Tag Archives: death

The Fadings

Mary Jo Egan Kilbourn

November 13, 1939 – April 5, 2017

     Our elders are the past who understood the world we were born into because they lived through it. By the time we understand the world, our elders understand it less, and usually by the time they die, it is as unrecognizable and confusing to them as the world was to us when we were born. And when they die, the past does not die with them. It fades.
     It fades in the slow, chemical decomposition of pigments in photographs. It fades in worn-out things requiring replacement. It fades in the uncountable moments we forgot of eating breakfast with them, shopping with them in grocery stores, phone messages from them we erased, papers from them we threw away and recycled, and the forgotten moments of normal conversations about making plans or just talking together about unremarkable things, because if they were remarkable we’d remember them.
     What remains is the curated distillation of them, but it isn’t really them. It’s the remaining distillations of those that came before them, which you curate further or catalog and file as museum archives, kicking the can down the generations, plus whatever you’ve saved of them because it reminded you of happiness, or comfort, or of the bond you now share with a ghost.
     You can talk to that ghost, but the ghost doesn’t really talk back. It does, but it’s what you think the ghost would say, not the ghost’s words. They’re you’re words. They’re words you tell yourself when you’re sad, or happy, or enraged, or melancholy, or joyous, or angry, or at peace, or terrified, or any of the other feelings that pass through a day like weather systems.
     Some of those words are like sunshine, warm and reassuring. Others fall like branches on your head during a windstorm, leaving you concussed because the sky is falling. Then the words fade, because they always do, and all that’s left are the emotions.
     Fear, anger, sadness, wistfulness, and million other emotions that vibrate in chords with a diminuendoing basso of grief that began as a siren’s ear-splitting wail. It fades sub-sonic and will punch you in the gut when it resonates in harmonic frequencies, boosting a resonant tone to where it bursts out of you in racking laughter or sobs, before fading into the background dirge echoing amongst the works and follies of all ghosts in chorus, indistinct.
     It’s music you chase through deserted cities, canyons, forests, beaches, mountains, fields of sunflowers, at the dentist’s, or anywhere else you find yourself suddenly alone. With the sound seeming to be always around the next corner or bend. But you never locate the source of it because the closer you come to it, the more it fades away until you stop searching for it. Then it blindsides you in the grocery, in the car, in the shower, under the covers, on the couch, while you’re out of for a run, sitting on the toilet, or preparing dinner, making you tremble as it catches you in its net and drags you under before fading and you can struggle up for air.
     Even faded, that past has weight. Each moment a grain of sand, which compresses into a slab of sandstone you carry until it, too, fades by weathering away back into sand and then dust. We carve our lives into these tablets, hoping to avoid fading, hoping some future soul will pick it up and dust it off, hoping we’ll be able to finish our lines in time.
     Over time, the shape of the land changes and what was once an ocean floor becomes a mountain and the mountain becomes the ocean floor, lifted by fire and then run down by water. And the animals and the vegetables and the minerals change and require twenty questions to identify, and one day we may join them in that game, if we’re lucky.
     But that’s okay. Uncountable stars, planets, galaxies, black holes, quasars, and other stuff we don’t know about yet have been born and then been fading away across the universe for billions of years and we don’t even know for certain if there are other creatures out there that have faded or will fade on those rocks or in those oceans. It’s just the nature of things. I have my suspicions though. Until and beyond when we know or never know, our fadings will ring the celestial spheres until none are left to hear.
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The journey

Upon the plane we cross
With nowhere else to go
Helped by icy stares
And cold indifference too
White-hot we travel
Borealis our guide
To find a darkened spot
And rest awhile to wait
For Spring’s faint dawn
And to fight the lights
That beckon us away
To see the ocean orb
From far away up close
And travel the gap’s mighty gulf
To beyond, where stars and beauty slumber
Eternally, until the last grain falls
And naught will be naught
But heaven’s final mote
Right now we hold on tight
And spin upon the Earth
Our time will come
The clock will stop
‘Til then we watch the stars
The cradles of the next
And listen to the joy of children
Happy in their homes

Narcoleptic Dream

Enameled azure sky domes.
Layer upon layer upon layer upon layer upon layer of now red deathly ocean rain rest in cresting crystal seas of dust.

A terminal parabola falls, talons poised.
Life turns to death turns to life turns to shit falling in writhing, turbulent, splattering globules to nurture cloying, purple, nighttime cactus blooms.

