Monday, January 21, 2008


Our family has lost a beloved member, a woman who succumbed to a lung condition after a long, debilitating illness. After six years confined to a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank her constant companion, she sat back on her couch one day and gave in to the Death that had loomed over her like a dark and ominous cloud for many years.

There is nothing like a death in the family to remind one of his or her own mortality. Our family, once so close that our visits were a weekly occurrence, has now drifted into the funeral-wedding mode, which is to say that we turn out in large numbers during special occasions, but maintain our own homes and families in the times between.

My brother Hubert once sat with me in silence on the patio of his home. After sitting beside him for a while, I asked him what he was thinking. "Oh," he replied, "just wondering how to get out of this without dying!"

We have all wondered about death, when it will come, how it will come, will it come with days or weeks or even years of unbearable pain, will it drag out for months with relatives bending over our beds, faces lined with worry and concern? Or will it be quick, a sharp, sudden pain like a knife in the heart, doubling us over and taking us away like a leaf in a heavy wind?

So we wonder and wait, feeling the wonder of our existence with each waking morning, greeting the sky, the sun, the miracle of daylight chasing away the shadows of the night, and we face one more day on this earth, having beaten back the ever-lurking possibility of death into the shadows.

None of us know how it will come. We are not given a choice and perhaps it would have been simpler if we had this list. Number One, an accident: Number Two, drowning in dark and murky water; Number Three, a heart attack; Number Four, a stroke; Number Five, None of the Above.

Unfortunately, we do not have this choice, yet we walk with death every day. We step over the flattened and dessicated bodies of sparrows and baby robins. We lose our precious pets to whatever Deity decided they would only live a short percentage of our lifetimes. We lose beloved members of our families. Devoted friends pass away. Our spouses eventually leave us alone and lonely. Death is a constant part of our lives, and while we comfort ourselves with thoughts of Heaven and Paradise, that elusive Eden with untold wonders and streets of gold, we cling to the familiar, our life on Earth.

Before my father died, he would sit in that battered green chair, one upholstered arm hanging downward, one chair leg propped up by books, and he would light his pipe and stare into the distance, clouds of aromatic smoke drifting into the air.

"They are all gone," he would say. "Every one of them are gone, except Dora...and she might as well be gone!"

I would sit at his side, just entering my teens, unable to comprehend loneliness or sorrow, my own limited life filled with school and boys and all of the things that make teenage both joyful and miserable, but I would listen and wonder. Pop had outlived them all...with only one surviving sister who was living in a nursing home and wouldn't have recognized his face. His family was gone. His friends were gone. And he was left with only his own progeny, his own descendants. Gone were the days of his youth, when he was called "Black Jack" and roamed the South with Greenberry Sears. Gone were the farming days, when he handled cattle and traded horses and walked the soil like a man familiar with every grain of dirt, a man who could bend down as I have often seen him do and scoop up a handful of earth and let it slowly sift from his fingers, as though he were handling a fistful of pearls.

The first of my brothers and sisters to die was Hazel, when she was about fifty years old. Her death was quickly followed by Herman's, both of them dying of cancer. I was married by then, with little children, but I was still so tied to my family that these deaths struck me like twin bolts of lightening. I sat with Herman in his small home, the wind whistling outside the windows, the darkness descending on the earth like some kind of deadly blanket, and watched him as he sat in his rocking chair, a blanket covering his knees, his head bent, his face revealing the suffering he was enduring. I hated it. I resented it. I didn't accept it. I felt like screaming at the Heavens, ripping the leaves from the trees. Instead, I sat there, watching him, too young and ignorant to even offer words of comfort.

This is when we invented the Wheel. It was a huge floral display. There were fourteen floral spokes, twelve for each of the brothers and sisters, two for Mom and Pop. Two of the floral spokes were broken, one for Hazel, one for Herman. The others were intact, waiting for their turn. I don't know why this Wheel comforted us, but it did, huge thing that it was, with its bevy of red flowers bunched together like clots of blood.

We continued this wheel until so many of us were passing on that the Wheel began to look pathetic. Hubert, always prepared to joke around, appeared in the funeral parlor with a tiny watering can he had found in a dime store. It was, he said, meant for watering his spoke on the Wheel. No, I said, I'm the youngest. I'll be around longer, so my spoke needs the water.

Thus we joked and laughed in a funeral parlor, trying to find something to alleviate the pall of tragedy. I have thought many times of this silly conversation, wondered whether I wanted to be the last to die. We all want to draw as many breaths as possible, but becoming a fossilized shell of a human, dried like a prune and minus faculties, alone and lost, doesn't sound palatable either.

Today, I returned home from the funeral parlor where my niece lies in her casket, that sweet little girl with the mop of curly hair that had enriched my life so many times in her childhood. Great clusters of family and friends gathered in groups, taking comfort in each other. This is the purpose of funerals, I guess, making them less morbid, just paying respects and leaning on each other for support.

When my sister-in-law, Jewell, died, she didn't want a funeral. So, respecting her wishes, her son, Billy, simply held a Memorial Service at her graveside. I will never forget it. It was a beautiful summer evening. It had rained, but the sun peeped out and the clouds left the scene, as though on cue. Billy had provided music, and the hymns rang out over the rural cemetery where Jewell is buried. Then a minister gave a brief speech as the sun sank into the horizon, sending a golden glow over the mourners gathered to pray. It was a peaceful, beautiful moment.

However we reach our ultimate resting places, we cannot avoid our deaths. My friend, the Monk, Father Richard, tells me "Do not not look forward to...your death! Instead, celebrate your life!" This makes sense to me, but would be easier to accomplish without funerals to attend and the loss of loved ones to bear. Then thoughts of those already gone and thoughts of leaving this earth to join them are as natural as the breath you draw.

My spoke on the Wheel must be withered now, just a few petals left on the flowers, but look how colorful they are in the fading light, still clinging to life with an unshakable will, still determined to bloom until they finally drop, dried and brown, to sleep on the bosom of the earth.