TW: This story is about death and dying
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t familiar with the concept of death. I wonder if my parents ever needed to explain it to me. I remember vividly when they explained where babies came from, but I don’t remember them ever talking to me about death. The first time I remember someone I know dying, I was twelve. No, maybe before that. Actually, I don’t remember how old I was. I remember what I heard happened to her. I’d spoken with her once or twice. I barely remember what she looked like. I remember her name – Lily. I remember hearing that she’d been playing Russian roulette and thinking that it was a stupid game and wondering why anyone would ever play it. I think she was a few years older than me. Then after Lily, there was Tina. She came over to my house once. She was twelve. I think I was fifteen. I don’t remember much about Tina either. She was a friend of a friend of my sister’s. She died in a four-wheeler accident. I remember, after that, Dad lecturing us all about the dangers of such contraptions and telling us never to use one.
I remember when my paternal grandmother died because my dad sent flowers. They were estranged, but he still wanted to do something. I remember how he and his siblings fought over her estate which I found to be a little morbid. I thought it was stupid fighting over stuff when there was a person who’d just died. I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t cry when she died. I just knew.
It was a while after that before someone else I knew died. The next was a young boy named Adam. Adam was 20, which was the same age as my younger brother. I went to his funeral. It was the first time I remember going to a funeral. Adam died in a motorcycle accident because someone turning left didn’t see his cycle coming down the road. It was stupid. It was a stupid reason for someone to die and he was too young. Just like Lily. Just like Tina. They were all too young.
Then an ex-co-worker was murdered. He was 24. His name was Dallas. I remember that he was thin and tall. We didn’t talk much when we worked together. I heard that the person that killed him also robbed him, but he only had 12 dollars. He was murdered for 12 dollars. It was a stupid reason to die. He, also, was too young. People weren’t supposed to die until they were old. They were supposed to have grown children who argued about their estate after they passed. They weren’t supposed to be in accidents, or play Russian roulette, or get murdered.
But if people got old enough, sometimes they weren’t themselves anymore. Like my grandpa. My grandpa died years after he got Alzheimer’s. He didn’t even remember us, but that didn’t really bother me. I didn’t like my grandpa much before he got the disease. He was mean to everyone except Granny. And Granny was the one who took care of him when he got sick. She was just that type of person. She wouldn’t have given him over to a nursing home for the world. Incidentally, Granny died in a nursing home. You might not remember her. She died the year after you got sick.
The first of the kids in your hospital wing that died was Mikey. I remember Mikey’s momma. She cried on my shoulder about how scared she was. She told me she was amazed at how well I was handling it. But she couldn’t know that I wasn’t sleeping, and I felt like my whole world was falling apart. I felt closer to death than I ever had before. I remember the parent support group that I went to. All these people sharing their own fears and struggles. They said I was a rock. Nothing phased me. Even your father was amazed at how well I handled it. He was a mess. Every time he came to see you, he cried. He couldn’t stand to see you withering away, a tube down your nose, wires everywhere.
I remember seeing pictures of cancer kids when I was younger, but I never understood until I saw you. All your hair was gone, even your eyebrows. And the rash – the doctors said it was normal, but it didn’t look normal. It looked painful. Graft versus host disease. That was the cause of the rash. When the cells they transplanted fought with your immune system. That was also the reason a lot of people died after the transplant. The closer the match, the less severe the disease would be. And the chemo they gave you would suppress your immune system enough. Worst case the GVHD would attack your organs and they would shut down. That rash was proof that it could happen. Death was waiting by your bedside.
I’ve always known about death. It has found a way to announce its presence to me so many times over the years. I’ve even wondered what it would be like to meet it, but until you were hooked up to those machines, fighting to keep it from taking you, I never really knew how scary it was. It was stupid. It didn’t care who it took, or how old they were, or how many friends they had. Death was immutable. I couldn’t stop it and there it stood, hovering over your bedside.
When we visited with the psychiatrist about your mental health, and you said you wondered why it hadn’t taken you then. That sometimes you wish it had. It broke my heart. I thought about the deal I made and wondered if it was the right choice. I would have done anything back then.
You pulled through. But death is never far away. Every time you get sick, every choice you make, he’s there. And he keeps taking people I know as if to remind me. He’s there, waiting, watching. Someday he’ll take me too. But I’m not scared of that. I’m more afraid he’ll take you first.