A (very long) reflection on death

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Most people rarely think about death. Most people go years, if not decades, without having to face the harsh reality that death is a part of life. I envy them that luxury.

I think about death all of the time. I feel that I am on constant guard, waiting for the inevitable. Why? I have dealt with more than my fair share of deaths in my life.

I grew up hearing about my aunt Debbie, who had died before I was born, when my mother was only 13. I grew up seeing her pictures on the wall, reading over the poems she wrote and hearing my family talk about her so often that I almost felt that I knew her.  I am an empathetic person, sometimes it is my biggest weakness. I felt something akin to grief over her death. I felt it was unfair that I lost an aunt before I had the chance to know her. She seemed such an amazing person; she was a beauty queen, absolutely gorgeous, and she wrote poetry as a young teen, much like I did. I grieved over the impact she could have had over my life.

When I was 14, my boyfriend’s mother passed away due to a combination of cirrhosis of the liver and cancer of the abdominal wall. She endured a long, painful, horrible illness. They knew that she was not going to make it through the night, and his family asked my family and the preacher at the time (her sister went to church with my family) to come to the hospital to be there for my boyfriend, his dad and her sister. My boyfriend took me into the room to meet her, and she died a few minutes later. What he went through with her illness and her death changed him, and we broke up soon after. He began using hard drugs, joined a gang, and within two years, he was arrested for the attempted murder of a police officer. He remains in jail to this day, some 14 odd years later. The worst part about her death? She and his father had just recently stopped drinking – they had been horrible alcoholics his entire life. She got clean, and then she died. He felt cheated, and he was right.

When I was about 16, my paternal great-grandmother died. Although she was not a constant figure in my life due to her living in North Carolina for most of my life, I loved her. She began to lose touch with reality while I was young and I would sit sometimes, listening to her tell me stories about her children, about her life, and about my grandmother. She deteriorated quickly, and it was a horrible experience for my grandmother to go through. She ended up placing her in a nursing home, because as she slipped farther into that Alzheimer’s induced fog, she became unmanageable. She died soon after. Her funeral was my first, and her face, my first glimpse of a dead loved one. When she died, it was the first time I ever saw my father cry.

When I was 18, and newly pregnant with my daughter, my cousin on my mother’s side was killed in a head-on collision with a semi-truck. He had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car after a late night and swerved into oncoming traffic. We grew up visiting often, and we were very close in age. Officially, he was my uncle’s step-son – but that sort of thing doesn’t matter in my family. He was my cousin, and I felt that loss to my very core. I don’t think my uncle was ever the same after his death. I can still see my aunt weeping over his casket. It was the first time I had seen a person wail in agony. Outright wailing, the grief so raw that it literally tore its way out of his friends and family. These are memories that I wish would fade.

When I was 23, my cousin on my father’s side of the family died after a long battle with cancer. Although I didn’t know her – she was only 8 years old – I attended the funeral to support my cousins, great aunts and uncles, and grandparents. It was the first time I had seen a dead child, and unfortunately, it would not be the last.

The following year, when I was 24, my maternal great grandmother passed away. She developed a regenerative muscle disorder and it caused her muscles to atrophy (at least this is my understanding of the disease). I took my new husband to meet her in the hospital, as it was clear she would not recover, and her time left with us was limited. She passed away a few days later. My Nana was a character. She did things that drove us all crazy, but after she was gone, we realized those were the things we loved most about her. She was so creative. When I think about her, I think about the handmade ornaments on her Christmas tree, the crocheted snowmen, handmade photo albums, and bedroom decoration she made for me as a child. I think about the spread she would put out at our Christmas get-together, and about how she would run around and put away all of the leftovers after we had each taken a serving. Sometimes we would beg my mom not to take us, that she was mean and wouldn’t let us eat enough food. Now that I look back on it, that’s pretty hilarious. I recently began to learn how to knit and crochet and my mother gave me Nana’s old knitting needles that were passed down to her. I get teary eyed whenever I see them in their little pouch – which of course she probably crocheted herself as well.

And then my cousin’s newborn baby passed away. He was born with a heart defect and was only with us for a few weeks. As the family of my cousin’s wife drove back home from attending the funeral, they were in a terrible car accident and her father and one of her brothers passed away. I knew them for a long time, and when I got that call, I just couldn’t believe it.

A few months later, as I was coming home from an out of state vacation, I received a call from my boss telling me that my coworker had passed away that day. It shocked our entire office. She was a eccentric, sweet and lovable person. I had sat next to her for over a year, she practically trained me in my job at the time. I couldn’t believe she was gone. It took a while for our department to return to normal after her death. It was so quiet without her.

