Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Pondering Genes

A man is shot and walks it off. He’s gulped a glass of whiskey every day since and swears the bullet jostles in his barrel chest. Now he’s 106 and can’t slow down long enough to die. There’s always that guy. He’s on the news because he’s darn old by accident and that’s interesting to the rest of us. He keeps chuckling either because he’s daft or because, in an entire lifetime, he finally ended up on TV for something that clearly wasn’t intentional.

My great Uncle Cese – ironic for a man who couldn’t die – committed suicide in his 90s just to spend his next wedding anniversary with his late wife of 50 plus years. A lifetime of alcohol mixed in a cocktail of countless other questionable habits couldn’t do in ninety years what carbon monoxide did in minutes. My mother, on the other hand, couldn’t keep her own health from unraveling in half the time. What makes a man with a will to die live and a woman with an iron grip slip away?

I spent a week in Vermont among family wondering whether our genetics or our lifestyles would prevail. If I’ve been right about lifestyle, will I watch more people I love succumb or am I just the crazy superstitious sibling wrapped up in a religion called diet and exercise? Have I joined a cult of nonsense, engaged in ritual rain dances – choreography designed to revitalize our parched nutritional worlds and gain us favor with a God in which we may only believe in passing and sometimes just in case? I thought about that while eating a wedding cupcake.

At the wedding – my sister’s – my mother’s absence was as striking as her presence often was. She was always notable. And she would have been a hypochondriac if she hadn’t died of all the things she said she would. But then you have to wonder if she conjured the boogie-bugs and invited in the vampires for a slow suicide of stress and fear caused by continuous predictions of her own demise. Either that or she was way more intuitive than anybody gave her credit for because none of us wanted to imagine she was right. Are my own habits saving me from her fate or making my life more comfortable while I wait for my genetics to overtake me anyway?

I drove across a state of lonely roads I barely remembered and narrowly navigated to get back to my childhood home leaving the wedding behind me. Big, wet tears spilled from under mirror sunglasses and a mass of blowing hair. I wasn’t ready to see the house I grew up in filled with all the things I knew except my mother. Everything would be sitting in the same spot she placed it. Each item left there by her dewy-eyed husband who carefully dusted around the residue of her delicate fingerprints.

Do I bet my life on genetic inevitability, try to avoid blunt force trauma and outright gluttony while my own drama plays itself out to its early end like my mother and the rest of her family? Or will I find myself just as bullet proof as my father’s family and, pickled in gin or not, live to bury everyone I know? I’ll die to find out. Either way, the cupcake made me nauseous.