If you are craving silly strokes and uplifting words, come back another day. I know I'm hard to pin down. One day, I talk about hairy omelets and the next, death. Yes, death. If you do not want to read about death, or think about it, click away. I won't be offended.
Everyone seems to be dying. Intellectually, I know this is not the case. I know that statistically-speaking, many people die every day. In accidents. From illness. From old age. I know. It's just that people I know, or am connected to in some way, however tenuous, seem to dying at an alarming rate. Over the weekend, I learned that one of my favorite teachers at Dalton died. And then Nanny's aunt was in a car accident on Tuesday and died that night. And over the past couple months and years, there have been others. Friends' parents and grandparents. Our contractor's dear friend, the mother of his daughter. Prominent politicians and media personalities. Prominent and not-so-prominent celebrities. It just seems that almost every day, I am slapped with another reminder of human fragility. And of my own mortality.
I'm not naive. I know that, for me, everything changed on one crisp day in October two years ago when I learned Dad was sick. It was the day after my birthday, and my nephew's too. The night before, we had enjoyed a jolly joint celebration full of ribbons and smiles and Donnelley irreverence. And the next day, everything was different. Life was instantly, ruthlessly sliced into Before and After. The process began. I also know that my awareness of limits was heightened on a hot day in July when that process ended, quietly, mercifully, tragically.
I know that people aren't suddenly dropping like flies. It's just that I now see the dropping.
Through that process (forgive my vagueness. I cling to it because I'm not ready to call up the details), I thought about something constantly. A question. A question reminiscent of the game I used to play with my sisters on long car trips: Would You Rather? We got creative and vulgar. Would you rather slide down a brick wall and catch your eyelid on a nail or slide down a razor into a pool of nail polish remover? Would you rather eat cat food or Cheerios soaked in whiskey? We were wildly imaginative (we had never tasted cat food. Or whiskey). And blissfully clueless. But, a few years older, and unfortunately wiser, that childhood game took on a new, more ominous, tone.
Would I rather lose someone I love slowly or suddenly?
This question, this indulgent inquiry, echoed in my head and fueled a few conversations. Truth is I wished I could banish it from my consciousness because it was a cruel presence. Why? Because this is something we can't choose. One of the many things that isn't up to us. But still. I thought about it. Over and over. Would I rather watch someone diminish and fade, but have the chance to utter a protracted goodbye or would I rather that departure be stinging and shockingly sudden making a nuanced goodbye impossible?
I still don't know.
What I do know is that I ache for people who are blindsided by fate or Mother Nature and don't get a chance to offer a final hug or smile or squeeze of the hand. For people who don't have the chance to pen a clumsy or tear-soaked letter.
What I also know is that I ache for people who linger helplessly on the periphery of decline, watching life slowly extinguish. For people who muster periodic and foolish surges of hope that things will turn around. For people who have no choice but to say goodbye gradually, and fitfully, and imperfectly. For people who grasp for words, the right ones, ones that will never be enough.
But even as I write this, I realize something. (And this is why I write and maybe why we all write. Not to sell books or ourselves, or to drive technological traffic, but to make sense of the eternally epic mess that is life, to discern patterns of order within an oft callous chaos.) Here and now, I realize something simple and profound: death is death. Loss is loss. An end is an end.
Whether or not it is devastatingly anticipated or cruelly abrupt, death is what it is. And goodbyes are not indulgences. They are necessities. And though death might not always be gradual, goodbye is.
Goodbye is not just a word. It is a process. One that I fear - and hope - never ends.
Would you rather slow or sudden? Does the answer change if you are contemplating your own death? I know these are personal and tricky questions, but, hey, this is a personal and tricky post.