The finches are back. A flitting, chattering flock of tiny green birds appears in the elm outside my office windows at the ragged edge of every summer and stays as long as the camouflage works. As the ground cools and the leaves fade from Pippin Apple Green to Dirty Yellow Ready-To-Drop, there are a few days of Finch Match. I still can’t fathom how bending light changes color or, for that matter, how light bends. I wonder how the finches time it so perfectly and where they go from here.
Before I had any familiarity with death except as a concept, I thought that good people died good deaths and when it would happen was fairly predictable. The idea probably came from novels. A baby dying was a rare and terrible occurrence; most people who died were old and died of, well, old age. Young men died in wars, young women died of tuberculosis or heartbreak or during childbirth (I was big on the pathos genre). The patchwork of my early religious education, I think, reinforced the idea: if you strive to be a good (rule-following, god-fearing) person, you will be rewarded not only by going to heaven when your life is over, you’ll be more likely to pass through the vale of tears peacefully in your sleep, sort of like getting to open one present on Christmas Eve before the big ta-da the next morning. I shucked off the robe of religion long ago but held onto the romantic illusion for a long time that death was visited, like reward points, on the deserving – or not.
When people I loved began to die, it was in the expected way: one grandparent, then another, then my dad, then my mother, at the ages, respectively, of 92, 88, 73, 76, and of ordinary fatal diseases. I was almost 40 years old – recently married to Mr. Forte, my kid almost in college – when Old Carl the First left us, and was very focused and busy with my work and new family. I’d been a civil lawsuit court reporter for 15 years by then, listening to testimony about grisly injuries and wrongful deaths caused by someone’s negligence (on freeways, in hospitals, in plane crashes). Working in that environment effectively (picture the poker face of a reporter or a judge in a courtroom) is possible only if you distance yourself emotionally from the human beings in the cases: the graphic photographs and witness accounts become a scary movie that ends when the house lights come on. Those people who died sudden, spectacular, before-their-time deaths weren’t my people; their deaths were abstractly terrible.
I imagined that I’d (have to) deal with death when people my own age got old and began dying, and then maybe I’d talk about it (and not much else) like the old codgers that hang around donut shops (like Mr. Forte’s dad used to do) or like Marge and her gossipy ladybird pals at lunch (with wine). I’m 62 and the people I hang out with do yoga and play tennis and take Lipitor, so the Funeral Club at Yum Yum seemed decades away.
Then my brother died four months ago, and I realized that death can and does slip under the healthy skins of the far-too-young, of the careful and smart and kind, of the rule-followers. Of my people. I learned that death’s timing follows no clock or calendar, sun or moon, that it can take you in its awful arms when you’re sick or well, miserable or joyous, when someone hates you or loves you more than life. Those people who died in planes crashing into houses in San Diego or mountains in Burma, who died drowning in backyard pools, by stepping off curbs in front of cars or running off schoolbuses, in labor rooms of hospitals, the details of whose lives I had tap-tapped into my Stenograph and put into words on paper, each was someone’s person, just like Craig was mine. And I got another reminder recently.
My son-in-law Chris has had a great friend since the beginning of high school, a woman named Emily, who was a freshman when he was a sophomore. Chris is 42, so that was 27 years ago. When Chris was just 18, still in high school in New York, and got word from Florida that the father he adored was dead, he hung up the phone and went straight to Emily’s. She sat up with Chris and his agony until the next morning when the sun rose. Emily is calm and wise and good, wry and funny, as authentic as a human can be. She married John back when all the friends were getting married, shortly after Amy married Chris. They all lived in San Francisco then. I remember talking to her beautiful self at the party after Amy and Chris’s temple wedding. She and Jonnie moved to a Boston suburb, had two daughters, who are now seven and four, and lived a grounded, happy life.
