Thursday, August 1, 2013

The way we die is the way we live: a case study





The way we die is the way we live

Or have lived.

I have seen it over and over. A man I knew who lived fast, sucked down alcohol and smoked like a ruin died hard. At least he died quickly, opening the door of his truck by the side of the road and collapsing. He was dead by the time he hit the ground.

Others, unable to let go, trying desperately to stay in control, waste away horribly for years, and years, and years.






I’ve seen near-miracles, like the woman I knew through my former church who was terminally ill and determined to die at home. This was not a cheery or positive woman, though her saracastic digs were often howlingly funny (so long as they weren’t aimed at you).

But something happened here, something strange and quite wonderful. This woman’s friends knew that her sarcastic quips were just a cover for a fragile and loving heart. There ws a sweetness in her that contrasted beautifully with the sour.

Without even sitting down to work it out, shifts of people  began to look after her so she could stay in her home as long as it was practical.  Towards the end, this involved bathing and feeding and taking care of her most basic needs.





At the very end, when she lay dying in hospital, her two sons, estranged from her and from each other for a dozen years, stood on either side of her bed. There’s just something so powerful about standing by someone, about being there. Attending.

It’s not a fancy and certainly not a squishy-squashy word, but at the end, it means everything.

A lot of people I know, if they are courageous enough to name their ultimate fear, will say “Dying alone.” There is something so hollow about it, indicative of an empty life with no significant attachments.

How you die almost always reflects how you have lived.





A couple of years ago I saw something in the paper and, before I could stop myself, exclaimed, “Holy.” It’s a silly expression – don’t even know where it came from - that just pops out of me when I am truly surprised.

It was an obituary in the Vancouver Sun. I won’t say the man’s name because I don’t wish to be barbecued all over again, but suffice it to say he was a local Vancouver not-quite-celebrity, a newspaper writer for the Sun who pretty much worked in one place all his life.

He was almost always described as “acerbic”, meaning he could be acid, even caustic, but his remarks caused gales of laughter among those who were NOT his target.  He was the master of schadenfreude and could summon it with a snap of his fingers. There is no way you can convince me he didn’t get pleasure out of it.





I knew him as a theatre critic at first, and I noticed right away the carbolic quality which could be quite funny in a mean Dorothy Parker-esque way. Then he was assigned the classical music beat, and was away to the races.

People pretended to be OK with his excoriating remarks, even tried to see them as an honour, though I don’t know what they thought in private.  He did like certain artists, though he was extremely picky and seemed to have supernaturally-sensitive hearing. If a violinist lost a single horsehair from his bow, he noticed, and he wasn’t charitable about it.

His weekly column on the bizarre phenomena of urban life ran for a few years and could be immensely entertaining. But that’s not the thing I want to write about today.




At some point in the early ‘90s I must have sent him something. I do remember a bizarre visitation by Liz Taylor at the local Eatons store to promote some new fragrance, Black Molluscs or something. I sent him my newspaper column about it, and he actually responded: “Ol’ Violet Eyes! I might just steal that one. I only steal from the best.”

This didn’t seem like a mean or acerbic man. Over the years I sent him sporadic bits and pieces, and to my astonishiment, one year he sent me a Christmas card. I couldn’t quite call him a friend, but he did respond to most of the bits I sent, mainly clippings from my column.

Once in typical acerbic fashion, he sent me a couple of CDs - one was of a Russian baritone whose name escapes me - with a note saying, "This is not a gift. It's just some stuff I had lying around." He never wanted anyone to see him as nice.




Then he sort of went underground: wrote a few pieces for the Georgia Straight and disappeared, apparently into retirement.

So that was that, until one day I encountered a very weird sight.

That Grand Master of the poison zinger, that excoriating critic of technology and all things progressive, had a Facebook page!

I couldn’t quite believe it, but there it was. It had all sorts of comments from people, photos, stuff he’d done, etc. It certainly looked real.




It had been, oh, five or six years since I’d heard anything from him. I knew I couldn’t “friend” him, that he'd never respond to it even if he was there, but tried to send a message anyway. It went something like:

Good to see you again! Have you interviewed the countertenor Michael Maniaci?
I have his new CD and it knocks me over.  Interested to hear your view. Hope this gets to you.”

Boy, did it.

Though I wasn’t his Facebook “friend”, he wasted no time in answering me.

“This was a mistake. I am not on Facefuck. I have no interest in joining a herd of vacuous idiots. Hope this gets to you.”

Uh. If you’re not on Facefuck, how can you answer a Facefuck message?





