What losing a loved one doesn't buy you

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

At Large

Julia O'Malley can be reached at julia_o_malley@hotmail.com.

Since my brother died in October, people have sent me all kinds of self-help books. I've read Christian books, Buddhist books and books written by psychologists. All of them say the same thing: When someone close to you dies, a lot about how you see the world changes. You realize how precious and tenuous life is, you re-evaluate your priorities. You might become wiser or more anxious. Your faith in God might strengthen, or you might become agnostic. Few of these books, however, have mentioned what I call death cred.

Once I watched my brother, who was 21, slip away in a hospital ICU bed after a drug overdose, I decided that if there was any justice in the world, all the heartache had to buy me something. I decided I had credit, and good things would come my way.

For example, on a red-eye flight in January, I was lucky enough to have a row of seats to myself on an otherwise packed flight. After take-off, a man tried to sit in my row, and I looked him in the eye, and asked him to move. I had death cred, and I was cashing in. After what I had been through, I thought, I deserved to sleep on three seats.

Some of you might remember that I live above a bar, and that a few weeks ago, after several hours of pounding late-night bar bass under my bed, I went downstairs and asked the bar people to turn it down. You might also remember that in the process of discussing this matter with the bar people, in a desperate move to seem tough, I employed a certain un-printable word that begins with "f" and can be used as a noun and a verb.

At the time, it worked, and the bar went quiet. But, of course, I felt f-word remorse later. I considered apologizing, but I decided against it. After all, my brother died, so what if I cussed at a few strangers?

The next few nights, I lay there and smelled second-hand bar smoke, yeasty beer stink. Nothing would drown out the pounding. Not my radio. Not my television. In the morning, over coffee, Sara, who I live with, looked at me with dark circled eyes.

"You realize we are being tortured like prisoners of war," she said.

This was unfair. We were good people. We'd experienced incredible loss. We didn't deserve to be prisoners of war. I called the city. It had to be illegal.

"I'm sorry but the Portland Noise Ordinance does not apply to people who live in the same building. You could try calling the police," the woman told me.

I decided, instead, to write a nice civilized letter. If the bar would only turn down the speakers bolted to the ceiling under the sleeping part of the apartment, then we could go on being neighbors just fine. I included my cell phone number and taped the note to the bar door. About half-an-hour later, the phone rang.

"You want it quiet, you are more than welcome to pay someone to come re-adjust the speakers," the bar's owner said.

She'd gotten wind of my phone call to the city, she explained. If she heard I called them again, she would make up a phony complaint about my dog biting her employees. That could get my Stella put to sleep.

"Why don't you move out," she said.

I hung up. Stella was sleeping on the carpet, curled in a sable-colored "C." I called my dad.

"You can't win. The bar people are dirt people," Dad told me. "If you tangle with dirt people, you are not going to come out clean. I'd start looking for another apartment."

This couldn't be right. I'd already moved twice this year. The bar people were bad people with bad fashion sense. They couldn't win.

I heard buzzing at the front door, and opened it without thinking. There she was, the bar owner, stuffed into a pink velour jumpsuit, with a ratty little dog in her purse. Her nose was thin and it turned up so much, I could see a booger flapping in her left nostril when she breathed.

"I've just talked with my attorney," she said. "You'll be getting a letter because we are going to sue you for harassment and...."

I shut the door on her, mid-sentence. I was officially on an episode of Jerry Springer. She kept leaning on the buzzer. Stella barked. I got in the shower and let the water pour over my head. Was it possible that my brother would die, I would have to move three times and I would get sued by booger-face in the span of a year?

Of course, it was possible. Death-cred was a meaningless psychological game I cooked up because I wanted to find something redeeming about the nauseating fact of my brother's death.

There is justice in the world, but it didn't work the way I thought it did. I realized that it didn't matter what I thought I deserved. It only mattered what I could survive. I watched the water swirl down the drain, and listened to Stella bark at the front door. Moving again suddenly didn't seem so daunting. After all, I'd made it through much worse.



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