Dying to Get High

Since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s body was discovered on February 2, 2014, I’ve pondered whether to write about it.  What can I add to the flood of coverage?  Maybe nothing, but here goes.

Let’s stop being ignorant about drug and alcohol addiction.  We once embarked on a well-meaning, but painfully naive, campaign to JUST SAY NO to drugs.  Perhaps one day a high-profile drug death will force us to JUST SAY NO to our collective ignorance of addiction.  Addiction is disease, plain and simple.

Many of us think of the famous and talented has having something we don’t, an edge that we’d love to have.  This is largely true.  Addiction, it seems, is the great equalizer.

That Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor is undeniable, so, too, it seems is the fact that he was a drug addict.  Being a great actor is a mark of distinction.  Being an addict is not.  The addict is like a character from a Tom Clancy novel, operating in the shadows, doing his best to conceal his true identity.

Hoffman gave many fine performances as an actor.  His skills are now a footnote to his life.  He will be largely remembered for how he died, not how he lived.  For all its trappings, this is one element of the price of success.  Anonymity is gone.  Fame–or infamy–take its place.

Hoffman is not afforded the vague obituary of the common addict.   You know some of these people.  Their obituaries say they died “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” or after a “brief illness.”  Perhaps they died of “heart failure,” another common euphemism for overdosing or drinking oneself to death. There are no requests to support cancer research or hospice care in lieu of flowers.  They are relegated to the same types of amorphous remembrances as suicide victims.

Hoffman died like most addicts–alone.  By all accounts, he had been clean for over two decades, only to relapse in the past couple of years.  It took him two decades to build his enviable career.  It took his addiction less than two years to kill him.  If you are familiar with addiction, you’ve seen this same story play out before.  Regardless of how glamorous one’s life may have been, this death is not.

The addict’s death is an ugly death.  Google Chris Farley’s name, and one of the images you’ll see is his body after his overdose death.  Ugly might be a mild word.

The chances are that every person reading this knows an addict.  Perhaps you are one yourself.  If so, you know the power of the addiction.  Maybe you are one of those for whom addiction is a sign of weakness or poor morals.  If so, consider:

  • Have you ever taken an illegal drug?
  • Have you ever taken a prescription drug that belonged to someone else?
  • Have you ever taken a legal drug but not followed the directions?
  • Have you ever had a drink of alcohol?
  • Have you ever been drunk?

Some folks-very, very few–can answer “No” to all of those questions.  If so, you have avoided the risk of setting off your addiction.   If you answered “Yes” to any of those, you are simply one of the vast majority of us.

The great puzzlement of addiction is that most people–indeed, the overwhelming majority–can do all of the above without becoming an addict.  Life for an addict is different.

The simplest (and best) explanation I’ve ever heard for why we drink or take drugs is this:  We like the effect.  That’s hard to admit for a lot of us.  We want to think we are wine connoisseurs or that we “experiment.”  The truth is more blunt:  We like the effect.

The addict likes the effect, too.  His world, though, is different.  He obsesses about the effect.   When he consumes a drink or his drug of choice, he likes the effect, but then craves more.   In his last days, he can’t quite get the desired effect.  More is better but never quite enough.

I am certain that most people reading this cannot relate.  You may have a drink or two at dinner and think “I better slow down.  I’m starting to feel this.”  Maybe you smoke a joint to relax.  For the addict, that drink or joint lights the fuse.  His response is “I’m starting to feel this.  I need more.”  As F. Scott Fitzgerald said “First you take a drink.  Then the drink takes a drink.  Then the drink takes you.”

Hoffman, Lenny Bruce, Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin–all well-known drug deaths.  A similar list could be compiled of the famous who drank themselves to death.  Actors, athletes, politicians–the lists are practically endless.

These are the addicts we know about.  Consider all the ones we don’t. They include your friends, neighbors and even family.  Maybe you, too.

Like other diseases, addiction doesn’t discriminate.  The rich and poor; black and white; male and female; young and old–addiction throws a broad net.  The addicts I’ve known include doctors, lawyers, accountants, realtors, salesmen, ministers, carpenters, brick masons, electricians, janitors, politicians, housewives and many others.  Money, success, failure, poverty–none of this matters.

You may be of the stripe who say “Lock ’em, up!”  While I disagree, I understand the sentiment.  It is more comforting to think we can hide it.  Looking at it is tough.  There is shame in it.  And fear.  We’ve stuffed our prisons full, yet our friends and neighbors still die.

