Thursday, June 9, 2011

Notice of Removal

It's been nearly a year since I began this two-wheeled commute, and in all that time my bicycle has had a constant companion, at least for the hour or so each day I spend at Duke's Brodie Gym: a teal and silver mountain bike, left behind God knows when. Soon however, we must bid adieu to this orphaned ride, as its end has been ordained, foretold by this harbinger from the powers that be: "Notice of Removal."

I discovered this notice upon returning from a trip to Arkansas and Missouri, the second of two recent visits to this region necessitated by the death of my father-in-law. The first was for his funeral, and while we left his ashes then at the family plot in Joplin, back in April, it was on the latter trip, 'round Memorial Weekend, that we truly dealt with his remains – that is, his home, and all that was in it.

This house was a homeowner's nightmare, a horrific vision of the consequences of neglect. My father-in-law had not been well in recent years and he was a man who valued his privacy, so he had been neither able to take care of the place himself nor inclined to hire those who could have done it for him. The roof had numerous leaks, leaving moldering piles of insulation and broken bits of ceiling tile round about, and soft spots underfoot where the floorboards were rotting away. Insects were busy returning the structure to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

For all that, there were many areas where his stuff had safely accumulated, and accumulate it had, in breadth and depth. If housecleaning seemed a futile exercise, like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, at least it provided a means of separating wheat from chaff, of finding such things as someone might want to preserve, whether that someone be family holding on to cherished keepsakes or garage salers seeking cheap merchandise.

But listen: Mike Mills was on "Fresh Air," playing on the boombox while we worked, telling Terri Gross about his semi-autobiographical movie, "Beginners." He spoke of how a life ends up in garbage bags, as his father's had, Mills having had to clean up after his dad's death, just as we were doing the very same thing after Jenna's. The rented dumpster in the driveway, quickly filling to its rim, offered mute testimony to mortality. We might hold on to a few of these things, and relatives and strangers a few more, but ultimately they will all end up as trash.

Think of those family photos we salvaged. Jenna recognized the more recent ones, while her father's cousin could identify some a bit older, but by the bottom of the box we were looking at ancient black & whites of unknown ancestors, younger than photography but already lost to memory. The bins of mementos Jen brought home to Durham are sandbags against the rising river of time.

I suppose mortality is nature's constant message, whispered in the comprehending human ear, though sometimes she turns up the volume, as she had done in Joplin the night Jen arrived in the area, a few days before I flew in. Her father's grave was just three or four blocks north of the path of the F5 tornado that decimated the town, but the cemetery was untouched, its trees and monuments pretty and peaceful as we paid our respects on Memorial Day, then drove south across a landscape of broken trees, crushed cars, and absent houses. Nature's message was the same as mine at the yard sale, a few days later: Everything must go.

I've often said that comedy is simply skipping the ending – the inevitable tragedy of death – so I was struck by something revealed in the Mike Mills interview on "Fresh Air": that "Beginners" is a comedy, though it embraces the death of the father, one of the main characters in the film. I'm sure it is also a drama, but that doesn't deny the comedy, like the heartfelt laughter one often hears at funerals, as stories are told of the deceased. There was such laughter at Jen's father's funeral. No, he didn't live as large as Mike Mills' father apparently had at the end, but he traveled some, he had a deep and meaningful relationship with popular culture, and he loved arguing politics with the conservatives around him in Northwest Arkansas. His house was a disaster, but he probably spent more time at the Starbuck's in Rogers, whose baristas expressed real sadness at his passing, all of them signing an apron with personal messages, two of them even attending his funeral, where one of them spoke movingly. He will be missed.

…at least until all of us who remember him are gone, and then we will be missed until… Well, we're all swept away by the whirlwind eventually.

Forest Park Cemetery – Joplin, MO – just north of the tornado's path – Memorial Day 2011

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