I have never handled death very well. Perhaps I should rephrase that to say that I have never learned how to handle death. When I was younger, I was sheltered from all things that my parents thought would hurt me, which somehow hurt me more later on in life.
When I was very young, we had a dog named Lady. She was a Collie who looked just like Lassie. I remember when she left for the vet and never came back. My parents told me that she had died because they forgot her water bowl and would not have made it back in time to retrieve it. For the longest time I thought she died from dehydration, when in reality they had to put her down because she was old and sick. I remember finding her bowl outside later in the day. It had a little bit of water and dirt in it and all I could think was that we would never use it again and that it was this bowl’s fault that she died. It should be thrown away because it had not done a good job being a dog bowl. It was, in fact, not a dog bowl at all. It was an 80’s style puke green tupperware. Perhaps it was never fit to be a dog bowl in the first place.
I am not an advocate for dishonesty to children in the death situation. I was at my sisters house and one of their cats was beyond repair. They could not save her and had her put to sleep. My nephew kept asking about her, since he hadn’t seen her outside in a while. They lied to him and told him that she was sick and couldn’t live outside anymore. The told him they sent her to a retirement home to keep the old people happy.
What a beautiful story! I couldn’t help but let my heart sink when I realized that it was a very well drafted excuse to not have to deal with a destroyed child that was similar to the one my parents concocted when Lady died… the difference being that I at least knew my dog had died and wasn’t left thinking that she lived happily ever after in a retirement home in Florida spreading joy and demanding belly rubs.
When my grandmother passed away, my sisters and I were not allowed to go to the funeral. I didn’t know that my grandmother was sick, and thought that perhaps it was normal for little old ladies to have Styrofoam heads wearing wigs on their dressers. Soon after she passed, my uncle passed as well. He had suffered from severe Cerebral Palsy (among other ailments) and lived at home his entire life. He was confined to a wheel chair and had speech issues, but he was sure as hell sharp as a tack.
Instead of going to the funerals, we three girls were sent to our Aunt Alice’s house down the street (she wasn’t our real aunt, just a little old lady who we would buy groceries for). I can’t remember if we were told that grandma Sophie and Uncle Buddy “went to heaven,” but we all knew that something was going to be different forever. I remember throwing a temper tantrum because I had to wear these stupid pajamas with plastic feet on them. I told Aunt Alice that my feet were itchy and sweaty. I refused to stop crying even after she poured baby powder into the pajama booties. I am confident that my distress was not caused (entirely) by the booties, but rather not understanding why I was so upset.
When I was in 8th grade, one of my classmates died in a house fire along with four other children. She had been the pumpkin in our class rendition of Cinderella in 4th grade. She lived across the street from the school and was buried in a cemetery on the other side of the school. Her life, in those 12 years, did not take her as far as she should have gone, which always made me sad. I regret the last time I spoke to her. We were in art class and she was threatening to put orange paint on everyone. I told her to stop, perhaps in a not-so–nice way. I can’t remember. It’s funny how I rarely spoke to her, but I can remember my last encounter with her. I went to visit her grave once. She didn’t have a headstone. I wondered how many people attended her funeral.
The first wake I went to was for the grandmother of a friend. I had never seen an embalmed body before and wasn’t sure what to expect. I did not know the woman, but was good friends with my pal… friends to the point that he was like the little brother I never had. I remember being so sad there in my seat. I couldn’t figure it out. It took me years to figure it out.
When I was 18, a friend committed suicide. We weren’t great friends, but we had known each other for a long time. Our sisters were softball heroes together and we’d spend hours playing tennis on the school grounds during the games. I called him “Robe” and he called me “Step-On-Me.” He would accompany me to class sometimes, carrying the books that I pretended were too heavy. He was a good guy who got into some trouble. It seemed to be enough trouble that he saw no way out of it.
It wasn’t a pretty death. I can’t imagine that it was a beautiful death that we all seek; one where we slip into the arms of the afterlife. It was heavy and brutal and self-punished. I found out and remember feeling like it was some big joke. The days that followed were a blur for most of my friends. No one went to class. We all mourned in our own way and ended up at the beach. The wake was filled with hundreds of teenagers in Starter Jackets and baggy jeans. The casket was covered in pictures and CDs and letters and tokens of memory. I found that mourning a peer was so much harder than mourning a grandparent. Not many of us knew how to handle the death of a friend, especially by the action of his own hands.
Two weeks after graduation, there was a terrible car accident and another friend was lost to the heavens. This death felt like a horrible nightmare. I remember heading to the crash site and seeing it strewn with love from friends and family. I remember hearing that she was born with a heart defect and that it was a miracle she lived to be 18. I could never find comfort in that statement. I didn’t want to believe that. I didn’t register that she was dead until the wake. This was my first open casket of someone I knew. I felt tortured, like she was stuck in some nightmare and would wake up at any moment gasping for air. We had just been to our senior prom in the same limo. There were pictures of us in her coffin. She was buried with them. I remember looking at her hands and they looked so old. She was holding a rosary. I never knew she was Catholic.
