essays grief and death


    July 12, 2018

    It was as beautiful a summer morning as Portland can bring: sunny and warm, with a slight breeze and that low humidity that makes the days (and nights) so comfortable. With the sunshine filling our room, the birds singing, and the sounds of the waking city drifting in through the window, we lingered over this last familiar, comfortable, and loving moment between the two of us.

    Lee and I had slept in the same bed together for the first time in months. The year before, when her illness had made it difficult for either of us to get a good night’s sleep, we set up a small, comfortable bed for Lee in Liz’s old room on the first floor. It was an arrangement constructed out of pain, and it reluctantly worked for both of us, but the previous night it just made sense to be together. Thankfully, we had slept deeply and woke up refreshed, which, as I think about it today, was not wholly unexpected.

    So much of the previous year had been each of us trying not to dwell on an event—mundane or great—as being the “last” of something, but on this day, this sad and beautiful Friday, we had finally reached the end of that game. Lee had her last cup of decaf espresso, a last piece of toast with homemade jam, and her last morning cocktail of morphine and assorted medications. Most of Lee’s friends had already said goodbye, either explicitly or implicitly, so it was just the kids and us for most of that day.

    I don’t actually recall much of what I did that morning, other than drinking my usual two cups of espresso. My regimen for the past year had been one of intense, tightly focused caretaking, but during that whole last week, my daily impulsion had been replaced by some other force, and Lee and I were comfortable and calm.

    Calm. It is the word that I associate most with that day, that last day with my wife of 28 years. And in the five years since her death, I keep coming back to that morning, and the calmness that we both had, despite each of us knowing what would take place later, in the warm afternoon, in the house that had been our cherished home for more than a dozen years.

    I am grateful for that memory, that remembrance of calmness on such a terrible day. I thought I would have wanted to hate that day, to crumple it up and toss it into the dark reaches of my brain, but I do not. Instead, it represents the culmination of two lives together, two lives that lived as beautifully—and with as much authenticity—as a couple can. And when the calendar moves each year towards July 12, I feel real sadness at what could have been, and great joy and appreciation at the beauty of the life that it was.

    Regardless as to how much I have come to embrace the day that Lee died, “five” has been an oncoming milestone of dread; it has consumed inordinate amounts of of my mental state for months. I have thought about the places that I have been, the things that I have done, the things that I haven’t, and the memories of a life that sadly fade with time. Most importantly, however, I have thought about the other people I have lost in in the past five years: my dear father; my friends David, Scott and Tom; and, just last month, Lee’s brother, Mardy.

    Mardy’s death was sudden and unexpected, and as such, was unbelievably painful for those of us who never got to say farewell. Like Lee, Mardy left behind a son, a daughter, a mother and a sister. They have only now started down the trail of grief, and I walk with them in sadness. As it was with Lee, I know that the route will not be easy, nor will it be quick to reduce the anger and the pain in our hearts. We will, however, each find our own ways to move forward and celebrate a life well lived. This understanding will not replace the loss of Mardy’s presence in our lives, but it is all part of the necessary process of recovery.

    The long view

    As I look back over these past five years, I marvel at some things, cry at others, and still feel a hole that will never get filled. I am truly grateful that I found a wonderful, deep love, one that doesn’t require anything other than my heart—and my presence—to be validated. I am also thankful that I remain close to my daughter, who reminds me of her mother in beautiful, heart-warming ways, but who also remains her own woman, something her mother would have loved to have seen.

    What is most surprising to me after five years, however, is the sheer magic in the way that life expands and propels us forward, undeterred by single events. I can look back at July 12, 2013 as a very specific, sad point in time for me, a terrible event that closed one great portion of my life, but it also opened another. And the dispersion of life that has happened in the interim—new homes, new loves, friends moving away and getting married, babies being born, adventures in faraway places, and yes, even death—remains the most important (and healthy) element of my world today.

    That expansion, which takes the atom of a moment, intertwines it with the lives of those around us, and moves us outward, is one that should be celebrated, with joy, sadness or astonishment (or all three). If I have learned anything at “five,” it is that this interconnectedness of life is one of the most precious things we have, after the love that we hold in our hearts.

    I still hold the love that Lee and I had that sad, beautiful last morning five years ago. Those raw, tender moments, at the close of a life together, were the seed of the life that I live today. On those days where I feel ungrounded and adrift, and can’t seem to find my way home, I can use that love to bring myself back to the moment in which I live, and to the love that surrounds me today. I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful connection to the past than that.

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