Whether—beneath the sediment of almost seventy years—layers of buried memories of my family of eight await excavation, I do not know. Perhaps the passage of time turned those memories to ash that cannot be recovered. Instead of hidden memories, fragments of others’ oft-repeated stories may occupy recesses of my brain. Those stories may not constitute my memories at all. Rather, they may represent the fading recollections of the other members of that immediate family of eight—all older than I—now whittled down to a far-flung family of four.
I cannot recall a single childhood memory in which my mother, my father, my three brothers, my two sisters, and I all are a part. I was five years old when my nuclear family began to disintegrate, the way families do when children begin moving away to begin their own private lives that do not involve the rest of the familial clan. The next to youngest, who was five years older than I, would have been developing his own identity by that time. His youngest sister was two years older than he. Of the remaining three, all assortedly older, the oldest was fourteen years senior to me. Now, more than sixty-three years after my fifth birthday, only half of the nuclear family of my youth remains. And I remember almost nothing of the nucleus. Memories of only bits and pieces of its component parts remain lodged in my head. And, as I acknowledged before, I suspect many of those memories are not mine at all but, rather, others’ recollections transformed from their stories into my artificial memories.
These days, when a sibling tells of a youthful memory set in the town of my birth, the story is entirely unfamiliar to me—unless, of course, I’ve heard the story before. I do not remember my parents’ friends, the neighbors down the street, the family’s dinnertime rituals (if there were any), and a thousand other things my siblings recall. Sometimes, because my siblings may not recall specific time-frames, I detect an element of surprise from them when I reveal that I have no recollection of events that are so familiar to them. But, then, when they realize I had not yet been born, the surprise disappears.
The absence of memories sometimes frustrates me, but not to the point of getting angry at time’s refusal to coordinate with my ability to recall. I simply wish I could picture, in my mind, what life was like during a time no longer available to my memory. Sadly, the ability to ask questions that require others to recall their history is disappearing. I can no longer ask my brother, Tom, for example, to explain why he was so upset when—at about age fourteen—I stayed out all night, fishing with friends. It’s the little things. I doubt my lost memories have survived burial under the sediment of almost seventy years. Still, I’ll continue to try to dredge them up on occasion. And, if occasionally I am successful, I’ll hose them down, dry them off, and make a record of them here on my blog.
Until the past few days, I’ve never given truly serious thought to making “pre-arrangements” for my death. For a while, I thought I’d leave my body to a medical school, but that ultimately proved too much of a bureaucratic tangle to seem worth my time. Subsequently, I’ve thought I’d leave enough cash so that my body could be disposed of in whatever manner my surviving family or friends might wish. But the challenges of the months and weeks leading up to the death of my brother have changed my thinking. I now think the responsible thing to do is to remove the burden of end-of-life decisions from loved ones and, instead, to make plans in advance. It’s not always possible, of course, but to the extent it is, I now am in favor of it.
The least expensive way to dispose of a body today probably is by cremation. Caskets and funeral rituals and expensive flowers and so forth may comfort the living, but they do no good for the dead. And they require surviving loved ones to make decisions and spend money that may stretch financial means beyond the breaking point. So I am in favor of cremation.
It’s not just the challenges after death that I think should be planned in advance. Planning for the unfortunate possibility of prolonged decline and decay should not be the responsibility of loved ones but, instead, of oneself. It’s far too late for me to purchase long-term-care insurance, but it may not be too late to develop a plan whereby my assets can be protected against being drained by a long and useless hospital or nursing home stay. It’s not that I want the State to pay for my long-term care; it’s that I do not want to suffer the indignities of long-term care with just-barely-tolerable quality of life. Rather than pay for an unwanted extension of an unpleasant existence, I want my assets to go toward people and causes that matter to me, not to keeping me barely and painfully alive.
I do not know exactly what I can do to ensure that I ease the process for those who survive me, but I’m going to explore available options.
I read a bit this morning about Wild Nephin National Park, a place in Ireland I wish I could visit. I’ll offer this extract from the article as explanation: “It was Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger who described the Nephin Beg mountains in 1937 as ‘the very loneliest place in this country, for the hills themselves are encircled by this vast area of trackless bog,’ and little seems to have changed since then.”
Some days, I just want to be free of all human interactions; able to completely cut off all forms of communication so that I might as well be the only man on Earth. Reading about Wild Nephin National Park triggered that emotional need again; that sense that pure isolation might be the only way to keep me sane—or more appropriately, recover my sanity. The simultaneous harshness of nature and nature’s gentle protection work in concert to make one feel at one with the planet, I think. Knowing that a wave could suddenly kill me but that it could just as easily wash over me and and cleanse the grit from my life is enormously gratifying. Realizing that nature can take away every ounce of control I think I may have is somehow freeing. Perhaps it’s because nature cannot be swayed by what I think or do or say. I exist at the whim of the world in which I live and my existence could suddenly cease if that world “decides” it should be so. That comment incorrectly attributes motive to nature; anthropomorphism is an arrogant trait. We humans have the gall to assume we are the dominant forces in the universe. I think what I desire at this moment is an opportunity to listen to nature in the absence of human intervention; even mine.
I’ll miss the rare occasions when my brother, Tom, and I spoke on the phone. We held radically different opinions and our viewpoints about the world often were at odds,. Yet our conversations somehow brought me down to earth, even when they raised my blood pressure. He had strong opinions about almost everything. So do I. Usually, those opinions were diametrically opposed. Often, both opinions were utterly free of facts to support them.
And I’ll miss hearing A.J.’s nails click on the floor as he came looking for me in the morning after waking. He was a sweet little dog. He never struck me as being “in synch” with my moods the way people often say their dogs are, but his moods could be molded to fit mine, I think. Tears welled up in my eyes for a few minutes this morning as I thought about missing A.J.
I am empty right now. Just empty. Actually, there’s something inside, I simply don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s an awareness that I know nothing. I realize I base everything I think on suppositions and assumptions, not facts. And I am not alone. Everyone does the same. We’re just babbling, as if we have answers. We don’t even have legitimate questions. We just run on and on and on without pausing long enough to try to absorb the truth that is all around us in everything we see or feel or taste or touch or smell. Our arrogance is more than enough to cause me to be enraged. And then I realize my rage is based on vapor that I can’t even see.