Saturday, April 21, 2007

On Speaking Ill of the Dead and Dying

Many years ago, a young man I knew died in an accident. It was during a period when many young men I knew died in many ways, but this young man was a family friend and I had just spent a lot of time with him, so his death was that much more present for me. There were hundreds of people at his funeral and he was mourned as the paragon he was, and everyone talked about how loving he was and what a good friend he was, along with all his other accomplishments. Only he and I hadn't gotten along during the time we had spent together. I could recognize, like everyone else, that he was a paragon, but a loving good friend? Not so much. I felt terrible for not being able to embrace the hagiographizing of the moment, but there were the facts: we did not like each other so much. I turned the dislike in on myself, figuring that if everyone loved him and he loved everyone, there must be something wrong with me. Of course I didn't say any of this, or maybe I did, but I tried not to. Strangely, the only person who I really connected with was his girlfriend. I'd been there when they met, and I'd seen him with her a few months before he died, and it was the most pleasant time we'd had together. I don't know who brought it up, me or her, but we agreed that he and I hadn't gotten along, and that it had been a pity, but she pointed out that he could be a huge pain, which he could, and after that it was easier to just feel sad and not guilty.

An elderly relative is very ill. It looked at first like he would die, but now it seems that maybe he won't. His wife died several years ago--on September 10, in fact--and he is estranged from one of his sons, and he hasn't been well. His life is hard, not a life one would wish on anybody. He is also one of the nastiest people I know, just a truly mean and awful person to whom I stopped speaking many years ago. My mother loves him, though, and so does his other son, and I am sad for their loss, which if it doesn't come now will come soon enough. But I was talking to Aunt M about how if there was a funeral soon I didn't think I would go, logistically speaking, and she said "Well, you hate him," and I said, "Yes, I do."

The title of this post is not right. I am not reflecting on speaking ill of the dead and dying; I am doing it.

I have always been deeply uncomfortable with the tendency of the funeral oration to file the rough edges, burnish the tarnished spots, and present the Platonic ideal of what was once a real person. On the one hand, it is a lovely thing that we can appreciate the best in people, though unfortunate that too often it takes death to produce that appreciation. On the other hand, we lose something, I am certain, by appreciating only the best. Because isn't part of love and real life appreciating the worst and the kind of not so great as well?

When the NY Times did the Portraits of Grief after 9/11, there were families who refused to participate because the dead relative was a son of a bitch.

My friend W was another young man who died, in those years of young men dying. I loved him dearly and M is, in part, named after him. He was dying for a long time, though, and he was particular, and got cranky, and at some point I flounced out in a huff. Here I was, caring for him while he was dying, and he had the nerve to--well, now I don't remember what he had the nerve to do, or why we were estranged and annoyed with each other at a time when we should have been savoring every perfect moment. Luckily we made up, and I was in the hospital as he descended into dementia, and I arrived at the house five minutes after he died. The fact that I can't remember why we fought might suggest that I should forget about it and just recall how beautiful he made everything, how he challenged me politically and intellectually, how much fun we had. Only that seems disrespectful to the whole complicated annoying lovable fabulous person he was. At his memorial service, we sat in a circle and shared our memories. I described how we fought and how I brought samples of the silk and lace from my wedding dress for his approval. Everyone laughed and nodded, at both memories.

I like many more people than I dislike, love many more people than I hate. But there are times when you are not supposed to dislike people, only it's hard if you do. And there are times when it is more complicated, only you're not supposed to say so.

(Really I don't hate the elderly relative any more. How could I? I don't see him, and his life is sad and lonely. The only possible response is to feel sorry for him. But I can't say that I didn't hate him, because I did.)

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