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Chores & Death

As a kid, I spent a lot of time eavesdropping on adults. The world was big and puzzling, and I figured they knew more about it than I did and were trying to keep me from finding out what that was.

As I recall, they talked a lot about deaths. It was a small town, and someone they knew always seemed to be keeling over, and then everyone had to talk about it. As a kid on a mission, I had to listen in.

In most of those stories, the decedent was going about some mundane activity when death came to call. My mom and her sisters might be sitting around the kitchen table when one of them would say, "Did you hear about Herb Wedemeyer? You know, the guy who used to work out at Bissell's Dairy? He dropped dead. Only 52. His wife said he was just going to take the garbage out, and then she heard a clunk, and there he was, dead on the kitchen floor with coffee grounds spilled all over."

I must have heard a hundred stories like that one. My dad told them with friends over a few beers out in the back yard as evening came on. And my grandmother, a true storyteller of the old school, told them, too. "Bob Lasky. 'Member him? Married that Barnsdale woman after her first husband died. He was digging for worms to go fishing, and he'd filled about half a coffee can when he just up and croaked."

So, what did I learn as a young snoop? I learned to avoid mundane activities. Now that I'm getting older, I get a little nervous every time I catch myself engaged in some activity that I so clearly associate with mortal peril. I envision a headline that reads: "Area man dies while raking leaves." Or "Retiree struck down while clearing gutters."

I figure death is not usually big on drama. You might want to go out in a blaze of glory or while blissfully sleeping, but chances are you'll expire somewhere between those two poles — while scrubbing the toilet or straightening a crooked picture on the wall. That's why when my wife asks me to take out the garbage, I usually tell her I can't. It's just too dangerous.

The AARP Bulletin's "What I Really Know" column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit short personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Jamie O'Neill is a reader from Magalia, Calif.

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