Death Becomes Her

DUNGEON PROMPT –WHEN DID DEATH BECOME REAL FOR YOU?

For me Death has been reality for a longtime. Long before I read the Bridge to Terebithia or watched Stand by Me. I met death for the first time in the 2nd grade.

My grandfather had passed away the year before. I recall watching my father sitting on the edge of the bed sobbing uncontrollably. This strong behemoth protector of mine was so small, so fragile, and so weak. I felt frightened.

My Dad’s mom had passed, long before I was born. So I guess at this point I only understood death in the abstract. I had no context for it since I never got to meet her. Never touched her face beyond the smoothness of an old photo or the words of the poem my grandfather wrote about her.

As I watched my Dad cry I wanted to hold his hand, to sit in his lap. I was usually much more independent, never wanting to be held. But somehow I knew he needed it. I watched my mother console him. This is my first memory of the impact of death on a loved one.

My parent’s decided my Grandfather’s funeral was too much for one so young. We were kept home. There was no goodbye.

So it was in my second grade school year. My teacher, Mrs. Young died. She’d just begun to teach us cursive. To this day I associate the skill with her. I loved everything about her. Her smile, her perfume, the way she knew what we were doing even with her back turned towards the class. In the middle of the year she was gone. Poof. Just like that.  I can’t say of what. All I know was suddenly there was a sub filing in. No one taught us cursive anymore. I missed her terribly.

This time my parents decided to allow me to attend her funeral. Perhaps they hoped to aid my understanding. Maybe it was at my insistence. Whatever the reason, they relented. Everyone seemed to be wearing a big hat that day. I think it’s odd. That’s one of my strongest memories, a sea of big black hats and tears in the giant oaken church. There she lay displayed up front. So still, so silent. Nothing of the woman I loved. I peered upon her face and knew she was not in there. I just knew. This was the first time I saw death.

Over the years there were many more. Because let’s be honest in time we come to know death better. It’s to be expected really as we age.  The rest of my grandparents passed away, some classmates and close friends too. My freshman year in college I saw a man get hit and killed by a car. I’ve seen people jump to their death from the bridge by my office. I am oddly familiar with the grim reaper. More so then I’d like to be.

But none more so then the day he sought to introduce himself to me personally. I was taking my dog to the vet, driving the back way into Boulder. The road winds along through the foothills. There is a stretch where it carves into the hillside, a ridge rising up on one side and a cliff falling off the other. Kenai was just a pup. I reached down towards him. To check his running nose I think. I don’t really remember. It was only a split second. But it was just enough time for my right tire to slip off the road into the ditch. I quickly corrected. I over corrected. And my rear wheels spun around. I began careening, sliding on the driver’s side wheels, half on tilt, into oncoming traffic. The cliffs edge lingered just beyond and was coming on fast. Time froze.

I could clearly see the couple in the oncoming vehicle. The looks on their faces said everything. I was going to die. They knew it. I knew it. Oddly I felt peaceful. I heard no noise, nothing. Time was suspended in silence. It was as if I was watching a slow motion movie scene play out before me. I don’t remember my life flashing before my eyes, no past recollections. I simply accepted what was to come, complete calm washed over me. I can’t say I’d any choice really.

Somehow, an only God knows how, I managed to stop the car just as my back wheels hit the cliffs edge. And the headlong car managed to avoid a collision dodging around me. I doubt any of us know how we got so lucky. Thankfully there were no other cars on the road. I got a reprieve that day.

I guided my car back onto the asphalt and made it another 15 yards or so before pulling off to the side. All my calm evaporated and reality setting in, I began to cry. I don’t know how long I stayed there but I knew how close I’d come to death.

I wish I could tell you this made me understand the fragility of life; that I began making smarter choices. But it would be a lie. I was young and though I’d danced with the cloak I still thought I was invincible, the hubris of youth.

It has taken cancer and my time struggling in the hospital to really understand the fragility of things. Only now have I begun to truly understand. And I’ve yet to decide what to do with my newfound wisdom. And even with my cancer diagnosis I still don’t know when I’ll take my last breath. But I can tell you it’s changed how I live.

Just the other day I was at happy hour with friends. I was discussing a book character who with one touch she knows how you’ll die. My friend said she would like to know the moment of her death. “Why?” I asked. “If you knew, what would it change for you?” “What would you do differently?” “What if it was tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now, or 20, what would you alter?

“Because aren’t we all dying every day” I said. That’s’ the truth I forgot before cancer. “So why hold back? Because really let’s be honest. None of us ever knows when it will come. “

So as Tim McGraw so aptly sings, go sky diving, rocky mountain climbing, bull riding. And love deeper, speak sweeter and give forgiveness you’ve been denying. Live like you are dying.

