My Family is Underground
How does a life defined by death affect the course of history?
» KEY POINTS
- Because so many family members died before I was even born, entire branches of my family tree and their history were completely lost to me.
- Throughout my life, the rate of death has only accelerated to the point where there are more people underground than there are those walking on it.
- Death has taken many other forms, including of the self due to dementia, of relationships due to estrangement, and of connection due to disappearance.
They started to die before I born...
When I was a small child, I had one grandmother—my mother’s mother. Even now I can distinctly remember being bewildered when I started to learn that other people had two sets of grandparents. Though I understood well enough that I was missing a grandfather, the thought that there should be an entirely different pair for my father was beyond my comprehension. Much like how my family has a peculiar way of making french toast, my perception from birth became locked into this fundamental idea, one that shaped my reality until I was old enough to understand what happened to my lost family.
Both of my father’s parents and my mother’s father died within 16 months of my progenitors getting married, which was 8 years before I was born. My father was a reserved, private man himself and getting any information on our family history out of him was nearly impossible. Where my father was introspective, his brother was gregarious. Yet he would not provide any details on their parents or the generations that preceded them, either. My father used silence and his brother used humor and misdirection, but the results were the same. Everything I know about my paternal history comes from snippets of conversation, research on genealogy sites, and conjecture—at best.
Their deaths deprived me of a legacy. Perhaps that legacy was horrific and filled with undesirable traits, but at least it would have been mine! The loss of my mother’s father had a similar effect that I have only learned about in the past few months prior to this writing. You see, my maternal grandmother grew up spoiled and—from what I can understand—her future husband came from the other side of the tracks. On his side of the tracks they ate roasted eggplant while on her side they had never even heard of such a proletariat vegetable. From what I was able to glean, it did not appear that my maternal grandmother’s parents were particularly happy with the match. After he died, it would seem that they forced a cutoff with his entire family, depriving my mother and then me and my brother of access to an entire tributary.
I am aware of this because I made contact with a large number of my maternal grandfather’s family, who for decades I did not know existed. From genetically close cousins to people flung around the world—thanks to DNA matches and family trees we have found each other. Through these connections I learned about an entire Romanian branch of my family that had never even been hinted at. Scores of them have lived and died without me having the slightest inkling that they were out there. How much family did I lose just because a couple of ancestors looked down their noses at some other ones? How much has been lost to me because of one death?
» KARMA INCARNATE
Sadly, I see the potential for history to repeat itself. If my partner and I had children today, they would grow up almost exactly as I have. Where my partner’s mother is alive and well and we see her regularly, my mother died 12 years ago. She had been sick for years with a rare blood disorder that made her red blood cell count drop like a rock. This left her lethargic and sedentary, which in turn eventually led to her death. My father called me when it happened, and I was thankfully working locally so I could get to their house. But I got there too quickly and walked right through the front door and into her corpse.
My father is currently among the living dead. He has advanced Parkinson’s related dementia which has robbed him of almost everything he was. The shell that he is now is unrecognizable to the person he was before. We have had many close calls over the past couple of years, including with COVID-19. While he is resilient and I have seen him bounce back from some of the worst situations you can imagine, his luck cannot hold out forever. And even if it did, I would not want to expose my children and father to each other. It would only be painful for all of them. While he is technically alive, I have already mourned his loss, too.
A slightly different situation exists with my partner’s father. He is also technically alive and doing well as far as we know. Still, she has almost no association with him, which means neither do I, nor would our children. It is a very different type of death here, the death of a relationship. We would intentionally keep him out of our children’s lives, if he even tried to be a part of them. Thus, our children would grow up with just their maternal grandmother to count on, the same as me.
» CLOSING DOORS
In actuality, though, I did have more than my maternal grandmother. Both of her parents—my great-grandparents—were still alive when I was born, but were as distant from me as a set of octogenarians and a toddler can get. It was not to last, anyway.
When I was barely 7 years old, I saw my first dead body.
My great-grandfather’s passing is the first death I can remember. In Jewish custom, caskets are closed for the funeral and bodies are buried as quickly after demise as allowed, preferably within a day or two, and definitely without any preservation methods aside from refrigeration. But what has also become custom—at least in North America—is for close family to visit the body ahead of the funeral officially starting and see the person before the casket is permanently shut. Thus, I got my first introduction to real death through someone I knew well and at a very young age.
Just over two years later, his wife joined him in the ground. Another two years after that was a great uncle on my father’s side. And another, and another, and so on and so forth and “so it goes” for my entire life. Sometimes there were several in a year, other times we could go a few years without anyone dying. There were occasions when there was almost no one available to remember a life, like when my mother’s brother died and was buried near Christmas Day. In latter incidents, the whole gang (what was left of it) was there and we laughed about how we only ever saw each other at funerals. Of course, it was unfortunately true.
With each death, another part of the family history shut its door to never reveal the truth of what happened. There was a time I showed up at my father’s house for a surprise visit and found him returning home in a suit. When I inquired about what had happened, he told me of another person who had died and that he was just coming from the funeral. Death had reached the point where it was so common it did not even merit a mention.
Yet death had a way of taking not just the ones it was after, but those associated with them. After my cousin—who was also my godmother—lost both of her parents, she and the rest of her immediate family literally left the country and were not heard from again. That branch has now been sawed off from me.
Because of the death of my mother earlier, as my grandmother grew older and sicker I started to take care of her. Despite her protestations, my partner and I insisted she would be at our wedding no matter what. Always getting her way, she died just a few weeks before the ceremony. I told my then-boss that I needed to take time off of work to take care of everything, manage all the arrangements, and also clean out her place (all while finishing preparations for my own wedding). He was unsympathetic and harshly asked, “Don’t you have some cousins or something that can help with that?”
“No,” I forlornly told him, “almost everyone is dead, not here, or incapable of support. I am all that is left.”
He did not understand what it means to lose almost everyone so only a handful of family members remained; and even among those they were either far flung or frail themselves. It was also around then that my father started to take a turn for the worse, too. Thus, as a relatively young, newly married person I was taking care of generations of people; a heavy burden. Almost an entire generation in between had died off and it has left me—going on for over five years at the time of this writing—with being the only support mechanism available.
While my father trudges on, others have fallen by the wayside that I have not even told him about. What would be the point? My grandmother’s brother died on New Year’s Day 2020. He had been suffering for years with Alzheimer’s related dementia and made quite a scene at his sister’s funeral. That incident was a peek at my father’s future; as was the loss of my aunt who also had dementia and was killed by COVID-19 a year later.
As if beckoned by these very words, on the day this was originally completed I received a call from my cousin that her mother—who I had last seen at her husband’s funeral—had died, too.
Death has been part of my life and informed everything I have ever done or ever will. I would not say I am numb to it, nor would I say I accept it—especially for myself, my partner, and our remaining family. But death and I have come to an informal understanding with each other, a détente of sorts. Though I know death will win in the end, I can still go on living.
The above piece is an excerpt from Always Divided, Never United: And Other Stories During a Time of Pandemics and Politics by J.P. Prag, available at booksellers worldwide.
Learn more about author J.P. Prag at www.jpprag.com.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Medium.
About the author
J.P. Prag is the author of "Always Divided, Never United", "New & Improved: The United States of America", and "In Defense Of... Exonerating Professional Wrestling's Most Hated". Learn more at www.jpprag.com.