There is good news, though, among all this sorrow–and it is sorrow, by the way, destroying the lives of the addicts and all those who care about them.  Addiction is treatable.  Make no mistake here–it is not curable.  The clean addict or sober drunk is one drug or drink away from disaster.  Ongoing, effective treatment can and will prevent that.   Our attitude toward addiction remains a great stumbling block.

The stigma attached to addiction is daunting, worse perhaps than mental illness.  While we’ve grown accustomed to taking a pill for this or that , we still shrink at the thought of a drug addict or alcoholic among us.

Shaming the addict into the shadows with the threat of prison or ostracizing him won’t work. I’ve never known an addict who enjoyed his or her addiction in its chronic form.  No one sets out to be a drug addict or alcoholic.  Sanctimonious preaching won’t cause a great revelation in the mind of the addict.

Why don’t they just straighten up?  You might as well ask a cancer patient why he “doesn’t just get well.”  I once heard that no one was ever shamed or browbeaten into Christianity.  Treatment for addiction works the same way.

If we consign addiction to the dust bin of moral failure, we simply accept it as a human frailty.  It is much more than that.  Likewise, it is not a bad habit.  Leaving one’s dirty clothes in the floor is bad habit.  Drinking or drugging oneself to death is not.

Addiction is a disease of the mind and body.  The addict’s mind drives him to his drink or drug while his body craves more.  Addicts aren’t “partying.”  They are dying.

Addiction has one distinction that other diseases do not.  Often, the addict has no desire to stop.  The disease convinces him that he has no disease.  I can think of no other chronic, fatal illness that has that so affects its sufferer.  As a result, getting help for an addict is difficult, even impossible in many cases.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

I suspect that if a terminal illness swept through our population like addiction has, we would bring every possible resource to bear on its eradication.  Of course, it is foolish to think we can eliminate this disease.  As long as there are human beings, some will want to change how they feel.

Perhaps if we take addiction out of the shadows and remove the stigma, we can make some progress.  If every drug or alcohol death were publicized, we would be horrified by the numbers.  For all his fame, talent and wealth, Hoffman died the addict’s death.  He leaves children to mourn him and puzzled friends.  The next time you hear of an overdose death, think about your friends and family.  There’s probably an addict lurking among them.

©www.trivialtroll.com 2014

Try Not to Worry

I tried to follow Alfred E. Newman’s advice–without much luck.

“What–Me Worry?” So says Alfred E. Newman, MAD Magazine’s iconic cover boy.  As a kid I read this as “whatmeworry” not “What?  Me Worry?” as intended.  I loved MAD, by the way.  Nothing thrilled my more than when Dad would pick up a copy for me at the store.  Secretly, Dad loved it, too.  But this post isn’t about MAD, although that would be cool.

I wanted to live by Alfred’s wise words, but I was always a worrier.  Here’s some crappy advice:  Try not to worry.  That just makes me worry about why I can’t not worry.

I was a born worrier.  Maybe it’s because my Mom fell through the back porch when she was 8 months pregnant with me.  I might have started worrying about what the hell was going on out there.  I was born on August 11, 1962 at 6:20 a.m.  I’m sure I worried about being born so earlier in the day. Would coming out this early disrupt my schedule?  It was Summer, too.  Would I be too hot in this new world?  How hard would it be to make friends?

I worried about stuff when I was a kid.  I even worried about other kids.  When I was about 6 or 7, a kid named Dennis Martin disappeared in the Great Smoky Mountains.  He was my age.  He just walked away from the campground and never came back.  I worried about Dennis.  Where was he?  What happened to him?  Would that happen to me?  Every now and then–some 40+ years later–I check the Internet to see if they ever found him.  Nope.  Still missing.

I grew up at Ground Zero for the War on Poverty.  Social workers would come to school and give kids coats.  I worried about the kids who didn’t have coats.  My uncle was a social worker.  He was the “Shoe Man.”  He would come in the class rooms and kids would stick their feet up in the air to show they needed shoes.  Personally, I never saw this, but he talked about it.  He talked, and I worried.

I’ve worried about my health.  Germs, disease, accidents.  Let’s be honest:  A lot of bad crap can happen with your health.  If you live long enough, it will happen, unless you get killed in an accident.  Geez.  Think about all the diseases and accidents that can happen.   This doesn’t even count the chances of running afoul of a serial killer, mass murderer, terrorist or random nut case.  I read a court case about a guy who got killed when one of his co-workers goosed him with a high-pressure air hose.  Blew out his colon.  What are the odds?  Who knows? But I stay the hell away from high-pressure air hoses.

