Two scenarios; contradictory, and neither is true:
Michael Weeks at forty-two years old: he spends his evenings in the company of his wife, his children and his dogs. He’s fulfilled by his career; his relationships are enduring; his hobbies, rewarding. He’s rarely sick. In total, he’s content.
Michael Weeks at forty-two: he’s divorced and lonely; he’s dissatisfied with his friendships, miserable in his job. Nightly, he watches TV, drinks beer, and dreads tomorrow.
Michael Weeks is the eight-year-old boy buried next to my mother. If he didn’t die, he could be one of those people I just described. His parents mourn him to this day. They try to envision the life he might be living. Their version. I’m sure, resembles the first picture I painted.
My mother died at forty-nine. If she was still alive, she’d be eighty-two.
Death leaves a void, a hole in the universe of unrealized potential. Because she died in middle-age, my mother lived only half her life. You think I’m being optimistic. “Forty-nine,” you say, “is a bit beyond halfway.” I’m not so sure. My father, now eighty-eight, seems unstoppable. After my mother died, he mourned. He regrouped. He dated. And then he remarried. His second twenty-fifth anniversary was a month ago. My father says he’s living his second life.
Besides her husband, my mother left behind three adult sons, none yet married, and grandchildren years away. Her career, launched when I left for college, was a work in progress. Her second life just began.
Losing the chance to live a full life seems like the ultimate rip-off. It’s like receiving just a morsel of a promised reward. We put in our time on earth, building a life, a personality, relationships—building our-selves—and suddenly it’s all stripped away. For Michael Weeks, only eight years invested on his part, but the possibility of that life is lost forever. For his parents, devastation. The boy they created and nurtured into a human being, simply gone.
And my mother? Forty-three good years, happy years, I think. And six years of illness. She knew she was dying from the start. My father found a diary she wrote early on. She lived an eighth of her life expecting to be soon be gone for good.
When we die, we start over, but not from scratch. The important lessons we learn during our lives are carried with us into our next life. We build on that knowledge, we keep improving. We’ve all known an “old soul.” Someone who gets it without seeming to put in the necessary effort. The rest of us flail about receiving our bumps and bruises, breaks and contusions. The old souls, if we watch them carefully, we can learn from them.
My mother, I think, was early in the soul-growing-game. Or that’s how I remember her. She was simple, naïve. Lots of hugs, but quick to emotion—good and bad. In the sixties, we still got spanked. The tool was a foot-long scrap of a leather belt. My father made spankings a production: “I’m going to get the strap!” he said. And then he disappeared for three or four minutes. The real punishment was terrified anticipation. My mother, on the other hand, just swatted away.
Christians believe in heaven. A place they can meet-up with those they’ve lost, a place to get together with loved ones in a future world. Michael Weeks’ parents are Christian. Knowing there’s a future is the only way they lived through losing their child. Or this is what I believe.
I lived through my mother’s death by getting drunk. I started drinking around the time she got sick and I doubled-down when she died. I turned my pain into a party. A long, sorrowful party. Sometimes I wonder if I even grieved at all. I might have skipped that step during the hangover.
My mother’s grave is depressing. The headstone, really just a plaque on the ground, is sunken into the sod. Grass and dirt cover the edges and creep across the stone. At times, it can be hard to find. On rainy days, her marker turns into a little puddle of mud on the ground.
When I was young and unencumbered and had fewer uses for my money, I considered paying to have the headstone dug up and reset. But I never made the call. For all I know, the stone is completely buried now, overgrown. Fortunately, there’s a trio of trees nearby to use as a guide. Or there was. It’s been a decade since I’ve been there. Those trees might be gone as well. But I can still use Michael Weeks as a landmark. His grave will be forever maintained.