I don't think this is as maudlin as the title suggests, but give it a read and you be the judge ....
We have had three deaths in our little circle of friends this past month, and, as happens, it’s gotten me thinking — not always a good thing, sometimes, as I tend to think too much — about death, and dying. And when you toss into the mix the fact that my mother’s birthday was September 27 and that always makes me ‘what if’ and ‘I wonder,’ and that my sister’s birthday, the first since she passed, was October 1, well, it’s been death-a-palooza up in here for me.
One of my very best, very best, friends in the world, Laura, lost her husband a few weeks back. Bob had been diagnosed with Non Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2009 and struggled and fought so valiantly; he got better, he was better, and then came a setback and he was back in the hospital where he passed away, with Laura at his side, last month.
I cannot imagine how it feels to lose the love of your life; I’ve lost friends and relatives, parents, a sister, but this has got to be the hardest of all. It sinks me to places I don’t want to go to, making me think about what would happen if I lost Carlos; how would I survive; would I survive. But then, scarier for me, is what might happen to Carlos if I died; I so don’t want him to be alone.
But then I realized you have to take what life gives you and move on as best you can, one foot in front of the other, and hope that, while it won’t get easier, it will get better. You have to wake up; you have to get out of bed; you have to continue on because that’s what Bob would want for Laura; that’s what those who’ve gone on would want for us, those left behind.
We had cocktails Bob and Laura last August when we were in California and visiting my sister, who had her own battle with cancer. And the one thing that struck me about Bob was this: he’d always been friendly to Carlos and me; nice, and friendly, and just a lovely, lovely man. But this time, as we were saying out goodbyes, he grabbed each one of us and hugged us Goodbye.
It was a few weeks later we learned that he was sick again, and I thought about that hug. At first I thought maybe Bob knew that he was getting sick again, and maybe this was his own personal Goodbye to us; but then I thought that maybe, because of all he’d gone through for over five years — tests and treatments and procedures and hospitalizations — that he knew you had to cherish each and every moment because you don’t know if you’ll ever get that moment again.
So he hugged you so that you knew how he felt about you in case he never got the chance again.
A few days after Bob passed, our friend Cody had suffered a massive heart attack in his sleep. His partner Bruce woke up and tried to revive him, but Cody died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. They had been together 42 years; forty.two.years.
And again I wondered, how do you survive after losing your love; what do you do to carry on. How do you wake up in an empty bed for the first time in four decades?
You just do, I learned. We attended a memorial service for Cody, and spoke with Bruce, who, as most people who lose a loved one do, seemed more intent on easing our grief, our sense of sorrow, than allowing us to help him.
And so I realized that you go on because, yes, you had your partner, spouse, husband, wife, for years and years, but you also have your family — your biological family, and the family you’ve made for yourself out of friends. You carry on because you have those other people in your life that can light the way when you feel as though you’re slipping into the darkness.
Then Carlos learned that one of his former co-workers was in the hospital. His name was Carlos, too, Carlos S. He and my Carlos worked as a team for a local healthcare company a few years ago. That Carlos was a black man, and since he and his teammate shared the same first name, people at the office took to calling them Salt-and-Pepper, or Black Cloud and White Smoke.
My Carlos visited that other Carlos, who was unconscious in the hospital, and he chatted with him for a while; said his piece, so to speak; and then he left. Carlos S. passed away that same afternoon, alone. He seemed to have no one; no one to claim the body; no family that Carlos could find. I was thinking about what that might be like, to die alone, no family, a handful of friends, or even less, who didn’t know that you’d gotten sick.
But my Carlos wasn’t having that; he called people; he checked in with people; he did some research. He found the estranged son of Carlos S., who wanted nothing to do with his father, even after death; but then he found more friends, neighbors, former co-workers; he found that Carlos S. had been in the military and because of that he could be buried with a military funeral at Fort Jackson herein Columbia.
Carlos, my Carlos, and a couple of others, made some arrangements with Fort Jackson; my Carlos wrote a beautiful eulogy for his friend that he posted to Facebook, and friends of Carlos S. found it and responded to it.
This tiny group, tied together because they knew this man who died alone, attended the service even if no one else could, or would. But then people did; other co-workers, friends, and even his estranged son paid their respects; the flag that draped the coffin was folded into that ceremonial triangle and given to his survivors. Carlos S. may have died alone, with scarcely anyone knowing anything about him, but he was buried in honor, with friends, and even family, at his side.
And so I realized that, while it may seem that sometimes we die alone, we don’t. There are those who remember, those who visit as you lay dying, and those who pay their final respects.
And even when you think that, after death, people are forgotten, they aren’t; you remember the soup your mother made on cold winter days and you smile; you remember the trouble you got into with your sister, and you smile. You remember that last hug from a friend; that last joke; that last time you saw them, and you smile.
And you go on ….