I’ve worried about sports, mostly sports played by other people and over which I have no influence.  I’ve lost sleep over such things–before and after the event.  I’ve worried about whether people would think less of me because I cheered for a team that lost a big game.  Then, I worried about why I would worry about something like that.

I’ve worried about money, even though I’ve been fortunate enough to never have had any serious money problems.  That never stopped me from worrying about it.  Will I have enough to send my kids to college?  To retire?  What if I lose my job?  What if I can’t work?  These questions are all fertile worrying ground.

The good news is that as I’ve aged, I worry less.  I’d like to say that this is because I’m mature or just wiser.  The real reason is that there are fewer things to worry about, because I’ve experienced most of the things I’ve worried about.  That doesn’t stop people from trying to get me to worry about stuff. Nevertheless, it’s obvious–even to a worrier–that most of it isn’t worth the effort.  What it comes down to is “What if…?”  For some reason, I rarely think “What if…everything turns out GREAT?!?”  Fortunately, there are a growing number of things for which “What if…?” just doesn’t matter to me.

With that in mind, here are some things I won’t be worrying about:

  • The Mayan Apocalypse:  Some Mayan made a calendar that stretched out for hundreds of years and just stops on December 21, 2012.  That’s supposed to be the end of the world or so some say.  This discounts the possibility that the guy who made the calendar just got tired and quit or maybe someone killed him or he died of syphilis or something.  If the world ends on the 21st, so be it.  Really, what can I do about it?  It’s the first day of Winter, and Winter sucks.  Plus, Snookie is supposed to have her baby on the 21st of December.  If that’s the end, it’s well-timed.
  • End Times:  This, of course, is related to the Mayans but different.  If the end is near, I can’t stop it.  Every generation thinks the end is near.  One of them will be right.  Maybe it’s us.  If it is–and it’s a God thing–what I am supposed to do about it?  Just roll with it.
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup:  This is supposed to be bad stuff, some sort of deadly poison.  I don’t care.  I’m certain that everything I’ve eaten with high fructose corn syrup in it has been good.  I like it.  Period.
  • Brain Chips:  I’ve had a bunch of emails telling me that Obamacare has a sneaky provision in it requiring everyone to have a tracking chip placed under their hides in March of 2013.  It’s also called a “slave chip.”  This is disconcerting, of course.  It’s also not true, but that doesn’t matter.  I’m willing to assume it’s true. Here’s what the government would find out about me.  I wake up, go to work, go to the gym, go home.  That’s it.
  • Gay People:  There are gay people.  Always have been.  Always will be.  They don’t bother me.  They don’t try to recruit me.  They don’t try to make my gay.  I’m not worried about them getting married or having jobs or being out of the closet or being gay.  No worries here.
  • Tim Tebow:  Hey, Tebow is a nice young man.  Or he seems to be.  By NFL standards, he’s not a very good quarterback, but a lot of my religious friends disagree. They think God makes him play well.  (Somehow, they don’t realize that Tebow’s fellow Gator and Heisman Trophy winner and equally religious and all-round good guy  Danny Wuerffel wasn’t a good quarterback, either).  I think he can be a good player–just not a good quarterback.  I don’t worship Satan, either.  I’m not going to be concerned about Tebow.  If he does well, great.  If not, fine too.  I wish ESPN would quit worrying about him.
  • The Royal Family:  If want to obsess over the lives of ugly, inbred people, I’ll watch Toddlers & Tiaras.  Maybe I should worry about the fact that I occasionally watch Toddlers & Tiaras.  By “occasionally,” I mean “regularly.”
  • Robert Pattinson:  Like most people, I was traumatized to learn that Kristen Stewart (“K-Stew”) cheated on hunkilicious Robert Pattinson.  It took awhile, but I’m over it.  My intuition tells me he’ll be okay.  He might even be able to find a new girlfriend.  I’ll just keep my fingers crossed and no worry about it.  It’ll be tough, but I can do it.  Maybe.
  • Mercury:  I’m talking about the element, not the planet.  No one has urged me to worry about the planet (yet).  The element, however, is all kinds of worrisome.  Deadly.  And everywhere.  In our water, our food, the air.  There’s no escaping it.  I suppose I should read up on it to find out what it’s doing to me.  My high school chemistry teacher had a big plastic jug full of mercury in our classroom.  We’d dump some of it on a table and blow on it to watch it roll around.  We’d even put it in the palms of our hands and play with it.  Now, if a drop of mercury is exposed, the entire school is evacuated and raided by HazMat teams.  I’ve already been exposed to a lot of mercury.  Too late to start worrying about it now.
  • Getting Older:  A lot of people worry about this.  Seems like I would, too, but I don’t.  I like getting older.  It means I’m still here.  I’ve known way too many people who stopped getting older way too soon.  If I get a letter from AARP, it just reminds me that I’ve survived.  I like that.  Another thing is that I’ve progressively gotten older since birth.  I’m used to it.  If you don’t want to get older, you really want to die.  I don’t want to die.  Of course, the older you get, the closer you are to death.  Worrying about death is different from worrying about age.  Plus, I don’t think most of us worry so much about death as about how we die.  Slow, painful death or loathsome disease are what we worry about.  I better stop now, I’m getting concerned.
  • Global Warming:  I’m sure this makes me a horrible person, but it’s just how it is. I love the coal industry and just don’t cotton to crusades to put it out of business.  That’s what the Global Warming is all about.  Second is that I’m just a wee bit too selfish to live by candlelight and ride a bicycle everywhere I go.  I like electricity and the internal combustion engine.  Global warming is the cloth diaper of this generation.  When my first son was born, people said we should use cloth diapers to save the environment and keep our landfills from overflowing with Pampers.  These people either: (1) Never had a baby; or (2) Are just plain odd and don’t mind having piles of cotton cloth soaked with human filth.  Global warming works the same way.  I’m sure there are people who live off the grid, as they say.  I just don’t know any of them.  I’m certainly not going to be one of them.  And I don’t worry about it.  Maybe I’ll wake up one day on the beach in Lexington, Kentucky, fighting off polar bears.  Now, THAT is something I’ll worry about it when it happens.

