Sunday, October 28, 2007

On Death and Marshmallows

I am not afraid of death.

I used to be very afraid of dying. Electric storms in particular always made me cognisent of my mortality, and more than once (even as a teen), I made my younger brother come share my bed when the weather grew fierce. One summer, he and I drove to visit an uncle near Oklahoma City. When it was time to go to bed, I slept in a bedroom, while Dustin slept on the couch. That night, I awoke to what I thought was the house ripping in half. The loudest, most horrible storm was raging outside. Though it was the middle of the night, the sky glowed orange with electricity. I'd not seen anything like it before, and I've not seen anything like it since.

I peered at that scary precip through slit blinds, and worried, wondering was this the end of the world? (Though I was not a Christian at the time, I understood an end was coming and I dreaded it.) For some reason, this storm that shook me to my soul woke no one else in the house. Dustin, who was sleeping in the next room, didn't even hear the commotion, but nevertheless, I drug him to bed with me. Certainly he couldn't protect me from the wrath of God I equated with those cloudbursts, but usually just having him near made me feel safe, protected. That night, though, even having him to hide behind left me feeling no more protected than I had when there was more space in my bed. It was undeniable that there was something bigger than me, someone beyond my understanding, making me aware of my smallness on the Earth. Before then I'd heard a few passing remarks about the Christ, but it wasn't until later that very summer that someone bothered to really tell me all about Him, and show me the way to the cross.

After I became a Christian, that terror of death was gone. There has never, ever been another time that I have been startled awake by a storm and have felt that same sense of utter hopelessness as I did that night. (I think that whirlwind twilight was a work of God to prepare the way for me to come to Him. I was so very like the pre-apostle Paul in my behavior. I would abuse "simpleminded" Christians every chance I got, and there was no way that I would have ever just followed a crowd into belief in Christ. I'm still not a crowd follower, but that's a different topic for another day.)

As far as death is concerned, I find it particularly interesting. As a pasttime, I enjoy browsing around the very old parts of cemeteries in an attempt to either determine or imagine how people died.

Last fall, I went to the funeral of my great-aunt who lived a long and lovely life. As all the family I didn't know hung out grave-top and chatted amongst themselves, I took my kids around to explore. Near the front of the cemetery, we discovered a family plot from the 1800's where five children from one family were buried side by side. They died one right after the other with about a year's span in between each, all of them being around three years old at their time of death. (So, when the first three-year-old died, he had a sibling at age 2, age 1 and one in the womb. The next year, the mother was pregnant again when her next three-year-old died, and on and on for the next three years until five children in a row were gone.)

To see five dead children made me think some kind of horrible plague or a devestating illness like pneumonia (one that's mostly non-threatening now, but nearly a death sentence then) was a curse to those children, but more than one child never died at the same time. They died one right after the other, all about a year apart, and all at around age three. The only simple answer I could come up with was ritual sacrifice or a family REALLY fed up with the terrible twos. There's no way to know for sure exactly what happened to all those children, but such a horrible circumstance sparks the imagination.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the local cemetery, which is a tiny little place hidden behind a trailer park. In the very back corner was the grave of a young man. I'm sure he died by some tragic circumstance that broke the hearts of all his loved ones. What I found interesting about his gravesite is that someone surrounded his plot with landscaping bricks, and people (at the funeral, I assume) littered his it with trash: cards, toys, empty beer bottles, lighters, and pocket knives stabbed into the ground. Even more interesting was the crackpipe right on the top of the trashpile. I thought it was so unfortunate that these were the things that "honored" this boy. The probability of a wasted life -- of that wasted life -- was the thing that broke my heart.

I think about my own death from time to time, and wonder what it will be like. I have a pretty clear understanding of what the after-death will be like, but the dying -- that's the part that intrigues me now. I hope I have an extraordinarily long life and slip away while getting to finally sleep in once again. But if I don't get that long life, I hope to die by some ridiculous circumstance that will make people shake their heads and chuckle a little inside. People will say, "Oh yeah, that's an Amanda thing." (At lunch a few weeks ago, a friend commented on someone else's miscarriage and asked, "Was it a regular miscarriage, or was it an Amanda thing?" With infant loss, I am a category, so why not with death as well?) I'll be off to a better place, so those left behind might as well have a nice laugh, right?

I was with my Granny when she died.

My Granny was by far one of the most special people on the Earth. She had Type II diabetes that she treated with cases of Coca-Cola and gallons of orange juice. As a result, her kidneys failed suddenly one Saturday. I was engaged to be married and living in Texas at the time. I remember rubbing her soft hand as I said goodbye and moved away just a few months before -- her aged skin felt like satin to the touch. James and I were in Dallas for a weekend of wine-tastings when the news came of her decline, and instead of our own plans already in motion, we sped north to Tulsa. James stayed the weekend, but I stayed until the end. Granny's family came from three different states to remain at her bedside, though she was drugged for pain and hardly able to communicate. What she did say was either delusional or deeply spiritual. I don't recall leaving her at all.

