Death Comes To Visit

2004-06-15 14:45:37

Some of you might think this is tasteless. Feel free to bitch at me for it -- but please do me a favor and don't clutter my blog with any 'sympathy' postings. I don't want anyone to feel sorry or alarmed for me or my family. We're coping with it all, and I'm reasonably sure I don't suffer from any pathological attention-craving disorders. And I'm also pretty sure I'm not one of those people who never have anything to talk about but their latest tragedy. But I feel motivated to write about this 'experience' because it's just so much different and stranger than my typical, relatively boring daily life.

It begins: -- Monday afternoon (yesterday) there's a knock on the door, my wife Roberta answers and comes to tell me "it's the police, they want to talk to you". This has happened before, but I've been reasonably law-abiding these past weeks so it was with only a soupcon of caution that I opened the door. A couple of officers are standing there and I ask ask "what's this about?" and they say "do you know John and Bertha B_____?" I looked puzzled and said "yes, they're my in-laws". They live in Arizona and in fact they were due to arrive in a couple of hours for a week-long visit. And the one officer says "I'm sorry to tell you that they were both killed this morning in a traffic accident in New Mexico."

Wow. This is like something out of a bad Lifetime channel movie. Please, Lord, please keep Tyne Daly out of this one!

Without going into sickening detail, it was a two-vehicle accident, a high-speed head-on collision: the other driver crossed into the oncoming lane. And apparently got away with only cuts and bruises while my in-laws were killed instantly. Do the vector sum 60mph + 60mph and it's like they hit a brick wall at 120mph. There is some possibility that drugs were involved, and so one of my attorney friends put us in touch with MADD. At this point no-one knows if the accident was the result of intoxicated driving, or simple human stupidity. I have to tell you: the amount of satisfaction we're deriving from the notion of possibly "nailing a goddam drunk driver" is like zero, nada, none, nothing. The situation just sucks, and I guess it would be nice to let some kind of 'vengeance attitude' take over. But it's not happening.

Some of you are aware of the fact that I did not get along well with my in-laws. Tasteless though it is, I keep flashing on a scene from one of The Simpson's Halloween episodes -- the one that's based on Ray Bradbury's short story A Sound Of Thunder, I'm sure you've all seen it -- where Lisa asks Homer "Are we taking the new Lexus to Aunt Patty and Selma's funeral today?" When this happens in real life it is, alas, not so fun. To quote a certain toy dinosaur: "Now I have guilt!" No, that's not really true; it's just that I'm in this 'uncomfortable spot' where no, they weren't my favorite people, but -- they weren't Nazis, either, and for all their faults, they at least loved my kids. I sure didn't want them to die. Jesus.

And so I've been Doing The Good Thing, being helpful and supportive and making all of the arrangements and just generally trying to 'drive' this entire affair through to completion.

Having spent the entire day speaking to medical examiners, funeral home directors, highway patrolmen, insurance agents, and persons of the cloth, there's really not a lot that spotlights the pointlessness of existence any more then going to Target to look at DVDs. But the need was felt for a little "shopping therapy" after dinner. Seeing the latest, biggest Hollywood blockbusters in all of their gaudy, eye-catching color and glory, with all the Big Big Stars on the covers, smiling or looking tough or sexy, really brings home the meaninglessness of it all. It's like: these are but amusements that we use in vain to try to help us put death out of mind.

If you're planning to die, here's some advice:

a) Don't. Or

b) If you really have to do it, don't leave a corpse. It complicates things for the people you left behind. There are advantages to being vaporized, or lost at sea, or dissolving after falling into a vat of H2SO4, I think. Just make sure all of your financial stuff is nicely organized and up-to-date and easy to find, thanks. But if you've got to be difficult and leave a body, then

c) Do it at home. The logistics of dealing with a probably totalled van full of valuables 800 miles away -- that's probably being pilfered at this very moment by the tow-lot people[1] -- plus arranging disposition of remains and transport of said remains to Arizona, plus arranging flights and lodging for family, is more than you want to inflict on your kin. Unless you wanted to piss 'em off, in which case feel free to contact me for further thoughts on the matter. I've been discussing this with people and it appears that the ultimate might be to expire in a highly bureaucratic foreign land where very few people speak English. China, for instance.

