anneli rufus
the farewell chronicles
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But who am I? A death expert? No, only a member of the club. By the time I was thirty and my dad died of a stroke, I had already lost more acquaintances than most young moderns lose in a whole lifetime. I was unusual, like some kind of vortex. The first was my babysitter, twelve-year-old Cecile with the fluffy blonde hair and red clamdigger pants and ladybug earrings, who tucked me into bed with my stuffed clown. Cecile was on vacation -- having left our beach town for the forest -- when a boulder tumbled down a mountainside and crushed her. The next was Troy Armitage from down the block, run over while riding his ten-speed in the street. Kids gathered to watch city workers spray the asphalt with a high-test hose. In fifth grade, Oscar Salazar fell off a roof. In sixth grade, Terence Coons was visiting his best friend who took a gun from a drawer and said, It belongs to my dad. He never keeps it loaded, pointed it and shot. The next year, doing backward flips in gym class, Lauren Boehm collapsed: her heart was weak, and no one knew. Eighth grade was a reprieve, though certain rock stars died in certain plane crashes that year. In ninth grade, Patrick Ostrovich was riding to the beach in a VW that slammed into a van. That was the way we learned, in science class, the term brain dead. Also that year, Joe Pirelli who flirted with my best friend Jeannette and borrowed her ballpoint pens but never gave them back drowned in a lake. Also that year, right before ninth-grade graduation, Chris Gaines died -- another friend, another drawer, another gun. The choir at his funeral sang Ambrosia's hit "I Keep Holdin' on to Yesterday." That summer, my mother had a friend, Millie, whose nine-year-old son had stomach cancer. A friend of my father's walked into a lab at work that year without realizing that a container of cyanide had begun to leak, walked out and dropped dead at his desk.

That year was like a massacre. Then came the next.

I thought of death more than most teenage girls do, not because I longed for it -- not because I was a mopey black-clad Goth or a punk but because it was everywhere: at school and at the Munich Olympics and in our tract whose ranch-style houses were the pinks and greens and whites of after-dinner mints. The night my boyfriend took me home to meet his family, I jabbered about murderers. This one guy in Wisconsin flayed his victims and made vests out of their skins! I took a Mystic Mint from the platter as Todd's father glanced up from the football game. He made their lungs into stews!

I did not long for death, but I thought about it all the time because it seemed to make no sense. I thought that if I kept thinking about it I might understand it, or accept it. Or escape it.

When my dad died, death took on a new dimension. It slipped out of the abstract, the vicarious and baroque into the glint of intravenous tubes. My shoes smelled of hospital. So this is how death feels when it takes not a classmate but the man who cuddled you and yelled at you in public, taught you how to read and mix concrete and use a microscope.

And it was in that aftermath -- as his last pre-stroke word kept roaring in my head: it was Nintendo -- when I realized that what I felt was not pure sorrow at all. It was other things about which I could not tell my mother or anyone else. Sure, I was sad but I thought: Am I sad enough? And if I missed him, why did I keep rehashing the way he used to storm into my room and yell you slob, his hard backhand, his slip-on shoes stomping enraged, goddamn goddamn, his laughter as he eavesdropped on my dance lesson: You look like you gotta go pee! I thought too of his tanned perfect fingers working a power tool, a slide rule, designing satellites for the US government. His eyes sliding shut as he listened to Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite. Why did I invoke the monster in him? Why, if I loved him? Did I love him? He used to sing You are my sunshine. At my wedding, he wore a necktie printed with crossed guns, marked HIS and HERS. One of the last times I saw him, he seized my arm in a crosswalk and screamed Goddamn you.

Sitting there in my hospitaly shoes, I tried to be the perfect little grieving girl. As if someone would see me and say, Good. As if this was another portion of the SAT. As if.

And I've been trying to figure it out ever since. Through all the ensuing deaths -- of friends, relatives, acquaintances, celebrities whose departures make headlines; of fictional characters in novels; of the victims of terrorists. All I've figured out is that it isn't easy. And you never know. But it's always a heartbeat away.

2009 anneli rufus