Straddling Death


A couple years after graduating high school, my senior year Spanish teacher passed away.  I was home for break and and decided it would be best to pay my respects.  I was taking a shower in preparation for her calling hours when I felt an unusual lump near my groin.

As it turns out, both sides of my groin had the same lump in the exact same place, but I swore that one side was more lumpier than the other.  I studied it enough to know.  I spent at least an hour in front of the bathroom mirror running the fingers of both hands over each side at the same time to get a comparison.  One lump was definitely larger.  But maybe it was my imagination.  Nope.  One lump was definitely twice as big.

Years later the doctors would tell me that these “lumps” I was feeling are natural parts of my body.  Like the time I was 16 and thought I had early-onset colon cancer until I learned the definition of a hemorrhoid.  Or the time I had a pimple that was too close to my mouth, but didn’t have any ex-girlfriends to courtesy call.  I’ve always been known to be an irrational hypochondriac, so on this particular morning as I crouched on top of the bathroom counter, gliding my fingertips over my inner thighs, I was certain I was on death’s door.

There is no worse time to have a health scare than the morning of your Spanish teacher’s funeral visitation.  In fact, standing in a line of crying people to say goodbye to somebody for the last time is a great way to come to terms with your own mortality and the fragility of life.  Nowadays these types of emotions can be avoided with a well-placed iPhone.  A simple round of Angry Birds or a glance at a Twitter feed to forget you’re depressed.  Unfortunately, I only had a flip phone and therefore had no choice but to deal with feelings.

My Spanish teacher was well-loved.  You could tell by the way the line of people stretched all the way around the building.  A sea of people in black, standing below a grey sky, too mournful to notice or be bothered by the light drizzle.  There were old people with faces of stone, having been through this too many times before.  There were young people tugging on the shirtsleeves of their parents, asking questions about the purpose of a finite life.  And then there was me, my hands in my pockets, fidgeting with my private area and caressing my imaginary tumors.

There are many places in life you don’t want to be caught stealthily poking around in your pants.  The playground is a good example along with a school play or a dance recital.  On this particular day I shamefully added funeral home to that list.

It took forever to reach the front of that line.  At one point I almost wished I was paying my respects to an old drifter I met on the road somewhere between Massachusetts and Ithaca.  A kind, gentle man with very few friends or family.  It would have been the same emotional experience, but in the duration of a much shorter line.

Standing in these circumstances for a half hour gave me too much time to think.  It’s not often we take the time to reflect on the fact that life ends.  We tend to put death in the back of our minds for a reason.  On one hand, it might be freeing to make every day count knowing you have an expiration date.  On the other hand, nothing puts a damper on the holidays, relationships, having children, working, traveling, buying a puppy, and enjoying the beauty of the world more than the thought that everything is going to die someday.

So we place that thought in a little lock box that we only open when somebody actually does die or you feel an abnormal growth near your junk.  As a hypochondriac, I probably open this box more than most.  Never for very long.  But enough to get a nice glimpse.  Then I quickly shut it until the next wake or funeral.

When I made it to the front of the line, I stopped touching myself just long enough to pay my respects to the family of the deceased.  Then I met up with a few friends at our favorite restaurant down the street.  We told our favorite drunk stories from college and laughed about old high school memories.  It was so engaging, I forgot to touch myself.  Later that night, I discovered that my groin was bruised from excessive rubbing and I would worry that it was because my tumors were starting to bleed and I was going to die a lot faster than I originally anticipated.  I laid awake at night, praying to return to school whereI could party and drink and learn and love and life would seem so infinite again.


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