My first encounter with death came at the age of seven when my mother’s brother passed away at the relatively young age of forty-five. The sudden reality of death arriving for someone so near the age of most of the family adults was very frightening, evidenced by the gravest of hushed tones and solemn attitudes. The men talked about Uncle John and drank beer while the women talked about Uncle John and cried.
It was different for us children, though. We were not included in any of the discussions and for the most part were pushed outdoors. It was summer and the days were long and warm. Our favorite time of day was twilight. Whether it was the muted colors of sunset, pink, gold and purple, peeking through the trees and bushes or the sweet smell of summer blossoms that floated on the dew laden air, or the coolness of the dark, moist ground underneath the branches of the shrubs where we hid and burrowed; I cannot choose. But all these natural forces surrounded and supported us children while we played during the three days we gathered as a family to say good-bye to my uncle. What gentle, love filled memories surrounded death when I was seven.
When I was twelve I would encounter death again, more intimately and more intensely with the passing of my twenty-one year old brother, Stanley.
The phone rang around 4:00 one Saturday morning in early spring. It’s amazing how that metallic ringing could intensify the feeling of quiet and stillness. Stillness that was everywhere but downstairs in the living room where my mother answered the phone.
“Hello….yes…just a minute. (Dad, it’s the hospital, something about Stanley.,)” I could hear the trembling fear in her voice. Breath caught in my throat, my chest felt as though it was filled with lead.
“Yeah,” I could hear my father’s usual gruff voice, “Yeah… oh.Yep..bye.”
What followed the sound of the receiver being hung up, when my mother realized that the hospital’s call was telling them that my brother Stanley had died, will stay with me as long as I live; my mother’s piercing cry of agony and my father’s absence of any sound at all. A cold sweat of disbelief washed over me as I lay quietly, motionless in bed.
This wake or vigil for my brother, experienced at twelve, was not as I remembered my uncle’s at seven. It was frightening and incredibly sad. So far into pain, I was lost. My family became four individuals, each alone, each dealing with tremendous pain and confusion, moving around in circles, starting and stopping, bumping into each other to turn and move away.
Extended family and religious tradition helped us to put one foot in front of the other. The hours came and went with preparations made for the funeral, food, clothes, church, and with notifying family members who were far away. The air took on an unreal quality. Life as we had known it was gone. Routine was gone. None of us acted as we had before. Family tensions and disappointments that had been lurking beneath the surface seemed to rise in addition to the already overwhelming problems of this unfair, unjust and untimely separation of Stanley from us.
The four days that followed have become a combination of horrors and bittersweet memories. Walking into the funeral home for the first time was very frightening, I had never been there before. I wasn’t sure what I was going to see. I held my mother’s hand tightly, glancing anxiously around, looking into every doorway, repeating “Is he here? Is he here?” The support I needed from my mother wasn’t to be. As she caught the first glimpse of my brother’s body she dropped my hand and went to the kneeling bench in front of him; crumpled into sobbing tears, reaching forward to touch the cold, still body that was Stanley. Her uncontrollable grief would haunt me throughout the days to follow.
The gatherings at our house were the same as for Uncle John’s wakes but now I was there, right in the middle of it, watching the various reactions from all the people who came to pay their respects and to help comfort us as best they could. Some people were very serious and seemed to be most concerned with sharing my mother’s sadness and anger; for she was angry at the doctors, at the hospital, at fate. Some people seemed to ignore the reason for our gathering and just visited. They laughed and joked; ate and drank, and generally seemed to be having a quite pleasant time. To me, it did not seem to be the right thing to do.
I was having great difficulty separating Stanley, as my brother, from his body. My mother’s reaction seemed to confirm that somehow Stanley was still in his body. She grieved over it greatly. She was extremely reluctant to let anyone bury him. As it was, we would be holding vigil for three full days before burial. This would prolong the whole process several days beyond the normal. So then our “partying” at the house didn’t make sense. Shouldn’t we be at the funeral home where Stanley was, if indeed that was where he was? I became very concerned about his being lonely. And the contrary reactions on the part of the adults around me only increased my confusion and despair.
When the idea of my brother being “dead” would strike me, the finality of that word would land upon me with such power; I would experience the wash of cold sweat again, just as when I had first known. This was reality. I would never see my brother again. No amount of crying or promising to be good, no effort of any magnitude could change this fact that Stanley was dead.
It was as if no one knew what to do in the face of such a loss. The priest came and read the prayers for the dead, assuring us that Stanley was in heaven with God; but I’m afraid we were non-believers in the truest sense. We were materialists in a materialistic age and when the physical passed away we were bound to see it as the end of all.
Somehow, something deep within me struggled with this conclusion. As time went on, that something began to try to look in another way at what was going on. My initial attempts to understand were simplistic, perhaps superficial and not soundly rooted in the truth; but they were seedlings which, in their striving to reach up to the truth, would be urging me on throughoout my life.
I was given the opportunity to see that life was precious and not to be taken for granted. Stanley’s being so young, and not suffering from anything one would normally consider life- threatening, awakened the feeling that life is not predictable. It is not what you see. Anything is possible and terrible things could happen, even to us.
