I studied the politics of the People’s Republic of China in college (which, I can tell you, has been extremely useful to me in my life as a twenty-first century hobo).
I have a very clear memory of seeing footage of an event put on for Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the United States,
in which John Denver took the stage, said something in Chinese that he either butchered – or pronounced perfectly, but was terribly offensive – judging by Deng’s expression, then launched into a rendition of “Rocky Mountain High.”
I would say that Deng’s expression was, at best, perplexed, in response to this musical selection.
I cannot say this for sure, though, because the internets have failed me. I can find confirmation that such a performance did in fact occur, and one compilation video on YouTube that is apparently from a documentary, but not the opening moment of the John Denver performance.
I ask you, interweb, what is the point of you, if I cannot sit in a secondhand butterfly chair in the Great Plains and view the David-Lynch-esque moment of the man who followed Mao as the leader of Communist China without ever taking the title of “Chairman,” who was in power, a decade after this visit to the U.S., when the massacre in Tiananmen Square occurred, being serenaded by a man starting a year appearing at a Presidentially-hosted gala, who would end the year appearing in a Christmas duet with Kermit the Frog, all while President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn looked on, thirty-five years after it happened, but within ninety seconds of thinking of it, on the tiny screen of my cell phone?
I suppose so I can share a very long run-on sentence via an app on my phone, and hope that someone somewhere has seen whatever educational film it was I saw that contained this very odd moment, and can provide me with its title, if not a YouTube link.
© Lisa Hurley
…I’m just screwing with you. The bummer piece was a one-off.
Go enjoy Fartzenegger.
You can thank my friend Tom for that one.
© Lisa Hurley
Today is the three year anniversary of my father’s death.
He had been given two years to live. He made it nearly three.
I have a lot of deathiversaries around this time of year.
There is the holiday on which my father died. (Father’s Day. Yes. Father’s Day. Seriously.) Then the date on which he died (not the same as the holiday, since it is always on a Sunday). The anniversary of my mother’s death is in July. (She died when I was nine, also after a three-year illness.) In between those there is the anniversary of the death of the person who was most like a mother to me, after my mother was gone, all through my teens and into my early twenties. (We lost touch for reasons I will skip here, and she died shortly before I found out that my father was terminally ill.)
Have I depressed the fuck out of you?
Sorry about that, that is not my intention, but I needed to give a little background to get this where it is going. In fairness, I did pretty much make the title a warning as to the depressing-as-fuck-ness of the contents of this piece.
It is inevitable that around this time I will be thinking about these people. This leads to thinking about other people I’ve lost, and all of the other things which thinking about death and loss lead to.
It sucks. It’s sad. It just is (as is never said about anything good ever) what it is.
It is hard not to sound pompous as fuck taking about life and death. Believe me, I have no delusions of enlightenment. I am as much of a fuck-up as any other flawed human being (so as much as everyone, including you).
I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe the dead are up in heaven having drinks. (This may not be the official Catholic Church description of the afterlife, but all of my Catholic relatives who do believe in an afterlife always – and I mean always – remark at the wake or funeral of whoever has died most recently that he or she is is in heaven having drinks with everyone who died before. Irish Heaven.)
I don’t have a set of structured beliefs to imbue death with meaning. That pretty much leaves making shit up.
About a year and a half after my father died, I was visiting a friend in San Juan.
I had stopped at the little bar by the beach to eat dinner and have a drink, and a tropical downpour started.
I had been planning on heading back to his apartment, but the rain wasn’t letting up.
I had pretty much killed my phone battery, so no tech time-killing.
I was at one of the tables on the little outdoor deck. It was dark.
I sat and drank and watched the rain.
My thoughts, like almost always in those days, were on all of the confusing and painful things I had been through, was still going through, and all of the people who were gone. Too many. Some were among those closest to me, some had passed out of my life before they’d died, some I’d never been close to, but they had all been a part of my life, in one way or another.
I had a moleskine notebook and a pen.
I made a list.
I started with their names.
Then what? Without Irish Heaven to guide me, what could I do with this list of my dead?
I spent some time thinking about it, and came up with this: if there was one lesson that I could take away from these lives that were over, lives that were beyond the chance for things to change, what would it be?
Not what would those people have told me; what would I, as an outside observer, however well or little I knew them, see as a lesson to be learned from each life?
Was I drunk at this point?
You bet your balls I was.
But I made the list, and I kept it.
I have forgotten about it intermittently, but I haven’t lost it.
With a few edits – names left out, excluding the blanks and incompletes, some words added to make complete sentences where there weren’t before – this is the list:
Don’t make your life about just one person (or one thing).
You really, really never know how long you have to live, and if you wait – to do things, to say things, to change things, to make things better, for the perfect time, for someone else to do something so you don’t have to, for things just to happen – if you assume there will be a later to be happy, you might live your whole life without ever being happy.
Even if you are expecting to die soon, live your life like it’s worth living – you might have longer than you think, and consequences are a bitch.
It takes work to make a family, a friendship, a relationship (at least to make good ones).
If you run away from one hell to another, don’t give up – run again. Keep running until you get to somewhere good.
Sometimes shy, lost, awkward, unhappy people get to find true love.
You can use your gifts to change lives for the better.
You might lose more than you know by being unforgiving, remorseless, or unapologetic (or any combination of these).
