My mother went to college with a woman. This woman married a man. This couple had two children. As a result, our families were coordinated as friends years before I was born, and it remained that way for years before I realized I had a say in the matter. A hyper-Christian collective the family made steady appearances in my upbringing which usually meant extra long church services, sometimes even going twice in one week. The announcement of their impending arrival always brought a sense of despondency to our home. Not bad people themselves, just colossal bummers. Something in the way the parents dealt with our family brought to my mind the organized rituals of a buried society. The days of their visit were scheduled strict enough that completion of the tasks ahead were the only available option for a sense of enjoyment. The rote exercises and events would carry on as though we were paying homage to some distant and uninteresting tribal mentality.
Having been positioned with the youth of this family for my entire life, a natural bond formed out of casual necessity. All persons being polite, and vaguely familiar, a distant short hand of community forms. No trust or intimacy, but a sort of kinship that is normally found with co-workers. Placed together by an authoritative guiding hand, we made the best of our situation, and found the others to be agreeable.
In 2010, one of the children succeeded in their lifelong goal of becoming a park ranger. An apparently very difficult achievement on account of the limited positions available. The evening after receiving this good news, my acquaintance was driving in their car to celebrate at a friend’s house. An hour later they were hit by another car, killing both drivers instantly.
I could not truly mourn this person, lacking any connection beyond the superficial. There is of course always the disappointment in understanding another human being has died, but this person might as well have been a nice Malaysian man who died in Medan. My job now as a dutiful son and moderately decent human being is to put on a somber demeanor. One calculated and honed over years of not being properly sad about something.
I managed to avoid the funeral, but a few weeks afterward my presence was requested at my parent’s house with more insistence than usual. The remaining members of this family were coming. After a brief, unpleasant lunch, everyone gathered in the living room. I was shamed to realize how much the loss of their child was going to make our time together more bearable. Their fervor for discipline and their lord Jesus Christ was abated for the time being. Possibly for good. This didn’t make their company enjoyable, but at the very least I was able to relax in my parent’s home.
The parents sat on the couch, either side of an undecorated cardboard box. After a few moments of reflection from them, and anxious silence from us, the mother opened the box and began removing items from it.
In times of mourning, people react in many different ways. One common approach appears to be that you give away items of the deceased to those whose lives were touched by that person. The items, as best as I can understand, represent a connection from the dead to the living, and can therefore outlive their initial use and stand as a more tangible reminder of the person who has left us.
I watched as my mother immediately began crying as this woman placed her sons scout master badge in her hands. I was surprised to discover my mother had been more involved with this person’s career in the Scouts than I would have imagined. The two embraced, and then attention was returned to the box.
I was next. After understanding that I was about to receive a token of this person’s life, I immediately began to think of the memories I had with the deceased, and though most of the time we enjoyed with each other was in the woods, any of these physical items would have been somewhat acceptable:
The Incedible Crash Dummies Crash Car
A cassette tape of Weezer’s Blue Album
A pair of those orange and green striped socks (unless the was only one)
That sticky hand game that never worked
A photograph of the deceased
The truth is that I legitimately do not recall what they gave me. Being frozen in the moment, having never heard of this behavior, I did not have the tools in place to act properly, or to even know what that might look like. My attempt to appear normal took most of my focus.
After I blurted out some contrived “thank you”, they moved on to my father. They had decided his connection, which was as spurious as mine for entirely different reasons, was to be best represented by an old animatronic yoda doll. Four inches tall, cheap molded rubber, the doll had a sensor in his chest for which any movement triggered the motor, at which point Yoda would open his eyes and deliver a vague, unprompted piece of wisdom.
This was placed in a back room the next day, and ignored for many years. In time, repeated movement stretched the rubber eyelids thin, and heightened the dry rot. The top of his plastic eyes, intended to be hidden forever, were unpainted, and bright white. This gave him an eternal, broken stare into the aether. The degeneration of the doll came in degrees. Isolated in a back room not conducive to the rewards of feng shui, I would randomly remember he was back there, and check in on his deterioration. The battery well past its projected use now gave out a limp effort. His once fluid motions were now a methodical system of grinding jerks and spasms. His blind eyes fluttering through an open REM cycle.
The voice modulator moved out of the range of Frank Oz, and into something electronic and psychedelic. A droning drag of doldrums. A raspy “DOOOOOO OOOOORRRRRRRR DOOOOOOOOOOO NOOOOOOOOOOTTT THHHEERRRRRRRREEEE IIIIIIIIISSSSSS NNNOOOOOOO TTTTRRRRYYYYYYYYYY” sometimes being fired without an apparent catalyst. Sometimes without yoda bothering to move himself. Just staring into the abyss, his recitation adding more vowels with time.
Often when my mind begins to meander down old paths, or I get a huge snout full of cabin-smell, I think about this person I was raised parallel to, and perhaps even lament his passing in my own way. But the yoda doll remains in place a disturbing artifact. Alien in its environment it was pushed to the very back of the room no one in the house uses. An artifact of a relationship stymied by our inability to communicate.
Whatever arbitrary death gift I was given on that day was placed conspicuously in the living room until they left the next morning, and then probably accidentally thrown away at some point. I like to believe that my inability to recall the artifact that was given to me helps my argument, and isn’t just me being insensitive. But the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.