Booger why he would be so upset about the girl’s missed punctuation.)
Once I’m able to piece the whole death thing together, as you might guess, I am not only surprised. But I am not amused. At all! Mostly because of all this, my pre-adolescent truth about death is it’s a scary, lifeless state-of-no-return, a place where I’m not at all sure what happens next. As near as I can tell, death is like going into Sister Mary Katherine’s classroom not having your homework assignment. Only worse. No wonder I’m scared to death about death.
The truth remains: the notion of death scares the piss out of me! It just does! (Of course, maybe that’s progress since I remember as a kid when I finally solved the mystery of death, I was so shocked I’d crapped my pants!)
Today, all these years later, death remains a serious issue for mankind. Statistics indicate it will affect all of world’s population, the number one killer of men, women and children. Although there have been some teases about progress towards putting an end to death ( like that stuff they did with Ted Williams’ head and that caper they tried with the Michael Jackson Immortal Tour), all supposed breakthroughs by medical science have turned out to be dead ends.
Given my fears on the matter of death—given my concerns, as it were–I’m planning on staying ‘un-dead’ for as long as possible even if it’s in a future world in which Republicans control everything, global warming has turned Peachtree Street into a beach front boardwalk, gas is $12.00 a gallon and Sylvester Stallone is threatening to make Rocky 15. And if I get any kind of a warning –if something happens–the long arm of the Grim Reaper will likely find me in the Duck and Cover position under my desk, holding on… like grim death.
 Pre-need funeral service is surely the ultimate retail layaway program. Until recently, it was thought impossible for undertakers to take things too far—given the general condition of the clientele. However, the fierce merchandising of advance need funeral services certainly shatters that notion. What will the Funeral Lobby hustle next? Coffins with roll bars? Meal plans? Caskets with seat belts –for occupants likely to turn over in the grave?
 Yet, when you insisted you did so’ have an’ imaginary friend named Steve, who was the one really responsible for breaking the living room lamp, adults would insist YOU were the crazy one, YOU were the one whose pants were ablaze.