I have been thinking about death and the order of it, primarily how natural it is for someone to lose a grandparent. And how unnatural it is the other way around.
But what about when the order just gets a little jumbled? Like when a parent goes before or at the same time as a grandparent? How are you supposed to feel then?
My husband leaves for the hospital again as the kids play.
'Where is daddy going?' Kaiya asks nonchalantly. CJ answers, in between making rocket sounds for his gun, 'oh, to the hospital. His dad is dying.'
The words hang in the air like Nerf darts from a gun losing its steam. A few minutes later, and it was like you could hear the wheels turning in his little head, out spits this: 'mom and dad are going to die one day.' I nod, and make a comment to the affect of it being a long ways away.
Then I remembered being about five and up in my parents' room sobbing that they were going to die. Dad stroked my hair and told me it was going to be a long time from now. Thirty years later I am saying the same thing to my son, who is not dramatically crying but making sputtering rocket sounds. Part of me wants to insert myself into the moment, have there be more drama for some reason, but I gag the little pig-tailed girl and put her back in the closet.
His acceptance of death will simply not be mine. Plus, my role in the moment is parent this time and not child. It's silly how often I have to remind myself of such things. I guess everyone else just grows up with more grace, for it feels I am forever screaming and stamping my foot: 'but I'M the baby!'
Six months later I see my father-in-law's face smiling back at me on Facebook. A happy note underneath it: 'done with chemo!' It still startles me each time when I pray that prayer works. You would think that each and every time you fire off a loaded gun you would remember that's how it works- never will 'nothing' happen when there is one in the chamber, but it's hard to remember when the bullets aren't always visible.
A few days later I'm up looking at Facebook again, checking on the status of a friend's father. I had just learned that he had cancer and had just started to load my prayer gun. Then, instead of seeing if there was more information on how to pray I see instead that I need to pray for her. For he died. Just like that. At fifty freaking six.
My soul screamed out: 'BUT HE WAS THE YOUNG PARENT!!!'
I still remember the distinct feeling of jealousy the first time I went to her house and met her parents. I stared at their young faces smiling back at me and I mentally calculated that most likely they would outlast all the other parents. Most. Likely. The older you get the more you realize there just aren't as many most likelys as one originally hoped for.
"My mom was telling me that you reach an age where you start seeing old friends at funerals instead of at weddings," my friend said cheerfully as she straightened the bottom of her shirt. My mind mentally shut the door on that statement the first time she said it like it was a salesman in a cheep green suit and I couldn't even be bothered to utter: 'not interested.' No. Just no. I'm not old enough for that stage of life. Nope.
Later, as we drive around the hometown where we were girls together and talk about the stupid things we did and how it's a wonder that we survived, the sentiment gets said again. We keep uttering things like: I'm just not ready for that.
It was easy to slip back to thinking I was fifteen again with this friend. "What should we do?" She asks when we find the funeral house and see we are ridiculously early. "Wanna go to the mall?" Turning towards me excitedly with a knowing grin. It's a small town. There are basically three legal, and safe, things to do and they are: go to the mall, go to the coffee shop or go to Wal-Mart. Usually we would go to one of the first two. Sometimes we would get crazy and go to the mall and then the coffee shop.
As we walk in we notice the changes and search like its a treasure hunt for the things that stayed the same. We also notice how small it all is. The mall didn't get smaller of course, we got bigger. We just don't 'fit' in this narrative anymore. Like hobbits coming back from a grand adventure to a quiet town that has no use for adventurous hobbits.
After making a lap around the mall we realize it's time to go and make our way back to the funeral house. The parking lot is two-thirds full already and we shuffle inside. My friend whose father has died and I had swapped messages about looking through photos and performing the arduous task of piling them up into pretty displays for the service. "Hard" was the word she used and it sticks in my throat with a lump of emotion around it. How do you, in your mid thirties, look through photos of your father to try and 'capture' the essence of his life?
My mind went to the year prior when I had done the task for my grandmother's funeral. How I tried to make them spread across her whole life and capture as much of it as possible. How two-dimensional colors can't even begin to capture the first glimpse of a four-dimensional soul. I smile at the photos they chose and wonder which ones she had picked out and what memories they stirred up in her.
We shuffle into the pew, and my friend mutters again that this must be so hard for our friend. Who is now greeting the row in front of us, a smile beaming from every atom of her being. It is her best quality, her smiles literally give joy where there was none before. I nudge the friend next to me and point to the friend in front who is warmly greeting each person, "just have her help you- look how good she is at this!" Then I pause, for some reason feeling a need to make sure she knows I want to help when it's time but I can't in the friendly-greeting way: "and let me be the bouncer guarding the door."
The speaker starts and at one point he touches on how some may be feeling angry at how unfair it is and out of place since he was still young. Time is a funny thing though, for when I was my daughter's age fifty-six seemed ancient. People used to live for hundreds of years, and I imagine back then ninety seemed too young.
The truth was, it is too young. He is the first parent from our little group to die and we, in our thirties, are too young for it.
But we are trying to write the adventure part of the story when we are still happily in the Shire. You see, the hobbits didn't start out adventurous heroes, they ended that way. You can't be mad at yourself for not growing when you are growing still, it just does no good to think you aren't ready for something that you don't need to be ready for yet anyway. And maybe, losing a parent, isn't something you can ever really be ready for.
We are packing up to get in the car and drive back home to Texas. It feels like something is missing and I realize that something is. My friend's dad. The young dad who always had archery stuff out and still smiled and goofed off with his kids even after a long day of work.
One of my best memories of him was from New Year's Eve about twenty years ago. I was spending the night at her house that night and she winked at me with her trademark big smile beaming and said: "your in for a treat! You get to see how our family brings in the new year!" As if on cue her dad came out holding two pots and started banging them together like he was a little toy teddy bear with cymbals and all he ever does is bang, bang, bang.
My friend produced a pot and spoon from thin air and handed them to me as she danced off merrily through the yard behind her dad banging pots. I smiled, grabbed the pot, and banged away. I joined the train of them, all led by my friend's father, as we circled around their yard making the most awful racket I had ever heard.
Part of me wonders if that was his greeting. If there was a little band of angels set up with pots pulled from random drawers in heaven, and when he showed up one handed him a pot and a spoon. If that grin of his that didn't change from the time he was a boy until he died spread across his face and off he set, making a wonderful racket. We think the story ends with death, but in truth, it was when the hobbits just finally break free of the last barrier of the Shire and that they set out on their grand adventure.
So, no, we aren't ready yet to start burying our parents. We want to still be young and have weddings be the occasions for seeing each other. But time only marches forward. No longer are we the kids flopped on the bed despairing at the first mental grasp of the finality of death. Now we are their parents, gently patting their backs and saying "it will be all right, little one." Next we will be patting our parents' hands, telling them the same, as we pray they go mercifully in their sleep and with no more suffering. Right now though, where we are in the blessed middle, is freaking awesome. And it's exactly where we are supposed to be.