My most profound experience with death happened when I was 12 years old. I was on vacation with my grandmother, grandfather, sister and brother and we were doing an 8 day trip through Nevada and Arizona. The pinnacle of our trip was supposed to be a stop to see the Grand Canyon. My grandparents had it all figured out: We would stay at this quaint little hotel with a train track running through it. The train would take us to the Grand Canyon first thing in the morning. We would see one of the most epic natural occurrences of mother nature, take pictures, learn things, then re-board the train and head back to the hotel with hearts and heads full.
Only that’s not what happened.
My grandfather suffered cardiac arrest on the train on our way there.
I remember turning around to ask him a question and watching his eyes roll into the back of his head.
I knew, in that instant, what death was. I had had it explained to me so many times before that. I had read all the poems and books and watched all the movies. I had seen death in the faces of countless actors on the big screen and heard the quiver in my mother’s voice when she tried to describe the gravity of what it truly was.
But that day, on that train, I knew death for the first time.
And I hated it.
I hated it with such a loathing that I shut it off completely. I shunned it from my memory and refused to address it with anyone. My grandfather was a brilliant scrooge of a man. He had the wit and joie de vivre of Dean Martin combined with the piss and vinegar of Walter Matthau. He was ridiculous and grouchy and kind. And I loved him. But It took me 3 years before I was even able to acknowledge my loss, let alone cry for him in remembrance.
That was 17 years ago today.
And yesterday my grandmother (the same grandmother who sat with me on that train and handled my grandfather’s death with a calm poise the pope would be envious of) passed away.
And I find myself having to explain death to my 5 year old daughter.
I tell her what happened: My grandmother was no longer. The woman who always allowed me to be me- was gone. The great grandma that held her while she cried and accepted her brand of crazy without any reservation had died.
And it barely registered.
My beautiful, crazy, enigmatic kid could barely process death.
“My class fish, Gummy Bear, died yesterday. We flushed him down the toilet and thought of the happy times we spent with him,” she says. “I saw Uncle Ray in the box in the church. He was dead. When you’re dead there is no more. Just deadness.”
I have no idea if she’s right. I don’t know where to lead her here- I’ve seen death first hand and watched the terror that ensued. I have no idea how to conceptualize what she is going through.
So I tell her what my grandmother told me the day my grandfather died. I tell her, “Death hurts. But living without that person would have hurt a lot more.”
And she seems to get it. She seems to understand. She doesn’t grasp emotions well but she knows enough to know that life is thrilling. And beautiful. And scary. And losing someone who encapsulated every part of your being is fucking terrifying. But it is never as terrifying as their absence would have been. So she looks at me and she says, “Ok.”
And it’s not OK. It will never be OK. People will tell you that the person who passed away is now another angel in heaven, or another star in the sky, or another soul departed- but you know what they really are?
And it sucks.
But you had them. Once upon a time you had them. And they were everything you needed them to be. They fostered and nurtured your soul in ways that no one else could. They held you, soothed you, taught you about love, held you in your most ridiculous states, and they stayed there. And now they’re gone. And it sucks.
But holy fuck it would’ve sucked a lot more if you didn’t have them at all.
And it’s “OK.”
It’s not great. It’s not “fan-fucking-stellar.” But it’s OK.
And I’d rather have an “OK” life with my people in it- then an awesome life alone.