There you have it.  A small list of things which won’t be on my mind. I’m going to add one more thing to the list every month or so.  Eventually, I’ll run out of things to worry about it.

For now, I’m not worry-free.  I still have plenty of things that are fret-worthy.  I worry about my children, which I guess most people do (I mean worry about their own kids, not mine).  And not just about their safety and futures.  What if they do something stupid?  Doesn’t that make me a bad parent?  Worse yet, won’t people think I’m a bad parent?  I also occasionally think I’m more important than I really am and worry about my job, becoming convinced that every thing I do is a referendum on my worth as a human being.  I still worry about sports for no rational reason.

I also worry that I blog too much.  Maybe it’s a sign of mental illness.  That’s worrisome.

I’d like to be one of those people who say “Everything will be okay.”  Actually, I am one of those people.  What I mean is I’d like to be one of those people who say that and mean it.  What I really mean is “Everything will be.”  And it will.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

To All The Dead and Dying

Those are people who died…died.  They were all my friends, and they died.

People Who Died, The Jim Carroll Band

This is about death.  Not mine, of course, since I’m not dead or in imminent danger of dying (as far as I know).  At this point, you probably have stopped reading.  Who wants to read about something so depressing?  A lot of people, really, because we all think about it, we deal with it and–eventually–experience it.

Why I am thinking about it?  Not sure.  An uncle of mine recently died, and it got  me thinking about it.  He died in May, which is also the month that both my parents died.  That’s apropos of nothing, other than it happened.  My middle son was also born in May.  A bunch of other people were, too.

Could be because I’m an American, and Americans love death. Okay, that may be an overstatement. I don’t suppose we LOVE it. But it damn sure amuses us. Kurt Vonnegut observed that if you die on TV, “you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.”

We like death in our movies and video games.  Why do you think there’s a Saw V, for God’s sake? We have the death penalty, which seems to otherwise be the exclusive province of countries we consider evil.  Speaking of which, we aren’t even averse to war anymore. We want peace and will turn the planet into a graveyard to achieve it.

Some death is noble. Some not. Die in a war, and every future generation of your family will know your name. Get stabbed by a hooker, and you’ll be pruned right out of the family tree. I had an ancestor die of “swollen testicles.” That’s not a disease, but syphilis is.  Don’t know his name, but I know uncle Ollie died on the USS Houston.

We’re also the World’s leader in producing serial killers. We don’t get enough death through disease, war, executions and accidents. We kill for sport, too. No wonder I think about death.

Once you reach a certain age, you’ve seen a lot of people die–grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, aunts, uncles, co-workers–you name it.  In my life, I’ve lost both parents, a brother, two aunts, five uncles and a close friend.  That doesn’t even include distant relatives, co-workers and acquaintances.  You live long enough, and you’ll get your fair share of it, too.  Don’t live long enough, and you’ll just be dead.

