The list of people who wake up in the morning and think to themselves “Today is the day I’m going to die”, is probably pretty short. I’d imagine it would be limited to people who have planned a suicide for some time and death row inmates. The rest of us just muddle along through life, never knowing the means or the moment of our impending demise.
The first death I can remember was my beloved great-grandmother Dora Eggleston Browne. She was 87 years old, just a few days shy of her 88th birthday, and I was all of 12 years old. I remember coming home from school and going to her little house which sat on my grandparents property and she would always fix me a snack of some kind. She was the kind of old lady who rose in the morning and got dressed – all the way down to her sturdy, sensible shoes and her pearls. I never saw her in anything other than something fit to go out in the evening. Unfortunately, the last couple of years she lived she suffered from dementia, and was placed in a nursing home, and from what I’m told she was unable to identify even her own children, but I still remember “nanny” as one of my favorite people in the world. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended, and as it was an open-casket showing, I of course made a dramatic scene and probably embarrassed the hell out of my parents.
The next death I can remember was my Aunt Bert. She was actually my great-aunt, a sister of my mother’s mother. I remember going to her house in Indiantown, Florida where she lived with her husband Uncle Jack and an adopted daughter named Donna Gail. My brother and I were never particularly excited about these trips as there was really nothing for us to do. Uncle Jack was rather corpulent, and Donna Gail — well — the problem with her was that she was a girl, and her bedroom was all pink and frilly and there just really wasn’t anything to keep us amused. She died in May of 1969, about a year after my great-grandmother, and just weeks before my parents uprooted my entire world and moved us from where I had lived all my life to a new town way upstate. I didn’t attend the funeral that I can recall, but I do remember feeling sympathy for my grandmother.
The next death in the family that affected me a great deal was my mother’s father, we kids all referred to him as “grandie”, I think because he detested all of the more traditional references to one’s grandfather. As far back as I can remember he had been ill. He suffered horribly from emphysema – apparently he was a fairly heavy smoker of unfiltered Pall Mall or Camel cigarettes for much of his life. I seem to remember him smoking even when I was a very young child – probably the very late 1950’s or early 1960’s. He did eventually give it up, but all family gatherings were held at his house and most of my relatives smoked. My Dad smoked these awful smelling cheap cigars, as did a few other men of the family, and several of the women and men also smoked cigarettes. This was the 1960’s – way before the dangers of second-hand smoke were ever contemplated – and we thought nothing of it, even though at times my grandfather was tethered to an oxygen tank to help him breath.
I spent a few weeks in the summer of 1972 with my grandparents. We had moved to central Florida in 1969, but I had talked my parents into allowing me to spend time with my grandparents the summer I was 16. I don’t really recall a lot of what I did to stay entertained, I probably read a lot – I was and still am a vociferous reader and my grandfather had loads of books to read. I was also scheduled that summer to spend some time in Sweetwater, Tennessee with my Dad’s brother, Uncle Hubert and his wife Aunt Mary. So – I ended up traveling from Belle Glade, FL to Tennessee, sharing a car with my cousin Clyde and Aunt Mary and probably 4 or 5 other people — it was crowded.
While in Tennessee, I managed to run over my right foot with the lawnmower and remove a few toes – it was out by the old outhouse, the grass was wet, I was barefoot and 16 year old boys are stupid.
I was recovering in the hospital when I got the news that my grandfather had died. It was July 11, 1972, five months before he would have turned 72. At the time, I though 71 was ancient, but I know now it’s really not. I was completely and utterly devastated. I had just known that I should have stayed with my grandmother, even though there wasn’t a single thing I could have done. He suffered terribly, and had been put into the hospital – and while I don’t know all the details, I’m sure that his death was a relief to both him and my grandmother who had taken care of him hand and foot for years.
I got off pretty light for the next decade – sure, we had deaths in the family, but they were distant, and I was very busy with my own life. I had graduated from high school, joined the Navy and was off in far places, rarely home, although I did keep in touch with phone calls and letter writing.
It was February of 1984 the next time death came calling. My second ex-wife and I were living on my Mom and Dad’s property in rural Monroe county, TN. Dad and I had not really spoken much for most of a year – I had left the Navy suddenly and not really explained why to my parents. I had married a woman I had only known for a few months, was taking in stray kids left and right, but was mostly flat broke and living hand to mouth. We’d had a disagreement and I’d chosen to just not deal with him much – in fact we’d started looking for a place to move our trailer to so we wouldn’t be so beholding to Dad.