Fritz

I don’t remember what made me climb the wooden fence. It might have been the squeal of tires or my friend who remarked that it sounded like something had been hit. No matter, it was worth investigating.

We scrambled over, our tennis shoes wedged between the lichen-covered slats for footholds as we grasped the top rail and sat upon it for a moment to survey the scene before descending into the tall, uncut grass on the other side. A footpath meandered through the grass then, worn to packed dirt by my own and others’ feet on our way to and from school. An overgrown drainage ditch fringed the two-lane road. Every few years the Department of Works would come with a backhoe and scoop out the various grasses and weeds that rooted there.

On this brilliant summer day, the grass stems swayed in the breeze, the Alder leaves rustled, and the woods across the street, fringed by laden blackberry runners, was a riot of green and birdsong that could be heard over the occasional car that passed.

A car slowly accelerated off over the small hill and disappeared out of our view. Tracing its path back, we both spotted a bloody line on the road a few dozen feet away.

“Let’s go see what got hit!” my friend excitedly said.

“OK!”

Hopping down, I hoped my hay-fever wouldn’t attack me during the short journey across the verge. We hopped the ditch and sandy gravel crunched under our sneakers as we crossed the asphalt shoulder. It was just past lunchtime and traffic was light, so we ventured a straight line towards our goal instead of across and down.

Coming closer, we could see where crimson was already turning to match the color of the berries on the vine. There was a large splotch where the unfortunate animal had landed. A straight, perpendicular red line led from its first resting spot to its current one, now hidden from view in a small grass bower beyond the shoulder. The driver must have drug it there, out of sight.

Upon surveying the bloody scene, our resolve dissolved slightly. We looked to each other for support, maybe permission, to disturb the poor creature’s rest. We nodded to each other and waded in, parting the grass.

Lying there, prone with a small bloody pool about its head founted from his mouth, was my cat, Fritz.

Shocked, I reached out for him, but then held back, terrified to touch the truth. I overcame my fear and stroked his fur. He was still warm, but he was dead.

“Is that your cat?” my friend asked.

I nodded mutely as tears began to stream down my face.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He looked at a loss. “Is there anything I can do?”

I shook my head.

“Um, I’m going to go…is that OK?”

A car honked at us as it went past. I nodded.

“Uh, bye. Sorry again.” He walked up the road towards his home.

I wanted to pick Fritz up and take him home, but was repulsed by the now congealing blood. I thought about getting some garden gloves. But how to get him over the fence? Throw him? The thought horrified me.

Through a miasma of grief and shame, I found my way back across the road and over the fence. A few minutes later, I was picking Fritz up in my gloved hands and placing him in a brown paper grocery bag. He was stiffening, and his tail stuck awkwardly out of the end of the bag.

My grip on the bag wasn’t so good and it tore open in the middle of the road. The yawning loss I had been working to keep at bay also rent then and there. I wailed in huge choking sobs at my loss, now resting at my feet across the center line. I held the torn bag like some sort of bloody flag after a battle where my comrades died and defied the world to find a way to assuage the pain.

Crushing sadness enveloped me as I bent to gently pick Fritz up and place him back in the paper, with legs protruding askew. I must have been a sight, all tears and snot, shuddering as I walked home the long way with my dead cat borne before me wrapped like some grotesque package.

Home again, I laid him to rest in the back yard beneath the cherry tree that blossomed like snow in the spring. That was the last thing the two of us did together, alone on separate sides of the world.

The Window

I was an hour late to my grandfather’s death and fifteen minutes early to Milton’s, and the juxtaposition still pisses me off.

Milton, an elderly man, lived down the hall from me and my roommate in an apartment complex that used to be condominiums. He was clearly one of the former owners, because he was old. Before the I-90 trench was cut across Mercer Island, there used to be three buildings and a pool. Now it’s two and no pool.

When Horace and I lived there, it was a mix of aging holdouts, college students, and laborers on the gigantic public works project that consumed the third structure. The on-site property manager hated dealing with us because we were always unfailingly polite, paid our rent on time, and generated a constant stream of complaints due to loud music and our jalopies that leaked oil, had profanity spray-painted on them, and were constantly taking up two spaces as we had them in various states of dis- and assembly with parts spread everywhere.

Milton’s wife had become friendly with one of the work gang whose apartment was next to ours. Horace and I never saw or met him. We slept in too late to ever see hear or see him go to work and we were far too busy drinking and getting high in the evenings to meet any of our neighbors.

