Wrestling with Death

I apologize for failing to post anything last week: no blog posts (despite my goal of two per week), very few emails, and not even any facebook updates or twitter posts–I retweeted a few interesting things when I got the chance, but I didn’t really say anything new. This is because, as my Cheerfully Flexible post two weeks ago may have suggested to you, I was attending a funeral.

The funeral was for my sister-in-law, Natalie, who fought long and hard and eventually succumbed to cancer. I didn’t post anything last week in part because I was busy (5-day trip to Sacramento with all five kids), but mostly because I did not then and still don’t know now exactly how to talk about it. This feels especially odd for me because I’m rarely ever at a loss for words: not only do I write for a living, I write about death. You’d think I’d be better at this. But the things I write about are either goofy, or sensationalized, or at the very least imaginary. Natalie was real. What do you say about a real person who’s there one minute, and then isn’t there the next? I saw the body at the viewing, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit like John Cleaver, staring and wondering what all the fuss was about, while the other half of me knew exactly what all the fuss was about. There is a cognitive disconnect with death, as if our minds rebel at the concept of it. People do not cease to exist, and our spirits know this even as our eyes are telling us something different. It’s like a form of psychic carsickness, your eyes telling you you’re sitting still while your inner ear screams that you’re moving. It disorients you, and your brain can’t quite express itself through the dissonance.

I’ve dealt with death before–I’ve spoken at both of my grandparents’ funerals, for one thing–but this was different. Maybe it’s because she was so young, and because of how she left and who she left behind. My grandparents were old and their minds were failing them; it was “their time to go,” if that’s the way you want to think of it. My grandfather in particular, one of the foundational influences of my life, was healthy as a horse but deeply scarred by Alzheimers, and it hits a point where it isn’t really your grandfather in there anymore anyway, just a semi-coherent shell. A car without a driver. He died (on Thanksgiving, ironically) of a heart attack, and while we were sad–perhaps devastated–to see him go, we were more or less okay with it because we’d already lost him months before. Natalie, on the other hand, was 24 years old, with a young husband and a two-year-old son. You can’t say that it was “her time to go” without straining the definition of what that even means, and you can’t give a speech looking back on a life of accomplishment and legacy when there are only 24 years to look back on. Natalie’s eulogy–a joyful, powerful speech given by her sister–was full of memories and laughs, but they were memories of potential. She was a wonderful baker and decorator, among other things, and tried to start a cake business just a few weeks before she died. This was a woman who never gave up, who always strived to do and be more. From a certain point of view, doesn’t that make it even worse that she’s not here anymore to do or be anything?

The hardest part for me was her son, a happy little boy who only kind of understood what was going on. My wife will tell you that she’s only seen me cry three times: at my Grandma’s funeral, at my Grandpa’s funeral, and while watching a movie about Alzheimers that reminded me of my Grandpa. I’m not heartless, I just have a very male tendency to keep my emotions well below the surface (though this is changing as I age). I was fine all through the preparations for Natalie’s funeral, and all through the viewing, and then when it came time to close the casket my brother-in-law lifted up his son to say goodbye, and the boy started crying, and it just tore us apart. It’s getting to me again right now as I write about it. She wrote him a letter before she died, and imagine it will be one his most prized possessions as he grows up and remembers her. I hope it will.

I try not to get very religious on this blog, because my religion is not a part of why most of you read my work, but it is a very big part of who I am, and I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment here. I’m a Mormon, which means that not only do I believe in life after death, I believe that families will be reunited and will live together forever. This is the single most wonderful thing that I can think of, even when I’m not preoccupied with death. I love my wife, my children, my parents and siblings, my grandparents and my vast extended family, and it comforts me more than words can tell to know that no matter what happens, no matter how bleak the situation may look, I will see them again. I’ll see Natalie again, and more importantly her husband and son will see her again. Death is sad and cancer sucks and life is sometimes a brutal kick in the face, but life is not everything and death is not the end. It will be a while before we’re all together again, but meanwhile we’ve got important things to do on Earth, and I’m sure God can find a lot of uses for a woman so eager to work she tries to start a bakery while half comatose from cancer and painkillers. We’ll all stay busy, and by the time we’re reunited we’ll see if maybe we can make the world a little better than it was when we parted.

I set a goal for myself to memorize a poem every week this summer, as longtime readers of the blog will be aware, and one of those poems has been prominent in my mind ever since we got the news that Natalie was nearing the end. It played in my mind during her funeral, and when her son cried and my heart started to break it came back again, comforting me and inspiring me. I think it’s the perfect note to end on:

Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

14 Responses to “Wrestling with Death”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been to both my grandmother’s and my mother-in-law’s funeral this year. It’s been tough for different reasons.