Even if you haven’t personally experienced it, you can live–or die–vicariously by picking up the newspaper or surfing the internet.  Death is a common topic.  We run obituaries, some brief and to the point.  “Joe Smith died yesterday.  His funeral is today.”  Some are long tributes to the deceased, documenting their every accomplishment, great or small.  We have an unquenchable thirst for news of murders and accidents, the more hideous the better.  Death is everywhere, I suppose.

I think I’ve learned a few things about death, although what I’ve learned may apply only to me.  Indulge me.

Death may the greatest of all human blessings


I don’t know much about Socrates, other than he was supposed to be smart.  I went to law school where they use the “Socratic Method” of teaching.  So, I can also assume that he was a bit of a pain in the ass.  I hope he had better material than this quote to comfort the grieving.

Most people will say that they don’t know what to say to a grieving person.  Welcome to the club, friends.  Almost NO ONE knows what to say.  If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know this, because folks have said these things to you.  Here are some things which don’t help.

“I know how you feel”:  No, you don’t.  You don’t know how I feel about anything, really.  So, how could you know how I feel about this?  If you knew how I felt, you wouldn’t have said that.

“He’s gone to a better place.”:  Really?  Exactly how do you know?  I wasn’t even thinking about THAT.  If you’ve been dead, I’ll listen.  I mean REALLY dead, not just flat-lined for a couple of minutes.  Dead, as in taken to the funeral home, embalmed and buried dead.  If you’ve done that, you might have some helpful insight.  Otherwise, no one knows where anyone goes when they die.  Plus, even if you THINK you know, maybe my relatives all go straight to Hell.  Let’s just not talk about it.

“Life is for the living“:  My dad used to say this a lot.  Honestly, I don’t know what it means.  Of course, life is for the living.  Dead people don’t do a whole helluva a lot, being dead and all.  I think it’s supposed to mean, “Okay.  Show’s over.  Move on.”  Not helpful.

“Death is just part of life.”  This and other philosophical meanderings about the bigger picture mean nothing.  Yes, I agree.  It’s part of life.  The part that sucks.  Thank you.

“You’ll always have your memories”:  I had those before he/she died.  It’s not like I just got them.  I’m not grieving because I can’t remember things.  That would be a completely different problem.  In fact, if I DIDN’T have those memories, this wouldn’t be so tough.

So, what should you say?  “I’m sorry” is good.  Simple, to the point.  No way to be offended by that one.  “What can I do?”  That’s sort of useless, since you can’t do anything, but it’s a nice thing to say.  Honestly, there’s not much more to say.  And it’s better than saying nothing.

I wanted to tear my teeth out.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

–Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now

I can’t talk about death without talking about grief.  Real grief drains your soul.  It takes your life and flattens it.  Nothing looks or sounds right.  Food doesn’t taste good.  Time warps and you lose track of hours, even days.  It’s different for everyone.

Most people know about the Kubler-Ross seven stages of dying:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These were observed in dying patients and have subject to debate over the years.  Some extrapolate these stages to the grieving process.  I’m not one of those people.

I suppose people can go through some or all of those stages, but some people are more resilient than others.  Myself, numbness has been an immediate reaction followed by sadness.  I agree with C.S. Lewis who observed that grief was much like fear.  I want to run from it, but there’s really nowhere to run because it hangs with me.

I don’t know that I have become depressed over grief, as much as I’ve dealt with a heavy sadness.  It’s like wearing clothes that are just too heavy.  It wears me out by the end of the day.

I can say that I’ve been angry more than once over death.  A close friend died in the prime of her life, suddenly and without warning.  This seemed unfair–and it still does.  I raged against it, but it didn’t change.   I guess I’ve come to believe that death is actually very fair.  It comes for all of us.

Eventually, though, I do agree that acceptance settles down on me.  I’ve grieved both poorly and well.  I’ve held on far too long to some of it.  Thankfully, it loosens its grip over time.

That’s about me.  What about you?  I don’t know how to tell people to grieve.  If you’re upset and crying and raging, that’s okay by me.  Hell, you’re supposed to be upset.  That’s what we do.  Be upset about it.

What I don’t have is any good advice for how YOU should grieve.  It’s tough, and it’s miserable.  Some folks benefit from counseling.  Others just tough it out.  Some never get past it, and that’s the worst.

You should always go to other people’s funerals.  Otherwise, they won’t come to yours.

