On Death

I’ve watched a lot of people die.

First in my mind’s eye, as a child when I read books on Greek mythology. Scores of people die in those tales, which gets glossed over in the same way death in the Bible does. It just happens and people for the most part move on. Of course there are characters close to the situation who are affected – but after the scene ends – so does the emotion. Life keeps churning right along in these stories, as it had since before the time of Zeus, with new characters and new tales.

Then came the rush of deaths in television and movies. The first death I can remember on film is Darth Vader. After the climactic battle with his son -gasp- Vader dies telling his son Luke that the young Jedi hero saved him. Television deaths are less impactful for me, which I believe stems from being desensitized to death by an early age – at least that’s what I thought.

I lost a cat, TC (Top Cat) around seven or eight. He was a pure white outdoor cat who loved to fight. The little white warrior that he was died of an infected neck wound, and I didn’t take it well. I remember holding him while I would sit on the back porch, as he scanned the bushes for whatever I couldn’t see. As I grew up I developed allergies to cats, but it wasn’t the last one I lived with. My parents got a white American Eskimo afterwards, Robbie, and we became pretty fast friends. Years passed and one snowy night Robbie managed to get out from our yard and was hit by a driver and killed. Death struck again, and this time I felt it even more.

The first human that died shook me to my very core. At thirteen my Greek grandmother died, a woman who partially raised me while my single mom worked a day job. She’d been diagnosed with late stage cancer and was set up with Hospice to ride out the last days surrounded by her ample family. I was sitting in school when the principal came to the door and asked to see my outside. Leaving the room, I saw my mother walking down the school hallway, tears streaming from her face. I can’t stand to see her cry even to this day. It hits me at a level I find instantly unsettling. She hugged me and gave me the worst news I’d heard. I denied it, thrashing around at the horror of what she said. It wasn’t possible for my thirteen year old mind. Grandma can’t die.

But she did and others followed.

During my early twenties I became friends with a fellow coffee shop regular and gamer Jamie. I had no idea the extent of his mental situation at the time, nor would I realize what was going on in his life at the time of his suicide, but hearing via phone that he’d killed himself was a gut punch. The morning view from my bedroom was grey and filled with crows collected on my front lawn. The funeral and family antics that followed came to mark one of the strangest weeks in my life to date, and while I won’t get into specifics about them, I did feel better afterwards standing outside with all his friends. The gloomy mood lasted about three minutes before the jokes started in, our common coping mechanism when dealing with difficult subjects. It echoes what I read in the pages of Mythology decades earlier – people move on.

Years later I watched my cousin Scott go through the loss of his father, the only connection I had left to my biological father. When Orville passed, so did my strongest link to who he was. I can’t imagine the pain losing a parent, but it’s a road I’ll have to walk in the future. Orville played an important role in Scott and I meeting, which laid the foundation for one of the most important friendships I’ve had over the past two decades.

I’ve become something of a crow when it comes to visiting the sick hospital. I show up, give the person my best and then they pass away. It could be pure coincidence or maybe not, but seeing people, and hearing their last words has a lasting imprint. It is because of this that I tend to avoid going to hospitals to see sick people, and while I acknowledge that sounds silly, my brain keeps connecting the two events.

Recently I went to see my Greek grandfather after a fall. He’s in his early nineties and his health – which has been stronger than most I know his age – is beginning to fail. His mind is still sharp enough to hold conversation, even with an understandable amount of musing about the years of Gayle Sayers and boxer Joe Louis when he can’t figure out what to say in response. His birthday was on Friday, and there’s a question about his ability to live alone any more.

In the end I consider myself lucky to have had a chance to hear these last words – even if I have to bear the weight knowing that. That moment – when I hear a person who I’ve just spoken with has passed – is invaluable as a writer. The raw emotions are hard to summon up from the ether – as I do not believe they can be manufactured by the mind properly. I take with these moments an immense amount of respect to say the least. It’s caused me to wonder who will hear my last words when my time comes. Whoever does, I hope they are ready, I have a lot to say.