  2. “Psychic carsickness” = well put.

    I wish you and your family peace in your wrestle. My heart goes out to you all.

  3. cfornia says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for your words of healing, hope and truth.

  4. Tom says:

    There are some experiences in life for which there are no words in our language or any other. The sum total of thoughts, memories, experiences, smells, sights, etc. comes together like a shout in your mind and there’s really no medium on which to record it. It just is.

  5. You described it so well. And that’s an awesome poem.

    My mom died when I was fourteen, and when I stared at her face in the coffin I was outraged. Outraged that that mockery could claim to be my mother. She was gone. All that remained was a shell that didn’t even really look like her any more. Yet I felt her absence daily as I was growing up and going off to college and getting married and having my first baby. In a foreign country. With no mom to help me and tell me all the little things a mom knows. My first husband died when I was 26,leaving me with two children under four. Children who had to cope with his loss because he was gone but not understanding what that really meant. Except that he wasn’t there.

    Like you, I believe in forever families. But being left behind has to be one of the hardest things about death. We know our loved ones are in a better place, yet the hole they leave in our lives can never be filled. We heal, we move on, life becomes normal again. Except there’s someone missing.

    But the pain fades, and then we can begin to celebrate the life that touched ours. One of my favorite quotes is something along the lines that we should be grateful that we had a good time rather than bemoan the fact that it’s over. We need to remember to be grateful for our loved ones and be glad for the time we had them with us. The best is yet to be.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Oh, my dear. I’m so sorry to hear about your family’s loss. Even knowing that you will be reunited later does not make the pain of separation now any less.

  7. Joshua says:

    Dan,

    I am very sorry to hear about your loss. I myself attended a funeral last week for my grandmother-in-law. I wonder why death so often seems to strike so close to the holiday season. I do hope that the pain subsides.

    But, to my point. You have gained a new reader today. I was at Alli’s house for a rehearsal and saw your brother’s book (a stack of them, actually) on her coffee table. I’ve purchased it on Amazon and am eagerly awaiting it. From your blog entries, I’m going to be looking for your books, too. I love to read, and I’m grateful to find great authors through six degrees; my last four authors I have discovered that way.

    I hope that your brother feels better; and I hope that you and yours can have a good Thanksgiving with family and be able to cope with the loss. Thank you for writing this entry, the poem and your words have helped me to deal with ours.

  8. Christoph says:

    This is a very powerful poem. I also tend to keep my emotions in check, but your words combined with beautiful poetry somehow never fail to set my soul humming like a guitar string.
    I’m very sorry for your and your family’s loss. And I am equally happy that you find solace in your religion.

  9. Don Nelson says:

    Dan thanks for sharing your thoughts my father died uhen I was 8 , I was the one that they held up to look at my dead father , & I think whats hard is the void of the lost of a loved one , & knowing that you are going to have to go it alone, is hard to grasp, I’m glad that you could cry, & could feel deeply for others, Love Don

  10. HamletMonkey83262 says:

    My condolences on your family’s loss.

  11. Stephanie Grant says:

    Thank you Dan. Your words described exactly how I’ve been feeling but haven’t been able to fing the words to express. Natalie was amazing and she blew me away with how hard she fought to live. Even in the end.
    It was good to see you tonight. Your kids are adorable. Take care and hope to see you guys again soon.

  12. Jake says:

    As a 24-year-old I can say most people my age flat out don’t expect to die, by this time most of us are over that invincible feeling many teenagers get but we’re generally quite healthy and really just getting started on our own.

    A good friend of mine, coworker and classmate was just diagnosed with MS. Jamie is a talented journalist and broadcaster, yet he’ll be on ever more powerful medications for the rest of his life and the risks and eventualities of this disease are a very real thing.

    God doesn’t promise us tomorrow (or even the rest of today) on this Earth. But that’s why the choices he give us to make are so very important.

  13. Adrianne says:

    Thanks Dan…this was a wonderful article. We just found out today that a neighbor’s little 17-month-old son was involved in a fatal accident inside their home. It is especially hard when death comes for the very young, and particularly so at this time of year, when so many others around you are so happy.

    Your testimony was very uplifting and moving–and timely for us as well as you! We are praying for your family and for everyone else who has suffered loss this season. We too are so grateful for eternal families; today, that’s what we are most thankful for.

  14. Robin Weeks says:

    Awesome words, Dan. You made me cry.

    I’ve always been confused by my own reaction to death. Even though I know what comes after, it always seems so heartbreaking. But, really, my sadness is not for the departed, but for those left behind.

    My heart goes out to your family-especially her husband and son.

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