Was (Not Is)

When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Sure it does, but nobody gives a shit. The same logic applies to people dying. Countless Eleanor Rigbys check out every day and it stands to reason they do whatever groaning, rattling, or pissing themselves a more popular person dying would do. The difference is their passing goes unnoticed except by their respective Father McKenzie, and only because that’s his job.

The good news is that I, and likely you, have people who care whether we live or die. A nation may not mourn our passing, but someone will. It’s a comforting thought. Maybe the purpose of life is to make people feel bad when it’s over. It’s hard to say. I’ve only been on one side of the bereavement equation.

I don’t think I fully understand grief. I doubt anyone does. What makes us get very emotional when some people die but not others? Is it our closeness to the person we lost? Sometimes, but not always.

A college friend died of cancer about five years ago. We were friends on Facebook, but had grown apart and rarely spoke. He was always more conservative, but he recently became a devout Christian. It seemed to work well for him, but I’m an atheist so I kept my distance and quietly wished him well.

When I got news of his death, I sobbed at my desk at work. I cried for less than a minute, but I did cry even though it had been years since we so much as talked on the phone. Maybe I cried because I remembered the time when we were closer. Maybe I’m just a crier. Then again, my mother died in February and I didn’t shed a single tear. Go figure.

How we respond to death is a personal matter. A lot of people don’t see it that way. After Patton Oswalt’s wife died, many complained that he did not wait long enough before finding someone else to be happy with. It was as if an appropriate grief period was something he owed them. And don’t get me started on true-crime shows. If a woman goes shopping right after identifying her husband’s body at the morgue, people will think she killed him. It could be that retail therapy is the only source of comfort she has and also that blouse she wants is on sale.

Even when we have our best intentions at heart, we soldier on through the absurdity of turning individual loss into a community event. Part of that is a good thing. There is loneliness in life and nothing adds to isolation like having a human connection taken away. A simple “I’m sorry” from a friend or acquaintance is a nice reminder that you’re not completely alone. Unfortunately, the empathy fetishists are incapable of leaving it at that. “My cat had cancer too,” they’ll say to show they know exactly how it felt when you watched the love of your life waste away to nothing.

A friend of mine died about a month ago. He wasn’t a particularly close friend, we had never met in person, but I liked and respected the guy. I also envied him. He had at least one PhD under his belt and had a career in academia combining music and technology. I, on the other hand, barely got a BA from San Diego State and am borderline tone deaf.

I’m not going to tell you his name nor will I try to guess how he died. We had friends in common, some of whom were close to him, and at least one of those is likely to read this. There are some things I want to say, but I don’t want to be too much of a dick about it.

This friend of mine (the dead one) was not only smart, he had a wit that could best be described as compassionate cynicism. I often try at the same thing, but I found it’s a lot of work so I usually just get by on poop jokes.

So he was blessed with intelligence and humor…except when he wasn’t. Some of his posts on Facebook showed something was very wrong. His prose quality had degraded so some words were stuck together, some split apart, and some were not the right word at all. What I could make out was full of agitation and fear. In my layman’s opinion, it looked like a neurological condition of some sort. Then a few days later, he was making perfect sense again with no indication that there was ever a problem.

So why have I thought about his death so much? He was an engaging individual, but whatever friendship we had was made up of intermittent, though pleasant, interaction and I’m far too self-centered to give myself over to caring for its own sake. The answer is because of my focus on self, rather than in spite of it.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you may remember a post where I feared I might have REM Behavior Disorder and all the neurodegenerative nastiness that goes with it. Shortly after I published the entry, he sent me an email where he admitted having “every fucked-up sleep disorder known to man.” He went on to recommend cheap and easy sleep monitoring “to graph how many kung-fu moves you attempt and when.”

I never replied. It’s not that I was offended. I was scared shitless.

At the time, I was worried that the brain rot associated with RBD might be already be happening rather than waiting in the wings for a decade or more. I started second guessing every minor memory lapse at six AM and every spatial distortion whenever I stopped binge watching Netflix on my phone to look at something on the other side of the room. I was deep in the throes of gaslighting myself and proof of having the sleep disorder amounted to pouring salt in the wound.

I still don’t know if I have RBD and don’t want to find out. With the help of my CPAP, melatonin pills, and CBD gummy bears, whatever dream enactment I have is seldom or subdued enough to go unnoticed. I may be in denial, but the neurodegenerative disorders associated with RBD cannot be prevented so denial is all I have.

Well, that and a dead friend who suffered from sleep disorders that possibly brought on a neurological condition that may or may not have killed him. I am sorry he is gone. The world is a poorer place without him, of course. At the same time, I worry that whatever happened to him could happen to me someday.

Like all deaths, his was a reminder of my own mortality.