Tag Archives: death

Thirty-seven years later

9 Jul

It didn’t hit you when you lost an old relative or a pet. It hit you when you lost someone your age. A good friend. Sixteen years old. Back when you still believed in Forever. When you finally understood that life was finite. Death transmuted from an amorphous concept into something so real it eviscerated your heart. When you realized Death could swoop in and boot you in the ass so hard you would never walk right again. When you realized Death took. It played no favorites and did not snatch only the elderly and twelve-year-old terriers. Death took the Young. Took Promise. Took the Future. Took without prejudice. Period, no comma. You woke up the next morning and learned he died, and you could not grasp the idea of it. Not at first. It took time to sink in, the fierceness of the loss, the unfairness of it. And you would never see him again. And when you came to realize it, you wept hard. You thought you were too old for that, so you hid away where no one could see you. And everyone left you alone because they didn’t know what to say. What could they say except I told you so? You wished you could go back in time just a handful of hours and how you could have changed all of it. How if you had been with him as usual, none of it would have happened. Because you had Luck, and it would have saved you both. Back then, you naively believed you possessed the power to avert Death, but you were a fool just like him.

You still feel guilty, because you weren’t there, and it was he who died, and you didn’t learn from it. Not right away. You made the same mistakes he made. Many times over. You got to Live. To Love. Because you had nothing but simple, cold luck. And you can’t let it go thirty-seven years later.

 

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The happiest place in the world, a fable

30 Mar

The happiest land is the world is one none of us can easily reach. It’s tucked away in a hidden valley in a faraway part of the world that does not appear on any map.

By happenstance, a hiker entered this remote place on his way to climb one of the highest mountains in that part of the world. He did not know it was the happiest land. The hiker, though still young, had traipsed across four continents. He had thrown a stone off the Great Wall, bathed in an ice-cold river in Patagonia, and watched antelope drink from a calm pool at sunset in Namibia. He still had much left to see and experience. He wanted to write a great novel, learn the paint, fall in love, and have his name etched in a monument at the end of his days. But he had only one lifetime in which to achieve it all, and he worried that he couldn’t achieve all that he wanted. Therefore, the man lived in constant anxiety, as he hurried from one experience to the next.

When he first entered the happiest land, he found nothing outwardly interesting about it. Its mountains were no more majestic than others he had seen. The streams were no clearer, the flowers no more colorful, and the animals no bigger or faster.DSC07710

As he found it rather dull, the hiker chose to spend no more time than necessary in this small land. After asking directions, he took the shortest path possible that lead toward the mountain he intended to climb. Along the way, all the natives treated the visitor warmly. This was nothing new to the man. He had traveled through many hospitable places. However, the people in this land seemed even happier and more relaxed than he had previously experienced. This made him uneasy. He was not used to such calmness.

The stranger also noticed that some people wore white t-shirts with calendar dates printed in black. Some dates were many years in the future; others were close at hand. He assumed the shirts were the current fashion in this land, but he did not want to reveal his ignorance about their meaning. Still, he decided to buy one as a souvenir. He entered the next shop he came to and asked where he could purchase a white shirt like the ones he had seen others wearing.

The store clerk was pleasant, but firm. “I’m sorry, sir. You cannot buy those shirts. They are a gift when a person reaches a certain age.”

The clerk suggested other apparel — plenty of well-made shirts in beautiful colors were available — but they did not interest the hiker. He left the store frustrated.

Near the far end of his trek through the land, the hiker met a middle-aged woman along the path. Just as all the others he encountered that day, the woman had a look of almost otherworldly contentedness. By this time, the visitor had become annoyed at the serenity he saw in all the people he met. He stopped the woman as she passed him.

“Everyone I have seen here appears to have such inner peace,” the hiker said. “Frankly, it’s starting to get on my nerves. It’s as though you think you have all the time in the world. Trust me, you don’t.”

The woman shrugged.  “We have enough time.”

“I don’t know how you could. Look at me. I have no responsibilities, I travel all around the world. and yet I still feel like life it too short.”

“I imagine you have been to many wonderful places,” the woman said. She pointed to a large rock just off the path.  “Why don’t we rest for a bit while you share some of your stories?”

“I wish I had the time,” the hiker said. “But I have a mountain to climb.”

“Why must you climb it now? Is this your last day?”

“My last day?”

“I have seen other people like you. Not a lot, but a few. They hurry on the last day of their life like they are in a race.”

“It’s not my last day, I assure you,” the hiker said. “I’m still a young man, and I have a lot more to do in life. Besides, how would I know if it were my last day?”

The woman sat on the rock to rest. She rubbed the calves of her legs, which were much weaker than when she was a young woman. “We all know our last day in this land,” she said. “For some of us, that day is quite close. For others, the day is well in the future.”

“How can you know the day you’ll die?”

The woman shrugged. “We just do. We are born knowing.”

“That explains the shirts I saw,” the hiker said. “You must be miserable to be cursed with that knowledge. What if the time of your death is soon? There is so much to do and see.”

“For most of us, it’s comforting to know when we will die,” the woman said. “It liberates us to live. We can experience life with calmness, because we already know how it will end. Instead of worrying about it, we focus on what happens each minute of this life.”

“You sound like you believe in a life after this one,” the hiker said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be so calm about it.”

“I do believe in a life after this one,” the woman said. “But that’s not for me worry about. I know for certain that I have been given this life. No matter how long it is, I make the most of it. That doesn’t mean I have to climb every mountain, though we have many beautiful ones here. It doesn’t mean I have to read every poem ever written, though we have wonderful poets among us. It means I must cherish the life I have.”

