The first time I remember encountering death was when my mother’s mother passed away. I was somewhat sheltered from it, however. I was not there when it happened. It was never explained to me why or how it happened. I do not recall spending time with my aunts and uncles talking about it. My mother was in Florida and never shared with me her feelings on it, even when she returned to California. I chose not to look upon her body when it lay in the casket.
As a teenager, when I began asking questions about the nature of the world and what death meant, I thought about my grandmother and how that had made me feel as a young child, but my connection to the event felt distant. Nevertheless, it was at this time that I began formulating my opinions on death. Scientifically, although we die, we are never actually gone. The atoms that make up our being go on to make up other things, sometimes living things. Conceptually, when we die, we still exist in the memories of others. We exist in photographs and art and what we write down. I decided to embrace death as natural and good and explored it in a philosophical and religious manner. Death was a cycle to me, and one that was good, because it encouraged the continuation of life.
But I was also distanced from death. When I was nineteen I moved to Washington for the first time to live with my father. One of the rules of his household was that attending church was mandatory. For those of you who do not have significant experience with attending church, one interesting phenomenon is the endless loop of funerals. The majority of church goers tend to be older people. I have heard many reasons as to why this is. Some argue that it gives them something to look forward to, or that it is the best way to retain a social network. The cynical argue that they are afraid of death and want to make sure Jesus has forgiven them before they die. Whatever the reason, members of the church family die often. Funerals happen often. When you are a member of the church, you attend the funerals, whatever your relationship—or lack thereof—with the individual who has passed. So in the first year I lived in Washington, I attended a number of funerals. I did not have close relationships with the individuals who had passed, and did not feel the pain of losing a loved one. I recognized the pain the others were dealing with, but reassured myself that the pain they experienced was a reflection of the love and joy they took in the life of the passed. I was certain that the pain of loss was pale in the reflection of the joy they had with the person they lost. In other words, I took personal comfort in visiting these funerals.
I never encountered anyone behaving selfishly, or negatively. I don’t know if it wasn’t happening, or if I wasn’t close enough to see it.
I was 28 when my first grandfather passed away. My relationship with him was never sterling. I can recall one weekend I spent with him that I enjoyed and appreciated. I keep my memory of that weekend as the way I try to remember him. He was my namesake, and I am glad that he did not lay to rest leaving me only with memories of all the ill that he had done me or my father or my grandmother. When he died, there was a financial battle of some sort between his (third) wife and his children. I am not personally aware of all the details, but loosely I understand that he left money to all four of them and she tried to withhold it. It took years (four, I believe) for them to receive their inheritance, but in the end they did. Suffice to say that the relationship they had with his wife was destroyed.
They brought some of his ashes back to Washington to be spread at a piece of property that he used to own and for which he had grand plans that never came to fruition because his second wife developed lung cancer. I went to see his ashes spread and when they were I felt in a way that was similar to how I felt when my mother’s father passed. I was engrossed with the idea that I never had a good relationship with him, and now that he was gone, I wish that I had. I am certain I could have done more to have a better relationship with him, but I also recognize that he contributed to our relationship negatively in a fashion that I was hardly responsible for. I was a child for the most part, and he was an angry, abusive man. On the other hand, the experience made me feel closer to my father and uncle, both of whom mourned his passing despite the things he said and did to them that I am aware of. They spoke of him in a positive way—and I would never expect otherwise at any sort of mourning ritual—and it allowed me to see what good he did in the world. If nothing else, he was the reason I was born. He was also the reason I made Washington my ultimate home (so it seems), because he was the reason my uncle made it his home, and my uncle was the reason that my father made it his.
There is goodness in death, I have felt that way as long as I’ve thought about death.
The most recent deaths of my grandparents have forced me to question the goodness of death. In both cases I experienced something ugly and even hateful. It has been said that I throw around that word to easily—hate—but I cannot think of a more appropriate word to describe the actions taken against individuals suffering loss such as these. As I have said repeatedly, I understand that those in mourning are hurting, and when you are hurting, it is more likely you will behave in unacceptable ways. I am willing to understand that, but the more I think on this matter, the less willing I am to forgive it. I was mourning too. Perhaps one could argue that one persons hurt was worth more than anothers—but why would I ever wish to engage in such an argument? I was mourning too. My mother was mourning too. My brother was mourning too. Everyone was mourning, and not everyone behaved in such disgusting, selfish manners.
Why do people behave this way when someone passes? I have been asking myself this question every single day for over a month now. I have some ideas, but I do not know what the answer is.
I thought something that I often think about the experience of pain. Pain is, generally speaking, not pleasant. People going through pain often do not wish to experience it alone. The idea is that it will be more tolerable if you are not the only one who is unhappy. I have not studied psychology, but as I understand it, this is not uncommon behaviour, and so it meets Occam’s Razor requirements readily. The only issue I have with this idea is the fact that the other individuals involved were already in pain. They were in pain for the exact same reasons, and if someone wished to commiserate with them, they were already in a place to do so. Why then attempt to make the pain bite that much deeper?
