The age of the dead

I’ve taken to glancing at the obituary section of the newspaper.  Not because I might know anyone in it — I am a recent transplant, again, and know few living people where I am, not to mention dead ones.  No, I find myself looking for other recently departed who are too young, specifically people who were in their late teens to early thirties.  Especially noting the ones who left behind siblings.  I don’t really know why I’m doing this — it doesn’t make me feel better to know there are others in my position, and I’m hardly going to contact the survivors to join my club — but I just do.

First I glance at the photos.  Several times my attention has been caught by photos of charming people who appear to be in their 20’s, only to then note how old-fashioned they look, and then to realize that they are old photos of older people, capturing them at their societally-approved prettiest, decades before they stopped living. (One of the many problems I had with the concept of heaven as a child was just how old its inhabitants would be- the age they wanted, or the age they had been? This could result in either a largely 21-year-old group or conversely a primarily geriatric one.)

Today I went to visit Alex’s grave for the first time since burying him on July 16.  I brought the hat I finished last night at around 1am, some bourbon for us to share, a slice of Chicago pizza, flowers, and some Halloween-sized Snickers bars.  As I was walking out the door, my mom noted that Alex didn’t really like candy.  Ah, but he did when he was a kid, I replied.  Which brings me to the question: just how old are the dead?  Who was I bringing that candy for – 5 year old Alex, or 29 year old Alex?

With the living, we are the age we are.  The cutest 5 year old who turns into a cantankerous 40 year old will get addressed and treated as she is now.  But with the dead. . . I don’t know.  I say my brother was 29, and that would be the age he still were if he were alive today.  29 is significant to me because it’s all we have of Alex, and it’s our freshest memory of him.  But everything that we now have of Alex is memories, and not just of that freezeframe when he died, but all the moments leading up to it.  For me this is in some ways a bane, because if I am left only with the most recent memories, I am left with our unpleasant interactions just over a week before he died.  But it is also confusing.  As everyone else continues to age and Alex remains in his strange Flight of the Navigator orbit, will our memories of him broaden to encompass the earlier years as pressingly and vividly as they do the end?  I suspect for some of us, our memories may also spread forward, creating new imaginings of how Alex would have aged and responded to change.  He was an impressive figure at 29, but I’m sure he would have gotten even more grand.



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