Pythagoras*

I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience, but my grief has made me, against all previous likelihood, into a half-assed mathematician. Numbers were never my bag, and I’ve got the report cards to prove it. And yet, ever since 2002 I repeatedly find myself going over similar calculations.

There are the obvious, inevitable examples. For instance: this is the second anniversary of her death; it was therefore seven years since her first operation. Then, with a combination of improvisation and OCD, other variations ensue:  I was 27 then; my sister’s son will be 27 when I’m 57, which is two years younger than my mother when she died. My grandmother has been dead for 31 years, and my mother was 38 (I was 10) when she died. Her funeral cost about $(insert amount here) , which would buy (this many) trips to (this place). If we went to the various hospitals and treatment centers approximately fifty times over the course of five years, at roughly fifteen miles per trip, this distance would get you from DC to Chicago. If we spent x hours at those various centers, collectively this represents about y% of our lives. We ate in the hospital cafeteria roughly twenty times, or enough to pay 2% of one of the cashier’s yearly salaries. And so on.

And then, this: if I get diagnosed at 54, like my mother did, that means that effective immediately I have thirteen more years to enjoy a cancer-free existence (although those malevolent cells could already be coursing through my oblivious veins even as I type). Interestingly, these equations—and the scenarios they induce—seldom extend to my old man or my sister. It is, I reckon, disconcerting enough to apply these exercises to myself; it is intolerable (or, at least for now, not possible) to project them onto anyone else.

I can barely balance my checkbook, yet here I am, a poor man’s Pythagoras, my busy brain co-opting or pre-empting the confusion and consternation cancer yields. And just like the bad old days during Algebra exams, I apprehend much less than I’d like. For example: how might my mother have lived if she’d known she was never going to see sixty? How would I have lived? How might I do things differently (i.e., better) if I could know how far off, or how unacceptably close my own death will be?

Once again, it gets back to God, the Prime Mover with an advanced degree in these metaphysical matters. Or at least it prompts a concession to—or yearning for—some immutable force that organizes, if not explains, the mystery of being as well as the when’s, what’s and why’s of how we come and where we go.

But every dog has its day, right? Take my dog, for good measure. I knew he was going to die (he died when I was 38, which was six years after my mother died…). I know I’m going to die. My friend’s children will die. Puppies and kids not even born will have litters and grandchildren who will one day die, and it’s not easy to declare which ones may go before their time because none of us knows how long we’ve got once we get here.

And up there, somewhere, that benevolent, or oblivious, or non-existent—depending on which courses you’ve taken, in life—entity is balancing the books and crunching the numbers and checking His work, using the magic red pen to cross out errors or correct any formulas that are inconsistent with the bigger picture, which itself is an open book, and always a work in progress.

*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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