A little over a year ago Emily’s father died. Her mother died unexpectedly mere months later while the family was together at a summer house on Flathead Lake in Montana. The winter and spring went by back in Massachusetts, fortunately deathless, Jonnie working and training for thriathlons, swimming at Walden every morning, Emily working, the girls in school. Summer came and they camped with friends at Yosemite in August. A month ago, on Labor Day weekend, Emily’s stepfather fell down a mountain while hiking in Montana, and he died. Three parents, all gone, none left. The family gathered again in the lake house, this time for Ted’s memorial, and stayed for a few extra days before dispersing again to California and Cambridge. The adults swam to a rock outcrop in the bay and the kids splashed in the shallows. Late Friday afternoon Jonnie was making one more lap to the rock while Emily herded wet children in towels inside for a bath.
One of Jonnie’s legs was severed by the boat that hit him 300 feet from shore, and although one of the passengers was a doctor and tried to get a tourniquet on him, he died before they got him to the beach.
I can hear little girls’ laughter echoing in a tiled bathroom, feel warm steam on my temples. I can see myself standing on a wooden deck, my hand on the top rail, watching the little waves slap slap the shore, hear the leaves rustle in the trees about to let summer go by. I can’t see Emily’s face. Maybe it’s because she’s gone home with the girls who will not remember their dad except in stories attached to pictures of him, who are numb to having people disappear from their lives, who understand only that death took their father and left their mother and no one knows why.
I can’t see Emily’s face. Because I see Chris’s face. Because now I know that there is no reason at all why this happened to Jonnie and not to him, not the glare of sunlight on a lake or a distracted taxi driver or a knobby knot of cancer cells, Chris, the man I would have custom-ordered if I had been designing not a son-in-law but a son. And my hands on the deck rail begin to tremble, don’t they, because now I can’t see Jonnie’s face or Chris’s because I see Amy’s face, my heart, my heart.
The beats are seconds apart, slow and drumlike, while I hold this terrible possibility in my mouth and I stand here, blinking and looking at the backs of my hands. This is why I have been so afraid, why I can’t talk anymore about Craig, or yet about Craig, why I left the letters, why I cry at even the idea of writing the rest of his sad, twisted story. It isn’t his face I see. It’s Chris’s or Amy’s or Tom’s or – I can’t even say it – Simone’s. It could be any one of them, alive and brilliant and funny and warm, these people I love, right here with me now but perhaps not by tonight. And then not tomorrow, not any tomorrow.
And it offends this romantic belief I guarded that death is selective, that it doesn’t take good, rule-following people, that accidental, bloody deaths happen to people who are stupid and take risks, who abuse themselves, who shoot guns while drunk, who drive speeding cars, who jump off mountains with flimsy manmade wings. I believed that until it got close to me, until I realized how silly it was to think Death cares a snap how good or careful or old someone is.
The trite line here might be “Live every day as though it were your last,” but I’m smart enough to know that gets lost in the daily shuffle of work and phone calls and dogs, eating and sleeping, what’s new at the movies. I would like, frankly, to find and burn any remaining trite lines.
I am an optimist trying to be a realist. I hope, as if it will matter, for the life of our beloved Siobhan, my superstar 47-year-old niece who is at war with Stage 4 cancer. I touch Mr. Forte’s old, warm self with my lips or my hands whenever I can reach him; I dance with him by the kitchen sink; we went to the beach last night and watched the sun set. I make plans to drive north to be with Amy and Chris and Simone, to breathe their air. I watch the finches while they’re here, hopping in the elm, teasing me like flying Waldos.
I close my eyes and see a house on a lake in Montana. Summer is over and the trees have turned; leaves are in drifts at the feet of the pines and in the vee of the boat dock. The water is an intense blue, clear as lead crystal and very cold; hard gusts of wind bellow through the woods. The summer people have gone, leaving the tough year-rounders. A good young man died in a tragedy just out there on the water, and a good old woman died in the house, but that hasn’t changed anything here. In the soft October sunshine a house still stands between the trees, sturdy as true love, next to a lake that is always washing clean the gravel on the shore.
Posted in: children and grands, human beans, la-la-la-love, my baby brother, my guy
Tags: accidental death, adobe soup, amy, cancer, candace mann, chris, craig, death, dying, dying young, emily, flathead lake, great friends, mr. forte, old friends, simone
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