Sleep, Putter, Die March 6, 2016


LLyn De Danaan
March 6, 2016

I’ve been floundering around, as in writhing in my own existential quasi-despair, for some time, and the recent death of a close friend finally did me in. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t experienced the death of a friend before. A few years ago, a woman my age and of my acquaintance, was found dead. It was sudden, no known disease, no warning. Women much younger than I or near my age have died of hideous cancers, ovarian among them. They endured illnesses, many unsuccessful treatments that prolonged lives or perhaps the agonies. Men I cared for have passed on of complications: diabetes, heart disease, and, yes, cancer. I have a cabinet full of memorial programs. I keep them. Near the little basket that once held my mother’s ashes. A few grey particles are still embedded in the twines of sweet grass and bear grass and sift themselves through into a fine powder offering to all the other dear ones kept close to me on that oaken, glass fronted shelf. The shelf, or rather the bookcase it is part of, is itself a memorial to my Aunt Dorothy. I was given it by her, though I think it may have been part of the furniture in my grandfather Zora’s law office.

It is not as if I pay much attention to that shelf and its contents. But I do pass it each day. And last October, I made an altar for Dios de los Muertos and placed all of those programs, face forward, on the altar. I wanted to remember my friends. But now I believe I was tempting the fates.

I had not until this past month lost anyone who was so inextricably part of my life, someone who had been with me on some of the most significant adventures of my robust younger life. This was a different kind of loss. This was the loss of a comrade, a fellow traveler, a confidant and a chunk of myself.

I managed to limp through the planning of an afternoon of tributes, the writing of an obituary. I managed to compose my own tribute and to stand and read it to the friends and family. I managed to make a public appearance, and to visit friends in Portland.

I’ve stopped looking at photographs of my friend. Although I’ll never know if her life passed before her eyes before she died, I know that mine has. There we were at 25, at 30, at 40. Here we are living in Portland. Here we are in San Francisco. And each photograph has a backstory and its own clothing and its shoes and its own setting. Reviewing them is like reading a hundred short stories or watching a 50 act play with superb costuming and intricately painted realistic backdrops. It was exhausting. And how many times I exclaimed aloud, Who is that? when I saw myself. Memories were alive with color and with dialogue. Hairstyles and bodies, like flip card animation, changed quickly: short long curly straight big small straight stooped.

I put the albums away. I told myself I was ready to get on with my life.

But my life still felt and still feels hollow in some new way. I’ve always had periods that might be called slumps or even minor depressions. These used to worry me because my mother was bipolar and I had some deep, long term depressions in the 1970s and even a couple in the 1980s. But the past 20 years or so have been happy, almost deliriously happy, with only short lived downs. I have come to recognize these and know that I just have to wait them out. They are short term breaks from my usual highly productive, generally positive and optimistic self. During these few days or even weeks, I can focus on physical tasks. I may not have terrific ideas for stories, but I can edit. I may not have sudden inspirations for new garden structures, but I can weed. I don’t shut down and I don’t feel bored.

Something about this loss, this friend’s departure, has made me feel the inevitability of death. Not simply my death, but the death of my friends, the death of dreams, the death of the world we knew and hoped for, the death of our planet. It is as if my ticket is already stamped, the show is over, and the credits are running. It is time to get up and leave but I’m going to wait until I see who wrote the music and who catered the crew. Damn it, I’m going to see it through.

I go to bed too early and stay in bed too late. And in between, I don’t sleep well. I am hot, then cold. The covers tangle around my legs. The top sheet tries to strangle me. The cat, somewhere in the vast outdoors, screams at 2 a.m., pursued, perhaps, by the neighbor feline or a raccoon or a ghost. I leap out of the bed and pound vigorously on windows. I switch lights on and off hoping to scare monsters away. Because, I think, maybe it is I who is screaming. I turn on my bedside lamp and read for a while. I have to pee. I make my way down the familiar stairs and into the bathroom. I think may as well get up. I read a bit more. Then fall asleep and wake an hour later, groggy and unrested.

When I am finally really awake, I think, almost always, of my friend. The one I used to call with news. But there is no news and no one to call. It seems pointless to start anything that might take years of commitment. As a friend once said, “Don’t plant anything that requires 10 or more years before it bears fruit.” There is so little time left. I try to talk myself out of this thought. I remind myself that I could live another, oh, 17 years. Seventeen years? Then I wonder if my money will last that long. I count it. Divide by 17. I wonder how I will fare in those years? I wonder if I will stay in my house and continue muttering to my coffee and monitoring my diet and forcing myself to exercise every day. Again I wonder, what is the point?

While I putter around doing my laundry, organizing bookshelves, dusting lampshades, and scrubbing the shower stall, I give myself pep talks. Just think, one such speech begins, some of the presidential candidates are nearly your age. You don’t think they are giving it up. I read obituaries to cheer myself. Just look at that. Everyone who died this week was nearly 90 or beyond 90. See? You have a long way to go.

That thought is counter productive in someways. It would be a thrilling thought if I could be interested in something. But to imagine another 20 years of feeling like THIS without an exit strategy is hellish. And my pressing fear is that as I grow older, there will be more and more losses and more and more lengthy periods of trying to recover.


When I was still in high school, a car in which several Girl Scouts and their leaders were packed, was crushed by a train at a crossing near my school. Things like that happened in those days. Even my mother and I had been hit by a train once. We didn’t have adequately marked crossings or, more often, the crossings weren’t marked at all. You might start across the track and suddenly there was the engine baring down on you. That happened with mother. She slammed on the brakes and stalled the engine. Our car was sent careening off the tracks and left hung up on the edge of a deep escarpment. This crossing, near the school, was one of those bad ones.

Everyone in that car died. One of them, Anne North, was a young friend of mine. I was a junior leader in 4-H and she admired me. I liked her, though because of the age difference, we didn’t become close. Over her open casket, her mother told me that I had an obligation to live the best life I could because Anne would not have the opportunity to live at all. I had to sort of, I think she said, live for myself and for Anne.

So as I dawdle around the house aimlessly rearranging pillows, carrying the garbage up the hill, and vacuuming the same rug twice in the same day, I wonder if I need to think about that again. My friend is gone. I’m here. Do I have an obligation to her? Do I have a responsibility to life that is different from the one I had two months ago? Or will I simply bow and submit to the increasingly unreasonable demands of an aging body and sleep, putter and wait for death.

About Llyn De Danaan

LLyn De Danaan is an anthropologist and author. She writes fiction and nonfiction. Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay was published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is currently a speaker for Humanities Washington.
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