Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Road to Death: A Short Personal Essay

Life. Why is it we, no..I...don't take each moment as if it's my last? So many people don't know that it's their last day, or moment. They don't know that at the end of the day they won't be going home to fulfill the mundane and sometimes frustrating question of whats for dinner. Or the overwhelming feeling that the house is a mess and yet I'm just too tired for anything. Sometimes - well if I'm being honest most of the time -  I too, take for granted that I get to come home to my family. My two kids and husband. The three people I truly enjoy in this world. The people who make me so happy in so many ways. I feel immense love for them, sometimes it is overwhelming how much love there is for these three incredible people. Some people don't get this opportunity, their lives end unexpectedly or expectedly in an instant. I go some days feeling like I haven't done enough in life, afraid that I let too much get in the way of traveling, I let my job and daily tasks take too much importance in a life that is seemingly so short and yet I allow myself to plan as if I have an infinite amount of time. The 'some days', the 'when this happens', the 'when I finish this or that'. These take up so much of my days and my thoughts. But what about now??

I sit here on a United Flight to Denver, on my way to visit my best friend in TX. Why am I going? Because her daughter passed away less than three weeks ago. And I'm listening to an audiobook called "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi. It's about death and living and I'm nearly halfway through the book. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love recommended it on her Instagram feed. So I picked it up and started listening to it. As I sit here on this plane watching the sun rise in the massive sky, sipping on some surprisingly good coffee and delighting in the snack that shockingly is not peanuts, I am contemplating life and death. The snack in this moment is incredibly delicious. It's a stroop waffle. Described on the package as a "soft, toasted waffle filled with caramel and real bourbon vanilla" perhaps it is the book, the reason for me flying down, or divine intervention - regardless of what it is, this is delightful and has brought on immense feelings of gratitude and appreciation for living.

My best friends daughter died at 30 years old from a long life battling cystic fibrosis. A young lady who is filled with love, wonder and all kinds of stubbornness and fiery like her Mama. Her Mama has been in my life since 1996. I met her at a daycare we worked at together. She thinks it's funny when she says "When I fist met you, I thought you were such a bitch" We laugh a lot at that. Her and I, we laugh a lot no matter what. I was visiting her when my Mom suddenly died. I will never forget that morning in TX. I couldn't get back fast enough and it would be an event that shattered me and yet created the woman I only hoped I could be someday. I can't imagine losing a child, no matter how and no matter when, I simply can't imagine the emptiness and sadness that you feel as a mother.
As a mother you are graced with the ability to bring life into the world, to hold the hand of that life as it exits the world, the pain and the sadness I can only begin to imagine. Last year, almost a year ago now, my cousin died. She was in her mid 30s and died of liver failure. Her mom held her hand as she drew her last breath. The life altering and shattering for her has been almost unbearable to even watch. The pain, the sadness is unbearable for her most days. When it first happened we worried endlessly that she wouldn't be able to take the pain and that she would take her own life. But I understood in a way. I didn't blame her for feeling that. I even thought, how normal of a feeling that is after losing ones child. There are no words you can say, there is only a hug you can give, a hand you can hold, and an ear to just listen. Everyone goes into fix it mode when someone dies, and it is out of love. We give out advice quicker than we can think. But none of it really matters does it? One must go through the pain that they feel, for love has the greatest risk of all - loss.

Death to me is much different at this point in my journey. I came close to suicide myself. It was the dark place where loneliness and darkness were so consuming I saw no other way. I just wanted the pain to be gone. After my Mom died I fell into a depression that I had never known. I found my way though, and from that place I found a new lease on life, that's how I feel looking back nearly 10 years ago. I often wonder how many people watched me and wanted to help but truly had no idea what to say or do. Perhaps that is what shaped my comfortability with death.

I know this for sure: we are all going to die. Some more tragically in perspective and others expectedly and perhaps completely alone with no one even knowing or caring. Death for each of us is different, but death none the less. So I then often wonder in our times of grief why we hear those words: "Why them? Why the good people?" When I hear that I think to myself, 'But its all of us isn't it?' Not just the 'good people' or the 'kind people' or the 'young' it's all of us. You are going to die. Read that sentence. You are going to die.

It's how I see it, truly I do. Do I cry and feel sad when people die, oh my god yes. I have had the honor of talking to both my cousin and my best friends daughter about their own death looming. It's an honor to me. For someone to be able to talk to me about their own passing that is inevitable and on the near horizon is a gift and an honor. You see most of us fear these conversations, but for me, these are the most vulnerable, real and loving conversations you get to have. We were able to talk about how they want to be remembered, how very much they loved the people in their lives. How none of the little stuff really matters as you are nearing your last breath knowingly.

I worked an internship at a grief center for children, teens and adults. These kids were sad sometimes, but mostly they were full of life. We talked about death, about love, about memories, about the hardest things in life while we are adjusting after losing someone. And we talked about grief, the uniqueness of grief for each of us, and the non uniqueness of grief for all of us. People often asked me "how do you do it?" How can you be around so much sadness? But if I'm being honest, it wasn't like that at all. It was filled with love, happiness and so extraordinarily full of life. When I left there, I left inspired about living. I stopped going after my internship, my college courses and next internship consumed every minute of my day outside of my regular full time job. My next internship scared me, I decided to do it at the suicide call center, otherwise known as the life line. I was taking 15 credits, doing my internship and working 40 plus hours a week. It was a semester that brought me to the edge. The phones were like working at a call center for a bank, lines were ringing pretty much
constantly all hours of the day. Only this time I was not giving people their balance or defending an overdraft fee, no, I was there with people on seemingly the worst and darkest moment of their life. Intense? Yes! Scary? Not so much. You go though fantastic training to be there for others. And I had a personal connection to this, after all I had been at that moment myself. There were some calls that were harder than others but for the most part, it was an incredible feeling to be the one that someone could talk to when they were so scared to be alone and in so much pain that they wanted to end their life in that moment. But the beauty is, they picked up the phone. It is incredible to me that something like this exists for people. People being there for other people, not afraid to talk about death or suicide. The people who give their time to organizations like this, and like to the grief center I worked at, they to me, are heroes. They are the angels waking here on earth in physical form. I feel beyond lucky to have worked alongside these people, helping guide me along my journey in life.

So perhaps this is why death doesn't scare me, or bother me. What scares me is my life unlived. That is what scares me. So perhaps in a round about way it's the same thing. Maybe that is why death scares so many of us. At the end of life, will I be able to feel happy with what I gave my time to? Will I be able to feel loved? Will I be able to say damn that life was all I wanted it to be? Right now - yes, with a but...

But I want to travel more places, see more things, do more fun stuff with the people I love so very much. Each moment though is our chance. Right now, I am flying to spend more time with the woman who has shared so much of my ups and downs in life. To be there for her at the time that has brought on unimaginable pain. And while I'm there we will cry, we will laugh, and we will make time for each other. To spend some of that precious time that we have in life sharing our friendship and love.

And then when I get home, God willing!, I will be able to spend some moments of connection with my hubby and kids. And hopefully my cat will have figured out that the litter box is where this human wants her to pee! The little things are still a piece of this life. Death after all is what life is all as I land in this incredibly turbulent air....I will enjoy this life, this road to death.

Written 2/20/16