Sunday, July 10, 2011

Some thoughts and memories of death

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Not as a morbid thing to ponder, just as a fact of life.

It all started running through my mind, I suppose, right after Oscar died. He is, or was, my next door neighbour. A likeable man, he died just a few months shy of his 90th birthday. Just as everyone who has lived that long, he had a lifetime of stories that might have been just life to him but are unique to the rest of us. For example, he had flown Spitfires in WWII and was quite proud of it. Not that he’d merely flown the airplane but that he’d done it and lived. Thousands of Spitfire pilots didn’t. For you flatlanders, that airplane and the pilots were what saved the British in WWII. An interesting man who, like so many that fought on the winning side during those war years, talked as if that period was the fulcrum of their lives. I guess maybe it was.

Each morning at 8 sharp he’d come out the front door, get into his two-year old Honda and drive off returning either an hour or an hour and a half later. The hour trips were spent having breakfast with his daughter and son-in-law on the other side of town, the longer absences could be accounted for by the one or two grocery bags he’d take out of the back of the Honda when he got home. That was what got my attention, the morning I didn’t hear him drive off.

Oscar wasn’t the first dead man I’d ever found lying peacefully in his bed. The first time was in about 1959 or 60. Maybe 61, I’m not sure. My wife and I had taken an apartment on Van Buren Street in Monterey, California. The apartment was one of two above four garages. The other two garages were for the residents of two small cottages, one on either side of the taller building making it all a U shaped bunch. As I recall, all the structures were in the typical Spanish design. The exterior walls had been stuccoed and looked just like the adobe of early California history. Fronting the high, long pair of apartments over the garages, with the cottages making the short legs of the “U”, was landscaped garden. At least that’s how I remember it. I could be wrong.

That was where we lived when our daughter was born. I’d have been about 23 or 24 years old, my wife about two years younger. It’s funny how that works out. There are huge segments of my life that seems in retrospect to be compressed in time. There are a lot of memories I have of the time we lived in Monterey, actually more than could have happened in those few years. That makes me wonder. At the time I was employed briefly as a liquor salesman/truck driver. Each day I’d take the orders for the sales I’d made the day before, go out to the warehouse and load up my truck and make my rounds. The company sold a variety of liquor and beer. The beer was Olympia, a brew from Oregon with the slogan, “It’s the water.” The brewery supposedly used artesian waters which made it special. To my taste I thought the special water only made me want to pee a lot more.

The practice for the driver’s was to deliver the couple dozen cases of beer and all the whiskeys, pick up the empty beer bottles and return them to the warehouse. Often when a bottle or two in a case was broken it would damage the case and the store owner or bartender would want it returned. As I lived at the end of my route, often I’d drive my trunk home in the evening and then go over to the warehouse in the morning. This was good because it allowed me to make up full cases of beer from those damaged and leave them in my garage. This wasn’t stealing exactly and as I remember not liking the beer I can’t recall why I did it. But I did.

When we moved from Van Buren Street I can remember filling the rental truck with our furniture and all those boxes of stuff we’d accumulated in our young marriage and then looking at all those cases of beer. I was driving a small English car at that time, or maybe it was the Volkswagen, the one with the bullet hole in the door on the driver’s side, I don’t recall. But I do know there wasn’t enough room in the garage for my car. Just stacks of beer cases. The smell of stale beer must have made the air thick. I know I had to park out in the street.

Actually the garages opened up on a dead-end street, a block up from Van Buren. Well, moving I knew I couldn’t leave all that beer there. To top it off not only was there no room in the truck but I certainly didn’t want to take it with me. The best thing I could think of was to open up the garage door, invite all the neighbours over for a street party. Things were really starting to get going when I got in the rental truck and drove off. I’ve often wondered how long it took for them to empty the garage. Couldn’t do something like that today, I suppose.

But to get back to it ... the couple living in the cottage next to our apartment were old. Remember I was only 23 or so that might be a judgement call. One Sunday morning, as I remember it, I heard the old woman calling me and went out on the porch to see what she wanted. Will you help me a moment? she called up and naturally I went down. It turned out that when she woke up her husband hadn’t and she didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either and for the life of me I can’t remember what I did. But while she made us a cup of coffee, I did whatever it was. I do remember the coffee as being weak.

I didn’t get a cup of coffee when I found Oscar dead in his bed. I called his daughter and then the police. All these people came and I went back to my place to make my own coffee.

Death is an interesting thing to contemplate. I’m not sure if finding Oscar dead in bed got me thinking or noticing how the skin on the back of my hands had become all crinkly and thin looking or not. It must have happened in the last few weeks because I hadn’t noticed it before. Again it might be that I’ve got another birthday coming and I’m just starting to see things like that. The number keeps growing.

Now I’m not worried about my own death, it’ll happen when it happens and I don’t think it’s likely right now. That statement is based on two things; first I found a website that asked a lot of questions and then told me how old I’m liable to be when my body gives it up. The second thing is the ages of my grandfather, my mother and others in my family. My father went at the age of 27, killed in an industrial accident, so that lets him out. I was only two at the time and never knew him. My step-father, a wonderful man who made my mother very happy for a helluva lot of years, was 85 or so when he died, so I threw that into the mix too. Mom was 86 when she died. They had been married about 60 years. Wow!

I remember one day she and I were sitting at a picnic table in a park along the river, enjoying the sunshine, sharing a bottle of beer, just visiting. It must have been close to her birthday, I don’t know, but I asked her if she was happy with her life. She thought about it and said yes. All her kids, she pointed out, had turned out good and things were looking alright for their families. Yeah, she said, she was satisfied. There was one thing though, she said would be nice. She would like to live long enough to see the new century come in. I don’t remember what year that was but it must have been in the late 1990s. Mom wanted to see the calendar turn over into the 21st century. Well, she did and about all she ever said about it was that it didn’t seem to matter much. Of course she would also snicker over the foolishness of the so-called Y2K bug.

Her father, my maternal grandfather, was in his mid-eighties when he died. My father’s father, another man I never met, reportedly died at about that same age too.

So, if the ages of my family members have any bearing on things it fits in with what the internet website result was; I should have another ten years or so to enjoy things. The only downside that I can see is those wrinkles on the backs of my hands. If all that started showing up in just the past few weeks or so, what will the next ten years bring? Guess I’ll have to stick around to find out. I’ll keep you posted.

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