When I was about 28, my uncle on my mother’s side committed suicide. He was…well, he was just awesome. He was such a force – he was larger than life. He jumped into canals and wrestled alligators. He hunted wild boar and bear. He lived and worked with the Seminole Indians for 20 years – and he was the only “white man” to have ever done so. He loved his family with such a fierce devotion. He was someone I always loved to see, someone I was proud to introduce to my husband, someone I wanted my daughter to know in her life. His death was something we couldn’t prevent. My mother and his sons had him admitted into the psych ward numerous times to try and prevent him from taking his life. His mind was made up and he did what he felt was his only option. It still breaks my heart. It destroyed my mother. It devastated my grandmother, who had lost her daughter years before, and never really recovered completely. When I see my cousin, his remaining biological son, I have a hard time talking to him. He looks like my uncle. So much so that sometimes when we are chatting, my breath catches in my throat and I have to get up and walk away for a bit.

When I was 29, my husband’s paternal grandfather passed away. I had only been around him a few times, as his family lives out of state. He was a sweet, dear old man. We flew out to say our goodbyes before he became incoherent. I tried to avoid going into his bedroom, where he was being taken care of. At some point, he asked my husband for me to come in and see him. It was heartbreaking. It is one thing to have someone die – but it’s another thing entirely to watch them die. He didn’t pass away that day, and we had to leave town to go home with the knowledge that we had said our final goodbye.

My paternal grandfather is one of 12 brothers and sisters and he was the second to youngest of the brood. As the years progressed, they began slowly entering their 90’s, one at a time. It began with the death of a great uncle I had never met. A few years later, it was another great uncle I had never met. Then it was a great aunt I hadn’t seen since childhood. Then a great aunt I had never met. Then it was a great aunt I hadn’t seen since childhood, and then it began to catch up with me.

That same year, my daughter’s biological father committed suicide. He struggled with depression his entire adult life. his death hit me, and my entire family, like a ton of bricks. It was my daughter’s father. It was my cousin’s old best friend, it was someone we knew for so long, had adored, disliked, hated, forgiven, and in the end, just accepted for who he was. I’ve blogged about his death before, so I will summarize his death as such: my daughter, his family and I were heartbroken and devastated. My daughter and I, as I assume the rest of his family is as well, continually struggle to come to terms with his death and how my daughter is going to continue to be affected by it for the rest of her life.

My great aunt,with whom I had spent many mornings with in NC, sitting around the porch, listening to her gossip, passed away. I hadn’t spent much time with her since I had entered adulthood, and I was not able to attend the funeral. I pushed it from my mind. The next year, my other great aunt, with whom I had spent a great deal of time with during my childhood and teenage years, passed away. And then my great uncle.

My great uncle’s death rattled something in me. He was my grandfather’s last brother. It meant something, his last brother passing, something I can’t quite explain. I began to think, to really realize, that my grandparents were elderly. They weren’t going to be around forever. His funeral left me sullen and wondering how much longer I had with my grandparents.

A few weeks later, another great aunt passed away. Another person I loved, gone. I was in North Carolina on vacation at the time and my husband and I went to visit my grandfather for the day. Because we were already on vacation, we weren’t able to go back the following week for her funeral.

Last year, my maternal grandmother was hit by a car and passed away. Her death has left us all completely and utterly devastated. My mother had just began to recover from my uncle’s death. My daughter and I were just beginning to recover from her father’s death…and then our “ubuella” died. My grandmother had been in ill health for a while, but she was not exactly knocking at death’s door. Her sudden and tragic death caught us all off guard and it has been very difficult, for some impossible, to put the pieces of our lives back together.

About a month after my grandmother passed, my father’s best friend since childhood died of a massive heart attack. My father didn’t have any brothers, and this man had been a sort of uncle to me my entire life. He gave me my first “real book” – a Daniel Steele novel, Message from Nam, for my 13th birthday. I devoured it, and it left me hungry for more substantial books. He was the reason I stopped reading the Sweet Valley High series and began picking my way through the classics, beginning with Jane Austen. His sister, also a close family friend, gave my mother a pocket knife of his to give to me. I keep it in my center console in my car.

Last month, a cousin that I cared for very much committed suicide. I was not able to attend the funeral. His death caused a riff in the family, much as it did in my own family after my grandmother’s death. I have a few mementos from our childhood together – an instant picture of us together at the mall, a drawing he drew me one summer…not much to remember him by, but I am glad that I have them. Something concrete, something solid that I can keep, to help me keep those memories alive.

I am no stranger to death. For me, death is as much a part of life as birth. When my phone rings late at night, or early in the morning, I immediately brace myself for the news. Sometimes I lay awake at night, considering the sorrow I’ve experienced, the tears I’ve cried, and how much longer I have with my precious remaining family members.

My father’s parents are both ill. My grandmother has been through a few surgeries, in and out of the hospital over the past year. My grandfather, I found out today, was admitted into the hospital on Monday. They found that he was severely anemic and he has received blood transfusions. Hopefully we will know soon what is causing the anemia and what is wrong…

I began thinking about Death again, feeling that it may be around the corner. I am not ready to lose anyone else, not yet, not for a long time. I hope that Death is kind, and skips my family this turn around.

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  1. tamie says

    There is so much that I would like to say but it is so difficult to see the keyboard as I type thru this fountain of tears.

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