For the twenty-fifth year in a row it’s that week again- -mid-March- -or, as it is known in my immediate family, the week that everybody died.
Not all in the same year, mind you. Dad went first, March 13, 1994. How can that be, when I can still see and hear him so clearly? The day he died was sunny and warm. He’d just been sprung from Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle that morning and was home for the first time in weeks. His prognosis, following a long dance with esophagus cancer, was four months at the outside. I was waiting for Mom and Dad when they got home and experienced the reassuring sight of Dad sitting in his recliner, dime store magnifiers on, reading the paper. He died late that afternoon.
We all wanted to keep him forever but for Dad, getting home was the goal. Once the goal was made, he let down enough to rest, for good. I can’t fault him for that. If the future was filled with morphine and an in-home hospital bed, I don’t think I’d want to draw it out, either.
When Dad died, he was the first person to do so in his immediate family since his own father passed away in 1958. Suddenly, Mom was a widow. At 36 and 34 my sister and I were, for the first time, facing a loss this big. I’ve written about my grief over losing Dad elsewhere so I won’t go into the details now, other than to say that losing someone so central to my life changed my life completely.
The family developed an antipathy toward March and it grew worse over the years. March 10, 2001, Mom’s brother, Dennis Sullivan (her only sibling and they were very close), passed away after a miserable time with Alzheimer’s. In 2003 my Cousin Patty’s husband, Henry W. “Hank” Miller, died suddenly and unexpectedly on March 12. We were already reeling when we heard about Hank; that same week a dear family friend, Glen Archer, had died on March 9.
Most people would agree, I think, that losing a parent is a major life-altering event. When you grow up in a small town, the death of less closely related people can also pack a punch. Patty and Hank lived in the same town as we did and had two children the same age as my sister and me. Glen Archer was such a close friend he was always at the Sullivan family’s Christmas dinner, also at many birthday and anniversary celebrations.
Ninth, Tenth, Twelfth and Thirteenth, all lined up and ready to crush us from year to year. I’m pretty sure that only Julius Caesar felt more antipathy toward mid-March than I do. Belated thanks, Julius, for filling out this wretched week with your assassination on March 15, At least you were warned in advance.
On the positive side, it’s good to remember the dead. That way, they never really die. We see them in their kids and grandkids, in the places they used to work and the hobbies they enjoyed. People inhabit space and mass and time. Eventually, only time.
Or is that really so? I think not. I believe that when people we love die they stay with us in spirit, not just in our memories. You can feel it when they are watching over you. You can still ask them questions and see them in dreams. Since Bruce died, almost three months ago now, my belief in this has strengthened. We drew on each other’s courage and wisdom in human life and we can do it now, in our present, disparate forms. I often ask him for help. This might sound crazy, but I believe he sends it when I ask. My proof? I can now successfully perform subcutaneous hydration on Friday the cat, single-handed. My ability to insert the needle properly and keep the saline solution flowing while, at the same time, holding the cat more or less still improved dramatically the day I asked Bruce for help instead of wailing to the four walls in frustration.
I’ll admit, when Bruce died I had an “Et tu, Brute?” moment. I was relieved that he was out of pain but there was also a feeling of, perhaps not betrayal, but abandonment. That feeling returns from time to time. For me, the best medicine for missing him is talking to him, saying out loud how much I love him, and asking him for help when I need it.