When someone you love dies, you live for a while by a different code. Days are about survival, and the proximity of tissue boxes. You become that guy – the person crying in the produce section, running red lights, and swearing at the banker. When I got the call I was sitting in a coffee shop, praying don’t judge me.
There’s the taunting moment of hope in the morning, when it’s possible that you could have imagined it all. And the one when you’re sure the universe has played a tasteless joke on you, with its strange dreams and stranger realities. And the one when you poke your head out of stacks of cards and lasagna and ask, What’s happened to my life?
this is that moment.
Death leaves words unheard, text messages dangling unanswered in the stupid selfish cybersphere. It makes the worst of firsts and lasts. It takes socks and dead get-well bouquets on bedside tables and fragile lay-flat-to-dry blouses still in the basement that morning and turns them all suddenly sacred. Everything on the bathroom counter is an instant relic, every scarf holy.
It’s been just over a month. People have, sweetly, started to ask what’s going on with my blog. Oh, right. I have a blog.
I can’t bear to think of desecrating the past year by making this easy — delivering regurgitated greeting-card-approved words into your inbox, because I’m a person of faith and I’m supposed to say that being dead is going home. My heart is slowly being strangled and I’m supposed to boil it down nice and easy in a theologically airtight lesson about life and death. You, sir, have come to the wrong place.
That said, I thank you for your patience — I logged on today for the first time since 2013 and was shocked to see that people still are reading – visiting – waiting for something else. I’m sure this isn’t what you came here looking for, and you’re free to tune out.
Last February I was hired by a woman who’d been defying the laws of metastatic cancer survival rates for more than five years. My job, four days a week, was to peel back the drapes and turn on all the lights and crank Jack Johnson and punch chemo in the face with songs about mango trees and listen to her daughters’ crazy teacher stories and intolerance for high school drama while scraping food off counters. It has been one of the best experiences of my short life.
We become friends because, besides finding ourselves hilarious, we had a great respect for our differences — having delved into life’s deepest questions and surfaced with opposite conclusions. She was a foil for all the stereotypes I’ve been supposed to believe about people who don’t share my faith, and she decided that I was a “real” Christian for trying to take care of people. She introduced me once to a friend as “peace and happiness incarnate.” I said I’d like that on a t-shirt.
We drank lots of tea and lost track of time talking about politics and the poor and good books, and movies she recommended are still sitting next to my TV, chastising me for the conversations I won’t have. We raked leaves back from spring shoots to let her garden grow, and she said once the fall came she’d chop off pieces of her plants to start my first garden. She developed the art of knowing when I was upset, and for this guarded introvert, she was one more safe place.
The last thing I said was I’ll see you on Monday. The words felt stupid coming out, hanging there between us, feeling untrue. What I meant and couldn’t say was Please don’t leave before then. I didn’t have to take them back – the way she looked at me said she knew I knew.
What the doctor said would be three weeks lasted five days. When I got the call, I remembered how I’d changed her sheets and placed that bouquet beside her bed. It was days after she’d quit the chemo, we’d just gotten the news that we had days left. She tried to tell me something, couldn’t find the words, and wrapped up a pillow under her head. Looking more peaceful than she had in months she said, “It’s amazing. I don’t feel any pain.”
(Whatever she was on, I’d like some.)
That weekend, they called her daughters in to say goodbye, and she told them, “This dying thing sucks.”
It does. Big time.
But I think she summed it up best when she put her head over the sink to shave off her wispy hair for the umpteenth time: “I wasn’t trained for this.”
Nobody was. I don’t have a clue. Actually, neither do you.
We’re all beginners, late bloomers, winging it, learning as we go.
She was an amazing, giving, sweet woman who loved long and deep and honest. If people can say half of those lovely things at my funeral someday, I’ll count my life a success.
I’m still at the house. I still play Jack, only louder, to hide the quiet. That week of the funeral, her sister-in-law asked, “How many years has it been?” and that’s how it feels, except that I still expect her to answer the door. I don’t pretend to understand why anything happens, but I’m so deeply grateful for all the ways I fell exactly in the right way on my face, because I landed on their doorstep a year ago, and they let me in.