The love and kindness you give leave a lasting impact, even on those who have no memory of you, even on those who never knew you at all.
When someone tells you what you don’t want to hear, believe them.
You can fatally poison the lives of those around you.
Don’t assume the best (wear a fucking seat belt).
Your impression of a person can be all wrong.
Sometimes you do get to go in your sleep (not sure if that’s good).
That was it.
There were people who I didn’t include. I was drunk, after all. And when the rain stopped, I left the bar.
What is the point of writing all of this and sharing it where other people can see it, if not to depress the ever-loving fuck out of you?
Being a flawed human being/fuck-up notwithstanding, from a very young age, I have experienced a lot of loss, and been around a lot of illness. People in my family do not have a very long life expectancy.
This has shaped me as a person, in ways that are both good and bad.
It has made me open to other people’s pain, which has its positive and negative aspects. Sometimes it has served to get me to make hard choices by reminding me of how uncertain my own time is. Often, it has made me fearful. Loss is terrifying, so to love someone is terrifying, because to lose someone you love is excruciating.
It has also made me impatient. If something is important, I want to do it, or say it, now. I know later is an imaginary thing. Not a bad thing to remember, but what feels pragmatic and honest to me can come across as reckless or insincere to people with a different set of experiences. I am still working out when it is better to speak, and when it is better to say nothing, or at least wait to say something.
What I am saying here seems important to say, so I want to say it now. Whether you have experiences of loss or not, they will come to you one day, unless you happen to be unlucky (or lucky, depending on how you see it) enough to go first. And people who believe they have all the time in the world are sometimes the ones who go suddenly – and that could be you, whoever you are.
Like I said, I am still working out when silence or words are the better choice, so maybe it would be better if I didn’t say these things. I am working from my best guess. I still fuck up, probably more often than I don’t, but not for want of trying. I am always trying.
A lot of the people I have loved most are gone forever. I have never gotten to say a real goodbye. Some of them died when there were important things I should have said and never did.
In my life I have had many things to grieve, and many to regret, but the worst are the words it is too late to say.
None of them, by the way, were angry words, and I kept plenty of those to myself.
I love you, I am sorry, I am proud of you, help me, I see you, thank you, you matter, forgive me. These are the words I regret keeping to myself.
We are all going to die, maybe a hundred years from now, maybe ten, maybe next week, maybe tomorrow, maybe today. All of the above are possibilities. Live like they are.
A good rule of thumb: live like you might die tomorrow, but you also might live to serve consecutive prison sentences.
So, you know, if you love someone, tell them. If you need to tell someone you are sorry, or thank you, tell them. No matter what might happen if you tell them, you will regret not telling them more than telling them, when they are gone before you are (or they’ll be left never knowing, if you are gone before they are).
Probably, though, save running naked through Times Square while wearing a Batman mask, alternating sensually rubbing up against all of the pedestrian signals with kicking anyone dressed as a Sesame Street character in the shins, until an asteroid that is about to collide with Earth is not just visible, but no more than a couple of minutes away from impact.
As many people as I have lost, I still forget these things all the time. It is good to be reminded.
I do not, by any means, believe I have it all figured out. I know I do not. It doesn’t take a long look at my life to know it. (But I am pretty sure I am right about the Batman mask thing.)
I don’t want to make you sad, and I am not seeking sympathy.
I just want you to look at yourself, and the people around you, and remember that there is no way to know who will go when, but all of you will go.
Now matters. They matter. You matter.
Live like it while you still have the choice. Love like it while you still have the choice.
I can’t bring back my dead, and I can’t change that it sucks that they are gone. I would at least like to try to find some meaning in it, and if at all possible let their lives and my losses have meaning in maybe helping another person in some way. Even if it is just getting you to take a minute to tell someone you love that you love them
I don’t believe in heaven, so I don’t take comfort in the idea.
I do believe that love is the most important thing there is, that it is what makes life most worth living, and that the things we do, and the things we say (provided we back our words up with our actions), matter in making life better for other people, and for ourselves.
I take comfort in knowing that any living person who is still around to speak or act in a way that matters might do so while they are still here to do so, that any living person who is still around to hear it or experience it might hear some words or witness some actions that are important, because I told you a bunch of admittedly depressing-as-fuck personal stuff.
Am I drunk now?
No, but I promise you, with the deathiversaries and all, I am working on it, and I likely will be soon enough.
What kind of lesson will my life teach when I am gone? I don’t know, but I am working on making it a good one – or at least a good cautionary tale. Whatever lesson(s) my life might appear to teach to those left behind, I don’t want to be a source of irreparable pain or regret for the people I love – or for people I don’t love, for that matter.
I am working on it, but like pretty much everything for everyone, not all of it is within my control. If there are things I want to say or do, it is on me to say or do them. If there are things other people are waiting to say to me or do for me – or to or for someone else – I can’t say or do it for them, especially as, being unsaid or undone, I have no way of knowing that such things even exist, much less exactly what they are.
Beyond not being a source of irreparable pain or regret for those I leave behind, I don’t worry overly much about what will happen to me when I die. My assumption is that death is the end of consciousness, so I won’t know that I am dead when I am dead.
If I am wrong, and my Catholic relatives are right, then I will be getting hammered with a bunch of people I have been missing.
Either way, I’m good.
© Lisa Hurley