The woman stood again, ready to continue down the path.”You seem to be in a hurry to reach that mountain,” she said. “What is the point? If you knew you were dying tomorrow, would you want to be there? Or would you be somewhere else more important to you?”

“But I don’t know when my last day will come,” the hiker said. “What should I do?”

“The same as all of us here,” the woman said. “Love, of course. Love who you are, where you are and those around you.”

“I guess you have already figured out where you’ll be on your last day?” the hiker asked.

“In a place very special to me,” the woman said. “With people I love. I’m going there now.”

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From the other side of death

26 Mar

An excerpt from The Savior of Turk.

After I died, I figured I’d possess a clear memory of my whole life, from the day I popped out of my mama’s belly till they put a sheet over my head at the hospital. In eternity, I had in mind that I’d go back and forth over everything that happened to me like I was playing a movie, re-watching the nice parts and fast forwarding through the others until I about wore out the tape. But chunks of my life are fuzzier than others. Whole pieces got lost somewhere, things you’d think I’d remember. I recall but a few of the kids’ birthdays. Just a handful of Christmas mornings made the cut, and those memories are like looking through a window smeared with Vaseline.

BeachOther recollections are as clear to me as if they happened a minute ago, in vivid Technicolor. But they’re not necessarily the kind of memories you’d think would have stuck. Like the time our daughter Kimmie — I reckon she was around two because it was before Karl came along — got her fingers slammed in the door of our car as she was getting out. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and I took for granted that she was clear of the door when I shut it. She bawled bloody murder for close to half an hour. We’d crossed up to Iowa to spend a Sunday afternoon at a state park where there was a little sandy beach, and we had just parked the car when it happened.

For the occasion, Polly had bought Kimmie a purple swimsuit with a little yellow frilly thing around the waist that made it look like a tutu. Kimmie wore it to bed the night before. She was so hopped up about going to the beach that she liked to have never got to sleep. Then I had to go and ruin it by slamming her fingers in the door. Her right pointer and middle fingers swelled up like hot dogs. We had some ice from the cooler to help the swelling, but it didn’t make her feel any better. She sat next to her mom on a beach towel and whimpered the whole afternoon. Never got in the water. I didn’t either. I felt so bad and wished I could have done something to make it right.

I don’t know why a memory like that would be so clear to me, but I guess I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.

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Burying Aunt Imo

18 Jul

 We buried Aunt Imo on the last day of August when Northwest Missouri was suffering through another year of drought. Grass had turned the color of dank wheat from the lack of water, and trees had begun to shed their prematurely-dying leaves. A cold front pushed through, leaving the day overcast, cool and breezy. It all tricked the mind into thinking fall had arrived, though blistering 100-degree weather had been the norm only weeks earlier. Showers would arrive the following day, bringing a little relief to the crusty ground, though too late to do much good for the crops. Rain was always a fickle visitor.

A small group gathered under the funeral home’s canvas tent as the preacher from First Baptist Church in St. Joe said a few last words over the casket. Uncle Donald and Aunt Eva were now the only surviving children of my great grandparents, Hadley and Sadie Brown. The family of eight was now down to two.

Aunt Imo had so disliked anyone knowing her age that it was not printed in her obituary. But her birth date had been chiseled on the headstone she shared with Aunt Geneve, her sister, who had died a few years earlier. It seemed funny that Aunt Imo had finally allowed her age on the one thing that would outlast everyone present.

After the graveside service, Robert made the long drive home to his family, including Zane Hadley and Sadie May, who were named to honor ancestors who died even before their father was born. The rest of the family— Aunt Imo’s cousins, nephews and nieces—would gather for lunch in Cameron, about thirty minutes south toward Kansas City. First, however, we lingered in the graveyard. It was a mile or so west of Jameson, surrounded by fields and pastures and across the road from the site of the old Grand River Baptist church, where the Brown family had worshipped nearly a century earlier. This ground was the Alpha and Omega of Hadley and Sadie’s family.

Lots of names on gravestones were recognizable, mentioned over meals at family reunions many years past. A few times, I could put a name to a face. Great, Great Aunt Scynthia’s grave was near the western edge of the cemetery; she had lived in an apartment in Columbia, and had cooked dinner for me a few times when I attended college there. Another great, great aunt, Mildred, was nearby, too. She had been full of energy even after a stroke left her bedridden.

Aunt Eva wanted to stroll a bit through the cemetery. Now in her 90s, she had recently moved into a nursing home with Uncle Clarence. She couldn’t maneuver the gravel drive through the cemetery by herself, so Carl, the son of her brother Gilbert, took one arm and I took the other. As we walked along the path, she mentioned people whom I had never known or did not remember, though the names were familiar:

 Croy, MacNeely, Feurt… Aunt Eva smiled wanly at the markers, as if wondering how 90 years had passed so quickly.

As we crept along, the newest generation of nephews and nieces, including my daughters, ran from one end of the burial ground to the other. Living 600 miles apart, the cousins were thrilled to see each other. They didn’t mind that they played among the dead—their ancestors. I wondered if they would be drawn to visit this cemetery when they were older. Seeing Aunt Imo’s name, would they remember her face?

The kids spotted the grave of Aunt Sophie. “Look, Sophia,” they said. “There’s your name.” Sophia was impressed. The kids leaped over headstones, indifferent to the graves they walked over. Aunt Eva didn’t seem to mind either, and no one else mattered.

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