The second most likely thought is a form of selfishness—the kind of attitude that causes children to fight over who is the favourite. When you lose your parent, or anyone for that matter, perhaps you want the world to know that you were the most important person in the life of that individual—or perhaps you are only trying to convince yourself of that. Maybe you are just trying to convince yourself that you had some value in their life, and were more than a sink of time and energy for that person. Maybe there is guilt in that—guilt over what kind of individual you were in the light of what kind of individual they wanted you to be. I don’t know. I didn’t feel this way when my grandmother passed. I don’t believe that she ever had much conviction in my desire to be a writer. She questioned my desires a lot, and she failed to see the relevance of some of the work I have done. I wasn’t ashamed, though. Or was I? Sometimes I wonder if my behaviour revolving around the writing of her program was because of how I felt. Ultimately, I don’t think it was, but I do question.
Finally, the last idea I have had about this is that the behaviour could be related to greed. I realize that this is similar to the idea of selfishness, but I feel that the way I see potentially greedy behaviour is more damning than the selfish behaviour. The selfish behaviour I link to a weakness of self-worth in the eyes of the deceased, or the people who surround the deceased. The greed does nothing more than serve the self. If that is not clear, let me try to make an example. When my grandfather’s daughter chose to exclude his first seventeen children from his funeral, she may have done it because her idea of her father was damaged by the fact that he had seventeen children. Could she still possibly be the favourite, or even one of them, if her competition was so steep? It may have been done so as not to remind herself that her place in his life was not as solid as she believed as a child. Alternatively, she may have made the decision because she did not give a damn about the previous seventeen children. Perhaps, in her eyes, he had chosen to raise her and her siblings, and not the others, so they meant nothing, and he did not love them, and were never truly a part of the family, and so why should she honour them if her father never did? This is the difference I see between behaving selfishly and behaving greedily.
From what I came to learn, the last three children of my grandfather knew that he had children in previous marriages, but that they never knew quite how many. In fact, as far as I understood, they never knew precisely how many until just before the funeral. I tried to put myself in that headspace. If I found out that my father, who was 25 when I was born, had children previous to me, that would change my perspective on the kind of man my father was. I would be forced to question a lot of his behaviour. What I would likely want to do is ask him about the previous children and ask him about his decision to raise me but not them. Now, if I found out that my father had seventeen children before I was born I would be flattened by the weight of such a revelation. Further, if I found out upon his death, and could not even ask him questions about this, my world would be upside down. Now, I don’t think that I would respond to that by denying the validity of his previous children—but I understand how someone might be so hurt that it was the only thing they could do to retain their image of their father as a righteous man.
My aunt is another story. I know her better than I do my very distant aunt on my mother’s side. For this reason it is more difficult to suppose her behaviour. My imagination has more rules to work with. Nevertheless, I still think the story is similar. My aunt is the youngest of four. She was often picked on by her older siblings growing up. She is still picked on a bit by them today. In fact, they all pick on each other, but she certainly takes it far more seriously than any of the rest of them. When you are in a situation like that, you probably question your self-worth. You probably focus on the relationship you have with your parents. You probably set yourself up, in your own head, as a favourite child to deal with the pain you otherwise are subjected to. All the time I grew up, I often heard both of my aunts tell me that I was my grandmother’s favourite. The older I got, the more I started to realize that this was jealous behaviour. They were attempting to shame me, or make me feel guilt, because no one should be the favourite. I also heard my aunt say, repeatedly, that in her final days, she had been the sole caretaker of my grandmother. Oh, there was a little help from my other aunt and her son, too. But she never mentioned that for five months before that, my uncle had been her primary caretaker, and before that, while I was preparing for a wedding, Camille and I had been her caretaker. Our influence, our “special status” was not welcome. In those final moments, when her desires and beliefs were revealed, she told us that our thoughts and opinions about our grandmother’s passing was worth nothing to her. She also said that my brother Anthony did not even count as a grandchild because he had a different father than me. She did everything in her power to deny the importance of the rest of her siblings and her nieces and nephews, because in her eyes, she was all that mattered—she and her relationship with my grandmother (part of it entirely imagined as she seemed to believe my grandmother had a relationship with Jesus)—were all that mattered.
It is difficult for me to decide if this behaviour had more to do with selfishness or greediness. I lean toward selfishness, if you could not guess—but I still think about the inherent greed in her actions. I think about the fact that she so rarely considers the feelings of others. I think about the fact that she calls herself a “Thinker” as opposed to a “Feeler” (in the Myers-Briggs sense of things) almost as an excuse to trample over the emotions of others. “Oh, how was I supposed to know that would matter, I’m a Thinker!” Well, I’m a Thinker too. I am proud of leaning that way on that test—and I am proud of my intelligence, as a Thinker should be. But you know what? I realize that one of the things I have to think about and consider a part of every social equation are peoples feelings, because the way people feel—especially in a time of duress, pain and mourning—are very important.
