Jim Carroll released a controversial song in 1980 called People Who Died. It was a punk song that catalogued the method of death of many of the songwriter’s young friends. Most of my friends hated it because they thought it was disrespectful. I completely disagree. As told in his memoir, The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll lived as an addict on the streets, and he knew dozens of people in similar circumstances who didn’t survive. The song was his way of immortalizing the ones who were gone too soon. The ways they died were both stupid and poignant, just like life.
Everyone eventually experiences the loss of loved ones. I am fortunate that my list is short. Here is my very own litany of people who died.
First Death: My maternal grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 69. I had lived in a little house in his back yard when I was a young child, and he was a close and benign presence in our lives: mowing the lawn, smoking his pipe, watching TV in his La-Z-Boy chair. I will never forget the sequence of events the night he died, when my parents received a call in the middle of the night to say he was in distress. It was almost Hallowe’en, and over the next few days, all my aunts, uncles and cousins converged upon the house, and it was decided that us kids could go trick or treating in my grandparents’ neighbourhood. We hastily assembled makeshift costumes out of things at hand (turning out as low-budget cross-dressers and hoboes) and we canvassed the block with pillow cases to hold our treats. In the company of our older cousins, we went out longer and further than ever before, and got an unprecedented amount of candy. We all crashed from our sugar highs at the funeral, where we were crushed to see our grandmother and our parents crying.
Next Death: When I was 7 years old and in Grade 2, a close friend of mine – the same age and in my class at school – died by drowning. Our families were good friends who attended church together and visited each other, and their kids went to school with my brother, sister and me. My friend was a lively, smart, fierce little girl. My parents thought it best that I didn’t attend the funeral. I missed my friend’s presence in class, at church, and when we visited each other’s homes. We had each been part of families with three children, and now they were two. She left such a gap. It was awful to see how it continued to grow over the years.
Over the course of my school years, I experienced a number of normal and expected deaths, starting with great-aunts and uncles, and my last living great-grandparent. When my great-grandmother died, my parents left the three of us teenagers at home while they travelled, so as not to disrupt school. Left unsupervised overnight for the first time, we invited friends over and got into a bit of trouble. Although my parents never knew, I am still deeply ashamed of my behaviour on that occasion.
During high school and university years, I can count three young men who died in accidents and three young men who died by suicide. One had been dear to me, a conservative and religious boy who made a good-faith attempt at marriage, but ended his life when he couldn’t come to terms with his attraction to men. Then the death of a young woman, the daughter of a beloved teacher, of a brain tumour.
By the end of my twenties, I no longer had any grandparents living. I was especially close to my maternal grandmother. She lived for 15 years after my grandfather’s sudden death (chronicled above) and I often packed a little suitcase and stayed with her on the weekends when she was still unaccustomed to living alone. Even now, when I want to de-stress, I think about Nannie working in her garden, and I remember the layout of all the flowers and I name them to myself. My paternal grandparents lived further away and I am grateful I got to know them a little better as individuals when I was in my twenties, but there is still so much I don’t know about them.
As a more mature adult, my ex-husband died after a lengthy struggle with substance abuse. It was a shock and not a shock, as anyone dealing with substance abuse will know – you always expect to get that call, but you never really think it will happen. In the back of your mind, you are always thinking, “Well, look at Keith Richards.” He and I (no, not Keith and I!) had been separated for two years at the time, and I had moved on with my life to the extent possible. But Link was only 6 when he died. I feel so, so bad that Link was deprived of the experience of having a grieving family to mourn with. After the funeral, all the relatives were so far away. Link and I just carried on as usual. When we got together with the family, they wanted to be happy and create new memories together. It is now nearing one of those 6-year-intervals when I think, “Link (now almost 24) has spent three times as much of their life without their dad as with him” and I just feel devastated.
Sadly, my ex also lost his father when he was a child, and his step-father died in recent years – although, blessedly, in his 80s.
Now I am at the age when many of my friends and co-workers are losing their parents. Mine are a little younger than most (they had me when they were still 22, almost unthinkable nowadays!) and I am lucky to have them. One of my aunts and one of my uncles have died. So we have reached their generation.
Everyone older than myself always tells me how hard it is as parents die and then friends die. Gradually it is our generation: it is us! And how confounding it is to realize “those old people” are us, too.
I am not quite there yet (50s) but I am aware of the passage of time and that things come to an end. Sometimes before their time, if there is such a thing – whatever one’s time is supposed to be. All I can say is Viva la Vie! And I will take as much of it as I can get.
I will close by quoting Jim Carroll’s song, with the respect he intended toward his friends:
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died
I miss ‘em – they died
Your loved ones may have died many years ago and as time passes, fewer people remember them and talk about them. Surviving family members have them in their hearts, but may rarely hear their names or share memories of them. This week, which includes the Day of the Dead, tell their stories. Tell their families you remember them and think about them. Tell someone “Snapdragons were his favourite flower” or “Do you remember that tea she used to make that you could stand a spoon up in?” And if you have no one to share with (or even if you do), try this as well: no matter how self-conscious you feel, stand in a room and say each of their names out loud. It is powerful!
My people are:
John, Eric and Duane
Rick, Chris and Jeff
Agnes, Mona and Archie
Ben and Gene
Marie and Sam
And others whom I fondly remember who were not part of this little narrative.
In the comments, will you name your people who died? I would be honoured if you would share their names with me.