My big Christmas present from Dan this year was tickets to the San Francisco ballet. Because he wasn’t sure if the tickets would come in the mail in time, he photoshopped up a beautiful 8.5×11 mock poster. I was so excited to be able to spend an evening in the city and to watch a professional ballet, because with the exception of seeing Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut a few times, I hadn’t been to the ballet since we saw Cinderella for my birthday in Denver several years back. I love seeing live performances, especially of ballet, but it’s rare that I get to do it, primarily because of the cost. It was the perfect Christmas present.
Our tickets to the ballet were for February 4, so last Wednesday we solicited restaurant recommendations in the neighborhood of the Opera House from our friends who know the city better than we do. We got all gussied up in our finery (me in a dress and tights I’d gotten for Christmas, he in his swanky suit) and drove the 90 miles south on Highway 101, somehow managing to time our journey perfectly to avoid rush-hour traffic pretty much the entire way and still getting to see the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean as we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. Our luck continued; we found a parking spot easily between the Opera House and the restaurant we’d settled on (Domo Sushi), and we strolled to Domo and ordered edamame, nigiri and a couple of unusual rolls, sitting at the bar to watch the master sushi chefs at work. Our dinner was light and delicious, and we had plenty of time to walk to and explore the opulent San Francisco Opera House before it was time to find our seats in the balcony. We were right in the front of a section, so didn’t have to look over anyone’s heads, and the lights gleamed off the chandelier as the orchestra warmed up. The curtain rose on this season’s production of Giselle.
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A week ago Saturday, a young man drove up to the Sierra Nevada ski resort area, strapped on a helmet and set out for a day of downhill snow sports. He and his new fiancee had recently bought a house in San Francisco, and he had everything going for him, including a 24-year-old sister who loved him dearly. The man didn’t live through the end of the day, as during one of his runs, he collided with a tree, and despite the helmet did not survive his massive injuries. I didn’t find out until last Monday, when my sister emailed me to let me know that her roommate was grieving for yet another family member whose life was cut short. I never met the man, but my sister’s roommate is also one of her closest friends and has attended many of our family events (weddings, holidays, parties, the meet cute of sister with her Irish boyfriend) over the years, so to me she’s become another part of our extended family. My heart hurts for her, yet there’s no words that I or anyone else can say that will make things better.
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Giselle is one of the oldest classical ballets still being performed. The music is iconic; the choreography hasn’t changed much since the 1840s, and the role of the main character is sought after not only for its notoriety but also its difficulty: physically, mentally, emotionally. Giselle is the story of a young peasant girl in the middle ages who falls in love with a man she meets. She thinks he is a peasant like herself, but he is actually a disguised Duke, already engaged to another woman. The first act of the ballet tells this story of love and betrayal, and we see the free-spirited (yet physically weak) Giselle fall in love, discover her beloved’s true identity, go mad, and collapse of a (literal) broken heart.
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A few weeks ago, Dan and I were wandering around town exploring and taking photos. There are some parts of Cloverdale I’ve never seen despite living here for seven years as a kid/teenager, and one of those is the cemetery on the town side of First Street bridge. We’d been riding by it on our bikes for months and walking by it on our way to the River Walk, but never gone to check it out. Sadly, it wasn’t as interesting as the Olive Hill cemetery, but I was interested to see how old the oldest graves were (1870s) and also to see that very few people had been buried there since the 1960s. (The most recent marker I found was from 2001, and it was a large family plot.) Because it isn’t a Catholic cemetery, there isn’t as much traditional statuary; only a few angels and a few large monuments; most of the grave markers were traditional headstones or flat against the ground. Many of the older markers mentioned the person’s origin – I saw people from Scotland, Nova Scotia, various Eastern European countries, and all of them lived at least part of their lives all the way over here on the West Coast in this little town.
While we were walking through the cemetery, Dan and I talked about trends in death markers, and why people put so much less emphasis on leaving a lasting monument anymore. These days, even with people who are cremated, it seems one is more likely to be buried under a small metal plaque flush against a green lawn rather than anything made of marble. And what is a death marker for, anyway, other than for the benefit of the survivors, to have a place to come and…visit? Maybe that works if you’re religious, but for me it doesn’t make any sense at all. I told Dan that when I die I’d much rather have my name on a park bench someplace, or a plaque on a wall at a museum or a science center I loved and supported. I’d rather the monument to me be useful to those still living – a donation made to a worthy cause, a place for weary hikers or adventurous picnickers to rest their butts, or even a place for a homeless person to sleep.
