Friday, June 24, 2016

Dropping Like Flies

The older you get, the less reason there is to pussy-foot around the topic of mortality. I'm not purposely trying to be morbid. I realize that "almost 50" doesn't directly equate to "one foot in the grave."

We're all as young as we feel, in which case my relative age changes more rapidly than Donald Trump's estimated net worth. In the span of any given day I can go from feeling like an awe-inspired toddler to a tottering old fool depending on how the day plays out. My general take on mortality is to ignore it, live each day as it comes, and try to go to bed content in the knowledge I haven't wronged anyone and, with any luck, have made the world a slightly better place in which to be.

Then the alumni newsletter arrives in the mail.

Brimming with pictures of people I don't know doing things in a place from which I am now 26 years removed, the alumni newsletter is a mildly entertaining distraction. It's nice to see my alma matter keeping up with the times and bettering the lives of its students. I particularly enjoy issues of the newsletter that don't dedicate 75% of their space to college sports. I couldn't possibly give less of a fornication which team won what trophy, or what player was named All-American. Didn't care when I went there. Really, really, really don't care now. I'd much rather read how the university is preparing kids for the future, not how many of its alumni will suffer early-onset joint trouble and concussion-related memory issues.

Like many alumni, the first section of the newsletter I flip to is the one in which alumni provide updates on their wherabouts and doings. And why not? It's the most directly relatable part of the newsletter. There might be a name I recall, or a photo that jogs a pleasant reminiscence.

    "Look, there's so-and-so! He's vice president of a bank!"

    "And there's what's-her-name! She supervising physician at a teaching hospital in Oxnard!"

Stuff like that. Every now and then, I might even see my own name in there and hope someone, somewhere, sees it and says something like: "There's that guy! I remember that guy! Says here he just self-published his third book. Poor bastard still doesn't have an agent..."

Unfortunately, adjacent to that section of the newsletter is a page titled "In Memorium." The college obituary column; the list of names that, until recently, was largely free of people my age. The section that once was occupied mostly by deceased alumni from the 1970s and earlier decades. The section of the newsletter that really didn't apply, or if it did, marked a singularity; a unique tragedy; a cancer or car accident that caused an anomaly in the life-expectancy statistics. Not so any longer.

I counted ten names in the issue that arrived this week. Ten names of people my age or slightly younger who apparently dropped like flies at a Raid-huffing party without even warranting special comment as to how, or how tragically young they were when it happened. So many of them together in one list probably makes it difficult to find space enough to put much more than their names and year of graduation. Besides, alumni from the 1950s and 1960s were hogging all the column inches.

Rather than worrying about silly things like aging and dying, however, spotting so many of my former classmates In Memorium has made me wonder what I'm leaving behind. What have I accomplished to be proud of? What legacies -- apart from encouraging the daily consumption of chocolate and teaching my children it's okay to laugh at highly inappropriate times -- am I responsible for that will make the world a better place once I'm gone?

I've written a few books and a few hundred blog entries. I've tried my best to be helpful to people throughout the course of my life. I've tried to be as responsible a person as my degree of attention deficit disorder permits. My Lovely Wife and I have saved money, worked hard and tried to provide an example for our children to follow as they move into adulthood. Perhaps, in the end, that has to be enough.

I won't last forever and nothing I create will, either. But, with a little luck, the children we brought into this world will brighten a few corners of it. I'm good with that.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Cautionary Tale

Some years ago, after her husband passed away, my mother-in-law booked a cruise through the funeral home that handled his arrangements. It's a service many funeral homes provide -- vacation packages for the recently bereaved. The idea is simple and well-intended: people who suddenly are alone can meet others who also are alone. Friendships might evolve and all those people might find themselves a little bit less lonely. It didn't hurt that Mom was a diamond-level priority member with Royal Caribbean.

The thing you might not know about these bereavement vacation packages is that unfilled spots are sometimes sold to the general public. Such was the case with the cruise my mother-in-law booked. Some people on the cruise were clients of the funeral home while others were not. When she returned from her trip, we heard all about two new non-client friends she had made while away. Let's call them D and J.

Suspicions were immediately aroused in our household when we heard how they met on the bus to the airport. Mom had raised her hand in response to a question asked by the group leader.

J, a short man of roughly 60 years, noticed the rings on her fingers and later said he simply had to meet a woman with such exquisite taste in jewelry. I've never been emotionally stirred by another person's bling, but I realize some people are that superficial. Mom, of course, took it as a compliment and was flattered by the attention she received from J and his lady friend D, a strange woman I initially and incorrectly assumed was J's wife.

Very quickly, D and J were socializing with Mom at every opportunity. They met for lunch several times a week. They became regular fixtures at family dinners and poolside lounge sessions on hot summer days. They ferried her to and from medical appointments. The fawning and praise they showered upon Mom were excessive, and they seemed to be at her beck and call, available at a moment's notice should she be in need of anything.

Their helpfulness wasn't limited to my mother-in-law, either. They repeatedly offered to help us on busy days should we need someone to pick up the kids from school. The day we moved into our new house, J offered to take our sons over to see his collection of military medals while D helped unpack boxes. Every time I recall his offer, and the fact those two ever crossed our threshhold, I cringe.

The friendship between my mother-in-law and this odd couple ended abruptly on Easter weekend of 2007. While at our house for Easter dinner, Mom called D and J to wish them a happy holiday and ask if they could, as they had done many times, pick her up from dialysis the following day. That was all it took. Mom later received a harsh email from them stating how offened they were at not being good enough to invite to dinner, yet they were good enough to shuttle her home from a medical appointment. If I recall correctly, Mom had no further communication from the couple and passed away later that year still as confused as the rest of us.

Several theories have since crossed my mind regarding D and J. The one I believe most likely is that they were opportunists hoping to worm their way into a lonely woman's life and, through legal maneuverings or other chicanery, take what they wanted from her estate. It wouldn't be the first time something like that happened to an elderly, emotionally vulnerable person. I suspect they cut their losses and moved on after realizing Mom's bonds with her family were too tight break. Call me paranoid, but that's what I believe.

The worst part of it all is we learned, several months after Mom died, that J was a registered sex offender who had spent 12 years in prison for aggravated felonious sexual assault involving forced penetration of a child under 13 years of age. He was on the registry by the time we learned this, but not for very long. It seems he spent at least a year secretly living with his girlfriend in North Carolina while maintaining registration on another state's sex offender list. When I called our county Sheriff's office to tell them he had been in the state for a much longer period of time than his registration date would suggest, my concern was dismissed and I was told to be content that he was now registered.

The man had been in my home. This potential sexual predator repeatedly offered to pick up our children from school, take them off our hands when we were busy, even entertain them at his house. Exactly how was I supposed to feel content about that, other than from knowing he never was alone with our children?

The takeaway lesson from our brush with D and J is to guard your elders just as you do your toddlers. Give them room enough to lead their own lives and be their own people, but bear in mind their weaknesses and help them steer clear of those who might do them harm.

I hate to seem like the kind of person who casts a suspicious eye at every new aquaintance, but in the words of Stephen King: "The trust of the innocent is the liar's most useful tool."

© 2016 Mark Feggeler