A little more than a month ago I wrote a serious essay about death and life. Although I planned to post it immediately, I didn’t. Instead I let it sit for a while until I felt ready to post it. Here’s what I wrote:
Mostly my blog is a collection of funny (true) stories and craft projects but sometimes life serves up something very serious and I feel a need to work it out in my blog. Why talk about death in a blog? Is it too personal of a subject? In some ways, yes. But it’s also a universal theme. Instead of avoiding something that we all witness and mourn, maybe we can share experiences and be supportive of one another because we all go through this.
This fall three people I knew died within eight weeks. That is a lot. Life and death are on my mind these days. In late August we learned that our former neighbor John passed away. We’d lived across the street from John for nine years before he had to move to assisted living. He was the neighbor who inspired me to be a great neighbor. The second time I ever spoke with John was on a Wednesday, trash day, and he was bringing trash cans up the driveway after collection. He was doing this for the entire block. John did this every Wednesday. It was his way of being a good neighbor. That stuck with me. He did this for years before his health worsened. Nearly two years ago John moved to assisted living. He was in his eighties and his body and brain were not in prime shape anymore. So his death was not a complete shock but it was still sad. We went to John’s memorial service to support his kids, whom we know. He was a wonderful neighbor and I feel grateful to have known him.
The second death this fall was the hardest. My husband’s godson Keil died in late September, after a nearly four year battle against bone cancer. He was only twenty-two and his youth makes his death so hard to try to accept and understand. The cancer started in his knee. At age nineteen he had most of his leg removed. There were lots of stays in the hospital. The cancer spread. He had surgeries. Yet things seemed to be looking up even a few months ago, and this gave us a false sense of hope. But cancer is a sneaky creature and it quietly crept into Keil’s abdomen. They tried again to treat it but it was too late. In September we learned that Keil had only a few weeks to live and we made reservations to fly up to see him. When Keil took a turn for the worse a few days later, Hubby made a last-minute trip to see him. We didn’t know whether Keil would live long enough for us to use the tickets we’d bought to see him the following week. But he did. That kid was a fighter. It was awful to see him in a bed in a hospice facility, medicated and unconscious. But we also cherished the chance to see him one last time. We held his hands and talked to him about all kinds of things, telling him our favorite memories from his childhood. We had hours with him that day, and late that night we told him we’d return the next morning. But he passed away overnight. Somehow I was shocked. A living, breathing, warm-handed young man with soft hair and a pulse was now dead. We were so grateful that we were there to support him on his last day. His family is coping as well as they can. They are surrounded by many friends and family members.
We flew into town for Keil’s memorial service. There were lots of tears. This young man did not live as long as he deserved. In this country, where we have excellent medical care, it’s easy to assume we will have many decades of life. At first it felt impossible to accept the unfairness of it all. But it’s slowly sinking in. And the memorial service seemed to help many of us to heal a little bit. There’s no way to wrap up this loss with a bow and make it okay. But I see moments of catharsis. Keil’s younger sister spoke about her brother during the service. She shared funny memories, and everyone laughed. There’s some healing in laughter. It helped us to remember Keil’s humor. His friends spoke at the reception, telling amusing tales about Keil. It was so moving to listen to a bunch of 22-year-olds pay tribute to their friend, a guy who made them feel more comfortable in their own skin, who made them see that they were okay, human warts and all. I marveled at the maturity of Keil’s friends, who visited him in hospice. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle seeing a peer so close to death when I was twenty-two. But his friends visited, again and again. That alone shows the kind of impact Keil had in his short life. He deserved a longer stay here but in the time he had, Keil brought laughter to those around him, and made a difference to people.
Keil’s final battle shared the same timeline as my great aunt Kay’s last weeks. She’s the extraordinary woman who celebrated her 104th birthday this August, which my daughter and I attended in Canada. In the weeks after Kay’s birthday, I received emails from her daughter about her health. There were some medical concerns and at one point she was eating only a little each day. Some emails suggested there were only a few days left, but at one point her doctors predicted she’d make it into the new year. Ironically, as I stepped out of the church after Keil’s memorial service, I received an email with the news that Kay had passed away in her sleep that morning. The timing of the news felt significant, as Keil and Kay both began their final laps at the same time. I felt sad that she had passed, but this felt different from the horror of Keil’s passing. The contrast struck me again and again: Keil’s life was unfairly cut short, while Kay’s life was exceptionally long. Both people have inspired me in different ways.
I’m still grappling with all this. It takes time to make peace with someone’s passing. It’s easier to accept death if it happens to someone who had a long, happy life, like John and Kay did. It’s different coming to terms with someone whose life was cut short. But going to Keil’s memorial service helped me, and it appeared to help the others who came to honor him. Keil’s parents, sister and other family members seemed to find comfort in being around others who love and miss him, and in laughing about the funny times and the good memories. And it is cliché, but it did remind me to be present, to treasure the moments and the connections with people. It reminds me to call those I love and to tell people when they inspire me.
Keil’s untimely death led his friends to become closer at the end. They’ll miss him, always. But as I told one young man at the reception, he will make other close friends in his life because he has felt how important it is to connect with others. This young man will be a true friend to others and will have other good friends in his life. It’s awful when we lose someone but attachment to others is part of what makes us human, and part of what it means to live a meaningful life. I’ll miss John, Keil and Kay, but I feel so fortunate to have known them all…