Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” Today, however, Marshall offers a heart-felt analysis of love, pain and death.
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RALEIGH – Why does the death of someone close hurt so much? You may recall that last year, my sister died of cancer. That set off a wave of deaths in my life, with several important friends dying. Then this past weekend my mother died. With her passing, I would like to hope that the wave is spent, although I doubt this is true. What I do know is that I am the last man standing in the family line that precedes me. All my grandparents are dead, both my parents are dead, my sibling is dead, along with all my aunts and uncles.
That is a lot of death, and a lot of pain that accompanies those deaths. My question is, why are all these deaths so painful?
The tale of Trixie
Let me tell you about Trixie. Trixie was our family dog, and she died last year not long after my sister’s death. Trixie came to us from the Wake County animal shelter off New Bern Avenue. She was a mutt who lived about 16 years. She was a great dog, quite smart for a dog, but she did have a few quirks.
I could tell you a hundred stories about Trixie, and here is one that immediately comes to mind. Trixie had broken out of the yard – an unfortunate feature of smart, energetic dogs. So Trixie was running around the neighborhood wild and free. During her brief freedom, our neighbor, who owned a fancy Ferrari, claimed that Trixie spontaneously ran into the side of his car in his driveway and dinged his passenger-side door. He had no proof of this – for example no dashcam footage. He had nothing but his word. He somehow convinced the insurance company to pay out $25,000 to repair his door dent. At the time, we owned a Toyota Yaris for which we had paid $11,000. So Trixie had managed to cause two Yaris’s worth of damage by escaping from the yard briefly and denting the door of a Ferrari. Since then, my family has used the $11,000 Yaris as a financial unit. As in: “The house needs a new roof, and it is going to cost one and a half Yarises.” All because of Trixie the dog.
When Trixie died, my whole family was in deep mourning. We all felt real pain in her passing. But why? Trixie was a dog. We did not have daily conversations with Trixie. Trixie never “helped us out” when we had a problem. In fact, as in the case of the Ferrari, Trixie caused lots of problems.
What Trixie brought to the table was love and loyalty. She was always happy, often ecstatic to see us. She would joyously accept our pats. She was generous with the licks and the cuddles. Up until the day before her death, she was always excited to go for a walk, any time day or night, 24×7. She was an expert beggar, and very appreciative when we gave in. Thus, when she died, we deeply missed all her affection, her attention, her companionship, even her flaws. But why? Why not just get another dog, form a new relationship, and move on? Why the pain? For most humans, it seems, this kind of pain is inescapable. At the moment of death, and perhaps for months or years later, the pain of the loss can be significant.
A story of Mother
With my mother, with most people’s mothers, it is a hundred times worse. In the maternal relationship we share thousands of mutual memories, thousands of conversations, thousands of stories, thousands of favors and assists shared back and forth – but heavily weighted in the mother-to-child direction starting at the day of birth. And perhaps, thousands of regrets. In death, all of these shared experiences collapse and vanish. It is horrible. There can be no more conversations and stories. The shared library from a lifetime together burns to the ground.
One of the most poignant memories I have of my mother. I was 11 or 12 years old. My mother received a terrible phone call that her sister Aunt Margaret and Cousin Bobby had died in a car accident. My mother and Aunt Margaret were not twins, but they might as well have been. They were extremely close, to the point where they had the ability to read each other’s minds.
The way Aunt Margaret and Bobby died was tragic. Shocking. My cousin Marti had just gotten her driver’s license, and she was driving. Aunt Margaret and Bobby were both sitting on the passenger side of the car in the front and back seats respectively. Marti drove through an intersection on a green light, completely normal. But a dump truck ignored its red light at the same intersection and T-boned the car. Aunt Margaret and Bobby died instantly. Marti survived relatively unscathed physically, but mentally I’m not sure she ever recovered.
This is what I mean by the pain of death, and I believe Marti received the maximum dose. I can remember that we (my mother, sister, and I) spent some time at Aunt Margaret’s house after the funeral, with my mother trying to sub in temporarily, through the worst of it, to help keep their family together. I was assigned a place to sleep on the floor in Marti’s bedroom, I think in part to prevent suicide. Marti was torn asunder by a toxic combination of grief, survivor’s guilt, blame, and anger, cycling through and recombining the different emotions in an unstoppable stream. We would talk and cry long after the lights went out until one of us fell asleep.
The strongest memory I have from that time is of my mother in the downstairs bathroom. After receiving the phone call, my parents immediately booked a flight to Aunt Margret’s house. But there were those interim hours before the flight, and this is where the bathroom comes in. I found my mother on her knees, sobbing, smoking a cigarette, furiously scrubbing the toilet. “What are you doing?” was the obvious question. She explained that manic cleaning was the only way she could think of to cope before the flight.
