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November 2, 2017
Notta and What Hurts, Part II
“Sometimes I think I should keep my mouth shut.”
That’s not something I expect to hear from Notta Louden before or after a class. Notta rarely keeps her opinions to herself. Particularly after this class in which the subject of shooting deaths came into our discussion.
The class ended on time with a reasonable amount of academic work smoothing over what I had sensed as some rather rough feelings. Notta demystified long division for one student, and I discussed the balancing act of proportions and scale drawings with two others. My students left with their usual mixture of cheerful “Goodbye,” “See you next time,” and assorted grunts, but I did find myself wondering what they were thinking. Notta left me in no such suspense.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, mouse-clicking and typing URLs in hopes the agency’s Wifi connection would not burp me out of the system again when I tried to enter my attendance.
“Who am I to tell that young man what to do? I didn’t grow up the way he did. I don’t live where he lives. How do I know what he needs to do?”
“Well,” I said, “you’re a few years older than he is.”
Notta snorted. “Very tactful. I could be his grandmother.”
“You’ve seen more of life than he has.”
“You’ve seen more presidents and wars and changing times, then.”
“You’re on a feel-good roll,” she said.
“What should I say? You’ve seen more of death?”
She shrugged. “Who can say?” She sighed. “But I have seen my share. And there’s more to come, I know. Like the minister says, ‘In the midst of death we are in life.’”
“I think it’s the other way around,” I commented, “but it works either way.”
Notta settled down into one of the spare chair. “You ever think about death?”
“More than I’d like to do.” This was no feel-good sop. With nonagenarian parents, such thoughts are rarely from my mind.
“Me, too. I think I have been thinking about it since my grandfather died. I was seven. My parents wouldn’t let my grandmother tell me the fib that Grandpa had only gone to sleep. They thought I’d never want to go to bed ever. So my mom told me ‘it was his time.’ I remember asking them what time was it that Grandpa died and what time were they going to die. My mom says I even offered to stop all the clocks in the house to prevent their dying. They still get a good laugh about that.” I chuckled a little.
Notta leaned forward. “Then when I got to be ten and a few more old folks in my family had died, I started wondering who decided it was time for each one, anyone really, to die.”
“Did you not grow up with any religious beliefs?”
She nodded. “But somehow I could never picture God as somebody with a stopwatch and a clipboard. I always figured He was too busy welcoming all the people who died everyday into Heaven. I guess I thought the angels did all the paperwork”
“Sounds like a good business model,” I joked.
She laughed. “Oh, it gets worse. I went through a phase where I wasn’t so sure about God or religion or any of what my parents had taught me.”
“Late teens to mid-twenties, right?”
“About then. My grandmother died, three great aunts. I think we had a family funeral every other month my second year in college. I started thinking of us all as row after row of generations, moving forward whether we wanted to or not. Sort of shoved along by the generations behind us.”
“Moving forward to where?”
Notta half-smiled. “Nearest I could figure is we were all moving towards a cliff and each generation in their turn fell off into something like a black hole. Not all at once, some stood at the edge longer than others. Maybe the ones behind them finally shoved the waiters over, I don’t know. But I remember thinking that, so long as there were lines of older people in front of me, I wasn’t in any immediate danger of disappearing.”
“An interesting idea,” I said, “but it leaves some questions. Like what about the babies who die after a minute or a month of life? What about soldiers in battle? Or kids like [student’s name], whose brother and cousin were killed?”
“And don’t forget people in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia and even Texas that the hurricane took,” Notta agreed.
“And Las Vegas and Manhatten – “
Notta held up a hand. “Wait. Are we gonna go through all the mass murders like Columbine and Aurora and Sandy Hook and Charleston and turn this into a guns discussion?”
I laughed. “No, that’s the discussion that doesn’t end. Shouldn’t, either, until our gutless lawmakers vote their conscience and not their wallets.”
“Hmph!” Notta snorted again. “You assume they have a conscience anymore.”
“So let’s get back on topic. Your lemmings off the cliff theory has its holes.”
“Yes, it did. Maybe the holes are what those younger ones fell through on the plain while the rest of us managed to dodge them.”
“For a time,” I agreed. “But who decides exactly when anybody falls over the cliff?”
“I told you,” Notta said with a grin. “The angels. And Santa Claus crawls through the sewer pipe to my house on Christmas Eve because I don’t have a fireplace. It’s something I thought of to explain what I didn’t understand. Like a myth.”
“Yeth,” I answered.
She laughed. “Don’t go ‘Muppet Movie’* on me here! I’m trying to be serious.”
“I know you are. I suppose I’m not terribly comfortable talking about death and dying.”
“You know somebody who is? I mean, when it comes to their own?”
We sat in silence until I closed out the attendance program. Notta did not pack up her bag to leave.
“So what do you think about it now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, pulling at the hem of her cabled sweater. “But it sure redefines how I look at life.”
Notta looked past me. Her eyes seemed to lose focus for a moment as if she saw something through the painted brick. “I think if we could dial this day back and have our cherubs back in class, I’d tell them all something different.” I waited. “I’d say it’s sad when people we love die. It hurts like no other pain you’ve had or will have in your life. But everything living dies, whether you love them or not. Whether you want them dead or not. Everything dies. Hopefully, I’m closer to it than any of our cherubs or any more of their family. Maybe not. But it will happen to all of us and everyone we love. We don’t know when, though. The angels aren’t big on sharing that information.
“So the real problem is not what do you do about dying, but what do you do about living?”
“And the answer is?”
Notta shrugged again. Then she stood up and found her belongings. “It’s never the same, one person to the next, but I think the key is not to cling. Not to a house, not to some clothes or a car, or money or some pipe dream you won’t get off your tush to make happen. Not even the faulty memory of a great love that likely never was or the poisonous hate you’ve had since somebody took your something or other. Clinging isn’t living because it all falls to dust when we die. “She offered me a smile. “It keeps your hands full when you could be hugging and loving so much more.”
*Henson Associates, Jim Henson, Director. The Muppet Movie (1979). USA.