Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Death and the Cosmic News Flash That Doesn't Occur

Last week we learned that a man we’d known for many years had died in December. We haven’t seen much of him and his wife for the last few years and we knew that he’d been battling cancer for fifteen years, but it was still strange to find out that he had died, and we hadn’t even known. I’m so sorry for his wife and child and what they must be going through. This news that wasn’t “new” has taken my mind back to times when people I’ve loved have died.

News of the death of a loved person changes one’s life forever. One moment you’re one person, with a certain supporting cast of friends and family; the next moment you’re another person. Your supporting cast has changed unalterably. When my father-in-law died, my husband and I had been at an Oregon Ducks basketball game and we didn’t find out about the death for several hours. After seeing that I’d missed a phone call and then learning that my father-in-law had died earlier that evening, my husband and I had to make the long drive home from Eugene. In silence my mind wandered back to 7:00, the time of his death. What had we been doing at the last moment of his life? It had been half-time of the basketball game. I’d gone down to the bathroom and then bought popcorn and bottled water. There was no tingling of my scalp, no flutter in my tummy. Nothing cosmic to let me know that someone in my life had ceased to exist. When such a monumental change occurs, how can we not know?

I wondered these same things when my mom and dad died. I remember learning about Dad’s sudden death from my husband. He came to my office and I spotted him across the room as I spoke on the telephone. I smiled at him and went to greet him as soon as I was off the phone. He asked me to come with him. I can’t remember what excuse he used, probably lunch, but I grabbed my coat and we got into the elevator. I knew something was up, but I thought it was some sort of surprise. In the elevator I playfully begged him to tell me what was up. Finally, out on the street he stopped, turned to me and delivered those awful words, “Your dad died this morning, Honey.” I collapsed against him with a cry. “No!” My life had changed. Changed in ways that I couldn’t even grasp at that time. Changed in ways that, in some cases, I didn’t grasp for years. Changed in ways that I am still discovering. It was about 11:00. Dad had died at 9:15. I remember wondering what I had been doing at the exact moment of his death. Why hadn’t I felt it? Surely I should have known. But I hadn’t. There was no clue, no message to my heart of what had happened.

I didn’t have that problem when my mom died. I was with her. No worries about what I had been doing, whether or not I’d “felt” anything. I was watching her face, listening for her last labored breath. Would this be it? No, she inhaled again. This one maybe? I knew where I was, what I was doing and I “felt” plenty. Grief, disbelief, intense numbing sorrow and an awe at having actually been there, at having watched someone die. She was there, then she wasn’t.

As I’ve thought about the man we knew who died almost three months ago, all of these other thoughts have come cascading back into my mind. I still wonder how we cannot know when someone we love has died. How can we not realize that our life has just changed so dramatically? I don’t have answers, just plenty of questions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As I grow older, more and more people have died that I thought of as part of my life. Each time, my life changes a little bit, or a lot, as you noted. Each time I think maybe I cannot go on without this person, yet somehow everything does go on. I guess it's a lesson of aging. When I am gone, things will go on without me.

It's sad but also interesting thinking about someone you love dying without your knowing it. For the period of time I don't know, my life is the same. It's not their absence from this world, but the knowing they are gone that changes everything from our perspective.

My grandmother used to tell a story related to this. She was cleaning shelves and lining them with fresh newspapers. She had a stack of the old newspaper liners on the table. My grandfather wandered in and started reading the old newspapers. "Florence!" he exclaimed. "(So and so) died!"
"Leslie," she answered, "he died two years ago. Those are old newspapers."
"Oh!" he said, and wandered back out of the room.