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Well, there's a portentous post title, eh?

My sister died on Saturday. Here's how I heard about it: I was walking down Via Independenzia in Bologna, Italy with my family. We were just outside the Nutelleria. My shitty Cingular phone rang and of course I couldn't hear the caller. So I caught up to my wife and borrowed her phone and dialed while she and the kids went off to enjoy Nutella crepes, nutella gelato, nutella triangulato, nutella pizza, and no doubt some form of nutella pasta.

There was a Hare Krishna bunch, gaggle, crew, gang, whatever the fuck they call themselves the silly, narcissistic twits, and they were chanting too loudly for me to hear the phone very well. But anyway, my sister T. said, "Michelle, died."

This was not a bolt from the blue. Michelle had cancer. Several different subspecies of cancer, but it was the lung cancer that got her, I guess. She was 48. I think. I can barely keep track of my own age. It's bad enough that a person should be dying at age 48. But Michelle died leaving a 3 year-old daughter. And that . . . let's see if we can come up with the appropriately profound phrase . . . well, it's fucked up.

Her father, our father, is still alive, and that's fucked up as well because no father wants to live to see one of his children die. That may be one of the practical definitions of a father: would rather die than see his kid die. I'd rather carve my own heart out with a trowel than see one of my kids die. You think that's exaggeration for effect? Then you're no one's daddy.

But I haven't really been thinking about my kids coming off this, I've been thinking about my own death. I've given it some thought and done some research and my best guess is that I'm looking at approximately a 100% chance of dying.

I don't think I've ever been afraid of dying. Death is that magic line that once you cross it you have nothing left to be afraid of. Over here, fear. Over there, no fear. Of course no Nutella, either.

I have no hope (or fear) that I will discover an afterlife. I find that comforting. I like that the end of the story is really the end of the story. Please don't tell me that after I die they cut off my balls, lobotomize the evil from my brain, turn me into some hosanna singing zombie-for-Jesus and trap me in an eternity of whatever hideous form of "happiness" is possible under those circumstances.

"Gosh, that's sweet of you to let me in, Saint Peter, and really, no offense to you or the cherubs, but could I just die?"

What bothers me about death is the getting there. The old bullet-in-the-brain isn't too much of a problem: one minute there you are eating onion rings and the next minute you're staring at ten seconds of dead (heh) air and rolling the credits.*

But the odds being what they are, and medical science being what it is, and with society weighed down as it is by an idiot's-eye-view of "the sanctity of life," the likelihood is that my death, like my sister's, will be a long, dragged out, confusing, humiliating, impoverishing, exhausting experience that will leave me, along with everyone else, thinking: die, already.

"What are my chances, doctor?"

"Oh, you're fucked. You couldn't be any more fucked. But we're never going to tell you that because first, before we let you die, we're going to poison the shit out of you, slice you up like a fucking Thanksgiving bird, stick tubes wherever we can find or cut an opening, make sure that the lasting image your wife and children have of you is as a helpless guinea pig, and finally, take all your money. Then, and only then, can you die."

"Can't I just get my stuff organized, say 'good-bye' and take a massive hit of morphine on a morning of my choosing?"

"Of course not: that would show contempt for the sanctity of life. Not to mention contempt for my need for a sumer home."

I guess Michelle "fought bravely." That stupid locution. No doubt I'll "fight bravely." I certainly wouldn't want to die with the whispered accusations of cowardice following me to my grave. "He fought, sure, but not bravely." Or, "You know, he didn't so much 'fight' as he laid there in a morphine haze watching Simpsons reruns on TV until he fell asleep and never woke up."

If we all just "fight bravely" why the enemy, the Big D, will be pushed back and soon, in some rosy, not-too-distant future, the odds of death will go from the current unacceptably high number of 100% to . . . Hmmm.

Wait a minute. So, let me get this straight: if we all of us fight bravely we'll all die. And if we snivel and squirm and beg for a reprieve, we'll all die.

I know, I'm being facetious. I know the point is to lengthen the human lifespan. First thing to do? Stop taking risks. Don't drink, smoke, eat, fornicate, drive, fly, swim or lie out in the sun. Then you can live! Live, I say! Instead of dying a miserable prolonged death at an average age of 75, you may be able to die a miserable, prolonged death at an average age of 78. And won't you feel a lot better about your miserable, prolonged death then?

I'm in Venice, as I write this. We're in Italy deciding if we want to spend a couple of years abroad. We looked at Rome (noisy, cramped and dirty); Bologna, (nice, but only nice); Venice (beautiful, unique, but very limited school options); and of course, Florence.

Tomorrow we head back to Florence. Decision made. We'll move at the end of the upcoming school year.

Life is short. Always has been, and no matter what the hell we do, it always will be. There will always be things you didn't get done that you wanted to do. My sister was never a happy person. She died full of cancer and regrets. Well, the cancer may get me some day, but the regrets won't. If I dropped dead tomorrow I would think I'd had a very good life. Excellent roller coaster. Good story. That was neat, even the bad parts. Cool, man, very cool.

I set out intending to write about Michelle and ended up writing about myself, instead. (Well, no big surprise there, my more cynical and knowing readers will snark.) But the fact is Michelle is dead, and I'm alive, and life as they say, is for the living. Sooner or later that'll be my ashes in a little box. And when it is my kids, hopefully, will still be living. So, advice to the kids upon my own death: don't be afraid of dying. Live your life so that whenever it ends you can look back and say, "All right: that was cool."

*Not an official endorsement of that Sopranos theory.

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  1. Blogger amba Says:

    I am sorry for your loss and especially for your niece's, and your father's. Cancer sucks. It's the ugliest, most painful, vicious, frightening and degrading way to go at any age -- well, maybe Guinea worm -- much less at 48 with a tiny daughter.

    I am selfishly glad you're going to be around here for another year, and glad for you that after that you're going to get the hell out. Having once been completely enthralled by Mary McCarthy's The Stones of Florence, I think you've made an almost inevitable choice.

  2. Blogger Internet Ronin Says:

    Condolences to you and your entire family. Life is too damn short in the best of circumstances. While these obviously weren't, "now" rarely is the best time for those left behind. As they say, treasure her memory. And help her daughter remember her mother as she grows up.

    (At the same time, wishing you all the best with the move.)

  3. Blogger PatHMV Says:

    When I was 10, my baby sister died, not quite 2. That had a profound impact on my life, because it had a profound impact on my parents' lives. As you say, no parent should ever have to bury a child. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  4. Blogger Melinda Says:

    Condolences to your family.

    As for the rest of the post...yep.

  5. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    My condolences to you and your family.

    As to the rest of the post, nope.

    "I know the point is to lengthen the human lifespan."

    This notion brings to mind Pascal's Pensee No. 72, which states: "is not the duration of our life equally removed from eternity, even if it lasts ten years longer?"

  6. Blogger Tully Says:

    Michael, I've lost so many so often that I know the words don't cut it. I'll keep it to this:

    Carpe diem, and always take care of the kids. The grown-ups have to sort it out for themselves. Cherish what you've got.

  7. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    This explains a lot.

    Pent up anger from lack of proper grieving, eh? What a tough guy you are, and into protecting the children.

    Ha. Ha. Ha. Nothing like running from your troubles to Italy for a year; you can't run from the anger inside, little "m".

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