Category Archives: General

Planning to Death

I like to plan ahead. I’m a planner, an over-thinker. I like to know life has in store, and I do my best to be one step ahead of whatever it has to offer. There is however this one nagging detail that I haven’t been able to get in front of. Death. Mortality. The final exclamation point. The big send off. How does one really prepare for the end?

Now this isn’t meant as a somber walk down a dark morbid trail. I’m blessed to be healthy and have no immediate plans to attend any funerals. I’m talking about high level stuff; as an ongoing preoccupation that resurfaces when life’s other minutia settles down to a dull hum. It comes down to a question of what comes next after this great journey we call life. Is there life after death? Do we take a stairway to heaven and enter the pearly gates? Do we come back for another go around as a monarch butterfly in Mexico or a future sheep herder in France? Do we stumble through the afterlife as a restless spirit haunting the family home and animating creepy clown dolls? Does our energy transition into another form, contributing to a universal stockpile to be tapped for future creation? Or is it all just lost to entropy?

We are indoctrinated about these concerns from an early age. The simple bedtime prayer for kids starts right off with mention of death;

“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

This was the sort of thing that scared the crap out of me as a child. Surrendering to even that brief bit of oblivion was difficult enough, acknowledging that we may not even make it to sunrise was simply terrifying. I sided with Edgar Allan Poe on this one;

“Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.”

As we grow up our understanding of death and dying becomes an integral part of our early development. We experience the death of a goldfish, a family dog, a grandparent.   These are defining moments in our childhood. We try to come to terms with death without fully realizing the implications on our own lives; we are wrapped in the perceived immortality of youth with little thought of confronting the inevitable.

I imagine kids growing up on a farm might have a different perspective on the whole “circle of life” thing. They collect the unfertilized chicken eggs in the morning for breakfast and then break the infertile chicken’s neck in the evening for dinner. Farm to fork. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. They witness life coming into the world in spring and life passing from the world in winter. Everything has a natural ebb and flow, all in its own time.

Then there are the less fortunate kids; the ones who grow up facing atrocities in war-torn nations or battling a serious diseases in children’s hospitals. For them death and dying is a harsh reality that they cannot be sheltered from. They cannot escape it, and often cannot justify it, trying to make sense of life’s wild injustice and trying to find gods hand in some universal order. For them more than any I pray there is a perpetual circuit of souls that, with each trip through life, is meant to teach us an essential lesson. If that could by any hope be true then those brave kids at least can look forward to a full, rich, life in their next go-around.

I remember back when I was a teenager I found a book of questions that were meant to inspire soul-searching and generate lively discussions among friends and family. The one that stuck out most in my mind asked “would you risk being diagnosed with cancer if it would give you a better appreciation of life?” My immediate gut reaction had been “absolutely!” before considering the implication that this newly found perception of life may not be long-lasting.   I imagine that bit of uncertainty is exactly what precipitates the change in the first place. We’re told all the time to make every moment count, treat each day like it’s our last, live like you were dying, but without a real end in sight it’s hard to stray from the safe and narrow. If faith is believing without being able to know, facing death is knowing without being able to believe.

Speaking of faith, though, this had always struck me as one of the greatest gifts one could have; the unquestioning certainty that the afterlife offers every abundance of love and acceptance without a trace of suffering or hardship. I had a close friend back in high school who was a devote Mormon and carried with her such a sense of peace even at that early age. There was an underlying confidence that everything would work out in this world or the next. Jesus will provide. Jesus will protect. Jesus will welcome you when you close your eyes on this life and join him in the next. You are covered, baby! I was raised in the Jewish faith where the focus was on living a good life without consideration for what comes next. I don’t recall any talk of heaven or salvation. We would watch grim footage from the holocaust; newsreels of bodies and bulldozers with no talk of those poor souls going to a better place or assurances that they now sat at the hand of god.   So without faith what should we be preparing for?

Just before my son was born I was having a difficult time with this very topic. It was a few years after my father had passed away and it struck me that I was about to welcome the birth of the generation that would one day outlive me. You think about all the generations that came before you were born and all the ones that are yet to come after you pass away and one’s lifetime starts to feel all the more fleeting. It was in this context that I sought out a counselor to speak with. After a couple of sessions speaking about my dad we got down to the mortality issue. Turns out the counselor I had selected at random had advanced prostate cancer and was facing some of the same questions. I tried to ask if he’d found any answers, but being true to his profession he ducked most of my questions with related questions redirected back at me. What he did offer though was something like this;

“Think back to your childhood and the things you remember. Think back further to your oldest earliest memory. Think back to when you were born. Now think back before then to when you didn’t yet exist. How did it feel? What was it like? Think to that and perhaps that is what you will return to.”

What I did take away from those meetings was not about what will happen to me, but what will happen after me. Knowing my children remain behind to grow and prosper does offer a touch of immortality. Knowing that I will be remembered and in some way have made an impact on the people who continue after me is some small sense of comfort. I guess in the end that’s all we can hope for. Benjamin Franklin said the only two things that are certain are death and taxes and while I can save all of my receipts and organize my statements each year, there’s really not much prep I can do on the death front.   Not like I’ll get audited for being unprepared.

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Christmas Passed

My first experience with Christmas wasn’t until I was in high school. Sure, I knew what it was and it was hard to deny its presence once the pumpkin patches turned to tree lots, but I only had a high level concept of the event gleaned from beloved TV specials and movie classics like A Christmas Story. I imagined it was something like a combination of a Thanksgiving Day feast, a well-stocked birthday party and a ride on “It’s a Small World” (with slightly less repetitious music). Whatever it was, it sounded awesome and I wanted a piece of it.

