Why Do We Do That?

So this writing piece will be a little ranting and rambling probably. I know it’s going to be long, and connect up strange things. It has a lot of links to things I’ve already written in the past, and a couple of other links too. It will maybe sound (or actually be) critical of other people’s work. I admit this. It’s not like me (well, the rambling and long post IS like me), but I’m feeling a little stressed out and my personal pain isn’t a good reason to lash out at other people’s creation, I know, but I’m gonna do it anyway, I guess. Because I absolutely hate death (or the looming threat of death, or other significant physical trauma) used as a romantic plot device.

I’m not talking about ‘fridging’ here (although I also hate that for what I hope are obvious reasons). I more mean when one character in fiction realizes/begins expressing their love for another because either they, themselves, or their potential love interest/their child/their parent/their former best friend/whoever, is gravely injured/terminally ill/dying/has just died. Or one character regrets some way they hurt the other person and wants to atone for it now that one (or sometimes even both) of their lives are threatened/being cut short/already over. So many romance stories lean on this, and even the ‘romance’ subplots of other types of stories (comics, action films, thrillers, hero quests, coming of age dramas…) use death as a plot driver or a jumping off place for character development (and it’s not always a woman/girl character who dies/is forever changed by trauma to advance some guy’s story, or who teaches some guy what love really is/can be; it OFTEN is…see the ‘fridging’ stuff…but there are plenty of stories where the guy dies as some kind of love lesson too). In fact, I can’t think of a story containing a major ‘love’ plot (whether that’s friendship or family or romance) that wasn’t expressly sold as a comedy that I’ve ever consumed all the way through that did NOT use death as a character motivator or a plot driver. Here are a few examples just off the top of my head:

A Walk to Remember (a lot if not ALL of Nicholas Sparks’ work kills or irrevocably disables the heroine)
Sweet November
Autumn in New York
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Dying Young
Brian’s Song
Moulin Rouge!
Love Story
Terms of Endearment
Steel Magnolias
John Wick (and lots of other action/superhero stories…like BATMAN…Deadpool…the original ‘woman in refrigerator’; the Green Lantern)

And don’t even get me started on stories where the dog dies.

I’m not saying all of these stories are flawed or bad for using death as a plot driver. I’ve enjoyed some of these myself a whole lot. And I get it. Death is a part of life. Grief is the price we pay for love. I’m not denying or disputing that those things are absolutely true. I’ve written death into a few stories myself. I’m totally sure I’m going to do it again. Because death and the loss and grief that it creates are universal experiences. And I will even concede that in real life, it often happens the way it does in the fiction that irks me so. One of the books I re-read this year with The Boy is Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom, which not to be a spoiler for a 20+ year old book, is about the author reconnecting with a college professor who greatly touched his life and with whom he was close emotionally but grew apart from, and the reconnection is because the teacher is dying. Is it sappy? Yep. Is death the entire purpose for the (NONfiction) book? Yep. Do I love it anyway? Yep. But I kind of hate the inspiration for the book. I love the book. I love the sentiment and wisdom it reveals. But not the catalyst for writing it.
So many of us don’t really think about how much other people mean to us or show gratitude for what they’ve done for us or cherish a friendship or a love or a family until we are losing it or have already lost it. Or sometimes we just don’t appreciate a friendly presence until it’s gone. That’s where those stories come from. They come from the real life tragedy that we often take people we love for granted.

I can remember back when I still used forms of social media other than blogging, about 10ish years ago, someone I didn’t know well at all, but who went to the same high school as me died. He was young (maybe 2 years older than me, so at the time, that would have put him around 35 at the oldest). No one I knew posted any details about his death, so I’m not sure if his death was an accident or the result of disease or suicide. Like I said, I didn’t know him very well. He wasn’t ever someone I would have called my friend. But I knew OF him, and he seemed like a very nice person; someone who WOULD have been a good friend, but I didn’t know for sure. And I also couldn’t rule out ‘suicide’ as a reason for such a tragically young and early ending to a life. What I did know of him? It was definitely a possibility. Based solely on social media mentions of his death, he seemed to have touched a lot of people in a positive way, but my memories of him from high school included a lot of teasing and bullying. He was a drama kid, and while he starred in school plays and was definitely what I’d consider more popular than ME, he was really into things as a guy that not many young men were open about in the 1990s, and he may have been struggling with identity and sexuality issues. He always seemed just a little sad to me, even with a huge smile on his face (which seemed to always be there). My shared contacts with him, upon his death, shared what a good friend he was and how much fun he was and how much they enjoyed him and how much they’d miss him, but you know…none of them ever posted shit about him on social media that I could see when he was living. No photos of him together with them…either in the present or from ‘back in the day’ on a ‘Throwback Thursday.’ None of them ever ‘checked in’ with him from some concert or bar or ballgame or movie theater or park. I sincerely doubt any of them told him they thought he was a good friend or really fun and funny or how much they liked hanging out with him while he was alive. Maybe they were all just performing perfunctory social media/social contract even before social media functions when they said those things after learning he died. It’s definitely possible. Social media makes it easy to show ‘care’ when you don’t actually. And a lot of us speak well of the dead and create imaginary strong (or stronger) or positive (or more positive) connections when we experience loss. Nostalgia is a very powerful force, and so is regret, and established social contract has always been pretty ingrained…long before social media made it easier. But I really don’t think with most of them that that was the case. I think most of them meant, ‘He was so great,’ and, ‘So sad. I’m gonna miss him. 😥 ‘
It just didn’t come out until he died. They didn’t think to say it until he died. They didn’t really think about him, or that connection…until he died.