Right now it looks like I'm going to have to drive out to Roswell, New Mexico, to deal with the van contents. In other circumstances this could be a nice getaway: I'd love to ride Kitten out there. I've even got a very nice four-wheeled BMW I hardly ever drive; spend a little time burning some music CDs and it could be a fine road-trip. But instead it looks like I'll have to take the minivan, so I'll have room to carry stuff back. Yeah, I can just feel the vast waves of sympathy from y'all over this. But that's 1200 miles total in a vehicle that handles (and kinda looks) like a soviet tuna trawler. And I get to look forward to unpacking what I can of my in-laws wrecked van, while wretching constantly and freaking out over finding any 'bits' that the ambulance crew may have missed.

And I won't lie: it spooks me considerably that I'll be driving on the same road where my in-laws met their end.

In working to make "arrangements" I've learned some interesting things. One is that yes, you can email cremated remains (aka "cremains") via the US Postal Service. Somebody has to sign for them on the receiving end, but I was rather surprised: I thought for sure that this would be highly regulated and that only licensed entities would be able to take possession. But apparently not. I feel sure that there are some very, very sick jokers out there who could somehow use this to pull some very, very sick jokes. I'm trying not to think about it.

But perhaps people are, on the large, more decent than I had thought. One positive thing I can report about this experience has been the incredibly small (read: zero) number of Mean People I've encountered. I've talked to about 30 people today, and every single one of them has been sympathetic and helpful.

Another thing I've learned is that this is not the fast, streamlined process I had imagined it would be. The medical examiner came right out and told me "take all the time you need". The fellow at the funeral home was cautiously optimistic: if we got all of the paperwork filled out right away, we just might be able to get the remains to Arizona by the weekend.

I envy the kids -- within the span of two weeks they've lost their dog and a set of grandparents, and yet they're hangin' in there. For better or for worse -- and I'm not sure which -- they have an unquestioning, rock-solid belief in Heaven: it's as real as Disneyland or school, and that's where Jet-dog is, and that's where grandma and grandpa are. And no, despite my own personal lack-of-faith in these matters, I am not motivated to try to "enlighten" them. In fact, I'll punch the lights out of anyone who might try.

In case you're wondering: yes, all of this is costing lots of money. And just thinking about life insurance, wills, assets, inheritance, all that stuff -- my wife simply doesn't want to deal with it right now. I can't blame her. But this is going to run many thousands of dollars in travel and other expenditures, so I'm hoping and praying real hard that we'll at least manage to get all of that back. At this time it's all a big unknown. I'm not sitting here with my fingers crossed going "Please, please, just enough for an Aston-Martin! And a Dodge Viper!" But I cannot lie: I will be extremely happy if the kids' college funds get a good strong shot in the arm out of all this.

Oh -- in case you're curious: the cost may vary quite a bit depending on who you deal with, but it looks like cremation, including all licensing and postage, will run about $1000 per.

As I alluded earlier: I don't have any great faith in any kind of afterlife. I sometimes wish I did -- but I want to know the truth. But the "truth" I've arrived at -- that there is nothing after this life -- does not make times like this easier. The only thing that gives me hope is the thought of something like James Tipler's Omega Point theory -- that at some point in the far future, the existing intelligences of that era will 'reconstruct' every being who ever lived, essentially building Heaven from scratch at a time not long before the Big Crunch. As far out as this sounds, I can't help but hope for it to come to pass. Surely I am not the only entity who is disappointed -- or downright pissed off might be a better phrasing -- to consider that all of the lives, all of the experiences, of every entity that ever lived, is all nothing but "tears in rain". Given the frequency of new cosmological theories these days, I find myself subconsciously cheering for any that support the Omega Point. And I boo the ones that don't.

Is it too much to ask, after the insane horror that life inflicts on so many, that everyone and everything that has ever lived, suffered, and died might one day find themselves happy, and loved, and at peace?

My 'net access will be somewhat limited over the next week, so in closing, all I can say is this: hug everyone close to you whenever you can.

[1] What little experience I've had with people involved in the towing industry has not lead me to believe that they are individuals of exceptional integrity.