There are some days and weeks and moments when all of the death and all of the life I have collected, comes screaming out from my insides, setting itself ablaze. My heart then becomes like a balloon, unable to hold all of the death within it – so it bursts, terrifying me with its ability to do that, time and time again.
This week is that kind of week. For some reason, the past few days, my husband’s sudden death over two and a half years ago, has been sitting in the corners of my head – clawing and scratching at my face and arms and eyes, the way my kitties do each morning to remind me bluntly of their existence. At the same time, the show I’ve been directing for the past couple of months, which is an annual Variety Show fundraiser for Cancer Care, finally goes up tomorrow. In the midst of the exhaustion and adrenaline and stress and excitement from all of us involved in the production, we learned that a major patriarch and key player of the local community, the theater company, and Cancer Care, had passed away after a long battle with illness and cancer.
His son, along with many other of his family members, are all in the cast of the show – and so the hugs and well wishes and condolences have been weaved into our tech. rehearsal week. Many members of the cast have been attending the wakes and services for this man they all loved so much. I didn’t even know this man, but I know his son and the other family members I have met and have come to care about during this production process, and I can see their pain and their weary faces and their determination to honor their loved one going forward. I will be attending the wake this afternoon, just a few hours before our Dress Rehearsal tonight. The fact that I don’t know this man matters not – because I know death, and every time someone else dies, I feel it in a way that I never did before my world collapsed in July of 2011.
This week, the death is coming in through all of the windows, and it sits inside my house and my life, making itself at home. My grief counselor’s elderly mom is not doing well, and has been sick since a few weeks before Christmas. Each time I talk to my counselor and ask about how her mom is doing this week, I just want to hug her and be there and make it better and somehow do something to make the inevitable death go away. But I can’t, and I know that I can’t, and that upsets me greatly. And then I think about my own parents and how, one day, I might be caring for my mom or my dad the same way she is doing right now – and how the hell am I supposed to face the death of my parents, without my husband? Not only do I have to face the fact that my husband will be dead forever, but now I think about the very cold, harsh fact that every time someone I love dies, I will not be going through that with my husband. The very thought of that makes me shiver with fear, and so I try not to think about it. But there are some days and weeks, when that is impossible, because death is in my living room, on his third cup of coffee.
Then, yesterday, adding itself to this enormous death collection, I received word through an old high school friend on Facebook, that my high-school English teacher, my FAVORITE English teacher, Mrs. Franzeim, was near death. Her daughter Emma had posted her email address in a status update, asking that anyone who wishes should send along an email to Mrs. Franzeim, saying who you were, how you know her, and what you remember about her. Emma would then read all of these emails to her mother , one by one, during her final days. Seconds after reading the post, I typed up my email to Emma and her mom, and found myself crying as I did so. I told her about my own life, and what I ended up doing with it – how I am also a teacher at a college, and how much her class and her intelligent honesty meant to me, and how she always stuck in my head, even all these years later. I found myself telling her about my husband – how our life together was cut short by death – and how I’m writing a book about all of that, and about the brutal realities of grief, and how it’s transformed me into something I never would have seen anywhere in my atmosphere, in that lifetime so long ago.
Today, just moments before writing this, I received a return email from Mrs. Franzeim’s daughter, Emma. The subject read: “She’s Free”, and the email went out to everyone who participated in emailing her mother with their memories of her, to let us all know of her passing. A small part of the email read:
“Thank you for all of your words and love. I read every single letter I received to her. We played her favorite music, gave her hugs and lots of kisses, surrounded her with flowers and yummy food. She died in her favorite room, filled with cherished keepsakes. There was sunshine during the day, a beautiful view of the pond at night, and I snuggled next to her in the bed, in the full moonlight. Be assured there was nothing left undone for her. She knew every word you had to share with her whether written, spoke, or held within the depths of your hearts. She looked beautiful, and at long last, she is free.”
And that was when my balloon finally burst. All of the death could no longer remain inside that bubble, and so my fiery tears shot out of my face like a cannon, scaring me with their ferociousness and flame. They were hot and endless and releasing, and I startled myself with my own sounds.
The balloon had been dismantled and destroyed, and now, on the floor, were all the confusing and unrelated thoughts that had been stuck inside of me for seconds and hours and days:
“I will never know what it’s like to see my husband’s face as “beautiful” in his passing, or to even be there when it occurred. The face I see in that casket is not the one I loved. It is a stranger, and it haunts me and follows me like a shadow. I wish I could figure out a way to make myself believe that he is “free”, but he wasn’t ever sick , and he was so young, and it will never ever be okay with me or be peaceful or be anything but awful and unfair and cruel, that he died just as we were beginning to live. To be able to set up music for someone as they are dying – or to feed them their favorite foods – or to say words to them that you know are the last words they will hear on this earth. How beautiful. How poetic. How epic that must be. My husband left for work and never came home. And I cannot remember anything about the days or hours leading up to him leaving for work that morning. All I hear in my head is that ringing phone that jarred me awake, and all I see is him lying on a floor somewhere, collapsed. Alone. I just don’t know what to do with that. As many times as I have talked through it and processed it and tried to NOT see it that way, it is still there. Taunting me.”
A lot of other thoughts went through my head too as I was marinating in tears, such as “Why couldnt Don live to be an old man, and me an old woman beside him, getting to have the life together that we promised each other? I don’t want to be old and alone, and I don’t’ want him to be young and dead.”
Sometimes, life lives in the forefront of my heart. Other times though, it is death that makes itself the starring role. With life, there is death. With death, there is life. Each time someone new is born in my world, it stings just a little more that he is dead. And each time someone in my world dies, his death moves back to the forefront for awhile. And that balloon begins to expand, until it can no longer hold the death inside.
And so it begins, and so it ends …