Marti would die at age 57. A car inexplicably ran her over while she was riding her bicycle on a country road near her home. After Aunt Margaret’s death, Marti eventually pulled herself together and had worked at a Honda assembly plant in Ohio, had put in her 30 years, had just retired. As Marti’s husband put it, “She had just retired and we were going to live our lives of adventure. I’ll miss her forever.” My mother and Marti had formed a special bond after Aunt Margaret’s death, and Marti’s death was absolutely devastating for my mother. The pain of death again, and in this case Marti’s death was completely inexplicable and senseless.
My father’s death also comes to mind. My father had a problem with alcohol, to the point where my parents were constantly arguing about it. The word divorce had come up more than once. My mother was watering down the alcohol that he kept in the house, and my father was not happy about it. One weekend in May 1975 my father announced he was going to spend a couple of days in the mountains. He had a yellow Mazda RX-3 that he adored, and off he went. A day later came the call that he had been in an accident. He soon died in the hospital in the mountains.
I can remember my mother left with Terry, our minister, to go to that hospital. She was able to get there before his death, so she was present when he died. She had left my sister and I at home, but for the life of me I have no memory of who took care of us. I can remember her and Terry getting back, and they got out of the car, and it was obvious that the news was terrible just from her posture and expression. She told my sister and I the news, and of course it was devastating.
My mother would never be completely the same after that. I think she was broken by it. My sister spun for more than a decade, through drugs and alcohol and a couple of tragically terrible marriages and divorces. My mother would later try to remarry, but it didn’t take, and she divorced. She took back my father’s name. She literally never got over him. They had been sweethearts since high school, and the pain of death was overwhelming for her.
Death of a father
It was about a decade later that my sister found a newspaper clipping. My mother had told us that my father had died from the car accident. But it turns out that he had survived the accident, made it to the hospital, and then died when a nurse incorrectly intubated him. The tube went down the esophagus rather than the trachea? Something like that. According to the clipping, my mother was there when it happened. The clipping indicated that my mother had received a small settlement.
So my father had died. My sister found this clipping about a decade later. My sister had unfortunately shared the clipping with me. I honestly think my life would be better if she had kept it to herself. About this time my sister got it in her head that she wanted to visit my father’s grave.
Donated to science?
We, meaning my mother, sister and I, had never been to his grave. The reason was because he had “donated his body to science,” meaning a university in Atlanta. Therefore, when he died, there was no body at the funeral, and no burial in a grave, and thus there was no grave to visit.
My mother and sister investigated. It turned out that the university did have a grave site, and my sister did the research to figure out where it was located. My mother and sister and I got in the car and drove a long way to the cemetery.
Now think about the mental image you might have. This is a prestigious university in Atlanta. They accept bodies that are “donated to science.” Meaning that the cadavers might be used in anatomy classes for up-and-coming doctors, things like that. When the university is done with the bodies, they would cremate them and then… what? You might, like I did, have an image of some sort of pretty, official, respectful, hallowed place where the ashes go out of respect for these helpful donors.
When we arrived, it was an unkempt cemetery in the middle of nowhere. There were weeds, overgrown grass, dead flowers, stuff like that. In the back of this rickety cemetery there is a painted plywood sign, and then an area bordered by uneven bricks, and a low area of ashes washed out by the rain. This is the memory seared into my brain.
My sister was livid. My mother was furious. What happened next was interesting. Once they calmed down, they decided that they would purchase a burial site for my father in a Memorial Park in Atlanta. Then they had a minister ritually extract a sample from that pile of ashes, and this sample would represent my father’s remains. And then he was buried in Atlanta so that my mother and sister could visit him. I have only been there once, for the burial. But I will end up going there again shortly for my mother.
I could tell you a number of other stories like these. Death is just incredible in its impact when we think about it. There is my friend who died of Leukemia. And my other friend who died of Leukemia. And Mr. Naylor, who was our neighbor when my father died, and who did his best to act as a substitute father for me. He died of lung cancer, and I regret to say that I could not bring myself to attend his funeral. When I think of everything that he did for me, my absence seems incredibly disrespectful even now, but I couldn’t do it. My grandfather’s tragic death. And so on.
A number of beloved pets: Dusk, Daquiri, Fig, Roo, Yellow, Ginger, and Barney come to mind. There was one puppy named Greenie whose death changed my entire career arc.
Close encounters with death
And then several near-death experiences I can remember. I have survived a major house fire, a major car accident that should have killed me but I somehow walked out of it unscathed, an encounter with a hay baler that, but for a quarter inch difference, would have ingested me and turned me into a bloody square bale. A couple years ago I nearly bled out internally from an ulcer. Had the bleed occurred a day earlier, I would have likely passed out and died in my office. Thankfully I was instead at home and my son could call 911.
It’s just crazy to think about death and all the pain it causes. And to think about how close death is. How a million Americans died from Covid, and we hardly talk about it. The many students who died of suicide last year at NCSU. How many people will soon die from the various side effects of climate change? And to know that one day, we will all be dead. Perhaps it is best to not think about it.