Questions for the angels
Note to self: I have to get off this topic. I’m sick to death of this death stuff. And yet …
Attended a funeral last Friday for the son of my best childhood friend. Fentanyl overdose. My friend discovered the body at his house, under what he first took to be a pile of clothing on a bed.
The victim, already cold and blue, was the father of two sweet little girls, six and nine. They adored him.
He was estranged from his wife. He was an addict. He was a generous, gregarious giant — six-foot-five and throbbing with life — an avid sport fisherman whose laugh would thunder across the lake.
Became addicted to opioids prescribed by his physician after a construction accident on Salt Spring Island. Started buying on the street in Victoria after a new doctor cut him off.
Then it was just a matter of time. He lasted a few years, despite being shot six or seven times in a bizarre case of mistaken identity on Crescent Street in Montreal last year while visiting his sister. One of the bullets went through the hood of his hoodie. None found vital organs. The only permanent injury was to an arm.
Found God. Started going to church religiously. Believed the world was flat because the Bible told him so. Belted out hymns. Believed he had been saved.
Except, he wasn’t safe. Not on this earthly plane. Not in this vale of tears.
Though his son had clearly been dead for hours, my friend frantically jabbed in needles while trying to counter the effects of the overdose with naloxone. He used so much force in his panic that a needle snapped off in the corpse. An ineffectual attempt at CPR was equally hopeless and abandoned.
As the ambulance attendants were wheeling her son’s body away, my friend’s ex-wife arrived and wailed piteously into the street. She is normally the picture of elegance and grace.
What the neighbours must have thought.
By the end of September, fatal drug overdoses had taken 1,202 lives in British Columbia alone. Extrapolating from that, we’re looking at about 1,600 in the province where I live by the end of the year, compared with 983 in 2019. Mostly younger people. The COVID-19 death toll in B.C., as of Nov. 19, stood at 321. Mostly older people.
Are more addicts dying alone in an era of self-isolation? That certainly appears to be the case, though the ever-increasing toxicity of the illicit drug supply is also clearly a factor. Buyers and sellers grease the wheels. Good people on both sides.
The father of my oldest grandson, barely 30, hanged himself more than a decade ago behind the sobering centre where he was being treated for alcoholism. He had been booted out after showing up drunk.
This was on the anniversary of his sister’s suicide.
My grandson was a toddler at the time and had a fabulous time at the funeral, merrily ploughing through the rows of shell-shocked mourners. It was my job to corral and distract him, so I carried him out of the chapel (where the tears they shed weren’t tears of joy). A door down the hall was ajar, and before I could catch up to him, we found ourselves in the empty office of the funeral director. There was a ponderous Victorian candy dish on a sanctimonious Victorian desk.
What to do but sample a taste of forbidden manna from the afterlife? Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.
Well. I might have tasted staler candies in my time. But only in dreams of prelapsarian sweetmeats with strands of goat lint and sackcloth attached.
I have those all the time.
My little guy sucked the ancient Dead Sea sludge out of his candy dish surprise and held out his hands for seconds. He was brimming with love.
Both young men’s funerals contained generous servings of what struck me, self-evidently a nihilistic infidel beyond redemption, as well-meaning but largely fatuous Christian platitudes.
Last week, as we stood by an open grave for two hours in a steady rain — maybe 50 of us, some masked, some not, some stoned, some not, all wedged too closely together to unfurl our umbrellas — there was confident talk of the recently baptized and newly dead, not yet 40, looking down upon us from heaven and dancing ecstatically on streets paved with gold.
Call me a bloodless heretic, mais franchement, I’m not that interested in skipping down yellow brick roads, or perpetual feasting and drinking in a banquet hall with boisterous Viking warriors, or breaking bread and shivering with a group of dazed underworld shades, or sitting on a cloud with a harp and a vat of Kraft’s Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
I like it here just fine, thanks. I never want to leave.
Late yesterday afternoon, I watched a huge murder of crows — thousands — coalesce, disperse, gather again and zigzag crazily through the sky en route to their overnight roosting digs. A group of pine siskins is performing joyful acrobatics outside my window as I write this. Give me a shreee, give me a shreee, give me a chut-chut-chut.
Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection.
The birds, of course, live in the now. Humans know we’re fated to die, a dubious and perhaps unique privilege here in the animal kingdom.
Pace Sophocles and modern “antinatalists” like David Benatar, never being born would be a drag and a bummer. (Not that the workload in the Complaints Department would be particularly onerous, mind you.)
Living forever would definitely get on one’s nerves. Imagine, for starters, sitting through reruns of all 141 episodes of Maude. Infinite times.
But coming to terms with the necessity of dying — even making friends with it, as Freud suggested we must — gosh, that’s one heck of an ask. Who came up with this, pardon my Yiddish, meshugga methodology? Is it too late to ask for a refund?
In a sadly neglected masterpiece of a song called “Questions for the Angels,” the great Paul Simon asks:
If you shop for love in a bargain store
And you don't get what you bargain for
Can you get your money back?
If an empty train in a railroad station
Calls its final destination
Can you choose another track?
Will I wake up from these violent dreams
with my hair as white as the morning moon?
Questions for the angels
Who believes in angels?
I do …
Dunno whether Paul really does. I’d really, really like to. Like the crows and pine siskins, the mottled banana slugs comically inching across the hiking trail certainly incline one in that direction. So do the vermillion maple leaves stencilled into the fall’s wet pavement.
Oh, and did I mention the moon and the stars and the sun?
But then there are the way-too-many funerals for friends, and now, the children of friends. Companions of last week’s victim, a man and a woman I judged to be in their early thirties, teetered timidly into the affair about halfway through. She sobbed the rest of the way, mildly disrupting the proceedings. He looked on blankly.
They are the walking dead. And they know it.
My friend hugged them both for about five minutes. The woman scrawled a message on the coffin. I was cold and wet and checked my mask to make sure it was snug.
Questions for the angels.