Where am I going with all this? I wrote this as an exercise to explore my feelings, because the truth is, I don’t know where I’m going. I am still working through this process, and most of the time, I don’t know what I should be thinking, doing, or feeling. I wish I wasn’t so angry. I wish I could be happy to rejoice in the opportunity that this has given me, but right now I am mostly angry. I am hopeful as well. I know, in time, my anger will pass. I know that I will be able to look back on this experience, this pain, what I’ve written, and I will find the goodness in death that is true and real. I have been forced to question the goodness in death through my recent experience, but I have faith that is not misplaced. I will come around.
Many of my friends, some of my family and even one stranger outside of the Shakedown after I saw Wolves in the Throne Room perform have come to me and implored me to keep connection with the positive and with love. I realize that this whole series was written with a very negative point of view. I have confessed to you that while I am attempting to be understanding that I am filled with anger. I just want everyone who has invested their time into reading this and empathizing and reflecting with me that I know. I understand. I know that I can’t hold onto this anger forever. I know that I’m going to need to forgive the parties that (I felt) have behaved wrongly. I know that I am supposed to love them anyway. I know that I am supposed to mourn my grandparents in my own time and in my own way, and that process involves me alone and the behaviour, thoughts and opinions of others shouldn’t effect it.
Thanks for listening.
Maryllen “MiMi” Kathleen Kyle was born in Los Angeles to Robert Kyle, a Scottish immigrant, and his wife, Norine on June 4th, 1934. Her name, Maryllen was an amalgamation of her two grandmothers, Mary Ellen and Ellen. Her middle name honored her mother’s close friend. Six years later she was followed by her sister and closest friend, Norine “Bonnie” Lavon Kyle.
A highly intelligent child, MiMi loved academia, particularly the sciences. She had wanted to become a scientist when she grew up. Questioning, curious and contrary, MiMi often frustrated her family. She was, however, universally adored by her parents, aunts and uncles.
MiMi experienced some of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, and with her love of history and her country, she loved to share her memories of World War II, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, the Swinging Sixties and the only Democrat she ever voted for, Robert Kennedy.
In 1952, MiMi married James “Jimmy” Foster High II and with him had four children, James “Jeff” Fulton High II, Lavon Marie High, Scot Kyle High and Kathleen Elizabeth High. She had three more daughters-in-law and a son-in-law, Caroline Sambrano, Gabriel Vasquez, Kathleen Marie Baldwin (Gilmer) and Gloria DeWitte. They collectively gave her ten grandchildren, James Foster High III, Joshua Ian High, Victoria Norine, Scot Kyle Vasquez, Thomas Efrain Vasquez, Anthony Nathan Wheeler, Michael Travis Wheeler, Lisa Marie Vasquez, Michael Leo Baldwin and Michelle Marie Baldwin. She had two grandchildren-in-law, Camille Meehan and Jonathan David. She had four great-grandchildren, Colten Sammons, Michelah Marie, Eleanor Jean and Cordelia Marie. She had a nephew and a niece, David Kyle McWilliams and Maryllen Kay McWilliams. She had a niece-in-law and a nephew-in-law, Esmeralda Uzarraga Luna and Donny Henry. She had eight great-nieces and nephews, Buddy Nelson, Robert Nelson, Charlotte Nelson, Shelly Henry, Jeffrey Nelson, Mary Welch, Rigoberto McWilliams and Kayleigh McWilliams. Her family was grand, well-loved and were more important to her than anything in the world.
MiMi was a woman of many passions and a flaming extrovert. The love of her family came first, followed by pride in her Scottish heritage. MiMi’s favorite music was the Doors, Neil Diamond, the Moody Blues, Roy Orbison and especially anything with bagpipes. She loved men in kilts and the “Scottish calves” that were shown off by kilts. She was an incredibly gifted seamstress, and could sew sans patterns with limited equipment. In her twilight years, she mastered the art of knitting and crochet–the latter which was picked up from her sister Bonnie—and crocheted twenty two blankets for her family before passing, the last of which was a wedding gift for Camille and James. She was devoted to gardening, landscaping and flowers. She maintained a garden for most of her life. Her favorite flower was the red rose. She also loved irises and gloriosa daisies.
MiMi touched and influenced many lives. She was, without question, the matriarch of the High family and she was primarily responsible for keeping the family unit strong and devoted to one another. Although she worked a multitude of jobs, from Girl Friday to Warehouse Manager to President of the PTA to Florist, she considered her family to be her life’s calling. She raised her own children as well as many of their friends. She assisted in raising all of her grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews. During a crisis, MiMi was always there to support in any way she possibly could, most importantly with her love.
MiMi’s family was situated primarily in California, but was spread out to Washington state and Arkansas. She spent a lot of time traveling in order to spend as much time with her family as possible. She loved riding the train and took her last train ride from Washington to California in early May 2014 with her sons Jeff and Scot and her grandson James.
When MiMi learned that her time on this earth was limited, she made a short list of important things she wanted to do first. She wanted to go home to California and visit her grandson Tom. She wanted to spend time with her youngest great grandchildren, Eleanor and Cordelia. She wanted to see her daughters, and her grandchildren Joshua, Scot and Anthony. She wanted to celebrate her eightieth birthday. MiMi accomplished all of these before passing, and told her family that she was happy, content and proud.