Contemplating Death, Cremated Knees and $200 bills

April 7, 2020

How are you dealing with all the death surrounding the pandemic?

Leo S. Loyola U.

Oh, man… just this past week old friends are coping with a COVID-19 death in their family. Another friend is in intensive care with it. All this is pretty brutal and unexpected.

It makes me think about death a bit more than usual.

We ALL die. We have to. The seeming randomness in who dies and who lives is really just about timing, isn’t it?

My relationship with death has always been about how and when. The if is already answered, but unless you’re Evel Knievel or living some other high-risk life, most of us won’t have much control over how or when we will die. It just kind of sneaks up on you in the guise of a disease – or sometimes a bus.

Hell, I’ve dodged a few bullets – motorcycle crashes, mountain-climbing mistakes, and other stupid, life-threatening exploits – but surviving those is no inoculation from my eventual demise. I know that bastard with the black hood and scythe will find me eventually. It’s one of the toughest things about being human – contemplating your own death. Sometimes I envy mosquitos, oblivious to quick hands and purple martins…

Death weighed on my mind before the pandemic hit its stride in the U.S.. My mother, whom I was very close to, died a while back in hospice while my sister, my wife and I held her hands. The pandemic forced the cancellation of her memorial recently, so I am feeling kinship with those who’ve lost loved ones and were unable to be with them or mourn them properly.

The good news is, I have my mother’s knees. Not genetically — I have her actual, artificial knees.

I was relieved to hear “no problem” from the cremation service when I asked them for the four titanium knee parts – though they warned me the pieces would not be in pristine condition. Years before she died, when I told my mother that I might try to weld something out of the pieces, she said, “Sure, I won’t need them anymore,” and smiled. It took a few days of rearranging the four components before inspiration hit me. Fortunately, my MIG welder was up to the task of fusing titanium. A dear friend saw the sculpture below and promptly bequeathed his artificial hips to me should I outlive him.

True to our family’s style, this piece – “Time to Love & Laugh” – is constructed of 100% repurposed materials. It is made mostly from the titanium knees that served in my mother’s body for many years. The hand-cut marble base was once part of a discarded table from an old friend.

The top parts in red – once attached to my mother’s femurs – came together as both her big and loving heart, and as two tongues in the midst of laughing. Love and laughter sum her up nicely.

The bottom parts in silver – once at the top of her tibias – combine as an hourglass and serve to remind us that the time to love and the time to laugh is now.

Never hold those sources of joy back. Life, after all, is fleeting…

James Underdown, sculptor

Work on that sculpture helped remind me that humor can relieve stress and grief in otherwise sad situations. Making a joke in a grim circumstance or even gallows humor doesn’t necessarily indicate callousness or lack of empathy. It’s just a way to deal with the anxiety we all feel. I’ve lost many people I loved in my life, and learned that it’s ok to indulge in a smile even while grieving.

It was in that spirit that I tucked a $200 bill into my Uncle Jim’s dead hands as he lay in an open-casket at his wake a few years ago. For decades he delighted in handing out the bogus bills to unsuspecting waiters and watching (some of) them ask their managers if they should accept such a large denomination. Others at the wake had had the same thought, so by the end of the day, there were more than a half-dozen of the notes with him in the coffin. The wad brought smiles to all who knew him.

We took some of my Uncle Bob’s cremains to Soldier Field in Chicago one cold and windy December morning. He was a lifelong Bears fan who flew Bears’ colors in Green Bay Packer territory for decades. Part of him now resides near Gate 14 – the VIP entrance to the stadium. Check the weather and wind direction before spreading ashes, by the way. Some of Bob may have ended up at Gate 16.

The death of a loved one is when you most need a reason to smile. Then is when we need to gather, commiserate, share our grief, and yes, laugh.

So don’t be afraid to be creative in expressing your love for someone you’ve lost. Fit the tribute to the person. It may bring some joy to those still breathing.

And while we’re at it, consider making your own wishes known. Knowledge of how your own remembrance will go might even bring you a bit of comfort when your time is nigh. (After you die, not so much. You’ll be too dead to care.)

So while I’m alive and thinking about it, I like the idea of friends and family having a few laughs after I go. Light up a cigar, have a drink on me, and spread my ashes at the base of General Sherman in the Sequoias… and maybe near Gate 14…