[ I read this essay at The Story Department in October for their From Beyond the Grave show. ]
I grew up in Houston, Texas. If you’ve never been to Houston, I can describe it for you like this: just imagine any dystopian movie and then replace all the crazed brain-eating zombies with crazed brain-eating conservatives and there you go.
To be fair, Houston’s come a long way lately, but when I was growing up there, it was the late 80’s/early 90’s. And Houston in the 90’s certainly wasn’t known for its picturesque parks, art scene, or lesbian mayor. Houston in the 90’s was largely known for its suburbs and its malls, neither of which I felt particularly drawn to. I knew there had to be more to life than to grow up, live by a big mall, and then die.
Eventually, I started college, which helped my mood. Despite my loathing of the suburbs, I was terrified to leave home and to brave the mega highways into downtown, so I went to a small school in the suburbs. I was a theatre major and in the first week of a technical workshop class, I met a handsome punk boy. He was so different from everyone I had ever known. He was hot and aloof and so very… not into malls. For some reason, he liked me too, so we started hanging out… this cool punk boy with his oxblood Doc Martins and me in my white Keds.
Since we were in the suburbs and we both lived at home there wasn’t much to do other than drive around. One day out of boredom we stopped by a big graveyard near campus. It was quiet and pretty. I was barely 18 years old, all of my grandparents were alive, and I had never been to a funeral, so for me, a graveyard was just a quiet place to hang out with my hot boyfriend. We had this genius idea to buy individual bottles of orange juice, empty them halfway and then pour in vodka… because then no one would ever suspect we were drinking! And that’s how we spent our days, wandering around a graveyard drinking super cheap vodka.
Over time, the punk boy’s coolness started to rub off on me. Black skirts and tights replaced my Gap jeans and Keds, and I was now into poetry and Bauhaus and so naturally, we kept hanging out in the graveyard. We took pictures of cool tombstones, hung out, got drunk. I found a photo in an old album the other day that had me leaning near a super ornate Vietnamese tombstone (orange juice bottle in hand) and the caption read “Dead Vietnamese Lady with her sidekick drunk living girl, Ava.” I was so very young and dumb. I had no concept of death then. I had never lost anyone. I’d never had to grieve.
That hot punk boy and I moved in together a year later. We moved to Austin and had lots of fun things to do and didn’t need to hang out in a graveyard for fun. Years later those days are all but a distant vodka soaked memory.
Recently my husband, (the same hot punk boyfriend from college) told me he had found a small graveyard hidden off the main road near our house. It was an old Masonic cemetery. I wanted to go see it, so we drove the street over and marveled at what seemed to be a very old gate. We walked in, my 6 year old son’s hand in mine. I was excited to share this moment of discovery with him. I wanted to look for really old tombstones, feel the quiet, sit on a bench with …. Hmm. Something didn’t feel right.
I looked down at my son, so full of life – his blonde hair, the light in his blue eyes. Holding his tiny hand, I felt a wave of sadness nearly overwhelm me. My legs felt weak. I looked around at the names nearest me Brodie, Cannon – Austin names – names that are part of a legacy. And, out of nowhere I thought, this is it. This is coming. For everyone I love. For me. Whether I like or not, this will happen. It won’t be optional this time. I will now be forced to spend time in graveyards in one way or another.
As an adult, I am now uncomfortable with the idea of death, it seems. It is an unwelcome specter hovering around the edges of my days. Unlike that naive 18 year old girl, I have now been to funerals. I’ve hugged sobbing mothers burying their sons. I’ve been assigned to interview cancer survivors for articles, and then been asked to craft memorial articles when they unexpectedly lost their battles. The grown up me has seen the reason for graveyards and they no longer hold any appeal.
Now, when I see tombstones I can’t help but think of the people resting beneath them – people who had feelings and opinions and families – people who told funny stories to their friends – people who drank orange juice.
So, I’m not as cool as I used to be. I dress a bit better, but I’m not as aloof about death. As I’m reaching middle age, I can’t afford to be. I have less time to be aloof and I have people who need me and people for whom I want to stick around. Now as a adult, when I should be accepting death as an eventuality, I am shaken and uneasy. It’s too close and I’ve seen too many people fall away too soon.
Dylan Thomas begged his father: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” That is NOT a problem. I have no intention of going quietly. Live fast and die young? Yeah, not so much anymore.
How about: Live fast, have a nice life, and die at a really old age with no complications or weird diseases that make you lose your mind or hunch over or anything and you’ve found peace and are totally okay with it because you’re like 100 and you just go in your sleep.
Or live fast and science cures aging and death, so let’s all hug.
These are my new mottos. Because, I no longer have the luxury of time and youthful ignorance – I’m less oblivious… I’m also less prone to drink cheap vodka, so in some ways I guess you take the good with the bad. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me.” Screw that. If death comes near me, he better be wearing a cup, because I’m going out kicking.