For most of us, death is not a daily affair. Our brains have difficulty processing the idea of our own nonexistence, and our hearts can’t stand considering the possibility of losing a loved one. Unless you’re one of those people who believe that some kind of Narnia (minus the White Witch) awaits you on the other side, death is an occurrence you’re not eagerly awaiting. I’ve yet to meet anyone not clinically depressed who enjoys dwelling on the inevitability of demise.
Nonetheless, when the grim reaper waves his sinister scythe in your general vicinity, you can’t help but take notice and wonder about the day it will choose to sever something a little closer to home.
Last week, my father called to tell me his dentist of over 20 years – the same one who installed my porcelain crown – had died suddenly and unexpectedly. “I was just there on Thursday, and he looked great, the epitome of health,” Dad explained. “Then Monday – boom. Gone.” My father seemed frantic to learn what it was that killed a man who was only a year younger than him and seemingly healthy. “I called the office, but no answer. I found the obituary, but it didn’t say how he died.”
“Age might have nothing to do with it,” I said, in an attempt to quell the unease I presumed was driving Dad’s fraught curiosity. “Remember Heather’s friend in high school? Not even 18, and then -- bam – aneurism in her brain. Sometimes, freak shit just happens, regardless of how young and healthy you are.”
Dad pondered this for one silent moment and then inquired, “How is Robert? He awake yet?”
“Yes, and he seems to be doing very well,” I said. Robert, David’s father, had gone in for an angiogram two days before, and upon seeing the results, his doctor told him he wouldn’t be leaving the hospital without some kind of surgery. It ended up being quintuple bypass surgery.
“That’s good to hear,” Dad said.
“It’s been a crazy week,” I added. “I just learned that our friend’s mother and aunt were in a car wreck yesterday, and they both died. I can’t imagine how hard that must be, to suddenly lose two people like that.”
This time, both of us fell silent. Dad was first to speak: “This afternoon I need to stop by Make-a-Wish. I’m picking up some information on a kid we’re sending to Disney World. Apparently he’s going to require some help with all of the medical equipment he needs to get through security and onto the plane.”
“It just occurred to me that you deal with the whole death issue way more often than I do,” I said. “How do you cope?”
“I just accept it,” Dad said. “With Make-a-Wish, my participation is something magical. These families are dealing with some really tough stuff, but the love between them is palpable, across the board. I really get a lot of joy out of bringing joy into these other people’s lives. And it makes me grateful for the fact that all my children and grandchildren are as healthy as pigs.”
“I don't know, I think it would be hard for me to think about how sad it would be to lose someone,” I said. “You know, David’s parents asked him to be their executor. I can’t imagine how depressing it would be to sit at a table and try to figure out stuff that needs to happen after you die.”
“We’re all going to go,” Dad said. “You can’t get out of life alive. Since that’s true, why not be practical about it? Of course, you want to think about it when you’re not in extremis – if you’re having a sexual issue with your partner, you want to talk about it when you’re not in bed. When it comes to your wishes after you’re gone you want to make plans when nobody’s sick, in the hospital, or dying, so you can be rational and not emotional.”
“Yeah, but doesn’t it bum you out when you force yourself to think about it like that?”
“I want it known so there’s no concern – it’s just a conversation of reality, a business deal, so it doesn’t put a big burden on the family.”
A few days later, after my sister Jane told me the “news” of our long-time family dentist and expressed her frustration for not knowing how he died, I filled her in. “Dad just went to the memorial – massive heart attack, right there in the office. Apparently he was gone before the paramedics arrived, and the hospital is just a few miles up the road.”
I told her about my conversation with Dad and asked her how much it sucked for her and Simon to have to sit down and plan what would happen to their girls if they, the parents, were both to perish.
“The lawyer made it fun,” Jane said. “He was, like, you’ll probably have more control when you’re dead than you do when you’re alive, and for me, it’s a control thing.” I’m sure the shock was evident on my face, so Jane elaborated. “We put so many detailed things in there – they can’t get any tattoos on their faces, can’t get any weird facial piercings, they can’t get married until they’re of a certain age, they have to go to college or trade school – things that we believe will make them more successful in life – or they get no money. We were thinking what’s the best way we could take care of them and what could we make them do. There’s some sort of comfort in the control, knowing that when you’re gone you can still be helpful and still have a say in what you wanted – it takes the stress off of everyone else.”
“That’s something we need to do,” I said. “Me and David need to figure out what should happen if one of us, you know… But not today. Today I’m too busy living.”