By Tuesday, she had not died. People began to tire of the wait, and left to go to dinner or to do some shopping. In and out, people came and went, but I remained, completely hopped up on hospital coffee and beef jerky from the gift shop. That evening nearly everyone decided to go to dinner together, but four of Granny's large family stayed behind. That chosen four I still find remarkable.

My Granny had four living children. The four of us at her bedside represented those four decendents, and each of us were the oldest of our line.

  • Of her own children at her deathbed was my Granny's oldest daughter, Ruby.
  • Granny's next child is my mom, Becky. I am Becky's oldest biological child, and I was with Granny as she died, while my mom was not.
  • Next, my uncle Mike's oldest daughter Rachael was there with us. Rachael, after having been estranged from the family nearly all her life, came from Arkansas to say her goodbyes.
  • My Granny's youngest living child is my uncle William. His oldest son Freddie was in the room while William was off with my mom.
(That information is not relevant to any point I may be attempting to make, but I've always found the whole situation very interesting.)

Today, I am so grateful to have been present with her as she slipped out of her broken body. She didn't just pass away, meaning she was here one minute and gone before we realized it. Granny died. She was alive one minute, and dying the next. Her physical body labored there, struggling to hang onto the life inside that was going on to something better. She wasn't in pain (thanks to the wonders of modern medicine), and there was no heart struggle (only the most perfect peace). Granny's death to me revealed the most marked difference between body and soul. In watching her die, I was able to clearly see that the two are definately not one. This sounds absolutely morbid, I'm sure, but being a part of her death is as special a memory to me as any Christmas, or birthday, or garage sale weekend.

While I am no longer afraid of dying, and though I find it to be a topic of great intrigue, I worry about what life will be like for my family when I'm no longer here. Though I don't have a terminal illness or realistically anticipate death in any way, I prepare for it. I know of people who died young (my dad at age 44), and I've personally had some very startling experiences that make me appreciate just how fragile we all are. I've worked on my will (but not finished because the working on it generally ends with a cuddling of this person or that), and I have all my policies in order. Minimally, I've labeled the contents of my business card organizer with "Bub's Opthamologist," or "Gracie's Dance Studio," just so Dad (or whoever) will know who goes where when. Regardless of the major (and minor) ways I am able to arrange things, I know if I die there will be those day-to-day things that are not done to my liking, or just not done at all. It's that knowledge that has troubled me the most.

Bub and I helped my mom move today. To me, moving -- especially moving my mom -- is like a small death. I die a little inside each time I hear her current apartment is "not quite right." (Today was the fourth move in four years for the biggest packrat I personally know. After it all, my body feels like it might be nicer to die, and yet, I live on.) Gracie was going to come along, but she was sleeping this morning when it was time to leave. As a result, she spent the day alone with Dad. He normally asks for suggestions for their time together without me, but he mentioned washing the dishes this morning as I prepared to go, so I rushed out the door before he changed his mind.

I was busy and unavailable most of the day, so the two loners fended for themselves. I'm not sure what they had for breakfast or lunch or even if they ate at all, but I heard they spent some time at Starbucks and shared conversation over coffee. They watched football and played computer games, and for the second time in a decade, James cooked "dinner." (Father and daughter dined together on a meal of beef roast and marshmallows. Not exactly the nutritious combo I would have prepared, but it worked.) I came home to a showered and pajamaed daughter having story time with Dad, and was pleased to find her better than just alive.

I'm a little sad to admit it, but after today I believe that James could get along and parent just fine without me. Though things wouldn't always be just exactly as I would have preferred, I know the kids will get what's important from James, love being the chief of them all. They would all survive, even if on dinners of meat and marshmallows.

"But we do see Him who was made for a little while
lower than the angels, namely, Jesus,
because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor,
so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. . .
that through death He might render powerless
him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,
and might free those who through fear of death
were subject to slavery all their lives."
Hebrews 2:9, 14b-15

"For those who follow godly paths
will rest in peace when they die."
Isaiah 57:2

"As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age."
Genesis 15:15


  • Christy

    Even in our inevitable deaths it's hard to give up that control, isn't it? I've felt the same way, that James would never do things "to my liking". But you're right. Though the years I'm finding it easier to trust that things will be just fine, even after I'm gone... James has come up with some pretty funky concoctions of his own for dinner but no one died or became ill and those meals were memorable to say the least.

  • The Dukes Family

    I think, as mothers, we probably all think about these things - the idea that no one can do it quite like we can. And the truth is, they can't. But they can do it differently, perhaps even better in some areas.

    I enjoyed reading what you said about your Granny's death. As a nurse, I've witnessed many, many deaths, and it's an amazing thing to watch ... it can be awful or beautiful, depending on family, the circumstances, etc. I'm glad your experience left you with such good memories.

  • Emily

    I often think how things would be after I am to pass. I wonder if something were to happen tomorrow if Aaron could even do anything. I know in my heart he could, but my head says "Momma knows better."

  • The Wooden Porch

    I stood at Samuel's grave a few months ago and stared at the little plot of earth next to him knowing that my body will one day be buried there. It was very sobering.

    I hope this comes out right, but I laughed out loud that you compared Christmas and a garage sale weekend as equals. I love yard sales!

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