Meditation on Deaths – Part 1 – Speaking

All right. We had a rough September in America. A couple major hurricanes. The anniversary of 9/11. Also, the 5th of September just happened to be the first anniversary of the tragic college-related death of one of my friends. So I guess you could say that the whole thing has had me thinking, and now finally writing, about death.

Interestingly, I felt like I should add a disclaimer after that paragraph about how I’m not a generally morbid person. It just makes you wonder about living in a culture where stuff like dying and pooping— that everybody does, mind you— isn’t supposed to be talked about for whatever reason. I think there is, in fact, a great deal to be learned by examining these topics.

Anyhow, rather than discussing my beliefs and what weird metaphysical awesome place you end up to make you feel better about dying and all that philosophical junk that just leads to religions and arguments, I’d like to talk about what happens to you after you die here on Earth. Besides rotting. I don’t really feel like talking about rotting because there’s plenty of that going on in my refrigerator and it’s frankly sort of disgusting.

I have been rather fortunate in my dealings with people to have not lost anyone to whom I was very close over the first long portion of my life. I find it rather understandable that the people who lose family members and best friends when they’re in the process of growing up would have a lot of very sticky psychological issues to resolve. I think I can definitively say that even as recently as 2 or 3 years ago I was in no shape so deal with such a life-altering occurrence. Fortunately, I never had to find out just what a difficult process it would have been.

This said, in the last year I did lose two persons, with whom I was fairly close for rather disparate reasons. In the interest of preserving their memory in the way that is most meaningful to me, I will talk about their respective legacies, now that I am at least a few months removed from their passing and I can level-headedly compare and contrast my own memories with the newspaper clippings and memorial services.

Shadows of Samantha Spady

Not too long ago, a very smart man wrote a very smart book. The name of the man is Orson Scott Card, and the name of the book is Speaker For The Dead. The idea that inspired Card to write the book was that of speakers who travelled about and spoke about people after they died. The speaker’s job, however, was not to eulogize, but instead to discover and tell the truth to the best of their ability, no matter how painful. Now I first read this book when I was in middle school I believe, so I found it mostly boring. However, I’m quite glad that I did, because given the events of the last year, it’s nice to know that someone else thought of this before I ever did.

As I said before, Samantha Spady’s death was college-related. For those of you who have been to college recently, you may have surmised what this implies. She died of alcohol poisoning after a long night of partying, at the age of 19.

For the uninitiated, here is the way that college works these days. Parents send their kids off to live in a place (where parents aren’t) for rather extended periods of time. For many of these kids, this is the first time that this has ever really happened; so, as you may expect, they don’t really know how to deal with it. What ensues is a several year period where the kids act in a very kid-like fashion. I don’t want to say “stupid” … well ok, I do. They act stupid. Now as a parent or friend of such a person, more or less all you can do is be a good influence and hope that they make it out okay on the other side. Understand that for every you there are several hundred stupid-acting kids telling them to do exactly the opposite of whatever you tell them. So you don’t give up giving them advice, you just realize that it’s going to take them a little while to sort out the good advice from the bad, and stabilize themselves. In any case, most of the kids come out of this little phase and make it to adulthood just fine. Unfortunately, a few don’t. Sam happened to be one of the unlucky ones.

Any student death tends to be highly publicized, and even more so with someone as popular and well-liked as Sam. It’s probably not difficult to imagine, based on what I have said so far, that there was quite the media blitzkrieg after her death. I actually didn’t find out about it until about a week later, because I was in the process of moving to Boston at the time, and had no internet access or TV. Much had been written by the time I sat in Berklee’s media center those long hours, wading through article after article, trying to piece together what exactly had happened.

It is a surreal, surreal experience reading about someone you knew in the news like that. It’s weird seeing their life encapsulated in a few short paragraphs. I think the thing that makes it the most weird is that the person about whom is being written is not the person you knew. Or I should say, it is about the person you knew, but it has been heavily edited and carefully worded to the point that it no longer resembles them that much. And as I was reading all that stuff I knew that to the majority of people, this is Sam’s legacy. This is what they know about her; in fact, all they know about her. And it’s not her.

The first wave of press about the event included all of the positive things people had to say about what a wonderful person she was. “Almost perfect.” “Never made a mistake.” Typical responses to any sort of personal tragedy. The next thing that happened were that some investigative reporters got turned loose to try and do a bit of dragging her name through the mud. Trying to make her look like a wild party girl and get a different and more interesting angle on the story. Then came the rush of anger from the first-wave people, tempers flared, letters were written, and it got ugly.

I think it ends up this way with a lot of problems when you get a lot of people involved. You get people on one side, and you get people on the other side, and they’re too busy fighting to see that the solution is somewhere in the middle. The first-wave people weren’t talking about Sam, and the second-wave people definitely weren’t talking about Sam, the real Sam was somewhere in the middle. And interestingly, the people who realized this weren’t really part of any waves, most likely because their story wasn’t nearly as interesting to people who, without the help of waves to tell them what to think, probably wouldn’t have cared that much.

In any case, in the time that has passed, Sam has become an acronym, a week, a foundation, and a concert, among other things. In short she’s been sainted, turned into a sort of martyr for the cause of student alcohol education and awareness. Not that I don’t think that this is a worthy cause. I’m just not sure that if you had asked her, she would have told you that she wanted to be remembered for the way she died. It’s probably much more use to everyone who knew her to remember who she really was and how she lived.

This is what Orson Scott Card knew that I didn’t in middle school. The eulogies and newspaper clippings and concerts and foundations are not the person. It is wholly unsatisfying to remember them as these shadows of the person you once knew. It is much more useful to have someone try to capture the essence of what that person was. It’s more important to know the truth, so you aren’t left to wonder. It’s more important for someone to try to replicate the Samness of Sam, so that you can say, yes, that is her. Now people can know.

A bit longer ago, there was another very talented man, who made a very interesting painting…

[I’ve decided to split this up in at least 3 parts, since it has gotten very long and is taking me a while to finish writing the subsequent chunks. Part 2 should be done in a couple weeks. Maybe.]

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