Death


I was planning this very happy-go-lucky sort of blog post, all about the gardening I did this weekend, and my new summer job working one and a half days a week for the admin of another division in addition to my regular job. (They have windows! Windows, I tell you!) I was maybe even going to mention the continued, almost-sickening cuteness of Justin and Lori as they venture deeper into mutual gooey-eyed-ness. If I’d been feeling particularly open, I would have shared about Rocco’s latest (and hopefully final) intrusion on my life. It would have been a good post. And then yesterday I got the message that Zeke is dead.

Zeke’s family went to the same small parish as mine, and attended the same Catholic schools. They live a few houses down from my sisters, a block away from my parents. However, he was seven years younger than me, so I didn’t actually meet him until he showed up one night at the Wednesday night swing dance. This was when I was just starting to learn how to teach, so the Powers That Be decided that I should get some teaching practice by teaching the Free Beginner Lesson to him, his cousin, and their friend. They picked it up quickly, and it was a lot of fun, assisted by the fact that all three were pretty darn cute. Except Zeke kept staring at me, and it was starting to creep me out. Then at the end of the lesson he said, “You’re a [Family Name], aren’t you!” I looked at him warily, very weirded out, and admitted that I was. He laughed. “I’m a [Other Family Name]!” And then I laughed too and relaxed completely, because that explained everything.

We were friends. He could make me laugh like no one else, especially when we were dancing. He would make these faces – it was like you could see every panicked thought that went through his mind as he led. It was awesome. One time I laughed so hard I came perilously close to peeing my pants. He took my odd-ness in stride, which made me want to be even a little more odd just to provoke him. It made me sad when he eased away from dancing, and then moved to another city an hour away, but I was sure I would see him again sooner or later. We still talked from time to time, and I reminded him that he had promised me a ride on his motorcycle one day. He always told me not to worry, that I would get my motorcycle ride.

And, well, no I won’t. He was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle in Florida, a hit and run accident. Although he was wearing all his protective gear, the injuries to his head were so severe that he was pronounced brain dead. His whole family had flown down to Florida to be with him. They’re making arrangements to donate his organs. They think that he might save eight people’s lives.

It’s selfish of me, but I’d rather have Zeke back.

And now back to my Regularly Scheduled Life…

Really, that’s what going back to school has felt like for me. I was telling someone a couple of months ago that this past year has felt like I was stuck in a time warp. I did things, went places, learned stuff, but always some part of me was stuck back in the kitchen where I used to live, listening to Shelly use the word “metastes.” She couldn’t say tumors then. Not yet. So much changed this year, but part of me was still there, standing between the stove top and the door to the laundry room, watching her sitting in the chair at the end of the counter. I don’t completely remember the words she said, but I’ll never forget seeing the marks of tears on her face. That was what made me realize this wasn’t some kind of sick joke, that she really meant what she was saying. Shelly had been one of the toughest women I’d ever known. If she was crying, then the world quite possibly might be about to end. In a certain sense, it was.

Then Shelly died, and the time warp snapped. It was completely disorienting. It didn’t help that, since it was Christmas break, I didn’t even have a regular routine of classes and work to rely on. Seriously, there were some days when I couldn’t have told you what day of the week it was.

This week school started again. I never knew having a schedule of classes could feel so good. It’s been like snapping gratefully back into place. There can be so much security in knowing that this is what you’re going to be doing this week, and next week, and the week after that. Don’t worry – before long I’ll be back to my adventure-craving ways, but for now, this is what I need.

There’s this prayer they say at the end of every Catholic funeral. Well, actually the congregation usually sings it. It’s when Mass is over, the coffin and the body inside it has been blessed and incensed, and they’re about to turn it around to take it back out of church for its last journey to the cemetery. It goes like this:

Saints of God, come to her aid!
Come to meet her, angels of the Lord.
Receive her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.
May Christ who called you take you to Himself;
May angels lead you to Abraham’s side.
Receive her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.
Give her eternal rest, O Lord,
and may your light shine on her forever.
Receiver her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.

That’s the part that gets me every single time. Even if I was dry eyed all the way up to that point, I’ll be crying before the song is done. I hate crying in public (though it wouldn’t be so bad if my nose wouldn’t run), so usually this aggravates me. However, today, at Shelly’s funeral, the song was a comfort.

You see, I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about her, about the person she was. I’ve been going over my memories, pondering things in my heart. When you live with someone you get to know them on a completely different level. Strengths and weaknesses, the ways they’re awesome and the ways they’re difficult – it’s all there. While a person’s alive, it’s like their story is still being told, still being written. Anything could happen on the last page. Some surprising plot twist, an unexpected turn, who knows? Death puts the final period of the final sentence, and there are no sequels. You close the book and you think, so, what was this story I just read? Who was this person I thought I knew? There are no easy answers. Today in church, as we sang that song, I thought in my mind of the saints coming to greet Shelly, and presenting her to God, saying, “Here is this person in all of her strengths and all of her weaknesses. She belongs to You.”

I hope I may have that mercy too when my time comes.

Jenny called me Sunday night. Her mother is dead. She called me about an hour after it happened. This was not unexpected. A year ago this Christmas Eve Shelly was diagnosed with liver cancer. At the time I had been living with them a little over three years, first as Jenny’s nanny,  then as a roommate.  I helped raise Jenny, but she was never like my daughter, more like a favorite niece whom you spoil and scold and expect much from.  My relationship with Shelly had always been more ambiguous.  She trusted me and relied on me, but we were never really friends. We lived in the same house, but somehow we never got past firm acquaintances. And now she’s dead.

I still remember the shock of Christmas Eve. A week before she’d seemed fine, if a little under the weather. She had a cold she couldn’t seem to kick, but that was all. We’d all been supposed to go cut a Christmas tree together, but then both Jenny and I got pulled away by other commitments. So Shelly had gone out and done it herself. She was like that. Then she threw up at work, and for some reason her doctor ordered a CAT scan. It showed a mass in her liver. The biopsy came back cancer.

And then it was Christmas. On Christmas Eve I watched Shelly and Jenny baking their family’s traditional Christmas breads. Jenny was doing most of the work while Shelly bossed from the other side of the island. I saw something in the way Shelly watched Jenny, an anxiety that Jenny really know and understand what she was doing. I saw a mother saying good-bye to her daughter, passing on the generational knowledge she would need as an adult. I knew then, though I didn’t want to know, though I wouldn’t let myself know for months.

We were pretending everything was going to be fine, celebrating while we waited for the oncologist’s office to open again after the holidays. The only real treatment was surgery, and the surgeon she needed to see was in Texas. She left the day after New Year’s, and just as quickly she was back again. The tumor was already too big. The only hope was chemotherapy, and pray that it would shrink. It didn’t. And here we are, not even a year later, and Shelly’s gone.

What do you say to a girl an hour after her mother’s death? What comfort is there in words? Do you say, “It’ll be ok.” No. There is no ok here. There won’t be for a long time. Do you say things about “God’s will,” and “a better place?” As true as those may be, when death is so fresh they sound like obscenity. Platitudes are useless here.  In the face of death, sometimes there are no words to say.