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13 thoughts on “Death Becomes Her

  1. Pingback: Dungeon Prompts – Season 2, Week 9: Gratitude | The Seeker's Dungeon

  2. I was 15 when death had real meaning for me the first time. It was my grandfather who passed. I loved my grandparents so much! I spent many, many days with them growing up. He was truly a special man. Unfortunately I was alone when I found out. Not by anyone’s fault. It just kind of happened. My parents had been called to the hospital suddenly one evening during supper. My grandfather was in and out of the hospital quite a lot because he had emphysema which created heart problems. I just had this “feeling” that I needed to call my mother and find out what was going on even though I had never done that before. They had been gone for hours and since visiting hours had been over for some time, I called my grandmother’s house to see if yhey was there. My mom answered the phone (I was home alone) and as soon as I asked what was going on, she started crying. I knew what had happened. My dad was on his way home to tell me in person so I wouldn’t be alone when I found out. Too late….. I am too intuitive for that to work…even at a young age. I was devastated. His funeral was the first one that I can remember being so excruciating. I was in major denial….
    I am blessed enough to still have both of my parents. We lost my father-in-law shortly after we moved back to TX in ’10. It was so hard to go through that with my hubby but he is strong and my FIL has left behind wonderful memories of kindness to hold on to. Death is a strange thing…….. it reminds us of our mortality. But we should embrace life and LIVE!
    Loved your post. I read it the other day but it has taken me a few days to get the courage to respond…
    Thanks Jules~ 🙂

  3. Your piece brought back memories for me too. I never saw my father express emotion (although he obviously had a lot of it pent up inside) except on the day he received a phone call saying his sister had died. i don’t remember if he actually cried, but he may have. Regardless, I had never seen him sad before.

    It also brought back the memory of being on a plane flying from Malaysia to India when the oxygen masks came down and the plane started descending rapidly. We “fell” 25,000 feet in a few minutes. There was no screaming. Everyone on the plane was quiet. I felt an incredible sense of piece and my mantra (one given by my spiritual teacher) flowed automatically through my mind. Obviously, with grace, the plane did not crash, but it is a memory that will last forever. Thank you for writing this.

    • Thanks Kaura, I had a very similar plan ride from Hong Kong to LA. They only got us out of the turbulence for moments. We took a few big drops as well. By the time e got to LA we were all green, there wasn’t an unused sick bag. I had locked myself in the restroom. I hadn’t even thought of that one until now.

  4. It is strange but I am not sure cancer is still “real” for me. I was always raised where we spoke very openly about death. Even as a small child…I distinctly remember my Oma and great-grandparents dying. When my great-grandfather died (in the backwoods of Kentucky), I was 5 and ran into his house not realizing they were doing “sitting up with the dead”. In his living room was his coffin and him out for display. I just stared.
    When I was sick….it just felt like I was reminded that we all die.
    My father died as I held his hand and I still never had an “a ha” moment. Even as he was dying he talked to me how it is just another part of life. I think I am rather odd.

    • Now don’t take this the wrong way. You aren’t odd. You’re old……….as in old fashioned, old school. We held vigil when my grandfather passed also. We sat with him in the house as family and friends came to pay their respects. Historically I think we used to have a much more natural inclusion of death in our daily lives. It was simply a part of life, the natural evolution and just the next step. I think it is too bad we have drifted from that comfort.

      • I do not take that the wrong way at all. 🙂 I enjoy being called old fashioned. It is something I have been branded with since a child.
        Death has always been taught as a natural cycle of life. I think we fool ourselves that we will live forever if we do everything right. Nope…it all will come to an end, we just do not know when or how until its happening. I know with my dad and grandparents generation death was closer to them. Child mortality was higher, we didn’t have all the medical advancements, so they were around it more often.
        Now it is a scary thing and really it isn’t or shouldn’t. Maybe its the unknown as what comes next….

  5. Excellent article. It made me remember so many instances from my own life that didn’t make death real for me but should have. Really death only became real after seeing a friend dead who I had moments earlier seen completely fine. The car story was riveting and I had a very similar experience but with 4 women also in the car with me and they were all yelling as I tried to get control of the car, and I remember thinking that they all think they are going to die. Was maybe 15 years ago, but suddenly it was real for me again after reading your story.

    • Isn’t it interesting how quickly you can be back in that moment. I am sure I had other instances that should have (but did not) had a greater impact on me. Sometimes we are changed on a core level even without realizing it. and once in a while it resurfaces and feels immediate again, erasing all the time that has passed in the between. I am glad I did not have the screaming women in the car with me. That’s sounds terrifying.

  6. Pingback: Dungeon Prompts – Season 2, Week 8: When did Death Become Real for You | The Seeker's Dungeon

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