It was all very upsetting.

I did find a few things out. I mentioned his name to someone I knew, one of those I-know-everybody types who was as gay as the day is long (an expression he particularly favors). “Oh, THAT guy. He has a reputation, you know. They tell me he’s the most arrogant, cruel, narcissistic, heartless, ruthless bastard they have ever met.”

Oh my (again)!

So that was that, until my “Holy!” day: I saw  a full-page spread in the obituary section, which is certainly more attention than he had ever received before. You have to die to get that.

He was dead, so they ran a large full-color photo of him and remarks by (all retired) Sun employees about how “acerbic” his writing was, and how wonderful, and how he was wasted in Vancouver and should have been writing for the New Yorker. And about how he preferred to keep his private life private.




Colleagues mentioned his kindness, but there was a hedge-y quality to some of it. There were also stories of him hiding behind a post at concerts when he saw a friend or colleague coming his way.

But apparently, this was OK because he was dead now and already being elevated to sainthood in that strange, strange way the dead are always elevated. I have often wondered if this is nothing more than a superstitious fear that the bastards will come back and haunt us.

I did not react well. I was furious at all the statements about his kindness, how in spite of his poison darts he was a truly gentle soul, etc. The man was an asshole and I wanted the world to know it.





I didn’t think hard about it and I did use his real name, a bad idea. I posted my feelings on my blog, and they were not charitable (though I assumed no one would read it). But I had tagged it with his name (duh: the part of me that DID want people to see it). It wasn’t long until I received feedback, not the kind of feedback you ever want to see.

“You mean you are going to rip into this man and destroy his family before the body even hits the ground?”

“I have never in my life seen anything so merciless. You are a sick, sick woman.”

Message boards said things like “it sounds like she was totally obsessed, maybe stalking him", and "he had probably been trying to scrape her off his shoe for years.”





Someone began to swing the word "lawsuit" around like a great medieval axe blade, a particularly nasty form of verbal bullying I hadn't seen in quite some time.

It’s funny how in moments like this, dynamics are neatly reversed. It drives me completely crazy. Like a bizarre weather vane, there is a complete 180-degree turn, and ALL the nasty things a person has done are heaped on to the person who has been hurt by them.

It’s insanity, and it happens all the time. It's one of the darker, wormier, more cowardly aspects of people, a way to scrape off blame for their sins so they never have to face them or take responsibility.

But there was more going on than that. I think I hit a nerve here, because it was obvious to me that this was a lonely, bitter old man (not THAT old – only in his 60s, but the lonely die young) who died without inspiring much real grief.  A blog post I read later, written by a friend, was much more honest than the verbal Cool Whip posted in the Sun. She spoke of his kindness, but then said he frequently isolated himself and could suddenly and inexplicably cut off friends in the manner of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.




Oh my, again.

Then came the truly heartbreaking part: as he lay dying in hospital, a few colleagues from his Vancouver Sun days were having trouble piecing together any facts about his life. Where was he born ? Was it Saskatchewan? Didn’t he have a brother? Where did he go to school? Nobody knew.

As far as I know, there was no one from his family there, no one to stand by him as his life ebbed away.

I will never know why he attacked me that way when I was simply trying to renew a connection, not a close one, but one that had occasionally been fun. I don’t know why there was a Facebook page set up in the first place when he said he wasn’t on “Facefuck” and probably despised such things. (Another colleague described his work habits as being out of the 1950s, along with his attitudes and TV preferences: all he watched was Turner Classic Movies.)




Somebody mentioned a wake, and even said, “Will you be there, Margaret Gunning?” I really needed more acid thrown in my face. Still later I read a post on someone else's blog which nearly peeled my skin off in a single piece. I was described as a deranged crank and even a “stinky old biddy” (a masterpiece of description!). The post was accompanied by a goofy picture of me posing with my bird on my shoulder, a clear attempt to paint me as a lunatic. It sure must have taken her a lot of time to track that one down, as I posted it back in 2008.

I guess I should’ve known better than to speak ill of the dead. I broke some sort of primal rule, but I was just pissed off at all this glowing praise of a man who had a few other traits besides kindness and gentleness. Try vitriol and nastiness.

I did take my post down and posted a brief apology on the Straight message board. My timing had been bad. Fury has abated, to be replaced mostly with pity. I wonder about that wake now, whether it ever happened with so few people.  And I wonder if any of his mysterious, even chimeric family members would have attended, because it seems to me that attending was not their strong suit. 


http://margaretgunnng.blogspot.ca/2013/04/the-glass-character-synopsis.html



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