She said: It feels like everyone is dying on me.
I said: That's not true.
And immediately regretted it.
If she feels like everyone is dying on her, then that's the truth. At least her truth. I understand that. Some deaths make sense. People get old and things happen. It makes her nervous that I'm building the house I intend to die in - literally. As in, you'll have to drag me out of this thing kicking and screaming and I remind her that just because I'm building it now doesn't mean I don't intend to live in it for the next couple of decades. I intend to be nearly mummified by the time I decided I'm ready to be boxed up and fed to the flames.
But there it is anyway. Mom mentioned death in what seems like a sea of it lately. I consider getting her drunk and declaring my intention to live forever leaving out the part that 'forever' is specific to each living thing.
When Elizabeth was five, her step-father's brother died. It wasn't pretty and it, and the aftermath had a profound effect on her. Here is the day Frank died in 744 words. It should probably be read now, before you go on. Imagine you are five and you, very much like your mother, reads the room like a fiend.
After the discovery and the inquest and the funeral and the internment and the after party at the dive bar where we all forgot and left her in the car in the parking lot, Elizabeth started to process. This went on for quite sometime and looked a bit like this:
...on the way home from afterschool care or dance...
Mom. What happens when you die?
I don't know.
Do you go to heaven?
I don't think so but some people do.
So do you?
I really don't know but if I had to guess I'd say that death is death and then it's all over.
You mean you just stop being?
Elizabeth, it's ok. This is the way it works. You know, the circle of life, right? We're born, we live, we die, we fade back into the earth (leaving out the part where Frank has been laid to rest inside a casket inside a cement vault inside the ground and probably isn't going anywhere).
What happens when we're in the earth?
Well, I suppose the bugs and worms eat us up and turn us into dirt and then maybe a tree grows in our soil and then we're part of the tree because nothing ever really disappears, it just becomes something else (is it too early for this?).
So I'm going to be a tree?
I go on about green burials for a while and I talk about sky burials and vaguely mention my not so subtle desire to be sent out to sea in a long boat and set on fire just over the international whatever line
There's nothing unusual in this sort of question except maybe my unconventional answers. The one thing I'm not going to do is promise her heaven because I'm not buying it. We have a hard enough time comprehending and processing the fact of death these days.
There's nothing unusual except for the fact that it goes on and on and on until I finally tell her to give it a rest which I regret the first night she crawls into my bed. The night terrors continue for about a year and after that she successfully buries it. I don't for one minute believe she's processed and resolved the fact of death. I certainly haven't.
I think that I am ready for my father to die. I am grateful that we've got what we consider to be three more years than previously expected. I can see him winding down, a little more every day and so it's not a shock. I'm back on the mountain frequently enough that I don't notice drastic changes. My father thinks he's ready to die except he wants to know what's going to happen. The man likes to be prepared. He wants answers. He wants logic. He wants the illusion of control right up to the end and probably a good bit after if I know that man. We can give him answers but they aren't good enough because we really don't know. We have an idea but when he asks what it will feel like, we can't tell him for sure. It will feel like sleep, Daddy, it's OK. That's not enough of an answer and I hear his youngest granddaughter at my shoulder whispering that it's not good enough. She wants those answers too.
I think that I am ready for my step-grandmother to die but actually, I most certainly am not. She is. I think. She seems to have made peace with it although I notice she hasn't done a damn thing about slowing down. She forces herself up and down those stairs several times a day. She rests awhile and then makes dinner at least once a week. She takes her medication as directed and when we made that midnight run to the ER last year, that woman self-regulated on the table and we went home the next morning. I tried to sleep on the floor by her bed but mostly I listened to her breathe and by sunrise my heart was quiet again.
A few days ago, on the Solstice, appropriately, the light of the Great and Magical Ben finally went out. I was ready for that except it brought to mind another Solstice, the winter sort, back in 2007 when the light of the Great and Magical Sparky went out and he meant to die on his island in Canada watching the ice break up in the river.
These two deaths I do not easily abide. It's one thing if a body has lived a full and useful life, made it over some sort of finish line and then wound it down and let go. It's another thing when a clock stops ticking before we think it's time. Those are harder. I think.
The thing about Sparky and Ben is we saw it coming. We had time to prepare. There was a good fight. The thing about my old people is that we've had more than enough time to prepare (and it will never be enough time) and it seems like a natural thing. As if cancer (see Ben and Sparky) is not a natural thing (it is).
The thing about Sparky and Ben is that it happened apart and outside of me. I loved them both very much. I still miss Sparky. Shit, I still need Sparky. Neither of these deaths touched my daughter.
The thing about my old people is that I've had plenty of time to prepare and it makes sense in the world. Both of these deaths touch my daughter, but she understands.
One night he didn't feel good and we chatted for a bit and then decided he should go to urgent care. Urgent care sent him home and he felt a little better until he didn't. Then we thought maybe he ought to get himself to the ER. And so he did. Elizabeth drove him.
Nobody could tell what was wrong with him and we weren't particularly worried because how bad could it possibly be?
There were a couple of scans and then an MRI and then a few things were ruled out and they sent him in for a scope. How bad could it be?
Elizabeth was waiting in his room thinking, how bad could it be?
I was sitting on my front stoop, five hours north, thinking, how bad could it be?
And then the phone rang and the universe contracted and all the air was sucked off the planet and it was so still you might have heard the blades of grass singing.
Except for the sound of Elizabeth.
Next week we will return to The Beach. Most of us. We will stand and then immerse ourselves in that sacred water that is the only baptism most of us have had. It will not wash any of this away but it will smooth out the rough patches and most of all remind us that singularity is a myth. We are none of us alone, not ever. And isn't that the thing about death that truly scares us most?
don't leave me, don't go...how can I exist when part of me is you?