One of the earliest memories I have is from when I was 4 years old. I remember my mother being very upset and then leaving for several days. I remember her explaining to me that my great grandmother had died and that she was going to go back home to go to her funeral. I can still remember my mother’s face; her puffy tear filled eyes looking searchingly at me. I remember feeling like it was all okay and that I understood that she needed to go. I felt that death was important. After all, I knew what death was since I had had several pet frogs and a cat die. As much as a 4 year old can, I understood that death must be attended to and honored.
By the time I was 10, I was living with my father and his second wife hundreds of miles away from my mother. My mother called my father in a panic and explained that her father had just died and he needed to send me back to Indiana to attend the funeral. He refused and they had a huge fight about it. I remember he told me my grandfather died as part of explaining to me why it was so unreasonable that my crazy mother would expect him to foot the bill for an airline ticket. That is how at 10 years old I learned that death causes anger and frustration.
When I was 15 my father took our family on a sailing trip for several weeks. When we returned to our home dock, the harbor attendant was waiting for us anxiously with a note. My father called his sister from the clubhouse at the marina and found out my 17 year old cousin had died in a shooting accident. Dad left for the airport without changing clothes and went to be with our extended family. It turned out that my cousin had been playing Rambo style roughhousing with several of my other cousins and thought it would be funny to get out my uncle’s service revolver as a prop. Somehow he managed to trip down a flight of stairs and shot himself in the head.
The family was devastated. I was confused by the whole tale. How was this a ‘shooting accident?’ Who thinks an actual gun is roughhousing fun? I was dismayed that my father seemed to carry on with this ‘shooting accident’ explanation of the events leading to my cousin’s death and so at 15 I learned that death is often shrouded with false history for the conveniences of those still living.
At 18 I gave birth to my first child. He was born after a long drawn out dramatic process that ended in an emergency C-section late in the evening. In the morning, as I fumbled to figure out what exactly a new mom was supposed to be doing to care for a newborn my stepmother arrived at my hospital room. I asked where my father was and she did not offer an explanation. This was striking because through all the trials and tribulations of the prior day, my father had been present and more than accounted for. He was constantly asking doctors and nurses ten questions and hovering over me and eventually my newborn. So where the Hell had he gone? I couldn’t imagine why he would be absent. He called me a few hours later and broke the news that my 16 year old cousin, the youngest brother of the aforementioned now deceased cousin, had committed suicide in the night as I delivered my son.
Several weeks later my aunt, mother of three sons, two of them now dead, came to see me and my new baby. I thought it odd that she would be up to traveling so soon after burying her youngest child until it became painfully obvious why coming to see my baby was so pressing. She had decided that her son had committed suicide so that he could be re-born as my son. Wow, talk about creeping out a too young mother who was already pretty freaked out by the totality of the situation. This time at the ripe old age of 18 I learned that death can make you crazy with grief.
When I was 24 I got a call one morning from my mother’s brother. In a rough voice he told me, “She’s gone, she died, your mother, she died in her sleep, she’s gone.” I remember falling to the floor and wailing, collapsed from the weight of the shock and loss. I was undone in that moment like never before. I had just had my second child, a daughter, and my mother was scheduled to come and visit her for the first time just two days from then. I was ‘grief stricken’ and suddenly understood that phrase was more than a poetic term. That was when I learn that death strips you naked and has its way with you. Death is overwhelming.
At age 32 I had just entered into my final semester of undergraduate. I had four children by this point and was working my ass off to finally get my act together and be a responsible member of society as my father would have put it. Dad called me one evening and explained that he had stage four lung cancer. The doctors had decided they could not operate and Dad was going to try an experimental chemo.
I once again felt Death the Great Overwhelmer clawing at my sanity. I pulled myself together and offered to come to help. He declined and said he would be fine. He was unable to attend my graduation. I sent him photographs.
By that summer he was admitted to hospice care and finally asked me to come and help him. I spent the last weeks of his life with him as he died. I watched the care and service that the hospice team provided to our family. When he died, I was devastated but not broken. Dying can be done well. Love can transcend death. That is when I learned death can be comforted.
After my father died, I changed my graduate school plans from research to clinical and went into hospice work. Death and I had spent a good bit of time in each other’s company and I felt it was the right place for me. As I have worked with the deaths of others and their families these lessons have come in handy. I have been able to comfort and empathize with others. More importantly I have served as witness to their grief because I have learned that death can be so very lonely for those enmeshed in it.
So what does all of that mean? Well for me it has meant that I have learned to accept the gift of death.
The gift is the knowledge of how precious life is.
I have learned that no matter how old you are when you die, you are still too young. I have learned that you can do nothing to extend your days beyond what you are given. Fate stands ready with her scissors at some unknowable point in your personal timeline and nothing you can do or say will stay her hand.
Knowing life is precious gives all of us the opportunity to create authentic purposeful lives. Living with intensity requires that we each discover who we are and what truly fuels us.
As a Leatherwoman I know my fuels are sex, service, and connection to people who see my queerness as an attribute not as a malfunction.
As a mother I know my job is to empower my kids to find their own fuels. Their growth is dependent on each of them finding the best fit for them. I can do nothing to help them find that authentic life unless I lead by example.
Parenting job one is living a life you love powered by the fuel you crave and energized by the gift of knowing death will come someday.