Yogi Berra

We have to talk about funerals, those odd ceremonies where we give our loved ones a send off (although they’re really already gone, of course).  I’ve been to a lot of funerals.  Some have been quite good.  Others have been lacking or had downright odd happenings:

  • A lady who was one of the finest people I’ve known had the strangest funeral. After the obligatory bible readings and songs, it morphed into Open Mic Night.  Anyone who wanted to say something could take the stage.  One guy–possibly under the influence of hallucinogens–said death was like walking through a “water wall just like in the movies.”  What movies had he been watching?  One man was so overcome by emotion that most of his comments were confined to odd barking noises as he choked back tears. One eulogized by telling HIS life story.  Others just babbled.  Three hours later, it was over.  As one person said:  “When I die, I hope people have good things like that to say about me and that they keep it to themselves.”
  • I had a friend in high school who died in a car wreck.  His funeral was at a Pentecostal or Holiness Church (one of those fiery denominations).  The preacher observed:  “Every Sunday we heard the putt-putt-putt of his car’s engine as he pulled into our parking lot…THE SAME CAR THAT TOOK HIM TO HIS DEATH!!!!”  There was much weeping and wailing after that zinger.
  • Saw a man come out of the closet during a eulogy.  There’s really not much more to say about that, other than that it was peculiar timing.

By the same token, I’ve been to some excellent funerals, ones where you leave feeling better about the situation:

  • Once, I attended a memorial service for a baby.  It was like taking a beating to show up.  Beyond sad.  The minister, however, was outstanding.  The gist of his sermon was:  “We don’t know why this happened.  I don’t have an explanation.  It really is bad, but we will all go on.”  That may not sound very inspiring, but it was much better than a bunch of meaningless platitudes.  It was honest and all that could be said.
  • A few years ago, a friend’s mother died.  She was in her 90’s, and her death was no shock to anyone.  Her minister simply told stories about her.  Although I never met her, I came away feeling like I knew her.  Folks laughed at the stories, and everyone seemed to be uplifted by it.
  • Another friend’s mother died, and my friend was given the tough task of her eulogy.  He hit it out of the park.  It wasn’t maudlin or sad.  He just told what his mother was like and what she meant to him.  Good stuff.
  • My dad was a retired Air Force officer and had a military funeral.  A bagpipe played Amazing Grace and a bugler played Taps at the end.  Just as the bugler finished the last note, jets screamed by overhead.  He had an honor guard from Wright Patterson Air Force Base.  I still get chills thinking about it.  He would have loved it!

What have I learned from this?  First, a funeral should be respectful but short.  Second, it’s okay if it’s not a sentimental tear-jerker.  Third, simple is good.  A prayer, a song or two, a nice eulogy.  Thank you and drive safely.

What might wonder about MY funeral (or even look forward to it).  I don’t care.  I’ll be dead.  Whatever comforts those left behind is fine with me.  Now, I’d like to be cremated if for no other reason that to prevent people from gawking at my body.  “Oh, he looks so good.”  That should always be qualified by “…considering that he’s dead.”  If I am buried, I don’t care if my casket has an extra firm mattress or silk lining.  Remember–dead men don’t care.  Burn me.  Put me in an urn or scatter my ashes somewhere.  Actually, they’ll be someone’s else’s ashes at that point.  They can do whatever they want with them.

Please don’t bury me down in that cold, cold ground.

Please Don’t Bury Me, John Prine

Speaking of funerals, I love cemeteries.  I’m not sure why, but they fascinate me.  Ornate monuments built-in memory of the dead.  My own parents have a fabulous black marker.  So does my brother.  There are religious markers, plain ones, domes, obelisks, tiny stones, benches, huge vases, above ground tombs–you name it.  This doesn’t even include niches, columbaria, scattering gardens and mausoleums.

We visit them.  We talk to the dead people.  We bring them flowers.   Hell, we’re nicer to them dead than we were when they were alive!  Why?  Again, I have no answers.  Personally, I don’t get a connection to my dead loved ones at the cemetery.  I always think it’s just weird to see my parents’ and brother’s names on tombstones.  Other people get a lot out of it, though.  That’s fine with me.

One reason I don’t want to be planted that way is that I don’t want anyone thinking they’re obligated to “visit” me.  My parents are buried three hours from my home.  Honestly, I don’t go visit their graves.  Oh, if I’m in the area, I check on their graves, mostly to be sure no one has kicked over their headstone.  (I was assured that it is sufficiently anchored to prevent any such vandalism).

