I have been thinking a lot about death lately. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A couple of years ago, it would have been. I think I spent my entire 25th year absolutely terrified of death and what might (or worse, might not) come after. The whole idea entirely consumed me, and it wasn’t the first bit healthy. It made an already unhappy job absolutely unbearable. When your every thought is about how fleeting life is, it sure doesn’t make sitting in a cubicle answering inane phone calls all day seem like a worthwhile endeavor. It wasn’t that I had never spent any time pondering my own mortality. That wasn’t it. But something did change during that year. In a single moment, for some unknown reason, the questions suddenly weren’t academic any more. Sure, it was a nice thought experiment before. But now it was real. This is something that is going to happen to me someday.
I did not know how to handle it.
I don’t know that I still know how to handle it, but at least I’ve gotten to where I can make it mostly academic again. I can focus more on thoughts of legacy and more along those lines.* And, if it becomes too overwhelming, I have learned how to focus my mind elsewhere. It’s a valuable trick I wish I knew a couple years ago. So, yes, I have been thinking about death lately, but it hasn’t consumed me in quite the same way it used to. But why has it been on my mind? For one, I have finally picked up reading Vonnegut again. I finished Deadeye Dick the other day, which focuses quite a bit on life and death. As does a lot of Vonnegut’s work. I guess those are the sorts of issues you sort through when you live through something like the firebombing of Dresden and have your mother commit suicide via sleeping pills. So it goes.
*Which, by the way, I hope when I die, that somebody refers to me as a renaissance man. I truly think that is the highest compliment you can pay somebody, and I hope I can attain that in some sense of the word. I also hope somebody will remember a particular Vonnegut line. It is not the most well-known line of Slaughterhouse Five, but I feel it is the most poignant. Right there in the first chapter: “I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much of it was mine to keep.” Nelson remembered it recently on Facebook. But it is the truth for me, and I am sure the truth for a great many people. If people want to recited scripture at my funeral, that is perfectly fine. But at least that line needs to be worked in there somehow.
In Deadeye Dick, life is described as a peephole that a wisp of undifferentiated consciousness looks through for a while. I don’t know if that thought is entirely comforting, but it certainly is a thought. And that thought probably would not have gone much deeper if somebody’s peephole had not just closed Sunday night. My uncle George died Sunday, during halftime of the Seahawks-49ers game.
Kurt Vonnegut’s peephole closed on a random Wednesday in 2007 after falling down his stairs in New York, 85 years after it had opened in Indianapolis.
George had been trying to die since I was in elementary school. Or, at least, that’s when I really became aware of it. According to people who have been around much longer than I have, George had been trying to die for a long time. He was not suicidal. But his health was constantly failing. He was constantly in and out of hospitals, with at least one stint in a nursing home to rehab. Doctors were never quite sure what was wrong with him. The general line of thinking, at least as I understand it, was that it was most likely an extension of his time spent in Vietnam. I suppose the government would agree, because he did get disability benefits after a much-longer-than-necessary battle. Grudgingly, maybe, but they would agree.
To hear some tell it, George had been trying to die since that war. I didn’t know him then. I didn’t know anybody then. Nobody has ever gone into great detail during those times, but I have a hard time picturing my uncle as Lieutenant Dan.* I don’t know that George was that fatalistic. At least not then.
*Complete side note. My favorite part of Forrest Gump is a small one, but I love it every time I see it and will usually watch at least until this part if I stumble upon it on TV. It is the scene when Forrest and Lt. Dan are in the hospital together, where Lt. Dan pulls Forrest to the ground. Dan berates Forrest for saving him, because it was his destiny to die in the field like the rest of his family. Now, instead of a great war hero, he is just a damned cripple. Very pained and pointedly, Lt. Dan asked Forrest “Do you know what it’s like not to use your legs?” Forrest simply looks him in the eye and answers “Yes.” Viewers remember his past in the leg braces, but so far as we know, Lt. Dan has no idea about this. Instead of grilling Forrest about patronizing him or something, he immediately drops this line of questioning and simply accepts that Forrest indeed has intimate sympathy for a cripple.
I became aware of George’s readiness for death in elementary school, as mentioned earlier. He had a heart attack when I was quite young. One of my earliest memories of George is him laying on his couch in nothing but shorts, surgical scars prominently displayed to the world all over his chest. He asked me if I ever thought about smoking. I told him no. He said good, because this is what would happen.