Following closely on that thought was the necessity for telling people how you felt about them, how much they meant to you. My brother had managed to tape me playing my accordion. He had taken the recordings to work and had his co-workers listen to them. I wasn’t that good, let me tell you, so it was a labor of love on his part. I didn’t know about this until the secretary where he worked shared it with me at one of the wakes. She assured me that he had been very proud of me and loved me very much. As I said, I really thought his death was a finality, and that because I hadn’t told him before he died that I loved him, I now would never be able to do so. It is this seedling thought that has helped me to be grateful for those close to me and to be more open with them about how I feel, even though I no longer feel death to be the cruel steel door I saw at twelve.
Then, finally, the need to find positive meaning behind this tragedy became very important to me. My older sister had been estranged from the family because she had married against my parent’s wishes. She was not welcome in our house and during the rare times that she did visit, my father usually left until she was gone. She came, however, to the funeral; and through some miracle, she and my father managed to come to a measure of agreement and reconciliation that allowed not only her, but her husband and children, to visit under friendly terms in the future. At that time, therefore, I saw Stanley’s death as a sacrifice meant to bring the family together again. Something in me knew that this couldn’t be just chance, a random senseless event. There had to be meaning, even if I couldn’t be sure what that meaning was.
My life continued on and in my late thirties, as a result of a career change, I began working with elderly residents in nursing homes where I would be provided ample opportunities to experience death at yet another level. Because of the nature of my work as a physical therapy assistant, I usually have a good amount of one-on-one time with residents, enabling us to work together toward the common goal of restoring their physical ability as much as possible. It’s easy to make friends. One of these people was an octogenarian who suffered from severe osteoarthritis as well as many other conditions.
Ray had been a farmer all his life. He had owned a beautiful farm in a town west of Northampton. I knew, because he had an aerial photograph of the farm hanging above his bed. During our time working together, he told me of his family, both as a child and as an adult; how he loved horses and trucks and classical music, especially Strauss’s “Blue Danube”. He also loved to read and kept a dictionary on his bed table because he couldn’t abide not knowing what a given word meant. If he came across one he didn’t know, he’d look it up, which was not an easy task for his two crippled, almost frozen hands.
Not long after working with Ray, I left that nursing home for a job in Greenfield. We said our good-byes and pretty much each went our separate ways. Occasionally I would return to the nursing home to visit another friend who periodically stayed there for short respites; and I would always stop in to visit Ray, to see how he was getting along.
Perhaps a year later, I was asked to fill in for an assistant who was on sick leave at the nursing home in Northampton and, as things were slow where I was then working, I agreed. When I arrived, the Rehab Aide whom I had known from before, gently told me Ray was very ill and they were pretty sure he was dying.
I went to see him right away. As I walked around the corner into his room, I was pulled up short inside by the sight of my friend in bed with oxygen on; glassy eyed, with family around, I could sense his frailty. He recognized me right away and held out his hand, his swollen, stiff hand for me to hold.
I always try to be bright, happy, full of love and hope, and that is what I brought forward for Ray to see. My standard line for situations like this is always, “If you wanted to see me, all you had to do was call. You didn’t have to go to all this trouble!” A grateful laugh, then a raspy voice asked what I was doing there. We enjoyed some small talk before I excused myself to get back to work. I promised to check in again before I went home.
This routine continued for three more days. Each day, Ray was a little weaker, each day he had less of a voice. Thursday morning he couldn’t talk to me at all. He could only communicate with his eyes and I continued to hold his hand and be as bright and loving as I could. But something wasn’t quite right. He looked scared. I knew he wasn’t going to get well, he knew it too, but here I was acting just as always. He needed something more.
When I came back to check on him before I left on Thursday afternoon, he was alone in the room. This was unusual because his daughter and son had been there almost constantly. When I took his hand and looked into his eyes, his struggle was painfully evident.
“Ray, I’m getting ready to leave for home now…. I know we haven’t talked about this kind of thing but I want to tell you something I believe. I want you to know that if you aren’t here tomorrow when I come back, that’s okay…. I believe that I will see you again, in another life. Friends always find friends…. It’s all right. You don’t need to worry.” I gave him a hug and left.
The next day when I returned I found out that Ray had died twenty minutes after I had spoken to him. I don’t believe I gave him any new information such as could cause him to let go, but I do believe I confirmed something he already knew deep inside, and that my reassurance put him in touch at last with what he secretly knew for himself. It was this that helped him to let go. I don’t believe in chance. I had ended up filling in at that nursing home for that particular week because Ray needed me to be there. How wonderfully protected we are!
I was sad at his leaving, it’s true; but not with the deep anguish I had experienced all those years ago. Ray was not a young man and he was not my brother, but my sense of calm comes from a deeper place than can be explained through just those facts. I no longer see death with the simplicity and naiveté of my first encounter, but in a conscious way that is still evolving. As my life continues to unfold, I am allowed to return to the budding truth, too often forgotten, that death is something poignantly beautiful and always meaningful.
These experiences of my life have proven to me, there is no ugliness or trial that will not transform itself into the wisdom and beauty of a benign and loving universe. An important and profound lesson, waiting to be absorbed into our souls, is to rest in confidence — despite all evidence to the contrary.