I have an uneasy relationship with death. As one of those godless, science-and-facts people, I embrace the circle of life and recognize that I am merely a collection of organic material functioning at a high level that will nonetheless return to the earth from which I came some day. That I can rationalize and accept, but on the flip-side, I really love life. I love being alive. I quite enjoy the engagement of my mind and body and my place in the eternal timeline of existence. So, I’m not really a big fan, philosophically speaking, of death as a concept. When I blink out, I blink out, and the mere thought of that really makes me uncomfortable. I’m not OK with it.
This weekend, I attended the funeral of a friend who I hadn’t seen or really talked to much at all in the last 20 years. Stacey was, unarguably, my best friend during my sophomore year of high school. She was one of the first people to befriend me as a new student at Bonanza High School (my family had just moved back to Las Vegas after about a year-and-a-half in Pennsylvania), and it was through her that I met almost every other friend that year, as well as a few girlfriends and, indirectly through geography, my brother from another mother Jason (then known only as Jason Blackhair, not to confuse him with Jason Blondhair, who both lived in the same apartment complex).
Stacey and the whole gang that comprised kids living both at Summerhill Pointe and Canyon Lake apartments near the Lakes neighborhood of Las Vegas became the cast in the movie of my life at the time. We all shared the same adventures and experiences, whether it was playing softball in the empty lot next to Summerhill Pointe, spotting Corey Feldman during a trip to the Wet ‘n’ Wild water park, or getting drunk on New Year’s Eve at Stacey’s apartment — a place where we all spent a lot of time, her mom, dad and two brothers adopting us all as honorary family members.
By my junior year, however, my interests had started to diversify and my attentions wandered. I was working full-time, meeting new people through that job, and getting exposed to a whole different side (literally) of Las Vegas thanks to Jason and the new friends I’d gotten to know through him. This new crowd was mostly older or attending other schools, made up of a lot of punks and goths and sexually diverse kids, and for the most part, the old gang up at the Lakes was, well, not really gelling with these new factions in my life. Both the girl I dated steadily for most of my sophomore and junior years (Teresa) and Stacey (along with many others) ended up transferring to a new high school the next year, essentially putting the final nail in the coffin of our friendship at the time.
I went many years without seeing or talking to most of those people, including Stacey. But as we all know too well, the advent of sites such as MySpace and Facebook changed the way we connect/reconnect with the people in our lives. Stacey joined Facebook a few years ago, but she didn’t really use it. It was only through trading messages with Teresa that I learned Stacey’s entire family — first, her younger brother, Pete, then her older brother, Paul, then both her parents — all died within a few years. Stacey — who had three children of her own — was also dealing with her own poor health (she always had really bad asthma) and a divorce on top of it. It was again through Facebook last December when another mutual friend from the old ‘hood let me know that Stacey was in the hospital with advanced lung disease, failing organs, and likely would not make it much longer, and strongly suggested I should see her before it was too late.
I heard a story on NPR a few weeks ago about the negative effect of these digital connections we make. How they’re extending people’s grief both by exposing them longer to the active digital memory of a lost loved one, but also by exposing a greater number of people to those who pass to whom we’d normally not still be connected. The latter was happening to me first-hand. I hadn’t thought about Stacey or her family much at all in the last two decades, except for running across a photo while cleaning out files. We hadn’t talked — not even via social network. And yet, here was the reality: My once-best friend was on her death bed, and suddenly the past was present and had to be dealt with.
Slightly lower on my discomfort list, but definitely in the top 10, are hospitals. I mean, I know most people don’t like hospitals, but for me, it’s even weirder, because there have been so very few times in my life I’ve been in one, aside from a few births and (sadly) a few deaths. I’ve personally only gone to a hospital for my own health needs ONCE, and it was Boulder City Hospital, so it was more like a medical center. I know it makes the person you’re coming to see feel better or whatever, but to me, hospitals are a place you go to have a service provided. A behind-closed-doors kind of place. I wouldn’t want anyone to visit me at home when I’m sick; why would I want to do that in a hospital?
Plus — and this is self-damning — my own personal discomfort with death is entirely rational; that is, I don’t really have an emotional reaction to it, at least not an apparently sympathetic one. I’m a guy who’s full of hope and joy, and I feel pain and fear and all that stuff, but I’m not really good at relating to other people when it comes to sadness. I guess I’m just not good at empathy, really; sympathy I can at least muster up.
Anyway, I wrestled with the decision to go see Stacey in the hospital. I was told she was barely conscious, and when she was, she wasn’t lucid. I didn’t see the point in being there “for her” if she wasn’t aware I was there. But I ultimately decided no matter what, the “right” thing to do was to go see her. And all of my worst assumptions were true. Stacey was drugged up and unable to speak due to breathing tubes. Even if she was aware of who was this person entering her tiny ICU room, she was too far out of it to even write a message on a board. And worst, Stacey didn’t look like Stacey. It wasn’t just the sort-of “this person gained weight/went bald/got a sex change” cognitive dissonance you typically expect from seeing someone for the first time in 20 years. Stacey was barely recognizable as a human being at that point. She was a mass of flesh held together by wires and tubes, a shocking and sad sight that, honestly, I think does no service to my or anyone else’s memory of the vibrant, joyful person she once was.
Stacey never got better. She finally passed on April 19. Stacey Dyane (Brown) Schenck was 36. She is survived by her three children, Carissa, Cody, and Cannon.