This whole idea of death has become ever more curious to me. Not in any kind of macabre way. Rather, in the sense of how people respond when it happens. As if they expect everyone they love to live forever. Odd to me. But I'm not judging. It simply appears that people respond in all kinds of ways; and those who are in the public eye are expected to, somehow, respond differently. Again, odd to me. But perhaps this is the nature of a “public” that has not a clue that these icons are, in fact, mere mortals.
A few nights ago, whilst watching an NBA Playoff game, I was further mystified as I listened to the commentators attempt to wax poetic about one of the players going through “this difficult time”. It seems his sister had died and everyone was going on about his “heroics”; the fact that he chose to play the game rather than fly immediately to his home town to be with his family.
Now...before I go on, let me first say this: I am a giant sports fanatic. So I don't mean to undermine the valiant displays of these men and women in times of tragedy. It was just something that I noticed. And it spurred a whole chain reaction...and then... I noticed how the feathers that would have previously been ruffled (mine, that is)...were not.
Back to this chain of thought.
The comments brought to mind a game in which the remarkable Brett Favre (of NFL fame), played one of the best games of his NFL career. His father had died right before a crucial Playoff game. Everyone was going on and on about how he opted to play rather than attend the family rites. Some of those people were voicing their disagreement with his choice to play. I remember watching that game. I remember the talk of “heroics” and “dedication” and all the other clichés commentators like to use, as Brett played as if possessed. I also remember being profoundly touched by the words he spoke after he'd led his team to victory. (Not even going to try to quote all that. It was about the feeling, not the words.) I also remember thinking, “Well, SHIT. If I were in his shoes, I'd have done the same thing.” I didn't think of it as heroic. I thought it was his way of honoring his dad. And that's pretty much what he said when all those idiots kept asking him about “how did you play so well just a day after your father died?”.
I wanted to climb into the TV and punch somebody in the nose.
So, tonight, as I was listening to all that drama, I got to thinking about the rest of us. Those of us who are not in the public light who've experience the same thing with people we hold so dear. I heard my silent prayer of thanks (that I wasn't in the limelight when my darlings died) and in that moment had one of those sublime revelations.
I remembered the days and weeks and months following my own mother's death. How I displayed some twisted sense of gratitude (“I'm just happy she's not suffering anymore.”) and some semblance of stoicism (or so I thought) to the world. Deep inside, though, I was neither grateful nor stoic. I went on a decade-long rampage of rage and self-destruction that, literally, changed the course of my life. It took me years and years and years to understand the impact her passing had on me.
In the end, I did understand. I reached that serene place where I could see my mother's death from her perspective. I understood why she left. I stopped being angry at her and her god. At long last, I reached my own closure. Which was a huge blessing. Because...
Thirty years later, my elder sister, the woman who knew me better than I've ever known myself, checked out. I use that phrase intentionally. Because that is exactly what she did. It was thirty years later and I was thirty years wiser and, truth be told, I was grateful. I didn't want her to leave the planet. But I also didn't want her to stay. Hers was a brutal life. One she chose, but brutal all the same. Despite our geographic distance, we'd always remained close. And every time we spoke on the phone, I could hear the pain in her voice. I could hear her longing for death. Toward the end of her life, we spoke of this often. She used to say, “I don't understand why God won't let me come home.” At first, I would try to dissuade her. I'd tell her how much her presence on the Planet meant to me and her children and so many other people who loved her. I would plead for her to see herself well. Eventually, though, I realized that my pleas came from a very selfish place. I wanted her to stay because I needed her to stay. I couldn't fathom a world without her. She was my coach, my sage, my rock. How would I navigate my life without her? It crushed me every time I thought about it. But then something happened that changed my perspective.
I had sent her an email with an illustration I had drawn of three feathers floating. It was a doodle on a piece of scrap paper. Just something that came to me one day. Atop the drawing, I'd written “dance with your dreams”. Again, one of those things that came to me from that state of pure flow. As we chatted on the phone, me hearing the sadness in her voice, she sharing her yearning to “go home”, I thought I'd try to change the subject. So, I asked her about the drawing.
She told me how much she loved that drawing. She voiced her awe at how I was able to make them look as if she might be able to feel them when she touched the screen. I was humbled by her compliments, and thought perhaps I had affected some kind of swing in her own perspective. And then she said, “Livee, could you draw one for me?” “Of course!”, I said. I told her I'd get on it as soon as we hung up the phone. Then she said, “Instead of writing 'dance with your dreams', would you write 'Let me fly' instead?” Without hesitation I said, “Yes! I'll be happy to.”
We said our goodbyes and hung up the phone. It took about a minute and a half for me to realize what she was asking me for. When I did, I began to sob uncontrollably. It was in that moment I realized that she was asking me for permission to go. She wanted to know that I could let her go. She needed me to say that I'd be okay when she left. She was, as always, concerned with my well-being. It was her last attempt at asking me to see it from her point of view.
I cried my way to clarity. I felt the tug of her enormous love. I knew what she wanted and I could no longer allow my own selfish needs to cloud my feelings. I loved her too much to put myself first. It was more than cathartic. It was another life-changer.
I drew those feathers for her, just as she'd asked. And I wrote the words, “Let me fly...”. I mailed it the very next day and waited to hear back from her. A week later, I did get a phone call. At five in the morning. The moment I saw who it was (my younger sister) I instantly knew that Cricket was gone. I picked up the phone and listened to the silence on the other end. I said, “Is she gone?” My sister whispered, “Yes. She died last night.”
I wish I could tell you it made me happy to know she no longer suffered. I wish I could say that I was happy for her. Sadly, I cannot. I was too sad for myself to feel the joy she must have felt when her god answered her prayers. But I can tell you this...I knew, deep in my gut, that my illustration was her permission slip. I knew she'd gotten it, and smiled that giant smile of hers, and left the planet knowing that I'd be okay. I learned later that she died only two days after she'd gotten it. Two days. That was the moment I felt the joy she so dearly wanted me to feel.
Now, here it is, two years later, and my perspective has expanded even more. I can listen to the annoying commentators without wanting to punch them in the face. I can honor the men and women who play anyway, despite the sadness and pain and onslaught of emotions. I honor them because they choose to honor their paths, likely the result of those very moms and dads and siblings who urged them on. I understand what it takes to carry on, despite the ocean of emotions that can drown a person who might not have that kind of constitution. The kind that can compartmentalize the emotions until the work is done. It must be unspeakably difficult to do. And, in a way, it is heroic.
I tell you all this now because I did, finally, realize my own growth. How my perspective has changed over these thirty years. How, even though I have lost others who meant more than the world to me, I can still see, even early on, that it's not going to kill me. Nor does it need to put me on a path to self-destruction. I can honor them...and my own Self. Life goes on. Until it doesn't. It's just the way things work. There isn't any need to get swallowed up by the sorrow or rage or unfairness. Life is as fair as it is finite. If you want to live it, you must come to some sort of agreement with those terms.
You can let death eat you up from the inside, like an emotional cancer. You can let it destroy years, even decades of your own life. You can push away all those still on the Planet and slip into a crushing, debilitating, emotional coma. The point is, it doesn't have to be that way.
As usual... it is a choice. And that choice is yours.
© Camille Olivia Strate