You're Going to Die

Bringing people creatively into the conversation of death & dying, while helping to inspire & empower them out of the context of unabashedly confronting loss & mortality

A Seal Upon Thy Heart

At the memorial service for my mom, it poured torrentially on the Episcopalian roof we gathered under, as if she was crying from the clouds. And our crying echoed up against hers. And when we crowded out of the church lobby, readying to disperse our mourning gathering, the clouds split and a rainbow shot through the sky, a glowing grief sponge arched like an embrace, gently encouraging us to step into our lives without her. And when my sister and I left home, driving off with the last few belongings we cared to take of her life, we looked in the rearview mirror and saw another rainbow streak the sky, like a goodbye as our grief trailed south, leaving her death behind us.

And so, she is rainbows now.

And when my mother-in-law, that fiercely loving, busily fluttering woman, who her husband would fondly call his “hummingbird,” lay still, dying in her hospital bed at home, not 30 feet away, just outside her front door, a mother hummingbird with her eggs suddenly appeared at eye level on the bend of a palm frond, sitting vigil over her babies. Every exit and entrance into the opening death portal that was my mother-in-law’s home those last days of her life was accented by this bird quietly warming her babies before their hatching. And the hummingbirds won’t stop reminding us, all these years later, of our mother; countless fantastic stories of this bird with its infinity wings, magically visiting us, so often it might be the only bird chirp I recognize when I hear it.

And so, she is hummingbirds now.

And when my wife sings “You Are My Sunshine” to my son, he bursts into tears, perhaps feeling my wife’s great grief wrapped in that song, but maybe he’s crying because it’s his Grammy, singing it through her daughter, singing it to her grandson. And she’s there. As real as real can be.

And I ask myself, “Is it real? How can it be real?”
Even in those moments of seemingly undeniable miracle.

When I drove away from my mom’s empty apartment for the last time, with that rainbow in my rearview, there were only a handful of things I took, intentional keepsakes of growing up – measuring spoons with which she scooped and poured parts of so many recipes, a magnet bottle opener that perched out of reach on our refrigerator door, a picture of her holding me with her free arm clasping both my sister’s hands… not much, but all the ways I cared to have her around now that she’d died. One other thing I took that day was a book I grabbed for no conscious reason at all, I just took it on an impulse, a book I’d never read, one her sister gave her back in the 1960s: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

A day later we poured her ashes out into the ocean at Point Reyes. Like a little boy, totally lost, I stood with my older sister, next to that old ancient artifact of shipping, that broken beacon of another time, watching the grey dust of my mom swirl and dip out into the frothing waters that broke against the cliffs. I left there alone, driving back to my life in Los Angeles, with her spoons and her book, but with half of me stuck in that portal our dead drag us into, with all those parts combined, part of my heart and mind and spirit still with my mom, wherever she’d gone.

So I took my time heading south. I took Highway 1 that runs along the time warp coast of middle California, and stopped in Big Sur after dark, looking for a place to stay in a town I’d never visited. For some reason, attributing it to my grieving unrest at the time, I passed on the first four perfectly accommodating options, to finally find myself in the lobby of Big Sur Lodge. As I waited for the nightshift clerk to help me, for him to finish with the customer standing at the front desk, the office door opened...

The person that stepped through that door was the only student, other than my best friends, who’d had a close relationship with my mom when I was in high school. Someone I’d personally never been very close to, but one of those acquaintances you have fond memories of, but quickly lose touch with after graduation. Of all the towns and all the lodges, of all the times... it was her. We cried in one another's arms when I told her Mom had died. And of course I'd be staying here for the night! Of course you can have a three-bedroom cabin, with a full kitchen, a hot tub and a fireplace for practically nothing! Of course. Of course. Of course. Like arriving home when home has died. And the next morning, when I checked out at the front desk to say thank you and goodbye, my friend wasn’t working, but she’d left me a gift:
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

And even now, even as I write it out, it feels dramatically unreal and impossible.
Is it real? It’s just a coincidence, right? How can it be real, Mom?

Why don't we accept these after death experiences of our loved ones for simply what they are - a chance to be with those we've lost, as surreal as it might be, as different and maybe even unfamiliar, but somehow, someway as real as if they’re still alive? And instead of thinking we need a belief system to confirm or deny these moments, why not let them be, as wonderfully spirited and magical and yes, seemingly impossible, as they are, without further answers needed?

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl’s account of experiences during the holocaust is less about why it happened and far more about how people survived it, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. He describes a moment, amidst the constant onslaught of all-consuming wet, cold, dark prison terrors, when his thoughts, for survival’s sake, turned to his young wife, by then lost to him in some unknown way, somewhere else in the nightmare of those times:

“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing - which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance. 

“I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out […] but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. ‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.’”

