Four years after a death

Delaware Bay

I had been separated for eight months and I was dating a woman in New Jersey. I spent the evening of November 24 at her place and we had gone out at sunset. I needed something from my car and turned on the cabin light and left it on. That plus the cold snap killed the battery.

When AAA came to give me a jump-start the next morning, the technician tried to sell me a new battery. My battery took the charge and my car started easily but the terminals were corroded and I was worried, so I refused the new battery and made an appointment for November 27 with a buddy who owned the Goodyear in Bear, Delaware, trusting him not to sell me something that I didn’t need.

It was the start of rush hour and sleeting when he finished with my car, and taking I-95 under those conditions on the day before Thanksgiving did not sound like a good idea, but my parents’ home in Unionville was on the way, on back roads, from Bear to West Chester. My mother was cooking and I talked with my father, about as much as we ever did. He was exercising five days per week and happy with it but hoping to lose another 20 pounds.

The weather worsened and I saw no reason to risk icy winding roads to return to my cold, dark apartment, so I crashed on the sofa. I planned to wake in time for church the next morning but I had been working 60 hours per week and I was exhausted, slept through the alarm. There was another service later, though.

My father and I had a ritual, when I was home in the morning. If he had time, he would offer to make breakfast and he would check the cupboards to see what he could make. I never asked. He offered and he made two of whatever I asked. We didn’t talk then, either, but we shared the meal. I vaguely recall something interfering with how we went about it this time, but I know that he made waffles for us.

I went upstairs to use their computer with the intention of leaving soon for my apartment and then church. My parents were going to Cape May for the holiday. My brother, Tim, was a landscaper who traveled in the off season. For a long time, he would leave just before Thanksgiving and return just after Easter, but for the last few years before he died, in July 2012, he had been sticking around until Thanksgiving. My father, brother, and I had begun to get into my father’s bourbon, just sitting and talking after dinner and before my father went to clean the dishes. This stopped in 2012 and my parents had been spending the holiday with my sister’s in-laws, but I found later that they planned to resume Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house in 2014. I dearly longed to sit in the dining room with my father and toast my brother.

I was nearly finished with the computer when I heard the crash, and the next few events are fairly well-known. While EMS tried to save my father, I stayed in the kitchen and watched them. Part of that was to keep my mother from watching, so that she did not watch her husband die, but I also felt like I had to protect my father at that time, and I still have no idea what I meant or mean by that. EMS arrived quickly and tried hard and I had no problem with them at any time. I just felt like I had to be there and stand guard.

After they consulted with the emergency room doctor and pronounced him dead, and while we waited for the funeral home crew to take my father away, I had a very strong sense of floating high above the Delaware Bay. I recognized it from the view from Tower #7, one of the base-end stations from U.S. Army Fort Miles, before it became Cape Henlopen State Park. However, the sensation was of being, I don’t know, maybe 500 feet up, the sun from above and reflecting off the waves, slowly moving east over the bay. The sensation did not last long, maybe a few minutes. The beach was my father’s favorite place, where he had hoped to retire. Was this his soul? I might find out some day.

I recall arguing with the funeral home director when he was confused and offended by my request that my parents’ priest visit us that morning. The priest could not perform Last Rites because my father had been dead for more than 30 minutes at that point. I was not aware that anyone knew exactly when the soul leaves the body, or that it hangs around for 30 minutes after death. The director did call the priest and he did come. My mother politely apologized to him for the call and the priest told us that, yes, his brother was visiting him and had come from Connecticut, this with my father’s body covered at our feet. I had wanted to ask him if his brother were alive, as my father had been an hour ago. I also wanted to call my priest, who would have come and sat and talked awhile later in the day, but this was not the time for my Roman Catholic mother to encounter a female Episcopal priest.

When the funeral home crew took my father away, and with my sister present to look after my mother, I headed to my apartment to get what I needed to stay for a few days. There are several ways to drive from Unionville to West Chester and I almost always take Route 842. I have driven it at all hours and in all weather and thus it would have made sense on a day when I was very much distracted, but instead I took Route 926 to Route 52. I wondered about that choice for a year, until I realized that I drove that way so that I would not think about my father dying every time that I drove on 842.

Those are some parts of the story, before and after, that I have not told much. That is how I came to be with my parents when my father had his fatal heart attack, on Thanksgiving, November 28, 2013.

I seem to be dealing with death right now. I returned to work on Monday to learn that one of our students, Tikye Robinson, died on the day after Thanksgiving. He was only eight years old but he had a major heart condition, and I recall helping the nurse and principal on the day that we sent him to the hospital via ambulance, with his heart racing over 185 beats per minute. Tikye was cute and funny and a nice kid and though I am not surprised by his death, it hurts.

I’m part of the school’s crisis response team so I was and will be helping others with this loss in the days to come. It is hard work but it is also the best work, being useful to others in an awful time.

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross gave the world a gift when she made it reasonable and polite to talk about death and grief and gave us some of the words to use, but her gift, “On Death and Dying,” is so badly misunderstood that it causes different problems. It would take two more posts to cover it, but the short version is that she was just describing the process through which terminally ill patients progress as they react to the news of their terminal illnesses. She wasn’t saying that you could bargain with a tornado like you can try to bargain with, say, an oncologist, and she wasn’t saying that the stages were discrete or hierarchical. “Acceptance” is not an achievement. I much prefer the Dual Process Model and maybe I will finally write about that, too, while I am thinking about death.

Kubler-Ross published in 1969 so humans were grieving for millennia before her book, and you can grieve without knowing anything about the five stages that she described, again, by observing patients responding to terminal illness. In any event, grief is simply the process of living with a loss as you adapt to life without the person or thing that you lost.

In that, then, that adjustment happens with more pain and more speed when the associations are with frequent events. If you and your ex-spouse used to visit the farmers’ market every Saturday morning, it will not take long to develop a new routine for going alone or with someone else or not going at all. The holiday season is here and routines that only happen once a year take longer to adapt. We notice the empty chair more profoundly when everyone else is present.

When we encounter the people whom we love, in person or in our minds, we feel joy, and when we seek that joy again, but know that we can’t be with those people, it hurts. That is grief. Over time, we learn how to feel that joy in ways that are realistic adaptations to our new situations. That is making peace with the grief.

A few weeks ago, I drove Routes 926 and 52, and it did not occur to me until I wrote this post that I once associated them with the day that my father died. He and Tim are buried in the same plot in a cemetery maybe a few hundred feet from Route 82 in Kennett Square. Sometimes I stop in to “talk” and leave a coin on the stone. Sometimes I think about them as I drive by. Sometimes I drive by and never think of them at all. All of this sounds good to me.

I thought about my father at 8:30 this morning, but by 9:00, when I heard the crash four years ago, today there were children to help and there was work to do, not to distract me but the business of my job and my life and those are good way to spend a day. Similarly, I have a head cold right now but I can still make myself useful and so I come to work. I want to close this post without a cliché or some lame and pathetic platitude. I definitely do not have an answer to this whole business of life and death and I wouldn’t trust one that fit into a blog. Loss hurts and I suggest that we are called to neither embrace nor run from the pain but rather to move as we would otherwise, accepting the pain and learning what it has to teach us.