My grandmother Betty, from my mother’s side of the family, had some great stories of strange things she witnessed and experienced in her life. Most of them are intertwined with the Arizona desert, as she lived many, many years in a hilltop house a few miles outside of Winslow, AZ. While some of the finer details of this one are fuzzy (due to nobody ever writing them down), the main bit has always stuck with me.
Everett, my grandfather, was an art teacher as well as a skilled jeweler of desert stones. He was especially fond of Navajo (Diné) jewelry made with turquoise and silver, and through this he came to know some Navajo artists who eventually became friends of the family. They both had great respect for Navajo people and culture.
Sometime early in their marriage in the 1950s, Betty suddenly had some kind of health issue. This is where my memory gets fuzzy, because I can’t remember exactly what was wrong…but whatever it was, it was fairly serious and her doctor’s treatment wasn’t doing much to help. With some desperation, Everett reached out to his Navajo friends and asked them if their medicine men (tribal healers) could help.
I vaguely remember when death used to be this abstract, far-in-the-future thing that I didn’t need to think or worry about. These days, at age 50, I think about it quite a bit. People I know and love are dying with more and more frequency (I actually just learned of one today), and eventually it’ll be my turn. I keep having grim thoughts like: “Will I go before my husband? Will he be OK without me? What if he goes before me? We don’t have kids and we don’t live close to family — am I gonna die alone? Will I go peacefully in my sleep, or after weeks/months of pain? Who will remember me 10-15 years after I’m gone? It’ll be like I was never here at all! Like, death is unfair, you guyyyyyys!” (That was my best whiny teenage voice. You’re welcome.)
At the same time, I feel a stab of guilt for even having the audacity to expect my memory to live on. I haven’t done anything great or noteworthy to earn that. And what a privilege it is to be able to contemplate this stuff when so many are suffering in the world, struggling to even survive. Just who do I think I am, anyway? Bad Dobby, bad!! *slap*
But honestly, I think most of us have these thoughts at some point. Contemplating your death can be healthy, or so they say, because nobody escapes it…but if you dwell on it too much, life can turn into a nihilistic “What’s the point in doing anything??” slog. And the past few years I’ve been feeling that way a lot. Probably more than I should. Hell, it’s taken me six months of stopping/starting/rewriting this post to finally finish it, because I keep hearing Bette Midler’s voice whining: “Why bother?” (She really nailed it with that bit, folks! It’s hilariously apathetic.)
It can get more complicated when you don’t believe in God or things like Heaven and Hell, as in my case, because sometimes it feels like your existence boils down to “I’m a bag of meat on a rock hurtling through space.” Which itself may not be 100% terrible, depending on your attitude… But I need more than that. And looking back at the books I’ve been reading the past few years, it’s pretty obvious that I’m searching for a more optimistic view of The End™.
So here are some thoughts I’ve been having on all this stuff. I’ve come to believe that being atheist or agnostic on religious topics doesn’t mean your mind must be also closed to…other things. Just like there are 500 varieties of vegetarians, there are 500 varieties of nonbelievers. Sorry, that’s probably a crappy comparison but you know what I mean.
My philosophizing is armchair-level at best, so maybe expect kiddie pool wading vs. deep dives…