In 2004, I was sitting outside a small art space at night listening to a local person sing a version of a popular song in a minor key. I was in a city where my husband had taken a job the year before, a city where, about a year after arriving, my husband told me he didn’t want to be married anymore, and a city where I, myself, had recently lost my job. The night that I sat on the curb outside the art space, I was in a city with no good reason to be there.
That night, my mother back in Houston was in the hospital dying from a very sudden illness. Within a week, I would fly home to say goodbye and respect her wishes to have the machines turned off. I regret we were not able to be adults together in the world for very long. As a grown-up, I was just learning to enjoy her company. Beyond her role as my mother, she seemed to be a nice person.
This was the first night I felt the churn from so many of my life’s anchors having been pulled up. I remember, even then, thinking, I will be ok. It did not take long to fully realize how little I needed the anchors.
But even 13 years after the fact, I miss being buoyed by familiarities that could reach all the way back into the way-back of my life.
After my dad’s death, an old friend sent me a wooden plaque with the lyrics to “You are my sunshine.” I don’t know how she remembered that detail about my relationship with my dad, but he did used to sing that song to me, and then to my little sister, and then to his new wife. It was a gift sent sincerely and with good intentions. I don’t want it.
When I was in town for the memorial service last November, my dad’s wife gave me a locket that holds some of his ashes. I don’t want it.
Years earlier, before my dad died, he went to visit my sister and distribute my mother’s ashes in the ocean. My sister made a DVD with a video of the event. My mother died over 10 years ago, and the ocean dispersal was probably 7 or 8 years ago. I haven’t watched the DVD yet. I don’t want to.
A rabbi told me, when I was a kid, that a name is treated with the same respect as the thing or person it represents. And the name should not be defaced or destroyed once written. I am these days a practicing atheist, but this belief runs deep. These totems that people have bestowed upon me are heavy things. They weigh on me. And while I keep them out of respect, I do not know what to do with them now that they are here.
I work in a lovely place. For the most part, I love my job, I value my colleagues, and I am constantly challenged and rewarded. This wasn’t always the case. The year I took this job, my nemesis revealed herself to me almost immediately and made things stressful and horrible in my little corner of the institutional world. Finally she retired. Much rejoicing.
Today, years after her retirement, I saw a blurb in our monthly newsletter that her husband had died over the holiday break. Her life will never be the same. Despite my ongoing animosity, my first reaction was sadness.
The death of a spouse, I think, must be worse than anything at all, except perhaps losing a child. I don’t know about losing children. I’ve lost two parents, four of grandparents and a wide swath of other, more distant family. I didn’t live with any of those people. They did not affect my daily routine. And I had not made a conscious decision to conjoin my life with them–we were all thrust together, for better or worse, through biology and familial convention. But my partner, he is the result of decades of searching. I picked him and he me. To lose him would be (will be) a singular, unique, and unrecoverable tragedy.
So for a brief moment, I wanted to reach out to my nemesis and let her know how sorry I felt and that I wished her well.
Then that moment was gone, like the trite trail of smoke off a matchstick. I am pretty sure that she is still a meanie who does not want to hear from me, least of all about something as intensely personal as the death of a spouse.
On December 19, 2015, someone I never met died. He was a Facebook “friend.” We attended the same school, though at different times, and we never had an exchange of any significance. Our history is comprised solely of an 18-month string of common “likes.”
When someone dies on Facebook, I am immediately and mostly curious to know how they died. I read every post I can find. I google the name with relevant keywords: death, obituary, memorial.
It took some time to figure out how this friend died. Once the announcement appeared that he had passed away, in rolled hundreds of laments, memories, pictures, and condolences. No one actually named the mode of death. I have pieced together that he suffered from depression, and my assumption is that he overdosed, either accidentally or purposefully.
Facebook has also shared in December that a friend’s 87 year old mother passed away while in hospice, a former student is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and a co-worker’s cat died unexpectedly in her sleep.
It matters to me, knowing how someone left the world. Certainly the way we live affects the universe. But the way we die shows the universe’s ultimate, always-at-work affect on us, and it humbles me.
News: Tomorrow, torrential rains in Mississippi.
Not news: Today and yesterday, my parents are still dead.
In a few days, I fly out for my dad’s memorial service. And there the signal that it is time to openly grieve will emerge: between departure and arrival. Until then, I am stoic.
Many people I know, anticipating this opening and in efforts empathize and be kind, have shared death stories with me. But if there is one thing an English major already knows, it is that death is one of the Great Universal Themes. No anecdotal support is necessary. Please stop talking to me about dead people. Unless you want to acknowledge that this is more for your benefit than for mine. In that case, it would be ok.
In the mean time, my partner’s old, old friend has contacted us to say he has terminal cancer.
My father died this week. His wife called me in the morning to tell me she woke up to find him cold in the bed. He went, peacefully, in his sleep. As far as I know, he had had a few months of wellness after a very long time of being ill. To die at home, without knowing it’s coming, seems to me the kindest death.
As a kid, I used to worry that the worst thing about dying was not knowing how things ended: for a long time I specifically worried that I would never know how the 2000 presidential election had resolved. When I got older, my worry became self-focused: when other people died, they wouldn’t know how I ended. My mother never knew about my divorce. My father will never know about my promotion. Neither one of them will ever know that they would never have known grandchildren, mostly because of tumors in my uterus that they will never know I had.
I don’t worry that I missed having last words with them both. Because language–in the final moments of the strange, slow ticking of Messianic time when you can see someone’s death in the room, when if you believe in God you might believe he is there too, when death and God and immediate family are all running out the clock with dread and with guilty relief–because language in this moment is nothing but a cruel injustice.
The kindest death will steal you away before anyone knows there should be any last words.