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Yesterday, Dan and I were out running an errand in Alexander Valley, northeast of Healdsburg, when we drove past a sign that made me take pause. On our way home, I asked him to stop at the side of the road so I could look at it more carefully. “Ben’s Butte,” it said “In loving memory of Ben Black, March 24 1978 – August 11 2001.” My heart sank in my chest, because this is a small area, population-wise, and there’s no way there could be that many Ben Blacks born in 1978. I knew exactly who Ben Black was. One of my earliest memories of preschool is of climbing a play structure with my friends, trying to get away from Ben Black and his friend Casey who were play-chasing us. He and his friends used to pretend to be the Incredible Hulk in the sandbox. When I was very young, I had a high fever while cutting some teeth, and in my fever hallucinations Ben and Casey were shooting arrows at us on that play structure. Ben was about a year older than me, and when I skipped second grade I skipped into his classroom. He was good-natured and treated me well even though I was this little smart girl so much smaller than all the other kids in the class. We moved to Cloverdale after 5th grade and I guess Ben went to Healdsburg High School, and I never gave him another thought until yesterday when I saw that he’d died nearly 10 years ago. Ben was 23 when he died, a senseless hit-and-run motorcycle accident.
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It’s shocking to us, now, when someone who is young and healthy dies. Modern medicine has enabled mortally wounded soldiers to survive injuries that would have killed them in previous wars. It has rid us or nearly rid us of some childhood diseases, and it’s so rare for anyone to die at 23 or 30 that it makes the news. In August 2001, when Ben Black was killed, I was living in Berkeley, in a new long-distance relationship with Dan. My sister’s roommate’s brother was right around my age, and was taking all recommended precautions and died anyway. Back when Giselle was set (the middle ages) and written/first performed (the mid-1800s) people had a much more respectful relationship with death. Many people didn’t have medical care, and young, healthy people could and did die all the time – in childbirth, of infections, in wars. People put up monuments to commemorate the lives of lost loved ones (age 6 days, age 12 years, age 29), many of which still stand centuries or more after the last person who ever knew the skeleton underneath the monument when they were alive shuffled off their own mortal coils.
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Whenever I think of someone dying young, a miscarriage at 6 weeks or 17 weeks, a newborn, an infant, a toddler, a child, a teenager, a young adult, a person in his or her prime, it always makes me think of the lost potential. What would that person have been? What would he or she have done with additional life? Who would she have loved, who would have loved him? It’s sometimes difficult for me to know what is worse – the death of a person who has lived some but has so much more possibility, or the death of a person who never lived much at all. Regardless, what really matters in the grand scheme of things is that people are remembered by the ones who loved them, loved the potential, loved the deeds and actions.
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I don’t believe in life after death, but in 1840-something nearly everyone did. In Act 2 of Giselle, she has become one of the Wilis, the spirits of women betrayed or jilted before their wedding days, who take revenge on living men by making them dance to death. The Duke who loved Giselle visits her grave and is caught by the Wilis, who order him to dance until he drops. His life is spared by the impassioned Giselle, imploring the queen of the Wilis to take pity on him. Even after death, she is able to do something to help her still-living lover.
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There is only one upside I see to the senseless, tragic death of a healthy young person, and that is organ donation. There are many, many people who spend months or years waiting for a healthy organ to replace one that is diseased, malformed, or nonfunctional. One of my friends has undergone two heart replacement surgeries and is still alive and healthy in his mid-30s, all thanks to two donors who had marked that checkbox at the DMV saying that someone could use their organs if they didn’t need them anymore. Dan and I have both agreed that if one of us dies young and relatively healthy, that our parts should be given away to people who might be able to use them. I don’t know whether Ben Black or the friend’s brother were organ donors, but even if they were not, many other people who have died tragically young in accidents have been able to help others with the gift of life. With the exception of religious objection, why not agree to donate your in good working order parts to people who can use them when you know you will no longer be able to do so?