Can I stay with you a while
‘Cause this road’s been putting miles on my heart, sweetheart…
But one day lightning will strike
And my bark will lose its bite
But don’t give up on me,
From Sweet Annie by Zac Brown Band
An occupational hazard of my job is that the people I see every day are more likely to die than a lot of the rest of the population. Today was a first for me: the first time a resident died since I began working there. It was entirely unexpected. One minute, she was on the phone, and the next, gone.
I love my residents. I love the blind man who sits in the hall and makes silly little comments during bingo or Jeopardy. I love the smart-assed little ladies who make slightly inappropriate jokes when they think no one is listening. I love the old eastern European woman who smiles all day.
Selfishly, I love that I work with a bunch of people who cheer me up and cheer me on. They compliment me on a good hair day, ask about my dad when he is sick, and occasionally tell me I’m doing a good job. Who wouldn’t love that? I love when I have a free handful of minutes and can sit and talk with them. They are good for my soul.
Like most old people, they love to talk. They don’t know it, but they are a constant reminder for me to check my perspective. They remind me to take the time to do the things I love and see the people I love. They remind me to be happy. When I am weary, they are a place to rest.
They also remind me that life is fragile. When my funny Polish lady is missing from morning activities and I stop in and find her weak and resting, sore from a poor, sleepless night, I can’t help but worry a little. Another woman scrunches up her face and looks at me with an odd expression as she pushes a walker that she didn’t need until she had a “small stroke” a couple weeks ago, making my heart break a little.
And then there are those like A, who went so suddenly today. She is my reminder to smile while I still can, and to try to leave a gentle impression.
Some days split your life into pieces. There is a before and an after.
January 23 is one of those days.
I was a senior in high school and had left my part-time job at the video store for the day to go to my friend Diane’s so that we could work on an English project. The weather was wretched and I wasn’t looking forward to the long, inevitably nasty trek to her house. We stopped back in the store to get a movie to watch and one of my coworkers asked if I had heard about Chris.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“Because he died,” said the punk little 16-year-old behind the counter.
“What? No he didn’t,” I said, not finding him at all amusing.
“Yeah, he did,” he said, and I turned to look at the store manager, who silently nodded.
It seemed impossible. He was only 18. We worked together.
I went to Diane’s, and the night was a blur. The next day, I went to work. When I came home, I crossed the street to my grandmother’s house where my dad and uncle were working on a car. I had no words, so I just walked up to my dad, put my arms around him, and sobbed. Great big heaving sobs, and he didn’t say anything at first. My uncle must have given him a look, because between my sobs, I heard him explain that my friend Chris had been killed in the icy weather the day before, T-boned by a Toronado. When I was done, I went inside, got three cups of coffee, and stood in the garage while we froze and they worked.
He was not my first friend to die, but was the closest, up to that point in my life. In some ways, I feel like my childhood ended that day. The months that followed were not kind: five more friends would die in car accidents, during surgeries, and of health concerns.
Every year since then, January 23 has been hard.
Today, it became even harder. This January 23, a seminary friend passed away.
Admittedly, shamefully, I had lost touch with him and his wife over the years. Had I moved up to Minnesota last June like I “should” have, I would have been near them again. Despite the distance in time and geography, I’m grieving again.
It seems like I am always grieving anymore. I am far too familiar with how almost nothing is permanent. I’ve buried too many friends. Moved away from too many people. Left the church in which I grew up. But the hardest, of course, is grieving the loss of friends who died too young. Peggy, Chris, Rob, Tommy, Becca, Matt, Dan… I could keep going, but it won’t help to list them all.
Of all the papers I wrote in college, one of my favorites was a paper I wrote on the evolution of grief in western civilizations during the Industrial Revolution. To sum it up, when people moved away from their agrarian communities and into cities, the social allowance for grief was practically eliminated. When people lived in small towns and societies where everyone knew everyone, the death of a member of that community was felt by nearly everyone. It was expected that the grieving process would be more than a few days, or weeks, depending on one’s proximity to the deceased. In the cities, however, people came and went, lived and died, without too many others noticing. Those who grieved were expected to do so privately, on their own time, and not let grief get in the way of work.
Today, I was at work when I heard about his death. I was already kind of wigged out trying to learn a massive amount of things in such a short span of time, and then I saw the message from Linda. Just then, my boss entered the office. She wasn’t happy to see my cellphone in my hand, and I just looked up at her, stunned, and said “I just found out a friend died.”
She hardly said anything in return. In fact, despite the fact that I was honestly doing my best, she seemed frustrated that I was a little distracted the rest of my shift. I was trying, honestly… But all I could see was his son’s face. My memories of him are usually of his smile, his laughter. Even though it has been a few years, I felt like I’d just stepped onto a Tilt-a-Whirl, unsteady and discombobulated, and I was expected to act like nothing has happened.
I’ve learned, over the course of too many opportunities, to figure out a grieving process that usually works for me. I have also learned that grief doesn’t go away. It shifts and changes, lessens (and sometimes flares up again), but doesn’t disappear. January 23 will happen every year. Some years, it is sort of a speed bump, when I wrote the date on something and suddenly realize that it has been X years since Chris, and other years, like today, I find myself grieving more deeply. Now, it is for the loss of two, instead of one.