This week I’m celebrating Joe’s birthday even though he’s no longer around to celebrate with me. Also, death reared its ugly head again recently and even though I can’t yet write about cancer taking a twelve-year-old girl who was not supposed to die, I can share about these.
My friend Joe died suddenly on a beautiful sunny summer afternoon. I got word a few hours later while Chris and I were downtown on a date. We were finishing up dinner when I received the text; I thought it was a joke–that would have been such a Joe thing to do–but I was wrong.
I called his cell phone within minutes of hearing the news. I was confident this was a mistake. I stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and let Joe’s phone ring and ring as Chris paid our bill. I knew it was only a matter of time before he answered and yelled “Psych!” at me just like he did with all our students.
He never answered. I fought the urge to keep calling.
I still have his text messages on my phone. I read them over and over thinking this must be a dream. Big, strong, helpful Joe can’t die in a car accident. He drives like an old man for goodness sake, there is no way he would go out in a car accident.
But he did.
The morning after the crash, it was raining and I got on my bike to try to out-ride the pain. I raced around our town going too fast, slipping and sliding through the streets. Music pumping loudly through my earbuds, I wanted to escape my skin but couldn’t figure out how. My helmet was funneling rain into my eyes and it melded with my tears. Eventually I pulled over at the middle school track by our house, it was too dangerous to keep riding in the rain unable to see. I was exhausted from a sleepless night but needed to push myself physically. I needed to feel pain or discomfort or relief–anything that would ease the brokenness I felt inside.
I ran laps around the track, sobbing in the rain. I think I might have taken the first lap with my helmet on, I was so out of it and distracted by loss. I couldn’t feel my legs by the time I was done, I couldn’t feel anything, and that’s what I wanted. I was overwhelmed with grief and didn’t want to feel anything anymore. I needed a reprieve from the emptiness and exhaust I felt. The burning in my throat, the stingy, swollen eyes, I needed to look as devastated on the outside as I felt on the inside.
Losing Joe hurt too much to bear.
I didn’t know how to make it stop. I wasn’t equipped for suffering and loss. I couldn’t comprehend it and just kept repeating “I can’t believe he’s gone” like a mantra that would–hopefully–eventually–sink in.
That weekend was a blur. I felt too drained to feel more, I couldn’t call Joe’s wife–now a widow–or reach out to help the family. I was covered in grief and sadness, sick with pain. I didn’t hate God, but I was very worried that he had gotten it wrong, that this wasn’t supposed to happen. This had been a mistake. It was a quiet weekend between God and I. I was giving him the silent treatment, too shook up to ask for help or to cry out, too drained of emotion to know what to say.
Sunday afternoon found me sitting in my office staring at a blank computer screen. I didn’t have words, there was still nothing to say, but I felt some comfort in just sitting at my desk, numbly waiting for this to all be magically fixed. Then my phone rang. On the other end was my sister frantically telling me something had happened to Grandpa, she was on her way to a restaurant, and Grandpa had died there.
I didn’t have enough left inside to get upset, I couldn’t find worry or tears or heartbreak because I was still too deep in mess to go get more. So I grabbed my purse and head out the door, deciding instead to go to the restaurant and fix whatever was wrong. This, after Joe, this couldn’t be real. I just needed to talk to someone and get this all straightened out. I am an oldest child, a type-A personality, a boss through and through. I could right this if I could just get to my grandpa.
When I arrived at the restaurant, I was shocked to see it wasn’t closed down, I could waltz right in and order a fried chicken dinner if I so pleased. I found my grandma sitting in the lobby, holding my grandpa’s hat and cane. Other family members were there or arriving, hurrying to fix things that couldn’t be fixed.
My grandpa’s body lie next to a booth covered in a white sheet, bloated from unsuccessful resuscitation attempts with his colorful, youthful Saucony tennis shoes peeking out. The restaurant bustled on around him, operating with a closed section but not respecting the loss of life that had happened as people ordered deep-fried onions and steaks. The chaos and confusion of a busy restaurant mixed with the devastation of my grandfather’s death felt like too much. I couldn’t decide whether to scream at the customers enjoying a meal with their families, completely ignoring the sudden death in the next section, or to join my dad as he stood guard over his father’s limp body.
I remember wondering if “death of a patron” was covered in their employee training manuals and if this was the correct way to handle it. I felt like someone should tell everyone to go home, this was more important than how much money they made that day, more important than getting a meal after church. I imagined the manager grabbing his handbook and turning to the “death” tab, coming up blank, and then just doing nothing. I hated that people were gawking at my family as they grieved. I found it offensive that their response was no response.
The coroner had to come and pronounce him dead before they could move the body. This seemed to take days, people continued to be seated, cheered on their favorite sports team from the bar, and asked to speak to a manager because their steak was overcooked while we stood sentry over our fallen patriarch.
There was nothing I could do to fix this, no negotiating or deal-making. Death doesn’t listen to our pleas, no matter how loud and sincere they are. Death ignores our pain, our shock and outrage. He was gone and I had to suffer through this moment and all the ones to follow. I had to watch as the paramedics finally received the okay to move him and wheeled his body out of the restaurant.
I believe wholeheartedly in the promise that our last minute on earth is followed by our first minute in Jesus’ arms. There was no more suffering for my grandfather who had struggled the past few years to be as physically independent as he once was. My ears hear that truth and my head agrees with it. But in those moments, I felt nothing in my heart. There was no comfort, no peace, no hope this would get better.
All I had was utter despair and pain, but I didn’t feel abandoned.
I didn’t feel anything.
I was completely void of emotion–there was nothing left to feel hurt or happy, suffer or recognize joy. I was a shell, just like my grandpa under the cold, white sheet.
In the days that followed, feeling came back slowly. I started to feel the loss, but it was too much, it overwhelmed me, and I wished again and again for the emptiness to return. It felt good to not feel anything. I lived waiting for the other shoe to drop, for another death to hit me hard enough that I wouldn’t have to get back up again. I obsessed over the theory that deaths always happen in threes–three celebrities die, three loved ones die, death in threes. I knew the third death was coming so I tried to beat it to the punch, to get back to the feeling of being completely numb so it couldn’t crush me again. I would empty myself before it could empty me.
I waited weeks then months before I could exhale safely. Those deaths became a tension in my neck, a knot in my back, that helped me remember what I had lost. It made me live differently; it made me more cautious, more vulnerable, more raw. I remembered everything and not enough. I needed to alter myself so I could carry Joe and my grandpa with me, even if it killed me. I couldn’t figure out how to love them in death the way I had loved them in life. I was still fighting their deaths like I had a chance of changing them, like I was in control of anything.
I had lived most of my life in a bubble, avoiding loss and death through luck and circumstance. My friends didn’t die, we were young and just starting to live. My parents didn’t die, they were healthy and busy. My grandparents didn’t die, they were constant and strong. We were all evading death, ignoring the inevitable. And then it found us–it found me–and it exposed too much of my insides. It made life too real in a way I couldn’t handle. I was battered and bruised to the fullest extent, and it felt everlasting.
That’s my biggest complaint against death: it shifts the ground under you. You can’t return to a time before it, there is no rewind, no “back to normal.” It tears you up, scars you, and tells you to find a new way to live your life when you were ignorantly happy and content with the way you were.