On the night of February 11, 1984, Mom and Dad were watching Johnny Carson, as they usually did. From what I’m told, the show ended, and Dad got up out of his recliner to head down the hall to bed, but instead, grunted three times and fell on the floor, dead as a doornail. It was a massive Coronary Thrombosis. He’d suffered from non-Hodgins Lymphoma for a few years, and was being treated for that, had developed a horried allergy to ultra-violet rays – couldn’t go outside or even sit under a lamp for long, he was living a miserable life – but we never knew he had a heart issue. He’d been to the doctor for a checkup just that morning and was as well as could be expected. He was only 68 years old. Again, I was tormented, particularly in light of the fact that we’d had a spat and I wasn’t really back on good speaking terms with him. For years I was tormented that I never really got the chance to say goodbye.
My grandmother – my mom’s mom, the only grandmother I ever knew, died October 30, 1990. I had just moved from Rhode Island to Miami for a new job, and grandma was living with my Aunt Rustie in Juno, Florida. I was lucky enough to be able to make the 2 hour trip up to see them several times the summer of 1990 – and although grandma suffered from dementia and we were never sure what she was thinking, I truly believe she knew who I was and was glad to see me.
She was 81 years old, had lived a long and productive life and was cherished by all of her family. My Aunt Rustie went out of her way to make a great home for her during her last few years, and although I was very sad to see her go, it wasn’t as traumatic as previous family deaths had been. I still miss her peanut butter cookies – no one seems to be able to make them just the way she could.
In March of 2006 we were all called to Tennessee where my Dad’s only remaining brother had passed away at age 93. Uncle Hubert was a character. He’d been nearly blind for a couple of years, and had horrible phlebitis in one leg, but every time I swung through that area I’d drop in to see him. If it was at all chilly, he and Aunt Mary could be found in the small room just off the kitchen, a room about 10 x 10, with a good third of it occupied by a roaring wood-fired stove. It was always around 100 degrees in that room, but they were old and frail and I suppose it’s what they needed to feel comfortable. Uncle Hubert lived a long life, and although I don’t know much about his younger years, he always seemed to be happy, puttering around in his workshop or in the garden.
Now, this being East Tennessee, his funeral service was conducted by not one, but TWO preachers, both of them fired up with messages of hellfire and damnation. Since Uncle Hubert had never been seen passing over the threshold of a church, they were all fired up about how poor Hubert was now roasting his toes in Hell, and that the rest of us still living had better take this opportunity to get right with God and get saved so that we wouldn’t suffer the same fate.
My brother David and I were sitting in a pew just behind my Mom – and she turned around to us and shook her finger at us and told us that we’d better make sure that her funeral wasn’t so much of a hell-fire and damnation service or she’d come back to haunt us.
Sadly, we just didn’t know that just a few days later Mom would suffer an Aortal Aneurysm, and just over a month after Uncle Hubert we would be attending her service. She too was young, just a few weeks short of her 72nd birthday. I had flown back to Colorado after Uncle Hubert’s death, and on the news that Mom was in the hospital, I debated flying to Florida where she was located. She was in and out of the hospital for a few weeks – always on the verge of getting better – and it made the decision for me to cough up $1500 or so for a plane ride very hard. Finally, just before Easter Sunday of 2006, she went back in the hospital and I decided enough was enough and I bought a plane ticket.
I remember that for some reason I got upgraded to first class – and I was seated in the very first row. We had to stop in Atlanta – because of course you can’t fly anywhere in the Southeast without going through Atlanta – when my phone rang. It was my brother, asking me where I was — I told him I was in Atlanta – and he told me that Mom was gone. It didn’t sink in. I asked him where she was going? It was a Monday morning, and she was due to be released from the hospital to go home again. When it finally did sink in that she had died, I was completely and utterly grief-stricken. There I was, on an airplane full of strangers, and my mother had just died, just hours before I could get to her. It was the longest 90 minute flight I think I’ve ever taken, and for days afterward I would just utterly break down like a little child.