Well, again I’ve babbled on about a topic on which I have no expertise.  If you take this as advice, be warned:  It could be very harmful.  Of course, as you’ve often heard, we’re all dying.  Maybe so, but as Josey Wales (he killed a LOT of people) said:  “Dying ain’t much of a living, boy.”

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

Richard Kent Williams (March 16, 1967 – September 26, 1987)

August 11, 1987. Richard (left) and our parents help me celebrate my 25th birthday. Six weeks later, Richard would be dead.

Richard Kent Williams was five years younger than me.   He was my brother, and he’s been dead for over 25 years now–more than half my life.  “Been dead” isn’t exactly right.  He is dead.  It took me a long time to say that.   Passed, passed away, gone or lost were much gentler terms.  Eventually, I could say that “he died.”  Something about the past tense took the edge off it, as though one could die and that be the end of it.  This ignores the obvious:  those who die remain dead.  They are dead.  That’s the case with my brother.  He would be middle-aged now, but he isn’t.  He was 20 when he died, and 20 he remains.

Richard died in the early morning hours of September 26, 1987, but I’ve always thought of the 25th as the right date.  That was his last day.  He was a student at the University of Kentucky.  He came home to Harlan County for the weekend.  He had a rented tux in the back of his car.  He was going to be in wedding.  His last day.  He didn’t know it, but that was it.

My phone rang at 4:47 a.m. on the 26th.  It was my older brother, Tom:  “There has been a terrible tragedy….”  The rest is now just white noise.  Richard was dead.  He died in the parking lot of a movie theater in Harlan, Kentucky.  It was a handgun accident.  The details have long since become insignificant if, in fact, they were ever significant.  I called my parents.  As I expected, my mother couldn’t speak.  My dad spoke in an eerie, flat tone, almost devoid of emotion.  He said to hurry home but take it easy.  My dad was a tough guy.  I had never seen him upset.  Angry maybe but never emotional.  He just sounded tired.  Very tired.

I left Lexington with my girl friend (now my wife of over 25 years).  I’m sure I was in a form of shock.  Bursts of emotion were followed by almost a catatonia.  I just kept driving.  I didn’t know what to expect at home, but I knew it would be bad.  After our 3 hour drive, we got to my parents’ house.   I recall that there were a bunch of people at the house.  The first person I saw was my Dad.  He was standing in the kitchen, hands on the countertop staring straight down.  He turned and looked at me, his eyes glazed over and red.  “I can’t take this.”  That’s all he said.  This was worse than I expected, because if he couldn’t take it there was no chance for me.  Honestly, I don’t know what happened those few days until the funeral.  I know that Dad and I got Richard’s car from that parking lot.  We picked up his clothes from the funeral home.  There was a visitation and a funeral.  Lots of relatives came from near and far.  That’s about all I remember.

In my favorite film, Apocalypse Now, Col. Kurtz describes a massacre and says:  “I cried like some grandmother.  I wanted to tear my teeth out.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”  That perfectly describes those days.  None of us thought we’d survive it, but we did. We all did.  The world didn’t stop.  The mail ran.  Banks were open.  People went to work, to school.  Our world had stopped spinning, but the rest of it was humming along.  At some point, the inertia of that world carried us forward.  Dad said that going to Harlan was like “running the gauntlet.”  He was so weary of people telling him how sorry they were.    Mom stayed home, which was pretty much what she always did anyway.  One day, Dad told me that “there’s no such thing as not taking it.”  I knew he would move on.  For Mom, it always seemed to shadow her but she, too, continued on.  It got worse before it got better, but it got better.

We moved on.  A month after Richard died, I was sworn in as an attorney.  Four months after that, I got married.  Tom’s son, who was 8 at the time, is now a grown man in his 30’s with 2 kids of his own.  I have 3 sons, the oldest of whom (whose middle name is Richard)  is now older than Richard was when the clock stopped on him.  Mom died in 2003.  Dad in 2008.  Our grandfather died in 1998. Our Uncle Jack, who provided us with so many laughs as kids, died In 2013. We’ve also lost other aunts and uncles in that time.  Life did go on.  Cell phones, satellite TV, HD TV, the Internet, email, texting, another space shuttle explosion, 9-11, three wars, UK won three NCAA titles, and many, many other things happened.  The world is a much different place than it was in 1987.