We did have friends that lived in the other building, Stan and Oliver. The few times Horace and I ventured out for social calls, it was usually to drink, get high, and play poker and video games at Stan and Oliver’s. Stan owned a Nintendo 64, and we would take turns playing cooperative Contra, drinking at the defeat of each boss level.

When Milton’s wife knocked on our door, we were busy putting the bong together for a poker game later at Stan and Oliver’s. I expected Stan, but was surprised when I peeped through the peephole and saw her. I opened the door. She was clearly agitated and looked uncomfortable, wringing her hands and shuffling her feet on the dark brown, berber carpet.

“Walter isn’t here. Can you come help Milton?” she asked.

“Uh…” I looked away, “Horace, we need to go help Milton.”

A closet divided the entranceway from the kitchen. I heard him put the bong down in the sink.

“Who? Is that Stan?” he asked jokingly.

“Milton. This lady needs our help.”

He rounded the corner, drying his hands.

“Oh. Uh, sure.” He looked confused. “We don’t have to be anywhere right now.”

We followed her out into the hallway and our door shut with a click behind us. The widely-spaced and dim lights encased in textured, light amber glass fixtures cast a yellowish pallor on the hallway, and the popcorn ceiling had flecks of glitter that twinkled as we shuffled to her ajar door.

“Milton fell down, and we can’t get him up.”

“We?” I thought to myself and arched an eyebrow at Horace as he looked at me sidelong.

The apartment was a mirror image of ours, which caused me to immediately feel out of place but comfortable at the same time. A middle-aged woman stood in the tidy living room. She looked distraught and on the verge of tears.

“Over there, over there. He’s over there,” she motioned and pointed to the hallway towards the bedrooms and bathroom.

We stepped forward to look and Milton was revealed to be laying face-up in the middle of the hallway in front of the bathroom door. His ample rounding was wrapped in a brownish bathrobe, leather slippers were on his feet, and his eyes were behind circular glasses. His grey and black hair was neatly combed back from his forehead and his arms were crossed on his chest.

Except for his wheezing, slight tremble, and profuse sweating, he looked like he had just cleaned himself up and decided to take a quick lay-down and stare at the ceiling.

“What the…” I heard Horace say.

“Fuck,” I completed in my mind.

“Dad fell down and we’re not strong enough to move him,” the middle-aged woman said.

“Er, where would you like us to move him?” Horace asked.

“The bedroom, please. The bed.”

His wife had sat down on the embroidered couch and was starting off into space.

“Um, okay,” Horace replied.

We moved and stood over him for a brief moment, then kneeled down on either side of him. His eyes were hazy and had a far-off look to them. Closer, his wheezing was more pronounced and it sounded like he had wet hair in his throat he was forcing air through.

“Milton?” Horace asked.

No response.

“Milton! We’re going to pick you up and put you on the bed! Okay?” Horace shouted into his face.

His head moved almost imperceptibly and his breathing changed cadence.

Horace looked up at the daughter, “You should call a doctor or the medics.”

“We have,” she replied through tears.

“Grab his armpit,” Horace told me. I did.

Our first attempt was a failure. The fucker was heavier than we expected and we nearly dropped him.

“Let’s try that again,” I said. Horace nodded.

“Okay, Milton! One more time!” The wheezing changed again.

Grunting in effort, we heaved his sweaty, bloated mass up, and with heels dragging, took him to the side of the made bed and unceremoniously plopped his upper body down on top of it perpendicularly with legs dangling. Our second effort was to rotate him into place, and this was accomplished with another shouted alert and mini-struggle.

Milton was finally situated, and our wheezes joined his as we caught our breath. Horace and I had a chance to regard him a little more closely from both sides of the bed.

“He really doesn’t look so good,” I observed. “He’s pretty pale.”

We both leaned over to study his face.

“Hey! Milton! Are you okay?!” Horace shouted.

Milton’s lips trembled like he was trying to say something, but no sound came out except for a deeper wheeze.

Puzzled, we didn’t know what to think. We peered at him questioningly.

“Hey, Milton, are you okay?!” I shouted at him.

His lips moved a little bit again.

“Now what?” I asked.

“Thank you. You can go now.”

Startled, we both snapped up. Neither one of us had noticed his wife quietly enter the room.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, he really doesn’t look so good…” Horace offered.

“It’s okay. Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.” Her face was a calm mask.

“Uh, alright.” Horace said. He leaned over Milton, “Bye, Milton! Take care!”

