Nothing ever stays the same. Things change. All the various parts of our daily existences that we take for granted are not excepted from this rule. It even applies to all the things that seem most deeply rooted in our lives, things that over a long stretch of time, many years or decades, may come to seem “permanent.” But this is only an illusion, a trick of the human mind and the way we perceive things. Not a single thing in your life is permanent. Not any of the things you love, none of your life’s endeavors, and certainly not the company of any of the people you cherish the most. None of it is here to stay. It all goes away in the end. There are times when life allows you ample opportunity to anticipate the end of important things, and there are times when these things are taken from you so abruptly the event leaves you stunned and short of breath. One may imagine that the former scenario is the ideal way of things, that it will leave you sufficient time to prepare and adjust, but this isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes that period of anticipation, especially when dragged out over a longish span, is perhaps more cruel, because you can see what’s coming and are faced with the horror of knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. And sometimes, no matter how much time you have before the oncoming change or end of things, that time isn’t nearly enough.
Today marks fifty days since Rachael passed away. We didn’t quite make it to our tenth wedding anniversary. That would have been May 6th, 2011. Rachael looked forward to that date for a long time. Her dream was to renew our vows on that day, to have a bigger and better ceremony, the kind she didn’t get to have the first time around. You see, Rachael’s cancer battle was a very protracted one. When we were married on May 6th, 2001, she had already had a major surgery and was undergoing chemotherapy. Cancer is cruel. Cancer is a thief. It robs its victims not just of their lives, but of all their hopes and dreams. It shuts down their plans and eliminates the future. I am able to think of few things more cruel than that vile disease. In fact, at the moment, nothing else really comes to mind. Cancer killed Rachael’s dreams as surely as it robbed her of her life. It prevented her from achieving things she very much wanted to achieve. On May 6th, instead of walking down the aisle with Rachael again, I visited her grave in Nashville. I would rather have spent that day another way, preferably in fulfillment of her dream for that date, but it was all I could do because things had changed. She had been taken from me.
Last night I watched a new episode of South Park. The title of the episode was “You’re Getting Old.” Those of you reading this may be wondering how this is relevant to the above. In fact, it is very relevant. I won’t take time to explain the show or its characters. In its fifteenth season now, South Park has been on for a long time, and by now you know the show or you don’t. What’s relevant here is the theme of the episode, which is the same thing I’ve been talking about. Changes and endings. Life transitions. But that’s not the only way in which South Park is relevant. Rachael and I had differing interests in many areas. We liked different kinds of music and books. Of course, there were things we both liked as well, and one of those things was South Park. Early in our relationship, for a short time I lived with Rachael in a tiny one-room apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. This was in 1999, the year South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was released to theaters. It was one of a handful of movies we saw before returning to Tennessee. We both thought the movie was hilarious, and it was one we would revisit again and again through the years. We also faithfully watched each new episode of the TV show that aired during our twelve years together.
Of course, Rachael didn’t get to see this latest batch of new episodes, and I couldn’t help wondering what she would have thought of “You’re Getting Old.” In the episode, one of the central characters, a kid named Stan, is growing apart from his friends Eric, Kyle, and Kenny. Following the occasion of his tenth birthday, he has become deeply cynical and unable to see the worth in anything, literally viewing everything he encounters as “shit”. And by literal, I do mean actual depictions of excrement. Trust me, it was hilarious, as were many other elements of the plot as the episode progressed. If this had been a normal episode, this situation would likely have been resolved in some absurd and possibly funny way. But this wasn’t a normal episode, as the last few minutes revealed. Stan’s doctor diagnoses him as having become a “cynical asshole”, a condition for which there is no cure. Stan becomes desperate to retain his friendship with Eric, Kyle, and Kenny, but they turn their backs on him. This theme of change extends to the cracks showing in the marriage of Stan’s parents. After a final screaming argument, both admit they have been unhappy for a long time and both see each other as “kind of shitty.” What follows is a montage of scenes depicting deepening changes in the lives of these characters with the Fleetwood Mac song “Landslide” playing over it. The song choice is fitting as it is a very melancholy tune. We watch Stan’s parents pack up their belongings and split up. We see Stan’s best friend Kyle turn his back on him a final time. We see Stan moving away. The final shot is of Stan lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling in his new home. It was an unexpected and oddly moving last couple minutes. And this was the last new episode until October. Generally, you don’t expect a silly cartoon to end a run of episodes on a note like that. Maybe the status quo will reset in October, but perhaps not. Because last night, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the show, seemed to be saying, “Even in South Park, things change. Things end.”
I’ve watched the episode three times now. I’m not afraid to admit that I became emotional in the last few minutes each time I watched it, especially on the repeat viewings as the meaning really began to penetrate.
Last night, after I finally went to bed at four in the morning (so I guess it wasn’t actually “night”, but whatever), I dreamed that someone came and took away Rachael’s hospital bed, which had remained in the spare room where she spent the last four months of her life. This morning at around 11 am, a knock on the front door jolted me out of sleep. I wasn’t expecting anyone, but hurriedly dressed and answered the door. A white van was parked in my driveway. A representative from the medical supply company was standing on my front step. Please understand that I had not contacted them. My dream and this man’s arrival at my door were pure coincidence, I suppose. It’s tempting to see something mystical in it, but it was inevitable that they would want their stuff back. My mother had been telling me for a while that I needed to contact them and have them come retrieve their equipment. But I never did. It may sound odd or even morbid, but that hospital bed was one of the last tactile connections I had to Rachael when she was alive. Over these last several weeks, I would go in there, shut the door to keep my animals out, then sit down and talk to her. Whether she could hear me in some way or not isn’t the point. It was something that helped me cope in some of my worst moments.
So I let the guy into my house. He quickly broke down the hospital bed in a precisely methodical way and carried out all the various parts to the van. He also took away the wheelchair I’d used to take Rachael to so many of her appointments over the last several months. Then I closed the door on him and he was gone.
I broke down. I didn’t expect to react in quite that way. After all, that bed and that wheelchair are connected to the worst period in Rachael’s life, a time when she was never really comfortable and was in so much pain. So why should I lament the departure of those items and the painful memories associated with them? I think it’s because its another way in which I have to say goodbye to Rachael on a psychological level all over again. And so today the grief felt as fresh as it did in the earliest days of this empty time.
And it was yet another reminder.
Nothing stays the same. Things change.