Apr 01, 2009

What is death anyway? Absence of life? Going away? Where? I maintain that it is not death itself that is so fearsome, but the processes leading up to death—sickness, dementia, infirmities—that we fear far more than death. Death itself is more of a birth into the unknown, not unlike the birth of a baby. Does a baby have any idea what he is getting into? What the “next world” is like? When my husband died at home with two of his children, a son-in-law, me and the nighttime caretaker in attendance, we prayed him across the threshold as his breaths came further and further apart. And then he was gone.

My father and I used to joke that I would put his ashes in an urn on my mantelpiece after he died. He loved the idea; my Mom saw nothing funny in the subject. He wanted to die still with his faculties intact and doing his beloved gardening. He hated the idea of a senior home or nursing home. He refused to go. He thought he would die without his garden. Fortunately for him he collapsed and died in the middle of dinner one night in a Tifton, GA, restaurant during a trip to Florida to see old friends. He and Mom were on the way home to Delaware, but they were stopping in Atlanta with my brother for a few days.

I was closer to my Dad than to my Mom. What lifted his death for me was the appearance of an “angel” in the restaurant, a county engineer and Gideon Bible Society member who happened to be there when Dad had his fatal heart attack. He drove my Mom to the hospital, waited with her until the coroner released the body, invited her to his home until my brother, Bill, could make the 5 hour trip from Atlanta, took her to the motel to meet Bill, and then checked in at the funeral parlor the next morning just to make sure everything was alright. My mother was never alone during that whole ordeal because of that man. It was years before I cried about my Dad’s death, because of the story of that “angel” disguised as a local man.

When I was in my 30’s my favorite Aunt Grace died. I think she was 84 at the time. There was an open casket which I hated; I was appalled at how she looked and could barely look at her. I was so fond of her, but really unable to face that reality.

A very close friend of mine died when I was a junior in college. She and another neighbor were two years younger than I, but throughout high school, they were the friends I turned to on the weekends; we had many sleepovers at my house. She and her boyfriend were students at Middlebury College and walking along a highway at night when they were both struck and killed instantly. She was 18. I thought her parents were so brave to even show up at her memorial service. What a loss! I think they were fine until I came through the receiving line crying. They had lived just behind uour house throughout my junior high and high school years.

A neighbor’s baby died at the age of 18 months in Louisville when I was 9 or 10. I used to help his mother with him, played with him for hours. I so wanted to go to the funeral, but my parents wouldn’t let me. Bishop, that was their name. They were a really nice young couple, he was their only child.

In the early 1950’s during a two to three years span so many people died in our family, my mother’s two brothers, my Mom’s mother and my Dad’s parents. It seemed like we were forever getting the news that yet again another had died. I’d come home from school so many times to find my mother at the stove crying as she stirred some pot.

Anyone my age has experienced a lot of death of relatives, maybe friends, and acquaintances. I know I’ve had experiences of my husband and my father after they died. So where are they? Is the veil so thin between this world and the next that sometimes they can “appear” to us. Is that Heaven over there? Eternal life? Does the personality keep going? Or just the soul? I believe in an afterlife, that my soul rejoins God in some mysterious way for eternity, but beyond that belief for which I have no supporting evidence, I just don’t know.

If we did know, would we feel better about death? Even small transitions can be hard to face, I think death will always be one issue that has more questions than answers—it’s a mystery. I think it will be fun to find out, once I pass through that birth canal.

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