I gave a friendly wave in front of his face.

“Um…good luck?” I offered to the wife on our way out. She nodded.

The daughter was on the phone in the living room, talking quietly on the phone with tears streaming down her face. She waved to us and mouthed, “Thank you,” as we let ourselves out and shut the door behind us.

We walked to our place in silence.

Back in our apartment, I asked, “What the fuck was that?”

“Why the fuck did you open the door?” Horace asked me pointedly. “That was a clusterfuck.”

“I dunno!” I said defensively. “I thought maybe she needed some furniture moved or something.”

“He was dying, dude! That poor bastard’s last few minutes on Earth were us manhandling him up onto his bed and hovering over him like dumbshits asking him if he was okay.”

Milton’s dying lights slowly dawned on me.

“Oh, shit. You’re right.” My eyes went wide.

“Of course I’m right, dickwad. Let’s go. Stan and Oliver are waiting for us.”

We gathered the bong, bud, and beer into a bag and headed over to the other building. The sun had just set on one of those brilliant Spring days in Seattle. The air was clear and clean.

In the circular driveway in front of the buildings was a Medic One unit and a small fire truck. The men were standing around, talking quietly. They were in no hurry.

“Excuse me,” Horace asked one of the paramedics, interrupting their conversation, “How’s Milton?”

“He didn’t make it.”

“Oh.”

There were a silent few beats for the deceased, and then the paramedic pricked up. “Hey, how did you know it was him?”

Horace, a master at oiling squeaky authorities, replied without missing a beat, “He was the oldest and sickest in the building.”

He squinted at us and looked about to ask another question, but was deflected by a question from one of the firemen. We retreated without taking our leave into the secure building.

“What the fuck took you two assholes so long?” Oliver asked us as he let us in.

“We were in no hurry, and we had to stop to help a dying man,” Horace retorted.

This was very different from when my grandfather died. He was already dead before I left, but I wanted to beat the undertakers. I was in a hurry to see him, and things that normally were of no concern became a matter of death.

I was at my desk at Starbucks eating lunch when the call came. It was my mother. I was not expecting to receive the news from her, but from the nursing home.

I had left instructions with every nurse and nursing supervisor I met there to call me when he looked terminal. I told my mother the same thing in case the nursing home fucked up and missed me. I wanted to be there for him.

In the end, they both fucked up as far as I was concerned. The nursing home never called me because I wasn’t immediate next-of-kin and my mother only called me after she managed to pull herself out of her depression-induced inaction after the nursing home called her the second time to tell her he had just died.

The news of her father’s death must have dislodged something, because then she finally called me.

And I sat there after hanging up the phone, hot tears dripping down into my cold bean and cheese burrito with sour cream, thinking about how fucked up it was that people who I thought I could count on blew me off through indifference, silly rules, and sheer incompetence and had cheated me out being there for someone who had often been there for me.

I hung up. She might have still been talking, explaining why she didn’t call earlier.

My grief ignited into passionate anger at the chickenshittyness of it all and I resolved to see him one last time before he was taken from my sight forever.

I gathered my things and prepared myself for the journey northward on I-5 to Lynnwood, mumbling to my boss that I had to leave. I didn’t wait for her acknowledgement.

Racing to the elevator, I hated the people meandering about with their coffee cups leisurely strolling about the office. They were obstacles to weave around.

The elevator pissed me off with its lackadaisical of appearance and then I wanted to break the fingers of and then strangle every person who pushed a button for a stop on the way down.

I cursed the hike to my car in the hinterlands of the industrial district because I couldn’t afford parking closer in and I railed at the fuckedupedness of traffic jams at 2 PM on a Tuesday.

There was an inexhaustible supply of fuel at the human injustice of being chained to a job that only barely paid enough to keep me off the street and that only paid bereavement but not death watch.

What type of system is it that forces us to decide between our jobs and staying separate or ministering to our loved ones during their ultimate, soulful need? We’re supposed to think that being released to attend to their vacant meat is compassion?

My burrito must have been filled with shit for how that tasted.

And then, and then, rushing in to the now-familiar sour, antiseptic piss smell of the nursing home, nearly knocking elderly aside, imaging the tennis balls on their walkers being knocked off and bouncing down the overly polished linoleum hall, to be too late.

A quiet, empty room. An empty bed, sheets removed. My heritage, gone.

The anger, now sublimated into yawning, despaired failure, propelled me towards a grasping attempt to subvert and deny reality, and filled me with false hope that he was just somewhere else where I might visit with him and fulfill the final duty I had given myself.

