My fascination with death began the first time I watched the 1991 classic My Girl. I couldn’t have been older than four- or five-years-old and I was living in a small, white town in southwest Michigan. Like Vada, the protagonist of the film, I lived in a home that was also a business. Unlike Vada, I shared my living space with a video store owned by my grandparents; she shared her living space with a funeral home directed by her father.
For those of you who have yet to watch My Girl, I’ll avoid spoilers because I believe that everyone deserves to immerse themselves in that film completely with a welcoming and fresh mind. Be that as it may the film, as Vada’s living situation suggests, tackles themes related to death and dying. After my first viewing, I’d go on to watch that film hundreds of times. And since I, for all intents and purposes, lived in a video store I had access to countless other films with similar themes or that raised similar questions.
Since our town was small, with a population of far less than 500, and with more empty lakefront B&Bs than other children around to play with, I took my job as resident Rewind Girl almost too seriously. Moreover, when my grandparents would leave home to go to their day jobs — the video store was only open for business when at least one of them was home — I would browse the shelves and watch as many movies as I could. Many of which were certainly too inappropriate for a young, Christian school girl to watch while home alone.
By the time I was in fifth grade, my list of favorites included Reservoir Dogs, American Beauty, Dog Day Afternoon, and many others that were full of violence, foul language, and death. Well, not just death. Murder. Killing. Oh, and white people. White men. But, that’s a conversation for another day. My point is, I’ve always been fascinated by death, dying, and the choices people make regarding death and dying.
Offscreen, my experiences with death were complex. The first time I witnessed someone dying I was about seven-years-old. I was on the shore of Lake Michigan and it was a particularly beautiful summer day. I remember that because the events of that day replay in mind on particularly beautiful summer days even now, especially when I’m near a large body of water.
I’d spoken to this boy who was my age, we played in the sand together, “digging to China,” and then he ran into the water. There were so many families at the beach that day, so many children. One lifeguard. One violent lake that appeared, on the surface, to be tranquil and calm. The next thing I remember are the screams of the boys mother, the frantic searches, the loud splashes that accompanied hurried feet fleeing the water.
The boy never came back to the shore.
Since that day, I’ve lost people. My grandparents. I never had the chance to say goodbye to either of them because I couldn’t afford to. But, that’s a conversation for another day. My point is, like you, I’ve been faced with the fact of death and the reality of dying in different ways and as much as my heart breaks with loss, it still beats. Thankfully.
Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m months away from my 30th birthday. For most of my life thus far I was quite certain that I’d be dead long before now. I’ve survived two suicide attempts and two separate near fatal assaults. I live with chronic illnesses, I’m a Black, queer person living in a world that, time and time again, has proven to be unsafe for people like me. I’m a mother living in a world where human trafficking is a reality hidden in plain sight. A world where police seem to use Black and Brown children as target practice. A world where marginalized people are Schrödinger’s cats on take nine. Both alive and dead, just wondering when they’ll be cut. End scene.
That’s why when I watched Being 97 first thing this morning I was left feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. “Being 97,” writes Emily Buder for the Atlantic, “is a poignant film that explores the interiority of senescence and the struggle of accepting the inevitable.” In it, philosopher Herbert Fingarette offers viewers a day in the life of a man coming to terms with the end of his life. A philosopher who spent decades contemplating issues related to life, death, and dying and who, at the end of his life, realized that “it’s important to figure out why it is, then, that people are afraid of death.”
When he spoke those words the only thing I could think of was how much one’s lived experiences impact their thoughts about death and I was immediately reminded of Charis E. Kubrin’s work on nihilism in rap music. Particularly, some common themes in rap music that include, but are not limited to, “bleak surroundings with little hope, pervasive violence in the ghetto, and preoccupation with death and dying.” But, that’s a conversation for another day. My point is, different people are afraid of death for different reasons and in order to come to some semblance of an understanding our relationship, as humans, to death, we have to take into account how structural factors impact senescence.
Take, for instance, the fact that me and many of my friends nearly died during childbirth. And not just my friends who are Black. Or the fact that there have been 2,356 mass shootings in the United States since Sandy Hook. I could go on about, globally, how many unarmed people are killed by police each year, the millions of food and housing insecure children at risk of dying due to lack of access to necessary resources, and the dangers of poorly-constructed and/or deteriorating built environments but that’s a conversation for another day. My point is, we all have different fears and concerns when it comes to death because we all live different lives with varying levels of threat and danger.
A “puzzle” to himself, Fingarette spent most of his life trying to figure himself out. A life of contemplation. He usually “just dropped the subject.”
Many never get the time to pick it up.
Consider this line from one of Dave Chappelle‘s recent specials: “I did something that not many Black men in America have the time or the money to do: I thought about how I felt.”
Time, money, resources, and other things one needs to contemplate life. Maybe a room of one’s own. . .
The first thing I asked myself after watching Being 97 was “how do things like race, class gender, nation of origin, disability, etc. impact philosophies of death and dying?” When all is said and done, does it matter? When plant Earth ceases to exist and its charred remains become nameless space debris. . . will this all matter? I don’t know. But that’s a conversation for another day. My point is, death and dying mean different things to different people and the facts of one’s life influence those meanings.
Not the truths, the facts.
To me, the truth is that every life and every death matters in some way. In the same way that the iron in our blood is sourced from stars. In the same way that some chance encounters feel more fated than accidental. In the same way that you, the person reading this, made it another day against all odds.
We are all an unknown number of breaths and heart beats away from death. Every single one of us. And, for better or for worse, we are all a part of a human story, a story of diverse animals on a rocky planet struggling to make sense of a universe of nothing. Of everything. Of anything. Whatever words we use to describe our experiences in life and death matter less than what we do with those experiences.
We don’t have the option to rewind.