So why do we do that? Why do we hold all the love back until it’s so late in the game? Or even until the game is actually OVER? Why is it such a repeated theme in fiction?

I’m sure this is a strange post today (all my posts are a LITTLE weird, though, right?), and the set of connecting events that triggered me to write it is also weird.
J and I have been watching the NCAA basketball tournament (not gonna lie; despite my constant anxiety for all of the teams and stadium staff and media workers, I really missed college basketball last March and I am reveling it in this weekend). The entire tournament this year could be taken as a metaphor. Sports over the past year in general could, really. I admit that I rely on sports to connect with a lot of my old friends and with my dad and my brother, and some of the rest of my family. I took sports for granted; particularly college basketball in March.
But also, I watched the Alabama v. Iona game yesterday (which fostered a lot of conversation with D…my best friend from high school…and I needed that text connection yesterday), and in between games, the media does some spotlight pieces on coaches or players or other figures of the games, and they talked to and about Alabama’s head men’s basketball coach, Nate Oats. I like him for a lot of reasons. I’m glad Bama won yesterday. But one of the things they chatted with him about was his wife’s battle with lymphoma. He told the interviewers that experience gave him perspective on basketball and life in general and particularly his family and marriage. You know…the cliche…he took stock of what was really important and the man he really wanted to be. We all do it. WHY do we do that? Why does it often take a serious threat for us to recognize and appreciate what we have, particularly in our loving relationships with other people?
Which brings me to the most personal part of my day yesterday. My dad’s nephew, who is only 11 months younger than him (Catholics, amirite?), and who grew up with him more like a brother and best friend, who was in the same grade and class through school and who married his sweetheart (my mom’s good friend; she introduced them to each other) the same year my parents got married, has pretty advanced cancer. We found this out yesterday (he found out sooner, obviously, but not much; he told his wife and kids and then had to process it some before branching out further). His prognosis is not good. The ‘best case’ number was ‘2 years.’ His wife told my mom she feels stupid and guilty; she should have noticed red flags earlier; she should have MADE him go to doctors sooner/more often, both immediately because of this need and across their life together. What that expression means from her is that she recognizes she took him for granted. She realizes she wishes she showed him more and better and different love, and now her opportunities are severely limited.

Clearly and simply, this sucks. I feel for my cousin (even though he’s my dad’s age…he’s my first cousin) and his family. But like that kid from high school on social media…he’s not really MY close contact. I don’t really know him well enough to say I’ll miss his friendship or humor or presence in some tangible, regular way. I cried yesterday, though.
Because all of this past year and the other recent experiences I’ve had with reading the book with my son and watching the games with J and (sort of…long distance counts, right?) D, and the coach profile, and remembering the stories I’ve consumed, and the stories I’ve written and why I write them that way…it all lined up and wove together and connected.

I don’t write love that appears or gets serious because of a threat. Because that’s not how I want love to be, even if it is in reality a lot of the time. I don’t often write love that regrets. Because that’s not how I want love to be, even if it is in reality a lot of the time.

And in reality, thinking about my cousin’s wife, and my dad (who is his best friend), and how much they are hurting and probably regretting…how much they wish they could have shown or said or did…I don’t feel the specific connection and pain, but I definitely relate to it. I know I hold a lot of myself back in a lot of my life. And I also know I don’t want to be in their shoes…I don’t wanna be Mitch Albom or Nate Oats or my cousin’s wife or my dad…I don’t want to be the friend or the spouse who held the love back until a big threat came along. I don’t want to be a person who needs looming death to motivate me to say it and do it and show it.

So J…thank you for sticking it out with me for coming up on 16 years of almost exclusively happy marriage. I am happy with you and always have been, even through the really shitty things. Like losing the pregnancy and deaths in the family and more than a year of quarantine living. But sometimes I can’t even believe my life is real when I think about all the good things; all the good times. You have made so many dreams of mine come true; stuff from childhood that I thought I had to give up; stuff for The Boy; stuff I thought only existed in a fantasy realm. You’ve provided a life of security and comfort and you support my writing…you support ME. Our anniversary is coming up, and we’ll be stuck in the house for this one, just like the last one, but I don’t even care. I just need you. I just want you. I don’t need a gift or a date or whatever. You are the gift. You are the special occasion. There are so many times I can’t believe you married me and still want to be married to me, but at the same time, there is no one else I can imagine doing life with than you. You are the great love of my life. I’m thankful for you every day. Every romantic hero I ever wrote is for you.

And D? If you stumble across this today between watching games…it’s never been just watching a basketball game or reminiscing about 90s grunge music with you. You’re my best friend. You always have been. I love you. I’ll still hate Laettner and Bobby Knight with you in another 30 years and I expect us both to still want to talk about college basketball together (among other more important shit) that far down the road, but I’m gonna try to not get complacent and take you for granted. I hope we can watch some basketball game together in person again sometime. I hope we can go to a baseball game again sometime. But hell, even if we can’t and don’t? All of what we do and did have is and was enough and worth it and awesome. I’m thankful for you every day. Every best friend I ever wrote is for you.

I try now as much as I can to tell people in the moment that I love them and thank them and appreciate them, but I know I still fail at that all the time. I’m human, and that’s what we do. I don’t think I’ll ever know why we don’t say it until we feel like we have to. I don’t know why we do that. I know I’ll do it again myself. But I’m gonna keep trying not to anymore.

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