And that was just the light stuff with Uncle George.
Despite is pain and inexplicable symptoms, along with the universal agreement that each trip to the hospital might be his last, George kept living. God knows how. But more than just simply waking up each day and remembering to breathe, George did find it in his spirit to actually live. He indulged in his hobbies, through the pain and through the sickness. He flew his remote control planes, he kept up his workshop as he was able. George and Connie had, until his health truly wouldn’t allow it, a little place on a lake so George could putter around on his pontoon. He was giving and gracious, always wanting and welcoming company, both in Linden and on the lake. Or his hospital room. He had no kids of his own, but he was certainly a father to many thanks to Connie’s daycare. Through whatever was ailing him, he never lost his way with kids.
Much to the children’s dismay, I’m sure. I somewhat famously (in the family, anyway) refused to have anything to do with George for months because he had flicked my hat off my head. I was certainly not the first child not to know what to do with George, though I admittedly was probably one of the more hot-headed.
George was also good at picking up fads and odd pets, though he rarely saw them through. When he suddenly embraced Christianity in a big way, I think we all assumed this was just another phase. To George’s credit, the Good Lord seemed to have gotten his hooks in him in a way no other hobby horse could. He stuck with that one to the end. And he let you know about it.
That’s another thing. There was never much mystery about what was going through George’s head. You might not necessarily understand the leaps of logic and fancy, but by God, you knew what he believed in that moment. A lot of those thoughts were not for the faint of heart. As Ian wrote on Facebook, George was a foul mouthed fucker. But he told it as he saw it, whether or not it was polite or kosher.
One of those things he had to let the world know was a conversation he had with God. He insisted that God had come to him in a dream, a la Joseph, and let him know he would die in November. Now, as you’ve probably figured out by now, that didn’t come through. But George believed it, and believed it sincerely. I don’t really know what I would have done had it happened in November. I probably would have solemnly shook my head and muttered “I’ll be damned.” It would have been a very George thing to do.
As it was, though, George died rather suddenly. A pretty surprising twist given all the time he had spent in hospitals through the years. I got a text early during the Seattle-San Francisco game from my dad letting me know that George was being rushed to the hospital in Crawfordsville and it didn’t sound good. This didn’t raise any particular alarm for me. This seemingly happened every other month with George. Then, during halftime, I got the jarring news.
George Albert’s peephole closed during the NFC championship game in 2014 when his heart finally stopped for good in Crawfordsville, 64 years after it had opened in Cincinnati.
I felt a bit cheated I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, but I know that’s silly of me. The last time I saw him, I was trying to put a new flagpole up for him along with Andrew and Dad. The new pole George bought was not the same style as the pole we were replacing, so there was a lot of jury-rigging and frustration to be had. George was, as he usually was, not in great shape. Though I will admit it was noticeably worse than usual. His speech constantly trailed off and he was starting to truly speak nonsense. Not just the usual George-speak, either. But I didn’t think that much of it. George always had peaks and valleys. This was a valley. He would climb out of it.
He did not.
I should not feel cheated. I remember in high school being certain that he would not live to see me graduate. He made it to that graduation, as well as my brother’s. He also made it to my graduation from Wabash. I don’t remember if he actually attended Andrew’s Wabash graduation, but he did live to see it happen. He made it to both my and Andrew’s weddings. I would have liked for my kids to have known him, but that was asking too much. Maybe it’s best this way. They would not have known him in his prime.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever knew him in his prime.
George will be laid to rest tomorrow at 11, after a visiting hours this evening at the funeral home in Linden. It is just his body, of course. The unique spirit that inhabited it has finally moved on to whatever is next. I do not know what awaits. I know what I believe will be there, and what I certainly hope to be there. But, unfortunately, no post card has made its way from the Great Beyond just yet. Whatever George found awaiting him, I hope it was free of pain and suffering. I hope can fly. He loved to fly in any capacity. I hope there is a nice accordion awaiting him, along with fingers that are no longer swollen and arthritic to play it with.
I would say I hope he has fun, but I don’t think I need to hope that. George never knew any other way but to amuse himself.
God bless you, Mr. Albert.