A Personal Reflection from the Fringe
When I was a wee boy I rode the school bus over an hour each way. Typically, this was when I did my homework, but even as a very young lad I was already showing an interest in the two great passions of my life: sociology and GWT. The Girls With Tits sat in a group in the back of the bus, and over the years I realized there was a procession which began with little kids in the front of the bus and marched backward a few seats each year until they were admitted to the back of the bus where older kids, particularly GWT, sat. Being fond of both fighting and books at once, I sat where I pleased, save for the last few rows of seats.
As time ticked and the fields and fences rolled by I listened in wonder and quiet but still visible excitement as the GWT traded stories of their experiences, and perspectives, about boys.
It was a grand time, needless to say, and I learned more than I understood about people in general and the female perspective in particular.
Years later I understood the purpose of these stories the GWT told each other, and the stories the guys my age told, and indeed, the purposes and motivations for all stories and legends and movies we see. Our species is nuts for stories, we have told them for at least 60,000 years. Before the computer, they helped us store and access technological and cultural data. Even now they help us understand things, help us benefit from the experiences of others, to test ourselves in our own imaginations and above all, to help us context the things we personally experience.
I now realize how important the stories the girls told were. This was before female controlled contraception was widely available. The stories the girls shared, though often fantastic and inaccurate, were important because they prepared them for the fun and dangerous game of mate selection. They contained information about how to both successfully attract, and then moderate, the interest of a male (Lord knows we didn’t give them much to choose from). As a guy, that information was useful; this began my love of data.
Those happy days are long gone for my cohorts and I, but stories are still important. Most recently the people in my part of the bus have been collecting stories of death.
There is always plenty of death, even in a community as small as ours. Sometimes, those who pass are young. Often, though, they are older, gray haired kids from the bus.
The stories of death prepare us for the not very fun and absolutely fatal game of death selection.
Navigating illness and death is tricky business. There are legal and financial considerations, and emotional ones. There are cultural dimensions. These impact us an any age, but Baby Boomers who watched parents deal with grandparents are now dealing with the death of their parents, and their peers.
For all causes of death, you are most likely to die if you are older. Until age 20, 99 people out of a hundred will see the next year. By age 55, it’s 93; by 60, 91; 65, 88; 70, 83.
Two things kill most Boomers, lifestyle and heredity. Cancer picks up sharply at age 45 and continues to be a major killer until diseases of the heart take over at age 75.
Alzheimer’s picks up in the 60s. Suicide is high in the 40s, goes down from 55 to 75, but then increases again over 75. Hypertension and resulting renal disease picks up in the 50s but leaps in the 70s.
The good news? Homicide peaks in the 30s, and by 65 practically no one wants to kill you.
But, those are the statistics of death, not the stories of the dying. Every story, it turns out, is unique. Even with identical diseases and the same doctors, the stories are different.
Some are heartbreaking; others are somehow uplifting and affirming. Many, though, show two things: the arbitrary, almost capricious means by which death selects us, and the enduring power of love and friendship. Death, it turns out, is inevitable and largely out of our hands, save for minor adjustments. How we receive death, is not.
As death approaches there is nothing as powerful as the love and caring of the people in our lives. There reaches a point where money is powerless to raise our eyes, but the voice of someone we love is greeted for what it is: valuable beyond measure. Old adversaries become dear when the certainty of death is clear.
It’s good to still be on the bus, still hear the stories, and to watch as little kids sit in front and year by year move in the rows to the back. The stories change, but our wonder at life, and death, and our importance to each other, never does.