If no one you love has ever died, I consider you both very lucky and very unlucky. Life before death is filled with wonder, hope, and love. Life after death tends to be filled with a sense of sadness, fear of additional loss, and pondering life’s greatest question: “Why?”
I first met death as a very young boy when I was told to go say goodbye to my grandma. The atmosphere in the room hung like a vacant noose. As I walked in and looked into her eyes, I was stopped in my tracks by the fear and absence in her gaze. It was a look I could only recall seeing in the eyes of a frightened animal. She lied back sweating, eyes wide, frail as a wet towel. “Goodbye grandma,” I said before quickly doing an about-face and walking out.
A few years later, I was 10. My mom sat me down on the couch and tried to smile. Her eyes turned into slits and she began sobbing. “I… I have lung cancer,” she said through gasps of air. “But it’s going to be alright. We’re going to fight this and we’re going to beat it.”
Fight we did. Chemotherapy and doctor trips gave light to the end of a dark tunnel. One morning during her first round of chemo, my mom knocked on my bedroom door and proffered a fist full of curly, strawberry-blonde hair. “Cool huh? Maybe I’ll dye my scalp like Dennis Rodman after the rest falls off,” she said, taking in a big belly laugh as my face reddened.
Fight we lost. At 11, I watched my fun-loving, vivacious mom who would excitedly run toward those she loved turn into a sick, voiceless human who couldn’t rise from supine. Cancer had spread to her brain. She was in home hospice; she preferred not to die in a hospital. Whispers around the house spoke of a comfortable end, but I wished and prayed for a resurrection. Sometimes I’d lie in her hospice bed and I’d stare at her sunken cheeks and rub lotion on her charred skin. How strange this life was: Just two years prior I ended each night with a prayer for a new brother or sister, egging her and my father on for some company. Now, I was walking into my childhood room and saying goodbye, just as I had with grandma.
Mom’s death was like riding an airplane at 30,000 feet and opening the door. On our last day, a neighbor family circled her and prayed as she gasped for air. I watched from a seat in a separate room and felt like I wanted to go toward the door and free fall from the sky.
“Dad?” I spoke up in her bed hours after her final exhale. “Did mom know I loved her?”
“There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty,” John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden. “The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.”
Death is dreadfully beautiful. After it hectored me for most of my 31 years, I’ve finally spent time looking death in the eye and seeing it for what it is: inevitable.
With inevitability comes commonality. Those we love who have died – perhaps my mom or grandmother, perhaps your dad or aunt – are physically gone but they’ve left permanent imprints on the walls of our minds. All of us have this imprint, even if we don’t know it. We’re all strange reflections of ancestors whose names we’ve never heard and strangers we’ve never met.
This realization took a long time for me to see and feel. After mom died, I spent years avoiding the thought, mention, or feeling of her death. In turn, I avoided anything else that might hurt, bring joy, or leave me vulnerable. I turned inward. I felt as though death had aged me and made me weak, an adult before my first kiss. The more I avoided confronting death, the more patiently it waited to meet me, peaking around the corner every so often to see if I was ready to chat.
I finally met death somewhere deep in my mind’s eye and I no longer fear it as unfair or biased. I realized it was a simple lottery that we all play with no choice in numbers – sometimes they just come up and there’s nothing to be done about it. Other times we lose the lottery and gain a few extra years with those we love. It doesn’t choose us and we don’t choose it.
The years I spent in premature adulthood, I wished I was someone else – anyone else. I didn’t see the point of feeling as I did, my stomach often tied in knots and dark clouds of sadness never too far off the horizon. These years were not a waste, however, as they left me with a grave knowledge that I was bound for the grave. Instead of being resigned to sadness that comes with life’s end, I realized it made me closer to my mom, my grandma, and everyone else than I can ever and never know. We’re all human, we’ll all one day be missed.
For years, this scared me. I watched my dad watch his friends die. I watched my grandpa die. I watched my dad get cancer twice and survive. It all played in slow motion, highlighting what I had to look forward to.
One day, death and its collateral damage stopped scaring me. Macabre jokes I told myself became light-hearted and funny, perhaps necessary. I had taken to meditating and realized how much I was now like my mom. I also realized how much I was like many of the people I knew and loved – and therefore like people I had never met and never would meet. We all seem to become apart of one another, I realized, making us both impermanent and permanent. The little ways one person changes another person plays a role in changing someone else down the line. We’re all echos of each other’s voices, vibrating off life’s walls in a glorious uproar of humanity.
Death’s dreadful beauty teaches hard lessons. But as Steinbeck wrote, life without death has been twisted into an illusion to look sweet. For all of the lessons I would have learned without meeting death at a young age – ills and agonies that would have never existed, at least not yet – I take pride in what I have learned from it.
All those years I spent telling myself stories in my loneliest moments have now bloomed into a career as a writer.
After years of battling sadness and despair with a stiff upper lip and guarded personality, I learned about the power of vulnerability, openness, and weakness.
I learned that life is too short – not too long, as I once believed – and that time should be well used.
I learned that nothing – not the smallest bout of anger or the biggest explosion of happiness – should ever be taken for granted.
I learned that time heals all wounds but never allows you to forget a lesson learned, especially a hard lesson.
I learned that once healed, those wounds can give me unspeakable strength.
I learned that no one who dies ever really leaves us. Not really.
I love you, mom, wherever you are within me. Happy birthday. 4/13/52.