189. Death

I work in a group home for gentlemen with mental and physical disabilities. Of these gentlemen, by far the most interesting was the middle-aged man called James Joyce.

(In this blog post, all names have been changed for reasons of privacy.)

James Joyce, who very pragmatically addressed me as “Man With Glasses,” suffered from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder and one or two other psychological conditions. He also had a few physical problems, and—I can only guess—heart trouble.

He drove us all crazy with his manic behavior and cranky attitude, but James Joyce also made us laugh. A hot pink Disney princess poster brightened up his bedroom. He often warned me, “The Boogerman’s gonna getcha!” James Joyce constantly demanded all kinds of snacks, and occasionally pounded the floor with his shoe to kill nonexistent spiders.

More poignantly, he sometimes asked me, “Are we very good friends?” On one occasion, when I was particularly out of temper with him, he broke a long silence by saying in a still, small voice, “You’re nice.”

On a Monday afternoon a few weeks ago, James Joyce helped me mix up batter for corn muffins as I prepared supper at work. He later tried snatching a water balloon out of someone’s hand. It exploded and left him wet and squawking in indignation. When I left work, he was being as much of a nuisance as ever.

Early the next morning, James Joyce passed away of heart failure.

Death is a sobering subject. We’re reluctant to discuss it, and when we do we generally change subjects as quickly as possible. Perhaps the reason it makes us uncomfortable is that we know there is no getting away from it. Death is a guest whom no locked door can keep out.

I’m truly thankful never to have suffered the loss of a loved one. My family and friends are alive and well. My experience with death is mostly limited to killing off fictional characters, which is nothing. To claim I know something about death because I’m a writer is like pretending I’m an expert on literary scholarship because I’ve read a picture book.

There’s a common saying: I’m too young to die!

That’s idiotic. No one is too young to die.

Responding to that old cliche, I can only echo the words of an incidental character from Avatar: The Last Airbender and say: I’m not, but I still don’t want to!

In the end, however, I’m ready—not eager, but ready. If I today shuffled off this mortal coil, I’d leave some books unwritten and a dozen typewriter monkeys unemployed and many thousands of liters of coffee undrunk. It would be a bit of a disappointment for me, and a tragedy for the people who don’t mind having me around.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?

I guess the sting of death falls mostly upon those left behind.

God rest your soul, James Joyce. I’ll always be wary of the Boogerman.

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