What is, what isn't and what might have been



A whirlwind trip to Chicago, the last season of an HBO series, and the death of a contemporary all have me thinking about impermanence.

As my husband and I strolled the busy streets of downtown Chicago last week, we noted the similarities between The Windy City and The Motor City. If you are from Detroit, you might agree. I don’t think residents of Chicagoland, however, would appreciate the comparison. In an up-close kind of way, the older architecture, some of the street names, the climate and geography all are similar enough to make us dream a little dream: We imagine that our home city has maintained the world-class status it held in the early 20th century, that it has continued to grow and prosper, compounding its assets rather than imploding into the decaying husk it is today. Things like this article and the reports from the “D Shack” seem edgy at best, as if journalists have been embedded in a war zone, and as the butt of a joke at worst. As much as I get angry about outside depictions of this area, a daily drive through it all only serves as a grim reminder of what is, what isn’t, and what might have been.

A day after our return to Day-Twah we attend a memorial service for a business associate of my husband. As we stand in the shadowy art gallery watching a still-photo montage of the guy’s life projected onto a wall, with tracks from the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” filling the painful gaps in conversation, I realize the obvious: This is all we have. This moment. This now, with its gnawing desires to be somewhere in the future or its aches for what’s left in the past.  I watch the images loop endlessly as the deceased progresses from a pink-faced teen with a mullet hanging out with his buddies in their suburban neighborhood to a grown man with the responsibilities of a wife and two children. Unlike life, the slide show allows us to rewind time and start again. For a brief moment, we can trick ourselves into forgetting that death is why he is a two-dimensional image on a wall, that maybe he’s in the audience laughing and weeping with the rest of the group. I see the grieving cling to what cannot be held in hand; in a defining moment death bounces what is into what is not. All that remains is what might have been.

Our thoughts shift to a friend we lost to suicide a few years back. He was an avid fan of  HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” We never watched it during its original run, but have been working our way through all five seasons on DVD. We are a half dozen episodes away from the finale.  I have grown so attached to this show, to these characters, that I agonize over the fact that it will end. We’ve decided not to rush through to the final episode, but rather we’ll watch a few each week and let the story marinate. We watch the show with added interest, knowing our friend often discussed the characters and plot lines with us, even though we were clueless at the time. Now, we look for clues in a show that suggests a thousand different ways to die. We now understand what attracted him to the characters and story lines. We hope we don’t see the way in which he chose to end his life at 40.

In his death and in the closing of this show I realize I cannot get all the answers.  I cannot make something go beyond its expiration date. Maybe I’m more Detroit than Chicago, not fully realized yet, but with some seeds of hope for bigger and better things.   Like the real Detroit, the one a visitor or embedded reporter may not know, everything has some element worth knowing, some reason to stick around to make what might have been or what is not into something that is.


Detroit/credit umich.edu

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