So, look around you and be comforted by how you find them.
Seek them in your dreams and enjoy your time together.
Creatively open and revel in how you receive them.
It takes the work of opening up. That’s it.
You don’t need to do anything else.
They just want to be with you.

After these losses in my life, all these years later, it’s just another way I’ve found that death, and the space it thrusts us in, where we are so broken open, where there are often no clear answers and so much is unknown, can sometimes be an incredibly powerful, childlike, wondrous, limitless, freeing place for us to be... and like surprised children, eyes wide and mouths agape, we might let ourselves float there, inspiring our being in unimaginable ways and radically informing our greater lives, our greater living.

Make Room for Death...

True Friends...

As I type this, my high school best friend’s funeral is taking place. 
I couldn’t attend because my son graduates from preschool today or I live too far away or I have a job and need to work to support my family or maybe, the truth is, we just aren’t a part of one another’s life anymore.

But when I found out he’d suddenly, unexpectedly died, I cried.

On Facebook, a mutual best friend posted pictures of us in the wake of the news – an image of us squashed into a photo booth, our big heads smashed together, grinning and laughing like crazy idiots, another photo of us smiling in the sunshine of a vividly memorable Northern California off-road adventure and another with us dressed as cheerleaders [yeah – another story for another time]. But when I looked at these photos, holding memories I haven’t revisited in two decades, it opened me up. 
I sat down and wept.

We really stopped being close during the last year or two of high school. From there, we moved along life’s trajectories, our individual paths, similar, parallelish realities, and lost touch like childhood friends often do. We went to different colleges, found our different jobs, moved to different places. We married and had two children each. I haven’t seen him in person or heard his voice in over 20 years. And of course, like most people that lose touch, whether they were best buddies, classmates, casual friends, acquaintances, lovers, enemies, student council members, teammates, neighbors, however strong or weak the original connection, almost all of us are brought back together in the age of the internet. My friend and I were “reunited” by Facebook. And yet even still, other than a handful of online messages, catching up on life, references to our time in high school, the good and the bad, sincere offerings to reunite in person, that’s it.

But, as unknown as he is to me now, our trajectories still meet somewhere in the past, the lines of life go back to a friendship, our beings can be traced into the midst of simple, potent nostalgia, to a memory caught somewhere in time, where we lay on our backs, in the cover of night, under the sprawling, hanging canopy of the universe, in an empty lot around the corner from his childhood home, we were best friends together, sharing a rich, formative time of our lives and staring at the stars pinned up in the incomprehensible spread, the infinite making our little friendship and our great human existence both meaningless and like total and complete belonging. 

And now, just like that meaningless pressed up against that belonging, it’s as if we’re a part of one another’s lives almost as powerfully as we aren’t. And the ways that we aren’t a part of one another’s lives, they’re so very known. These lives we created, so separate, yet so similar. Grieving for the wife and two children he leaves behind, while still living a life with mine, it cut straight through the chest. That truth, coupled with the memories that make up our friendship, broke my heart. 

So…

Do I post all over Facebook about it?

Do I claim I’ve lost the greatest friend a guy could ever have and ever will again?

Do I dismiss it as sad, but considering I hardly knew him anymore, I need to stop being dramatic and just move on with my life?

How do I grieve when the only thing I have left is a pile of old photos and faded memories?

This loss is mine. This part of my life, this fact of my history, this piece of who I am today, whatever it brings up, it only matters that I make space for it. Our loss deserves to be honored. The lost deserve to be mourned, for all the ways they were a part of our lives, and for all the ways they are a part of life.

The point is to open up.
The point is to remember.
The point is he died and you will too.

But for now, you’re alive… the rest is up to you.

Make room for death; make room for life.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

This morning I told your grandson that today's your birthday. He abruptly replied, "Oh." And then, "You miss her a lot." I said yes & started crying, tears instantly streaming down my cheeks. He ran away & lay face-first into the couch & cried. I told him to come back & when he did, I held him in my arms. He said he cried, because I cried. I told him that it was alright to cry & that sometimes we love people so much that we have to. And with no prompting, maybe even to make himself feel better, he told me you're okay now & that you're in heaven & he's the first person I've ever believed when they said it... 

I told him that we're here because of you. And even now, as I type those words, as I type that truth, I'm crying, filled with feeling for it. When I told him that you were still here, that you're in us, pointing at his chest, he told me you are in all of us, our whole family. And then he added, "She's in everyone in the world." And as strange as it seems to type that out now, I believed him when he said that, too.

But I'm sorry I forget. 
You are working hard to be in my life all the time...
I want you to know that I'm present to that today.
And I'm practicing remembering you outside of me.

For after all, where are you in this world if I don't speak you?
Where are you in this world if I don't LIVE you?