Those who die young become tragic figures, often mentioned in hushed tones.  Sometimes, they are cautionary tales.  Sometimes, they are examples of the unfairness of it all.  My mother had two uncles who fell into this group.  Uncle Ollie was 18 when died on the USS Houston in the Battle of the Tonkin Sea in 1942.  Uncle George died when he was 8 of liver failure.  He died in the car while his parents were driving him to a specialist somewhere up North.  “Poor little George” was how he was described.  I hated hearing about him.  It was just too sad.

Richard became “Poor Richard,” part cautionary tale, part unfairness.  In hindsight, I came to view his death as a sign of the ultimate fairness.  No one is immune from pain.  We’ll all get a dose of it.  It isn’t my intent to offer anyone grieving advice.  I have no magic pill.  We all grieve, and  I suspect that it’s different for each person.  I don’t know how  other folks feel, and they don’t know how I feel.  We all soldier through the best we can.  I lack the abiding faith that some have that the dead “go to a better place.”  Perhaps that’s because I’ve never heard anyone say:  “Well, Grandpa just went straight to Hell.” Seems like everyone goes to a better place.   Some days I think of “a better place.”  Other days, I just think dead means dead.

Other times, the dead become saints.  Now, this is usually reserved for older people, but let’s be serious.  Not everyone was a great person who will be missed by all.  As my Dad said of a friend of his:  “His headstone should read:  He will not be missed.”  Yet, we canonize our loved ones.  It understandable.  But, c’mon, someone has to go to Hell, right?  Just not anyone I know.

You may be asking:  What is this blog about?  Here’s the deal:  Richard isn’t a tragic figure nor was he a saint.  He was a 20 year old young man who died.  But, before he died–and stained his memory–he was just a person.  I forget that sometimes.  I’ve made a point with my kids to never treat him as a shadowy figure, although to them that is surely what he is.   Here’s what he was:

  • He was born on March 16, 1967.
  • He was a small guy 5′ 5″ 130 pounds.
  • He looked like my Dad.
  • He was funny.
  • He could be short-tempered and profane.
  • He could fight.  I mean REALLY fight.  You’d need to be twice his size to have a chance.  He had lightning quick hands and could throw punches like a boxer.
  • He was one of those guys who never got injured.  My middle son is like that.
  • He was probably the strongest person in the United States for his size and age.  Seriously.  He was the national high school powerlifting championing and collegiate powerlifting champion at 114 pounds.  He could bench 260 pounds and deadlift 400.

Sports Illustrated, July 1985

  • He once put a block of wood in one hand and drove a two inch nail into a 2×4 with two  hits.  Try that.
  • He kept his teddy bear in his bedroom until the day he died.  Teddy stayed in my parents house until Dad died.
  • He was a huge fan of every 1980’s hair band
  • He liked guns
  • He liked cats
  • He was fiercely loyal to his friends.  He fought with them and for them.

Those are just a few things.  Frankly, my memory fades over time, but I can still hear his voice.  I can see his smile and hear him laugh.  He was just a regular guy.  Sometimes, I wonder what he would be like now.  Of course, that’s a futile exercise.  I might as well wonder what I would be like if I had been born in the 1920’s.   I wasn’t, and he won’t ever be 40 or 45 or 50. He’s 20.

August 11, 1978. Richard (and Teddy) and Tom celebrate my 16th birthday. Teddy would “live” in that house for another 30 years.

Like most folks my age, I’ve had my share of grief.  My parents died.  A close friend died unexpectedly.  Nothing ever hit me like Richard’s death.  It still resonates but doesn’t really hurt.  It’s  like getting hit with a hammer.  It would always hurt, but if you got hit with it everyday, you’d get used to it.  I got used to it over time.

Tom and I serenade Richard on his first birthday. March 16, 1968

I would like to say that his death seems like yesterday.  It doesn’t.  It seems long ago, enveloped in the fog of a bad dream.  His life, though–that’s still fresh. He were kids together.  I was his big brother, and I always will be.  I wonder some time if he’d recognize this old man.  He’d probably give me grief about all this gray hair.

When Dad died in 2008, the jacket Richard was wearing when he died was still hanging in the hall closet.  My brother and I just stared at it.  Then, one of us decided to just toss it in the casket with Dad’s body.  Oh, the teddy bear was still there, too.  Teddy got a ride in the casket, too.  After that, some 20 years after Richard’s death, it seemed over.  After all, we wouldn’t bury Teddy for nothing.  Richard is dead, but that’s okay.  It happens to all of us.  It just happened to him too soon.

©thetrivialtroll.com.wordpress.com 2012