This year I’ve had the opportunity to observe, participate in, be walled out of, celebrate and/or grieve the deaths of people I loved.
In April, someone announced that there had been 22 deaths in our senior living community during the pandemic, none of them by virus. I knew each of them, some more deeply than others. But I grieve them all. The Japanese jazz pianist whose magnificent rice bowl now lives in my daughter’s kitchen. The African missionary who purchased my jacket at the community resale closet. The wise laid-back pal who took me to supper one night each week. The friend who introduced me to the wonders of ordinary folks’ Christmas lawn displays and who always made me feel special when he opened the car door for me.
It seems strange to be writing about death for my writing group, which is focused on generativity. In my community of elders, we jokingly refer to death as “moving to a higher level of care.” Having spent so many years as a healthcare chaplain, I’m always surprised at how quickly people seem to recover after the death of an elderly spouse.
Of course, I was usually at the front end of those catastrophes in the ICU waiting room or emergency ward. There, grief was often loud, sometimes violent. I still remember the overall clad farmer from West Virginia howling “There ain’t never going to be anymore apple brown betty” at the bedside of his dead mother. I can still hear the screams around the blood-soaked body of the 18-year-old neighborhood kid who committed suicide-by-cop to avoid a three-strikes life sentence for petty crimes.
So I am still getting used to the silent, very inward grief of elders at the death of a spouse, which comes to mind as I work on my writing group’s assignment to consider a line of poetry from one of our members: “reaching out to a safer and safer center.” Is private, shrouded grief the “safer center” for professional faith folk? Are tears ever inappropriate, unseemly?
Still, I do recall being so exhausted as their caregiver when my mother and, several years later, my aunt died that I buried myself in the requisite paperwork. I had occasionally wept for years with the frustration of the impossible task of “making that rough way straight” for either of them, but not at their deaths.
Sometimes the “safer center” for me has been bald avoidance, naked denial. My dinner partner had an implanted defibrillator, which carried him through several years. But last summer, he suddenly decided that living wasn’t worth the effort. I wish that he had been able to talk about his wish to die. I was hurt that he didn’t. Several of us cooked special meals for him all summer in an effort to raise his spirits. Having none of it, he determinedly climbed on the ice flow and headed out to sea. I am still sad.
And my best friend Suzanne, who was much younger than I. Every summer, we managed to kill our tomato plants in the community garden, but our deepest sharing always came while we crawled around on hands and knees pulling nut grass from our barren plot. When Suzanne went into hospice care the January before last, she asked me to spend each evening with her, and so I did.
We both enjoyed scotch, but drank it only when we were together. Early in the three-month process of her dying, I wondered to myself, and then with her, how much damage to a dying person could a thimbleful of scotch really do?
By the next evening, she had swiped a supply of medicine cups, and I had filled my pocket flasks from our bottle. She hid the bottle at the back of her bedside table, and I kept a lookout for the medicine cart as it neared her room. One night, I poured our “tot,” and didn’t hear her nurse enter her room. “Oh, I’ll come back when you’ve finished your little nightcap,” the nurse apologized with a grin as she backed out of the room.
It seems a bit frivolous to die with a scotch-induced smile on one’s lips, but that is exactly how Suzanne went, several days later. She reached out to a safer center quite different from the one a good Catholic girl might choose. Nevertheless, given the recent idiocies of the Catholic church, Suzanne may have had something there.