Saturday, February 22, 2014

Remember You Must Die

For the second time this month, Mister Death has come along with his grin and his winter touch. This time he came for my nephew, driving home from work through a winter blizzard.

Only his girlfriend, who was at his side and survived with only minor injuries, can tell what happened… but I’ve never met her and now never will. He could not have had a whole lot of experience driving in hazardous conditions. I know the stretch of road that he was on; it’s bad even in the summer months, all hills and winding curves. So, who knows? Perhaps he was going too fast for the weather, perhaps he was startled when the DOT snowplow came out of the dark and snow, perhaps he over-reacted. Whatever the reason, he lost control of the car, crossed the center line and ran headlong into the plow.

In recent years I did not know him at all: his mother was declared dead by me three years ago when I moved into my new life. She bullied me and abused me all the time we were growing up. In later years when diabetes made our mother into an invalid she was Never There, offered nothing in the way of help and rarely even came around, even though she lived less than a mile down the road. After Mom’s death, she would not help me make the arrangements, but was interested only in taking things out of the house. When I barred her from doing that, she simply broke into the place, stole things, and sold them to some unscrupulous dealers for a fraction of their value. An alcoholic and drug addict herself, she used my own alcoholism against me in a variety of ways. This doesn’t even begin to get into the awful things that she did to her own family. She is a Toxic Person.

So when I finally got away, I was determined never to see her again. Her children were not specifically included in those feelings, but that’s just the way it worked out, and I can’t say that I lost any sleep over it.

Tony Jr. was a big guy — I mean BIG… enormous, a wall of flesh six feet tall and four feet wide. His legitimate dreams of being a creative person were sabotaged by an attitude of expectation that he inherited from his mother. He wrote a novel that was, I am led to believe, a pastiche of Eragon and other generic Middle Reader fantasies, and then, as far as I know, did nothing more.

(My own first novel was pretty much god-awful and absolutely unpublishable, just for the record. Most first novels are. I bullied on ahead and got better with time, but when Tony asked me for advice on the business of writing, I gave him the only advice I could justifiably give him, which was: Don’t do it. It’s a hard, tough business, and it’s getting worse. He was visibly angry at me for that.) 

For a while he had an interest in acting, and something might have come of that, but somehow and for reasons unknown to me he gave up trying. His real claim to fame is his appearance in the HBO movie Empire Falls, starring Paul Newman, Helen Hunt and a host of others. He actually had some dialogue; he played a friend of the school bully, and was the victim of a school shooting, taking a shot in the forehead (in close up). He told me that the stunt director shot the squib into his eye on the first take, and it hurt like crazy.

He met Paul Newman, who went out of his way to introduce himself and make my nephew at home on the set. The problem is, he had no idea who Paul Newman was. I can understand being young and all that, not having the chance to see some of Newman’s movies, but when you are working on a film, wouldn’t you go out of your way to learn who the stars are and what they have done before? I was kind of disgusted at him for that.

My annual penance for sins came once or twice a year at Christmas or Thanksgiving. That was the only time that my sister would have my mother and me over to dinner. Not having anything in common with the adults, I was syphoned off to play with the kids every time… usually video games. It got so that he could beat me all the time, which was fine, but listening to him gloat afterwards was a pain in the ass. I should have been more tolerant: after all, from what I understand, his father put the kid down so much and made him feel so inferior that any victory, however inconsequential, must have been a great thing for him. He was a cheery, enthusiastic little boy who had those qualities verbally beaten out of him by his father.

My favorite memory of Little Tony is from a time when he was quite little indeed. Once again, I was at his house for the annual holiday dinner, and The Wizard of Oz came on the television. He’d never seen it. I sat him down next to me on the couch and told him what a wonderful movie it was. As I say, he was quite little, and I started explaining to him what was going on in the picture. Just at the moment when Margaret Hamilton’s Elvira Gulch is being her absolute bitchiest, stuffing Toto into her basket, the explaining of this caused me to tear up a little bit. Tony looked at me and said, “Are you sure this is a good movie?”

And now I’m left tho think, not for the first time, What in hell is the point of it all? You work, you struggle, you dream… you try to do right. And then you’re cut down at the age of 24 on a dark back road in the middle of a desolate winter storm.

I told my Dad this past summer, and I’ve said it often down through the years: we’re all five minutes away from Death. You’re no more likely to die at the age of 87 than you are at the age of 24. Walk out of the house at the wrong time, and you’re dead. A minute earlier or later would have made the difference in surviving another day. What are the odds that my nephew would lose control of his car at the exact precise moment that a Maine DOT snowplow was right on top of him? 

Enjoy yourself while you can, boys and girls. Do Good Work while you can. Quit your jobs now and do what you want to do with your life, because it could all be over in five minutes. 

— Freder

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