Healthy?

I’ve said before that I don’t listen to the news because I can’t stand the fighting. It’s always the same argument, and it gets vicious. The form changes, but not the content. People kill each because they want to be right, from the guy who shoots his girlfriend in the head to the guy who decides it’s time to drop the bomb. And when it comes to politics, people will go out of their minds to prove they’re right because it’s all about power. When they get that power, they’ll say anything to keep it. And if they can’t have it themselves, they’ll attach themselves to others who do. That’s what name-dropping is about – I might not be enough, but if I know people that matter, then I’ll matter, too.

And is that really what matters? I won’t listen to what I can only call insanity. I will not take on any more hurt than I have to.

Natalie listens to a lot of podcasts. Driving her to work one day, she asked if she could put one on. “I don’t want to listen to politics,” I warned her. As I’ve turned away from the daily warfare we know as politics, Natalie has turned from the parental fiscal conservativeness she grew up with to all-things-NPR. I don’t care. She knows I won’t discuss it, and she assures me that all she wants me to listen to are the stories of “This American Life.

I love stories. I get lost in stories. That’s why in the last two-and-half years I’m making up for all the TV watching I never did. When my kids were growing up, the only TV I watched was an hour or two of news after dinner, before I started reading. Now I hunt down old series that I can sit and watch for hours. Those imagined lives; those attractive people who care about things and get involved in things because they want to do things with all those other people who want to do those things, too. And they’re all adults. There’s CJ, tall and gracious yet so down to earth as she handles POTUS’ press conferences. Or busty, no-nonsense Joan, running the office of that ad agency with a smartness that comes from knowing how to use her sex. Or Rust – oh, Rust. Serious, worn, rugged, handsome and way too smart to live in a world like this.

When I watch TV I am transported and I forget. For just a while, I forget.

I’m hooked on “This American Life.” Whenever I’m driving, I listen. Last week I heard a show called “Origins,” four stories about the way certain things had started. Story number two was about a restaurant called Chad’s Trading Post. The producer of “This American Life” and his girlfriend happened in on it one day. When they picked up the menu, they read the restaurant was dedicated to and operated proudly in the memory of Chad. When they looked around, they saw the waiters at the Trading Post wore blue t-shirts with white writing on the back that announced their relationship with Chad: ”Chad’s Father,” “Chad’s Brother” “Chad’s Best Friend” “Chad’s Cousin.” Chad’s Mom, it turned out, used to work there, but was now involved in other things. There were pictures of Chad everywhere, even one that was life-sized. And so being a radio show producer, he spoke to Chad’s father Glenn, and got the story.

March 11th, 1990, two days before Chad’s sixteenth birthday, he was in his room with a friend and a couple of guns. The guns were legal, belonged to Glenn, who had no idea they were in his son’s room and so has to live with what he now knows. Chad picked up a gun, aimed it at his friend and said, “Bang.” The friend picked up the other gun, aimed it at Chad and went “Bang.”

I don’t know if Chad died immediately or in the ambulance, but just like that he was gone. The family went into shock, grief, despair. Chad has two brothers, Scott and Cory. How are we to live, they asked? Scott and his dad had to make a deal not to kill themselves. They all got tattooed in memory of him. Even grandma got one on her chest. And after a few years of despondency, they decided to open a restaurant.

From the time he was 12, Chad talked about opening a restaurant with his brothers and his best friend Mike, after they graduated high school. They planned the menu and scouted locations. So a few desperate and desolate years after Chad died, that’s what the family did. In telling the story, the producer remarked that he’d done many interviews and was used to people who started to cry in the middle of their story. Glenn was the first person who cried before he even started. And when he finished telling his story, the producer asked if this wasn’t kind of creepy, if this “roadside memorial” was a healthy thing to be doing.

I bet that producer never lost someone he loved, the kind of someone he loved in ways he didn’t know he could love. What is creepy about a family struggling to live with their son’s death? According to the reporter, Chad’s Trading Post was a happy, homey restaurant. The family talked about the fun and joking that went on while they worked. It’s the way they spend time with Chad. So what’s creepy? Why isn’t it creepy when you walk into a restaurant that’s plastered their walls with pictures of Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball? They’re as dead as Chad. Or those places where the waiters and waitresses dress up to look like those dead actors? But then, that’s not personal. Death in the abstract is okay. The reality of it is not.

And healthy? WTF is healthy? Isn’t that what you’re aiming for when you stop eating crap, join the gym, give up alcohol, keep a yoga mat in your trunk? “Healthy” has become chic, marketable and expensive. It has its own language, with words like “organic” “balanced” “healing energy” and “holistic” (sometimes spelled with a “w” to drive the point.) When I hear healthy, I think vanity. I think of the obsessiveness of trying to get your body to look and function the way you think your body should look and function – and the incessant chattering about reps and presses and miles ran and tendons torn. You know what? Go for it. Eat well. Exercise. But spend at least as much time thinking about death as you do working out at the gym. Because when death comes to tell you it’s your turn, being the best-looking body in a coffin will give new meaning to the term “cold comfort.”

I’d like to ask that producer what his version of healthy would be. If Glenn turned away, looked stoically toward some Chad-less future, lived with what he knew but put it in its place and moved on – is that would it would look like? “Healthy” is exactly what we do to avoid death. And when your kid dies and death demands you pay attention, you do pay attention. What the reporter was really saying was, “You’ve made this a little too real for me. I’d prefer to avoid it. Can you please show me how?” He wasn’t asking about Glenn, he was asking about himself.

I wonder if there aren’t any new questions to ask those of us who are living on the other side. Because clearly, living with Philip’s death has put me on some other side. And on this side, the words “grief” and “healthy” haven’t a goddamn thing to do with each other. Things are different here; the same rules don’t apply. There are no rules here, except the ones we each make. Or don’t make. Over here, we don’t ask each other if what we do is “healthy.” We ask, “How did you survive today?” Because sometimes, surviving’s just the best we can do.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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