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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Net Operating Losses

She was allotted more time than her contemporaries, so those who mourned her passing were mostly acquaintances of the second and third degree. They know her stories only through us, a clutch of middle-aged cousins who spent no small amount of time wedged shoulder to shoulder in the passenger seats of her two-toned Chevy. You should have seen her back then, breeze lifting the dark waves framing her Jackie Onassis shades, chin lifted at a dignified angle. Houses may always be cleaned tomorrow, but the carnival is in town just today.

That was my Aunt Edna, who introduced me to microwaveable meals and fake Christmas-tree snow and the rewards of low-maintenance pet ownership with her series of fungible goldfish. That was Edna, too, whose worried, angular face leaned into my peripheral vision every time I stirred on a sickbed, and Edna who procured for me both ear piercings and a 64-count box of crayons when I wasn’t supposed to have either.

That she was childless is nothing more than a technical accuracy, as she ushered the children of her six siblings into adulthood as surely as anyone who was ever biologically entitled to call herself a parent. We were the spokes of a rattling family wheel that would have shattered long ago if not for her presence at the hub.

She cherished her civil-service job on the Fort Knox switchboard because it was her ticket out of the tobacco field, and she never lost track of technology when it came to telecommunications. It was easy to deem her calls too frequent and her inquiries too probing until the day she could no longer make them. Perhaps the only thing that pleased her more than the telephone was to be taken for younger than she was, which is the reason her medicine cabinet was stocked to the day she died with L’Oreal hair color, shade 6½-G.

That was Edna, who says “are you all right” and who means “are we all right,” because we are of the same stuff, you and I, and my contentedness is conditioned upon yours.

She was beyond the age at which death can be called unexpected, but losing her turned out to be the first blow of a double punch. The second I never saw coming.

Advances in medicine have lulled us into believing even delicate surgical procedures eminently survivable. And so, when a friend contacted me a few days before he was to undergo heart surgery, I followed his lead and deemed it a low-level threat, a surmountable barrier to be anticipated in a guy with bad genetics and a lifetime of bad habits. I realize now he might have been spinning the truth, a skill he honed to a fine edge, thanks to a lengthy career in public administration. He told me he was thinking of a simultaneous hair transplant and sought my advice on whether he should go Elvis or Fabio. Setting aside his near-unhealthy obsession with white-jumpsuit Elvis, I recommended a circa-1978 Meat Loaf and he seemed to love the idea.

If he knew it was goodbye, he didn’t let on. Had I known, I might have offered something more profound than thoughts on Meat Loaf’s locks. Then again, I might not have changed a thing. This was Charlie, after all, who knew as much about the Chinese Boxer Rebellion and the Rocky Horror Time-Warp dance as he did about land use and economic development. This was Charlie, whose prized possessions once included a Washington Redskins jacket he got from a street vendor for fifty bucks and who is indirectly responsible for my having added to my DVD collection a copy of Plan 9 from Outer Space. He may also have been the least pretentious man I ever knew. When Charlie the corn-fed Midwesterner migrated to South Florida to live among the polo players and manage the tony village of Wellington, he promptly called to report his self-conferred status as the ugliest man in town. He endeared himself to every journalist he ever worked with, not least because his city halls leaked like sieves. It’s an effective strategy when your employment is subject to the whims of bickering local officeholders. “Sunshine is the best antiseptic,” he’d grin, handing over a sheaf of papers. “This one ought to blow up good.”

To differing degrees, each of these people occupied the margins of my life in recent years. Losing them renders me untethered in different ways, stripping the structural supports from different rooms of an emotional house. My tax professor says the books must always balance. But such absolutes seldom hold when life meanders off the black-and-white ledger and into the gray. My account with Aunt Edna is especially unbalanced. It always will be.

If I’m to relate these events to law school, it’s to offer a reminder that no journey proceeds without its potholes. A law student’s cloistered existence is still prone to interruption now and again. With luck, it will be nothing with the gravitas of death, but it will be something, more likely an intermittent series of minor setbacks that spoil the concentration like sour notes in the symphony. Fractured relationships, professional miscalculations, mechanical or physiological failures all intrude to remind you that, despite all the sympathetic nose powdering a law student attracts from his loved ones, life is not necessarily all about you. The key is to keep your back to the wind and keep moving. Adopt a platitude if it helps -- n with the positive, out with the negative, or something along those lines.

If the New Age theorists are right and the release of energy that accompanies death somehow shifts the balance in the universe, then the axis tonight is tilted toward uncommon love and generosity of spirit. Somewhere the phones are ringing again. The department-store shelves are relieved of L’Oreal 6½-G and the spirits are doing the Time Warp.

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