I opened my inbox yesterday and there was a message from a friend I don’t see very often. She emailed to let me know a mutual friend was dying. A friend who lives in my community, but someone I don’t share a daily path with anymore. We worked together for several years. She was a great mentor. She helped me lead. Watched me bring two children into the world. And then, we went our separate ways. I can’t stop thinking about her. When was the last time I saw her? What can I do to ease the inevitable? How can I let her know I care? One of her caregivers gently informed me—there isn’t much to do. “This is a private time for her,” he explained. She could go today, tomorrow or a week from now, but soon.
So, I wrote her a poem and went to find a special floral arrangement.The refrigerated room at the flower shop was completely empty. The cooling system was broken. There was a smattering of flowers in buckets on the floor, but on the other side of the room, there were huge bundles of sunflowers, filling five or six buckets on the counter. I asked for one and the girl behind the counter restated my request, “Just one?”… I confirmed, “Just one.” One sunflower was all I needed. It was a perfect metaphor for this circumstance and this time of year—the last sturdy, bright flower of the season. The flower that is strong enough to remain standing, even after the yellow petals and green stem have turned brown and brittle. I’ve noticed them peaking up over fences in backyards and across fields on the south side of town. Fending off the impending darkness of winter.
I delivered the poem and flower to a house that is now a gathering place for friends and family. I hugged her sister, who cheerfully accepted my gift. She sensed my discomfort and assured me I was welcome, anyone was welcome to spend time there.
Turns out I am just not OK with death. I’m really not. And as I get older, it creeps in closer like a shadow cast by the sun as it ducks behind a fast moving cloud.
When my daughter was in third grade, she became fixated on death. It probably had something to do with the fact that when she was 6 our dog got hit by a car, and at 7, I lost a dear friend to suicide (though I didn’t explain the specific cause of death at the time). She kept saying how uncomfortable she was, and rightfully so I might add, with the permanent notion of it all. She said, “When I die, there will never, ever be another exact me again, ever.”
This is why I, too, simply can’t bring myself to accept death as a part of the life cycle I should welcome and embrace—because the cycle seemingly ends here. I know there are lots of different spiritual interpretations and beliefs about what happens to a person after death, but the truth of the matter is that this person I am, this life I live, the skin that covers this body and my ability to see my kids grow older will someday be no more.
And just as I feel a loss of control when I step onto an airplane and entrust my life with the unknown pilots in the cockpit, I have no real control over death and when she might come knocking.
At the same time, I sit with this news about my friend and I know there is also something profound and lovely about this moment in time when we are forced to pause, to come together and celebrate the life of another. Death inspires us to reflect, appreciate and remember that this is the life we have and every day should be worth living for.