Spoiler Alert: We all die in the end


I flew to Billings last weekend for a friend’s memorial service and got more than a flight into the past. On August 13, 1976 this friend banged his head on an armrest while lying in the backseat of a car heading home from a bar.

The vehicle had ventured just a few feet off the road, for just seconds. The bumping broke a vertabra and cracked his universe, throwing him into a wheelchair for the rest of his life, a distance of some 40 plus years.

He was one of the good ones who so often get a bad hand. Generous beyond belief. The one who’d gather everyone left at last call and buy us all a late night dinner at Wong Village.

He was a genius math whiz poker-faced Packer fan. A railroad worker with a pocketful of cash on fire. A true class act.

His quadriplegic existence wasn’t easy but he went on living, aging, engaging in life as he rolled his shoulders forward and back and friends raised his drink with straw to his mouth. He swallowed deeply. It was a tough road to roll.

At the memorial service I talked with a guy I hadn’t seen in 25 years. I recognized him and thought he did me. But an hour later he came up and said he had no idea who I was when we talked earlier.

I was taken aback. Everyone else had aged and changed a great deal it seemed, but not I. I wondered how he couldn’t recognize me, until I went to the can and looked in the mirror and wondered who invited my dad. I must have shocked the guy. And no doubt others who pretended to know me.

The next morning after the Memorial Service I visited two matriarchs of family clans who were best friends of our family growing up. They now live next door to each other in a senior care center in Billings.

One had the marks and blotches common with an aging body, but her mind was tack-sharp. The other had not a pockmark on her, her smiling complexion still creamy smooth. But her mind was off skipping to a different tune and time. She didn’t follow too well. Both are exactly alike in one way: they face their future with grace and courage.

My visit with them left me wondering which is better – to look your worst, and have a sharp mind that knows it. Or to look fine, but have a mind that won’t focus. I vacillate between the two. Of course I should pick mind over body. But Vanity is almost my last name and it’s hard to shake.

I most surely will be an ugly old cuss and some will say I already am. Then again, maybe I won’t have to worry about it.
While in Billings I heard that the father of a rancher friend of mine had received a health diagnosis that didn’t sit well with him. So after making and eating breakfast one morning he loaded a revolver, put the barrel to his temple, and shot the diagnosis all to hell.

My mind works in morbid ways and I wondered what he’d made for breakfast. Eggs over (to the other side) easy? Scrambled? Ten pieces of bacon? Had he done the dishes? We all discussed it solemnly, put a brave face on it and said assuredly we’d do the same thing. Maybe not by pulling a trigger, but with surefire thought and action.

I wonder if I would really take that fork. Eat some eggs and bacon, clean up, then blow out the candle for good. I have no idea. I doubt it. I’m not that strong of mind, or that steady a shot. And to give up bacon forever would be hard.

When bored, I often think of ways to die. It’s amusing to me. In my mind, if you imagine in detail the circumstances of your death – like getting bit by a rattlesnake while hiking near Pictograph Cave, or keeling over from a heart attack in the grocery store and causing a cleanup on aisle 7 – the scene you imagine is guaranteed not to happen.

Because NOTHING ever happens exactly the way you envision it. It would be a cosmic fluke, near impossible. But if it does occur that I die in a grocery store on aisle 7, it’s proof the game is fixed and there’s order in the universe. Science will be advanced.

So when I saw the kangaroo headline in the Billings Gazette this weekend – the one that said, “Driver rolls car to avoid kangaroo” – I was pleased. I thought of the scene (near Fort Belknap).

The driver was taken to a hospital and a state patrolman checked on her. She said it was definitely a kangaroo. He said sure, with a smirk no doubt. Then he drove back to examine the scene and sure enough spotted a kangaroo standing 30 feet off the highway. It turned out to be a wallaby.

Now I KNOW I’ll never die in a car wreck caused by a kangaroo (or wallaby). I hope not to be paralyzed by one either – left in a wheelchair, unable to hold a gun, someone making breakfast for me.

Aging is a losing battle and time wins every time. But we still control how we spend it. I plan to spend less of mine looking in the mirror. Get lost vanity.

RIP Kevin D. and Bert H.

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