I don’t remember how old I was when my grandfather passed, but I received the call before the sun rose and had to wake my dad up. I had never seen my dad cry, and it broke my heart. The days that followed the death of my grandpa were weighty. After all was said and done we had to go and clean out his house, fix it up, and get it ready to be rented. There were so many stories that my dad told us. I’ll never forget about this one story… when he was younger his brother wanted to be a weather man, but due to his handicap, he was unable to document his forecasts. We found the old notebooks that were full of my dad’s handwriting, but they were my Uncle Buddy’s ideas. He was forecasting the weather and my dad was his stenographer. My dad says Buddy was always accurate, and my dad never lies.
My former boyfriend’s grandparents did not pass too far apart from one another. I loved them so much and was heartbroken when they departed. I remember seeing all of the same people at both of the services and could not help but bask in the awe of what full and giving lives they had lived. His Grandfather was the finest of gentlemen, and his Grandmother was a southern firecracker. They were married for over 60 years and had shared the love they had for each other with everyone else. Now THAT is a fine way to live.
My former boyfriend’s father passed away a few years back. His dad was one of the greatest men I have ever met; witty as hell, nerd funny, atrociously smart. He passed after the break up, and I was not there for any of the services or mourning. I mourned on my own, but will never forgive myself for being too selfish and scared to show up and spread my condolences. Unforgivable.
Death never gets easy.
I received a call two Thursday’s ago from a dear friend who lives in Australia. He asked me if I had seen the news on Facebook. I had not. Then I did. One of my friends from my old South Bronx neighborhood died. It had started snowing here in New York City and I was certain that I didn’t care if I had to go to work or if we would encounter a snow day from the Snow Event named Hercules. I packed a bag for one night, threw on some boots, and trucked out to be with my friends. I was beyond anxious to get there, not knowing what the scene would be. I arrived rather late, and found a few friendly, tear stained faces at my old watering hole. I didn’t leave until Sunday afternoon.
Despite having only one change of clothing and underwear for a very long weekend, I just needed to be there. My heart broke for my friends, as they loved and knew her better than I. She was one of the staple faces of the neighborhood and touched so many lives. She was a waitress at the exact bar we were meeting at. She knew everyone. If she didn’t know them, she made it a point to know them. I arrived at a loss. What had happened? No one was saying anything. Then it came out. Suicide. The news was shattering. It still is.
Even as I sat there in the bar I expected her to walk in or come up and ask me what I wanted to eat or drink. I couldn’t imagine the neighborhood without her. As I prepare to move back there in the next few months, I still can’t imagine that she will not be part of the landscape. I smoked a cigarette with a few people. The conversation was kicked around in slow motion like a little pebble under the tip of a shoe. The big question was “why.” We all knew why, but we really didn’t understand it.
We drank our way into each night with tears in our eyes and an ache in our hearts. Saturday night there was a memorial at the pub. We all sat around and ate and talked and cupcake toasted in her honor. After a few hours, all was quiet and people started telling their stories to the group. Her family was there. It seemed like they knew that she was loved, but just not how much and by so many people. The air was heavy, but spiritual and healing. It was good to be a mess among friends both new and old.
I sat there soaking in the scene. I could not believe how many people came out… how many people I knew… how many people who she introduced me to. I had been in that neighborhood for so long, and there were many people who she’d bring to my apartment for Taco Art night or Mardi-Gras parties or just a random ring of my doorbell on a Wednesday.
The wake was Tuesday. I walked for 10 minutes from 18th street to 14th street and it was like walking to the North Pole. I have never been that cold in my life. Even at -15 degrees with wind chill, there were at least a hundred people there, and that was just for the service part of the day. I can only imagine how many people rolled in and out during the course of the day.
Her best friend, brother, father and family friend all got up to speak. Her father’s speech was the hardest to get through. She had left a note and he read it to us. It is something I can never unhear. It was beautiful. It helped us to understand WHY she did what she did. She explained the affects of her Bi-Polar condition poetically. The description was dark and melancholy, but hearing it in words that belonged to her made it seem lyrical. Her decision was obvious. Inevitable.
That weekend in the Bronx changed my life. I think about death often, and it’s getting a little too morbid for my liking. The unknown can be a scary place, but just living in celebration and mourning last weekend really made me appreciate what I have, including a whole bunch of amazing friends who really care about one another and their community.
Death is a part of life, perhaps one of the hardest things in life to deal with (aside from the IRS and in-laws). What I have learned from my experiences is that it’s the permanence of death that affect us most. It is the forever that cannot be avoided. While we love and will always cherish, it’s the pain of not having just 5 more minutes to find peace and say all that needs to be said. Ultimately, 5 minutes wouldn’t be enough time. There is never enough time.
Rest in Peace, My Friends.