I realized I was on a different life path when my mother would make her annual trip to our elementary school to embarrass the crap out of me and my sister,… or, from my mom’s perspective, “to share ethnic diversity” in the form of potato latkes with our Christian / Catholic counterparts. Turned out we were the only Jews in the entire district so my mother saw it as her duty to spread the word of God and try to make Hanukkah sound cool. Not an easy sell down on the school yard.

Historically Hanukkah was more of a minor festival, somewhere between Easter and Groundhogs Day. It was meant to celebrate the miracle of a deep fryer that kept the home fries cooking for over a week while the chosen people hid under their table trying to wait out some particularly persistent Mormon missionaries that came knocking at the door. Ok so maybe the fryer was an oil lamp, the table was a temple and the Mormon’s were Maccabees, but you get the idea. The telling of this tale is not nearly as catchy as “the birth of our lord and savior”. The first Christmas would become such a defining moment that we would change our very measure of time from that point forward. The first Hanukkah,… they may have invented shadow puppets, who knows, I wasn’t there, but you see the disparity; Hanukkah is like the Coors Lite to the rich thick Guinness of Christmas.

My parents tried to up the game and keep up with the gentiles. We got some blue string lights and decorated a Hanukkah bush. My dad, being the handy electrician, made a 3 foot wide menorah with light up candles that we would set in the front window, just in case people were wondering where that one crazy Jewish family lived. Like all Jewish (American) parents they would try to play up the fact that we got eight nights of presents while our friends only got one.   That might sound great in theory, but think about Christmas morning when you’re faced with a pile of presents and then have to wait so everyone can take turns opening one present at a time. Imagine the torment of waiting your turn,… now imagine opening just one single present and then being asked to wait entire day before you can open another; That would be Hanukkah. To make matters worse a lot of those early presents were nothing to write Santa about, they were either necessities such as socks and underwear, or just plain sucky gifts like coloring books with some B-list cartoon characters like “Dastardly and Muttley”. I can remember waiting all day for the sun to go down so my mom could light the candles and then waiting again after dinner for the candles to finally burn out. Then, and only then, were we ready for the big event. We’d retire to the family room as my mom dug around in the closet for a suitable present du jour. The day long torment and anticipation culminated in this one exciting moment; “Yay, my very own Hot Wheel! I’m going to sleep. Wake me at sundown”.

Don’t get me wrong I do have many fond memories of Hanukkah as well. The Sunday brunch that my mom would host with fresh bagels and an assortment of weird salads and Jell-O concoctions that were all amazing together. Teaching my friends how to gamble with the dreidel and eating the chocolate gelt (coins) as we played. The few times when the final big present was a trip to King Norman’s Toy Store at the mall and we got to pick out our own present.

But still I always wondered what lay behind the curtain, how did the other half,… or the other seven-eighths live? I got to see the aftermath growing up, going over to my friends’ houses following the big day while still on Christmas break (before schools changed the name to “Winter Break” so as not to offend). They all had amazing piles of loot to show off, not to mention a healthy dose of candy and other random leftovers that still littered the living room days after the tree had been pillaged. Everyone was happy in the post-holiday glow. Everything about it seemed magical, and a night much better spent then our traditional Christmas Eve of Chinese food and a movie. “Wanna see my Hot Wheel?”

When I was in high school, one of my friends, Pat invited me over to experience their family ritual. Pat was the youngest of four kids, and each of his siblings was married or engaged by this time. Combine that with a couple of grandkids and a few other friends and relatives and you got one very full house. For them Christmas Eve brought the sentimental exchange of gifts between family members, opening all of the presents under the tree. On Christmas morning Santa would leave a fresh batch of special bonus presents to round out the holiday.   It was a warm, cozy, boisterous night filled with love and laughter. It was everything I’d ever dreamed off, with one small exception; as welcome as they made me feel it still wasn’t really “mine”.

I celebrated my first Christmas about five years later when I’d turned 21. Appropriately it was spent with my first real girlfriend. We went out on a blustery morning to pick out a tree of our own. We decorated our tree together (something I’d never done before) as we drank hot cocoa in holiday mugs. I put presents under the tree. I listened to Christmas carols freely. I embraced the holiday.

After I was married there was no turning back. Christmas would explode all over the house on the first of December. I happily hung lights from the roof (at least as much as I could reach with a ladder), lined the windows and sprung for some festive lawn ornaments.   When kids came along they enjoyed both holidays; a sampling of Hanukkah throughout the week, including a traditional first night dinner of brisket and latkes with doughnuts for dessert and then a full Christmas experience with all the trimmings.

At this point I can’t imagine a year without Xmas. Even after the divorce, with some of the established customs disrupted and kids only appearing on alternate years, I still enjoy all the moments leading up to the big day. For me it’s not about religion; I celebrate the spirit of Christmas; peace on earth, goodwill towards man, all that sappy stuff. I don’t go to Midnight mass and I don’t have to trade in my mezuzah for a crucifix. I still love and respect my heritage and all that comes with it. But there are only so many times I can listen to the one Hanukkah song by Adam Sandler on the radio while I could play A Charlie Brown Christmas on a continuous loop. It warms my heart, and this is a time of year to share your heart with your friends and family in whatever way feels best to you. So Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night,… l’chaim.

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