There was no fanfare. I might have missed the news entirely if Facebook hadn’t grouped several posts together to let me know something was happening.
Why are all these people writing on this person’s wall? I wondered, and clicked.
The person in question was a college friend of mine. Let’s call her Alice. She and I lived in the same dorm. We would chat together sometimes in the evenings. She came and had tea along with one other friend to celebrate my 22nd birthday. It was through Facebook that I discovered she was dead.
I looked through the posts, the tributes from friends. From the comments, I learned that she had died in a car accident, along with her mother-in-law. I thought about her young husband, still staring out at me from her profile picture. He looked happy and carefree. It was their wedding day (they had married last fall). Now his mother wasn’t there to comfort him at the death of his wife, and his wife wasn’t there to comfort him at the death of his mother.
It’s been months since I read the news, and I still think about it every time I get in my car. I wait longer than is strictly necessary at busy intersections. When people get impatient with me, I want to shout, “My friend died in a car wreck. Back off!”
My heart still skips a beat when I begin typing a search into Facebook and her name pops up. But I can’t unfriend her. Somehow, that just feels wrong.
On New Year’s Day, a childhood friend of mine was in a climbing accident in Germany. The friend he was with died on the mountain. My friend survived. In the days and weeks that followed, my dad forwarded me the updates his parents were sending out. He suffered from frostbite and some fingers had to be amputated. One leg was amputated, then the other. His liver was failing. He was struggling to breathe. It was so difficult to imagine the shy, quiet boy I’d known fifteen years ago, the one I’d played Oregon Trail with and hung out with on the lake at his family cabin, plugged into countless machines, fighting for his life, once strong limbs unused, or simply gone.
I’m still getting the updates. The fight is far from over. We can only pray. The news is encouraging. All is not lost.
I don’t think about death very often. I do my best to avoid situations where I think it might be likely. But the truth is people die in all sorts of ways, with and without provocation. Most days, I get into a car and drive. My heart keeps beating. My body doesn’t fail me. I do not plunge to my death.
A few years ago, at a dark point, I used to think about driving my car off the bluff I’d take on my way home. I flirted with the idea of death as release. I felt so trapped and stuck and miserable. I wanted a way out. My way out turned out to be quitting my toxic job, starting therapy, and the slow road to healing. But I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to invite death in for a cup of tea and a chat, and I wonder if this visit isn’t the answer to everything.
A few years ago, I tried to make a will, but I stopped when it required two beneficiaries. It was easy to add my brother, but it felt strange to add either parent to a document that was supposed to be actionable only after my death. I felt strange knowing that the possibility existed, in black and white, that my parents would outlive me. I’ll think about it later, I thought.
Later has come.
As I draft my simple will—no children, no spouse, no great sums of money—I think about Alice. I wonder if she had a will. I wonder if she would have done things any differently if she’d known how it would go.
I read the online guestbook on the funeral home website. Just as in person, people struggled with what to say. There were promises of prayer, “everything happens for a reason”s, and so many kind words about her life. But the truth is, a twenty-six-year-old woman is dead, and there is nothing anyone can say. Horrible things happen so often. There is never anything to say.
No amount of waiting at tricky intersections, or declining invitations to go climbing, or embracing of agoraphobia can give me safety, or resuscitate Alice, or re-grow my friend’s fingers and legs. These things are lost. Sweet words can’t change that. Sometimes I wonder if we have it all backward. If we’ve written the story with the wrong villain. After all, death is just a journey, a one-way road, like the one we travel away from childhood. Death does not laugh maniacally, or creep up out of spite.
But hard as it is, what if death is truly not malicious? What if the lost things aren’t really lost, but safer than they’ve ever been, untouchable by anything that would threaten or change them? What if we are the ones still lost, still waiting for an unknown invitation into the perpetual safety of the unknown? These thoughts do not help, really. But when death has knocked on my car window, or my bedroom door, lately, I’ve sent her away, and she goes willingly. She has touched enough already.