Friday, August 4, 2017

August 4: Farewell, Hello, Close Friend, Grief

Billy Pilgrim says now that this really is the way he is going to die, too.  As a time-traveler, he has seen his own death many times, has described it to a tape recorder.  The tape is locked up with his will and some other valuables in his safe-deposit box at the Ilium Merchants Bank and Trust, he says.

I, Billy Pilgrim, the tape begins, will die, have died, and always will die on February thirteenth, 1976.

At the time of his death, he says, he is in Chicago to address a large crowd on the subject of flying saucers and the true nature of time.  His home is still in Ilium.  He has had to cross three international boundaries in order to reach Chicago.  The United States of America has been Balkanized, has been divided into twenty petty nations so that it will never again be a threat to world peace.  Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen.  So it goes.  It is all brand new.

Billy is speaking before a capacity audience in a baseball park, which is covered by a geodesic dome.  The flag of the country is behind him.  It is a Hereford bull on a field of green.  Billy predicts his own death within an hour.  He laughs about it, invites the crowd to laugh with him.  "It is high time I was dead," he says.  "Many years ago," he said, "a certain man promised to have me killed.  He is an old man now, living not far from here.  He has read all the publicity associated with my appearance to your fair city.  He is insane.  Tonight he will keep his promise."

There are protests from the crowd.

Billy Pilgrim rebukes them.  "If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I've said."  Now he closes his speech as he closes every speech--with these words:  "Farewell, hello, farewell, hello."

There are police around him as he leaves the stage.  They are there to protect him from the crush of popularity.  No threats on his life have been made since 1945.  The police offer to stay with him.  They are floridly willing to stand in a circle around him all night, with their zap guns drawn.

"No, no," says Billy serenely.  "It is time for you to go home to your wives and children, and it is time for me to be dead for a little while--and then live again."  At that moment, Billy's high forehead is in the cross hairs of a high-powered laser gun.  It is aimed at him from the darkened press box.  In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead.  So it goes.

So Billy experiences death for a while.  It is simply violet light and a hum.  There isn't anybody else there.  Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.

In Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse universe, death is not an end.  It's merely a moment that, like all other moments, has happened, is happening, will happen over and over and over.  Billy doesn't try to prevent his death.  He walks into it willingly, treats it like the opportunity for an afternoon nap.  And then he simply dies.

For the second time in about a week, I have a very close friend whose brother passed away.  I just found out this afternoon.  There really aren't any words that will provide comfort to my friend.  She is hurting.  I know.  No matter what I say, I'm not going to be able to make her feel any better.

Unlike Vonnegut, my version of death isn't non-existence.  As a Christian, I believe in the soul and heaven and angels.  So, I could say something to my friend like "he's in a better place now" or "he's free of all his pain" or "he's with God."  I firmly accept the truth of those statements.  That doesn't really make them comforting for my friend.

Grief is terrible.  It can keep you in bed with the covers over your head.  It can sneak up on you when you're playing a game of Trivial Pursuit with your daughter.  It can greet you at the front door when you come home from work.  It doesn't really go away.  Ever.  It may take vacations every once in a while, but it always returns, sometimes rawer than before.

So, my words to my friend tonight are, "It sucks.  Let's drink soon."

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for the laughter of his kids, and he prays for laughter to be in his friend's life soon, as well.

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