“Where is Donald?” I ask at the nurse’s station.

“Who?”

“Donald. Room 136. I’m his grandson. I heard he died. I want to see him.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Hang on a sec.” She picks up the phone.

“Apples! Apples!” Cries a crone sitting in a plastic-covered chair behind me who I didn’t nitoce before. She smells of piss and looks like Yoda. She smiles a toothless grin at me.

My grandfather’s words come back to me, “There aren’t many men here, so I’m pretty popular with the ladies, you know. Some of the nurses are pretty naughty also.”

“Burton’s has already collected him.”

I’m blissfully shaken out of reviewing geriatric sex lives, “I’m sorry, what?”

“Burton’s has already collected him, but they haven’t left the premises. They’re down at the end of this hall and out the doors into the parking lot. You can probably catch them before they leave.”

“Thank you,” I replied numbly. I start down the hallway.

“Apples! Apples!”

I stop at his door and look in. I look down the hallway. I didn’t want my last vision of him to be in a bag in the back of a truck and decide to sit down in his room instead. It smells faintly like shit.

A mop bucket attached to a janitor appears and stops when the janitor sees me. “Oh, sorry man,” he says as the bucket leads him away.

A nurse enters next.

“I’m Janna, I was here when he died. I’m very sorry for your loss,” she says. I’ve never seen or met her before.

“Was it just you?”

“Oh no. There’s always several of us when family can’t be here. There’s almost aways time to gather others. There was another nurse and some of the housekeeping staff. It was very peaceful.”

“…when family can’t be here…almost always time…” roil through my head like thunder and I think about all the other times my family dropped me when I thought I’d be caught.

Right then and there, after thirty five years, I finally learned the lesson that I couldn’t count on them for shit, and that that was my legacy.

“Thank you.”

“There’s no rush to pack up the room. We understand. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No. Thank you.”

She nodded, and was gone.

To this day, I don’t know if she was feeding me bullshit to make me feel better.

I’ll never know.

Enduring Memories

My sister-in-law’s husband’s mother died last night, not unexpectedly.

I only met her once at a wedding, but I’ll likely never forget the day. It was one of those crystal-blue days last summer when the mountains were out and I had the honor of marrying my sister-in-law to this woman’s son on the shores of a sparkling Puget Sound. It also happened to be my birthday and my two-year-old son fell out of a beached rowboat onto rocks near the waterline at some distance from me and began screaming, prompting me to race across the cantelope-sized, slick, green, round seaweed-covered stones deposited in the last ice age. In my haste, I slipped, painfully jamming  a toe between rocks and began to arc downward. Fearing having my face smashed in by the combination of gravity and polished, slimy glacial till, I semi-consciously performed a somersault at the cost of a fractured rib, bruised shoulder and skinned right shin. My heart pumping with adrenaline,  I come upon my sandy, damp, and shaken son, none too worse for wear.

She was a sweet, kindly lady generally experiencing one of the cruelest ravages of old age but was apparently having a more lucid day, and I chatted with her briefly about her family and the Northwest after the service over fruit. I spied her husband at one point watching her with one of those longing looks that only those truly in love have. I last saw her sitting in her chair overlooking the Sound, talking with family.

It was a good day.

The news of her death made me think of my maternal grandfather’s death. I was working a contract job at Starbucks headquarters, sitting in an open cube eating my homemade bean and cheese burrito with sour cream when I got the call from my mother. I sat at the end of the aisle towards the interior of the building next to a busy hallway almost constantly populated with highly caffeinated, generally chirpy people. It wasn’t exactly the place you’d want to be with tears running down your face into your lunch.

I was mourning, but I was also angry and relieved. I was angry at death in general and my mother in specific, and relieved that a once-vibrant man whose light had dimmed significantly in the past year or two was now beyond worrying about his impending end. But I was mostly angry.

Angry that I wasn’t there for him. Angry that I wasn’t told he was that close to death. Angry that he left in the company of strangers instead of with family.

Angrily hanging up the phone, I took my leave and raced north on Interstate 5 to Lynnwood, risking a speeding ticket, hoping to see him before he was collected.

I was five minutes too late. His room was empty.

Chasing down a nurse, I learned the staff of the funeral parlor hadn’t yet left and I briefly considered finding them and asking to see him, but I felt that would be too maudlin and in the end, pointless. He was already gone before I ever left to see him.

It was a bad day.