You are the first reason I am here.
And now, it's my responsibility to be the last reason you are, too.
If I don't make choices to live you while I'm here, then you aren't.

And I hope my son tells people after I've died when it's my birthday. I hope that I live in a way that demands it.
Thank you for all of this, this whole life that I have.
You are reminding me, 
even now, 
that after I die, 
I'll be in this world, too...

Today, on your birthday, you are in this world, Mom...

I love you.

I Thought I Made My Mom Die...

Note the Same Hair... It's in the Genes.

For a long time I thought I made my mom die. 

Thanksgiving week, she slept so deeply, dying rapidly next to a small plate of mashed potatoes and stuffing, in her room on a tiny twin mattress that moved far too easily. If you sat on it or leaned against, it would slide like a doll’s bed across the room. I thought I stayed away too much, but she was doing the work of departure; I couldn't be near her, for I'd have had to hold on to her and that bed too hard for her to go... So she went that week and quickly.

When we got her to the hospital, the day after Thanksgiving, somehow finally realizing, like we’d seen it on that morning’s news, the great undeniable surprise that she was dying, the last stretch of her life happened in only a handful of hours. I know I was young and did it the only way I knew how... dramatically, emotionally, out of my mind. I moved when I was told, out of the way of suddenly frantic, scrambling nurses [“Why are you all moving so quickly? Are you as surprised as I am?”]. I called everyone I could think of, not to just tell them what was happening, but to escape, alive, hysterical, sobbing, notifying diligently, but existing, one raving call at a time. And when it was time, I bowed my head for prayer because someone older brought a priest in and said we should. For years I thought I’d been more swept away by her death than present to it.

But ultimately, in retrospect – no – not retrospect – what an inadequate word to use when your mother rips out of your life, dragging your being halfway through the death portal, changing you completely and forever. Not retrospect. It’s revelation. Specifically revelation defined as: the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world. That kind of revelation. I realize in revelation, unearthed from great reality-destroying loss, that we were there, my sister and I, leaning over that mother exit that lay between us, crying, helpless, but massaging her legs and loving her. I learned then, if I was ever to have the honor of being at the edge of someone’s deathbed, that’s just what I’m supposed to do: Be there.

And then I made my mom die. Or so I thought for years. When she looked at my sister and I from her hospital bed, across the greatest of chasms, spanning from the edge of me to her little face, in the smallest, whitest of rooms, in the one moment of clarity I recall her having, the one single thing I remember her saying to us that entire last week of her life, she asked us what we thought about life support. And all I could do was wordlessly stand and cry. And not long after that she died. My mother died. Behold my tears. But that was my answer. And that was my job, too. Only now I understand that I did it well. I helplessly wept and let go well. She needed permission and my tears told her it was okay. And I got to whisper, "I love you. It's okay," into her ear over and over. That's what I was supposed to do. And that’s all. 

I didn’t make my mom die. I let her die. 
I loved her and told her so. I told her it’s okay. And it is.
And for that, I know now, I am her good son.

Finding Namo

My 4-year-old son walked into the kitchen this morning to tell us his fish had died in the night. Admittedly, my knee-jerk reaction, or the thought that first emerged, probably a result of my own childhood "death of a pet" experience, was a quick toilet flush. But, as hard as it was, as unsure as I felt, I put off getting to work on time, my wife and I stopped, we kneeled, we listened and made time for a burial, not to mention a surprising amount of emotion, from all of us...

We buried Namo in the backyard and talked about what happens when things die and how dead things help new things grow. My son said he wanted to go to a "Die Museum" and wanted to know if his fish would be alive again... and he cried. And we cried. A lot of tears over such a simple thing, but, even though a portal of daunting unanswered questions seemed officially open for my son, I knew it was our responsibility to deal with the loss in as sacred a way as possible. In a culture where there is such little time made for grief, using any chance we get to acknowledge the great truth of life - that all things die - is our choice, not only as parents, but as human beings. And I don't mean forcing the discussion whenever possible, but making space for real loss, however small, creates movement for all the grief we might have riding under the surface of daily life... 

When my son cried out: "I'm thinking of Namo never dying again!" or when he almost instantly started talking about his own death and, eventually, ours, I wept hard and held him... I could feel all the grief pour out, the sorrow I feel when my children suffer, the pain I feel knowing what they stand to lose in this life, but also responsible for opening my arms to the questions, even though I don't always feel like I have the answers. 

After the burial, I held my one-year-old daughter in our backyard, at my feet a tiny fish grave, and above us a flock of little yellow birds flew through our tree and out into the neighborhood, all in an instant, with my little girl making her big O-mouth excited face. In that moment, feeling much more alive than before my son stepped into the kitchen, I stood between a little death and so much life, I felt it richly, deeply present to what we must go through, what our children must go through, but very alive and maybe even courageous...