Apparently she had just been up walking the halls, waiting on her doctor to release her, when something happened and she collapsed. From what I know, they worked on her for several hours, getting her heart to restart, and then it would stop again. She even regained consciousness a couple of times – but in the end, she just died. She had plans for the upcoming Easter weekend, her sister was coming up to cook, I was in town – needless to say to anyone who knows me – I was a total mama’s boy – but on April 6, 2006, she just up and died.
More recently, I’ve lost two first cousins – Evelyn and Clyde, both children of Uncle Hubert and Aunt Mary. Evelyn was just 62, and Clyde, who passed a year later was only 64. Evelyn also had a sudden heart attack, and Clyde died alone, on a sofa in his childhood home from pneumonia.
Just this year, I was oddly affected by the sudden death of my ex-brother-in-law Bill. I’d known Bill since we were both in our early 20’s – although he and my sister divorced several years ago, I’d seen him on and off again at various family functions. Bill had one of the most disarming smiles of any person I ever knew, and when he was younger was very handsome. I remember he used to wear the briefest of cut-off jeans, I often wondered how he kept everything covered – but, it was the 70s after all.
He died just a few weeks ago, age 57, of an apparent heart attack. He lived alone, and it was several days before people realized they weren’t hearing from him – he was found on his kitchen floor, apparently he was warming up some pizza in the microwave. From a recent picture I saw of him, he obviously wasn’t taking the best care of himself, and he apparently was still a smoker, even though he’d had a heart attack in his mid-30’s. I don’t know why, but his death interrupted my sleep patterns for a few days. He was just two years younger than me, and should have had at least 30 more years ahead of him.
Finally, just this past week, my first cousin Mike passed away at age 52 after a struggle with pancreatic cancer. When I saw him last year, as he and his childhood sweetheart reaffirmed their wedding vows, I was startled – I wouldn’t have known him had we passed on the street. Cancer can take away a lot, starting with your appearance. Mike fought it hard, but pancreatic cancer is just so brutal.
Still, even though we’ve known this was coming for at least a year, it hit hard. Mike is the first of the generation that I grew up with to go. I’m sad that I really didn’t know him well as an adult. He spent 20 years in the Air Force and for much of our adult life we were a continent apart, if not more.
My partner John is the last of his immediate family. His father, brother and sister died relatively young, and like my own dad, his dad went suddenly of a heart attack. His brother suffered for some time with lung cancer, and his sister for a short time with other ailments, but nevertheless, before their times.
I guess the point of all this is to reinforce that for most of us, the time, place and manner of our death is unknown. We don’t have a mark on the calendar for when our demise will occur. Sure, some of my relatives surely knew their time was near and approaching. When you live to be in your late 80’s or into your 90’s, surely you must embrace each day as possibly your last. However, it’s human nature to deny to ourselves that we are mortal, that our time is limited, and most of us are pretty good and never spending much time on the fact that our next trip to the grocery store or the dentist or the back yard could be our last.
For awhile, I was angry at my Dad for dying before we’d had a chance to make up. I was angry because we were both so stubborn that neither of us wanted to give in first. Neither of us know we were out of time until the clock stopped. I’ve since come to terms with my Dad’s death and I no longer blame either of us. Death is a natural thing that happens to us all. Sometimes we help it along by not taking very good care of ourselves. We smoke, we drink, we eat unhealthy food, we spend too many hours watching TV and too few hours walking the dog.
Yet, I see also that death claims even those who take care of themselves. They exercise daily, they eat healthy food, they limit their alcohol and refuse tobacco, yet still, the grim reaper knocks on the door at the most inopportune times. We are never ready.
What I’m learning is that we have to love the people in our life despite their flaws. We have to love them and understand that none of us is perfect. We have to know that life is a gift, and we have to cherish whatever measure of it we are given, long or short. All of the people in my life that I’ve mentioned above enjoyed their lives. They made the most of it that they could, and for the most part, never gave more than a passing thought to how it would end.
As my 60th birthday approaches, I’m saddened by the loss of people who were part of my life, but I’m encouraged to live the life I have to the fullest that I can – to enjoy each day as it arrives and not worry about the days gone past or the ones yet to come.
I don’t know who is next on the list kept by the awful man with the scythe. But as I age, I think I’m becoming more equipped to deal with the fact that nothing is permanent, even my own self.