Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I'll get my suit cleaned

WARNING: This entry is about upcoming death of a family member and may not be suited to reading if you're expecting jokes.

I should get my suit cleaned because I'm planning on attending a funeral. Usually you can't plan on funerals because they have this nasty tendency to just occur without warning. In this case, though, there'll be one soon enough.

My uncle John, eldest child on my mother's side, has end-stage lung cancer. Now in hospice care, he is expected to die within six months. Tomorrow even, should the fates decree. His final round of chemotherapy did nothing to shrink the tumors; they spitefully grew, instead. So now his doctor has sounded the end-of-life buzzer and relatives like me methodically make sure their best clothes stay clean.

Uncle John has always been a little mystery to me. He's what people used to call "mentally troubled". I recall that he has schizophrenia, but that was usually reported to me to be kept in check with his medications. When visiting grandma and grandpa in Fort Wayne, there would often be one day when John would come over from his apartment to spend some time with the visiting Schwartz family. Even now, I'm worried that I'll get some fact wrong in this entry, simply because I don't know him all that well.

John has a good spirit. My dominant memories of family occasions are him looking through his television-style eyeglasses with interest at something, him smiling, and his noisy laugh. Strangely, each Christmas would go by with him opening a present that invariably contained socks. Worse than coal to us kids, he was always delighted with socks because he always needed socks.

He lives in subsidized housing run by the government and collected social security to take care of his needs. Should he outlive his parents, their will explicitly states that he should receive no monetary or property assets, as that would tamper with his need-based social security. This ensures that his life would basically remain continually similar. Which is fantastic, because he always seemed to like his life -- or at least had few complaints.

It does feel like a gruesome exercise to plan the funerals of people who still live. I mean, they're still here! The ritual of death in society suggests that usually people are dead before one worries about their headstones or funeral arrangements. The difference is that Uncle John has had a death sentence pronounced. It may not be as punctual as the people at the state prison, but it has just as much certainty.

So the family waits. Not by the phone each minute, but it's always at the back of my head. Should I plan a dinner party for my friends in August? No, better not. I'll bump it up, invite less people, and there'll be no fuss should I need to cancel. Do I need to worry about canceling lessons? No, the store's policy is forgiving and the students are understanding.

So my one responsibility is keeping my fancy clothes from being a shambles. Looking into my closet, I can see my suit hanging there, all set. Check: my list is finished.

It's not death as it usually unfolds. Perhaps that's the weirdness. I've had friends die in accidents... and there's no time to prepare. I think that's the way it should be. When death is a certainty that has all but arrived, there are feelings of grief that get folded back on themselves: you can't GRIEVE for someone who's still alive! What are you, some kind of unfeeling monster? Even this entry, I had to go back and correct past tense, which also stirred guilt. Incidentally, that's why I disabled comments for this entry. I'm not in the mood to deal with expressions of sympathy just yet. More weirdness.

In some ways, I'm a little insulated from Uncle John. In a very busy year of visits, I would see him twice. Maximum. If he was busy in the summer and we didn't go at Christmas, then perhaps next year. He doesn't email. I've never known his phone number. He has not, in my memory, ever talked to me on the phone. We're close, in the sense that we're relatives, but I've never had a view of his day-to-day life.

So that makes it even stranger. Shouldn't I be more concerned? Should I feel more? I don't think I should, but that makes me feel guilty again; you can see how confusing this all is! Of all my uncles and aunts, the relation with him is the most distant.

My grandmother (John's mother) still lives, but she's no longer aware of her place in her own life. Dementia has stolen away her life in the past, which may be a kindness in this case: all parents I know would be devastated to outlive one of their children. Because that's not the way it's supposed to work.

Most people are probably aware of the Kuebler-Ross model (informally known as "The Five Stages of Grief"). A "pending" death like Uncle John's makes sport with the first stage: denial. It's easy to deny death when the person hasn't yet died. Perhaps there's a separate set of five for use while he's still alive. Good thing I sped through them to acceptance: I've got to be ready to do it all again.

Suit clean? Check.