Wednesday, August 11, 2004

I spent my last few years in Rochester living with a guy named Jimmie (yes, he spelled it with the ‘ie’) in a big house in a bad neighborhood. Jimmie had bought the place thinking the neighborhood was going to rebound. It didn’t. It just kept bounding further downward. So for protection of his investment and personal safety, Jimmie rented rooms to a revolving series of friends, mostly gay. We were the Fagz N the Hood. Which isn’t relevant to this story in the least, but I thought you’d like to know.

I thought of Jimmie when I was home in Rochester last week for my Sixth Grade Class Reunion (about which there will be more later. Promise.) Jimmie liked to tell the story of his aunt, who – when discussing the dearly departed – would lean close and append their names with a whispered “Dead, you know.” We all found it an amusing verbal tic, on par with the whispered “cancer,” as if his aunt had turned the inevitability of death into an unmentionable.

As gay men of (ahem) a certain age, the Fagz N the Hood had buried enough friends to earn the right to use black humor as a coping mechanism. So it was inevitable that when conversation turned to reminiscence, the Dead, You Knows would fill the room. My current roommate, Paul (who I met through Jimmie), and many of my friends continue the tradition to this day. Paul and I can spend an entire Saturday afternoon watching old movies on television and uttering “Dead, You Know” as each now-deceased actor appears on screen. It’s very addictive once the phrase takes hold in your brain.

Ah, Jimmie. Dead, You Know. He died about seven years ago after the HIV infection finally caught up to him. He would have appreciated how hard Paul and I laughed at the ridiculous number of subsequent memorial and funeral services – there were five, by my count – requiring us to trudge back to Rochester and/or his parents’ home in rural Central New York, where he couldn’t be buried for five months because the ground was frozen.

Jimmie didn’t welcome death, but he had longed accepted the inevitability, and saw ridiculousness in pretending that each new death was the first time the phenomenon had occurred. His was an attitude I’ve observed in many older people, who have become so inured to death that word of a new one is accepted not as grand tragedy, but as a normal part of the circle of life. The only real difference was that Jimmie had been burying the young.

It’s been thirteen years now, but I still remember the dread I felt late one Sunday night when I had to call an 80ish part-timer in my office to tell him that our employer – and his long-time friend – had suffered a massive heart attack and was, well, Dead, You Know. I was devastated; he was saddened, but philosophical. Only on reflection did I reconcile our different reactions. Yes, I had lost a few people in my life, but he had almost 50 more years under his belt, and he had lost many, many more. Through repeated exposure, death had lost its ability to shock him.

So you’re probably wondering how this relates to my trip home. Here it is: everyone in Rochester is Dead, You Know.

Mmmm. Okay, a bit of an overstatement. But while I was there I came to the realization that a lot of the past I left behind is now six feet under.

Late last year came the news that an old high school friend died of a massive heart attack. That same week, a teacher who – post-high school (no Mary Kay moments, thank you) – had become a good friend for a few years had died. Death in small doses… like the recent deaths of parents of two current friends, it’s sad, but it happens.

But my weekend in Rochester was a virtual orgy of death. First, there was a planned visit with a former co-worker, whose husband died in a car wreck six weeks ago. Then, upon arrival at the Rochester airport, I opened the paper to read that a former state legislator with whom I had once worked (albeit not very closely) had died. Again, small doses. Manageable.

It was on Tuesday night – the last night of my trip – as my father and I sat on his deck, bonding through cocktails and memories, that death stopped shadowing me and took center stage. My father is only 70 – and a healthy 70, at that – but as we talked about our old neighbors and his old friends, he could have overdosed on Dead, You Knows. If, that is, I had ever shared the phrase with him. And if, that is, he found it even remotely funny.

Let’s just say that there are apparently few survivors in my old neighborhood. One by one, the neighbors have gone to that big Clayton Street in the sky. And his old friends/drinking buddies? Dead and dead and dead. By his own admission, my father is a regular on the funeral home circuit, averaging one every month or two. It’s become a non-event for him; at 70, much of the shock has worn off. The deaths of people once close, now remote, and delivered in small doses, is no longer news to him. If I still lived there, maybe it wouldn’t be news to me. But when 80% of the people I asked about are suddenly discovered to be Dead, You Know, it felt… eerie.

I was hardly traumatized by the number of people who had passed away, but since part of the reason for my long-delayed homecoming was to recapture a bit of my past, it felt strange. I’m not so naïve that I expected to return to 1974, but I guess I hadn’t thought the whole ‘lifespan’ thing through.

I suspect I’ve got a few more decades in me, but in recent years I have found myself thinking about the inevitable. Not in a concrete way – who will be my executor? How will I divide up my precious heirlooms? – but vaguely, the way I think about possibilities like, say, having money in the bank or living in a decent apartment. I think about things like ‘how?’ and ‘when?’ and ‘will I be remembered?’ (Aside: just last Saturday night my friend Lynette noted that if I died that day, I’d have a great obituary. Of course I had to note that if I die in a few decades, the headline might read in part ‘Dies in Prison.’ I am too funny for my own good.)

I don’t know… maybe these thoughts are natural when one is slowly closing in on 50. Maybe I’m starting to realize that I’m a mere mortal. That doesn’t mean that I’m in any rush; just that I’m growing closer to accepting that our time is ultimately short and limited.

Last Wednesday morning, waiting for my flight to depart from the Greater Rochester International Airport, I opened the newspaper and read the obituary notice of a kid – well, late 40s at death, but still a kid in my memory – who had helped teach me how to ride a bike. Another one down. Somehow that seemed appropriate.

I had gone home in part to revisit my history, only to be reminded that life and death march on, with or without me.

Thanks for helping to wean me from the training wheels, Johnny. Dead, You Know.