As I’m sitting here in front of my laptop, I’m trying to come up with a pithy line to sum up my experience with death, but can’t come up one without feeling I’m exploiting it for the purpose of a catchy blog entry – which feels cheap. I will say this inevitable issue comes up for me because yesterday I attended a funeral for a friend. His name was Jim Kellogg.
David and I met Jim through his wife, Dorothy – whom David worked with at his last job. I liked them right away – which was a rare occurrence for me when it came to David’s coworkers because generally they were a species with whom I couldn’t relate at all. Imagine a room full engineers and statisticians and you’ve got a fabulous starting point right there. They were dull and humorless and oh-so-LL Bean. I would pop an extra pill or start drinking even before I arrived at company events just to get me through the night.
But when the company moved from San Francisco to Washington, DC – mostly because of the firm’s anti-terrorist, safety management leanings (they’ve always been an engineering consulting firm), a whole new set of cohorts came on board – former Navy Seals/military hit men and State Department staffers now became part of the team and the company parties were soon a heck of a lot better for it. Man, the stories I could tell, but then, I’d have to kill you 😉
Anyway, we met Dorothy and Jim soon after we had moved here, and while they weren’t my usual kind of hang, I always brightened up when they were around. They’re one of those long-term, quirky brilliant couples that you could tell get more of a kick out of each other with each passing year. They were madly in love and best friends, whom always spoke with the utmost respect towards and about each other. I like hanging out with couples like them because their relationship mojo just can’t help but rub off on you. And BTW, when I say brilliant, I mean off-your-rockers, mad-skills smarts. You know the old snarky comeback of “What do you think you are, a rocket scientist or something?” Well, Jim could answer, “Well actually, yes I am.” Because he was – and if you’re going to ask me exactly what he did or what Dorothy does, I couldn’t tell you. With brain cells like theirs, I’m just glad to be able to sit in the cheap seats and watch the show.
I obviously congregate towards smart people, but the brilliant, eccentric ones are my new favorite collector’s items. They could talk about ANYTHING in great depth, but did so with infectious humor and grace. In their spare time, Jim played in a rock band, sang in his church’s choir (more on that in a minute), and performed in obscure lil’ musical numbers with Dorothy.
I also thought it was cool that while they were active in their church (I couldn’t tell you what denomination but they have a married woman Reverend whom offered communion if that helps) without being religious-y about it. During the service – which was offered to a packed room BTW – I saw a community truly invested in one another and not just there for the usual pony show. And it was cool that the head of their church really knew Jim, because you could tell from her speech she did, and it made a huge difference. By the time I was twelve, I had been to four funerals and no weddings, and I always thought the funerals with the pastor or priest or rabbi that obviously didn’t know the deceased completely sucked weinis because you could tell they were winging it from some tired old speech that they dusted off for such occasions. But this Reverend rocked because she shared a slew of funny Jim-isms that made the mourners laugh in spite of themselves, citing their affection for antiquated drinking songs and limericks for one. The rest of the service, well, I tried to get into it. The choir sang beautifully, and I’ve always dug all that church stained glass. I guess I have always loved churches and synagogues for their pretty, sparkly digs. I feel completely at home in any of them until the services start – and then they lose me.
Lots of the prayers talked about how the deceased is “going home” and how Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins. I saw some other church officiant hold up some wafers in each outstretched hand – like when the football referree signals a field goal – and say we are humbled by His sacrifices and we are blessed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (I get the Father and Son reference, but exactly who or what is the Holy Spirit??). I still don’t get how a benevolent God would have his son viciously murdered as a way to redeem Humanity. How does violence and death purify a soul?
And another thing…I don’t have a problem with death and I don’t mourn particularly hard when the deceased dies in their sleep in their 80s or 90s. For me, that’s a good death – an inevitable, logical passing of a life hopefully served well. For me, dying like that is a Lotto death, and you should consider yourself lucky to have one like that.
But when someone is taken younger than they should, I’m pissed off. Jim was only 52 and died exactly 6 months to the day of his cancer diagnosis. I saw a formerly rotund, vibrant man shrink into a bag of bones in front of all of us, desperately trying to crack a joke when we visited him in the hospital. He was in a lot of pain as well. And not only does he leave behind the love of his life, but he has two teenage boys, which to me seems a particular harsh time to lose a father. While Dorothy is so bravely holding it together, working overtime to make sure everyone else is okay, those boys are beyond shattered and my heart breaks for all of them. It felt just as badly for me as when David lost his 37-year-old cousin Mary Esformes Robbins, whom had a heart attack out of the blue at her son’s preschool during drop off. She left behind two little boys, the youngest who called out “Mama?” to every pretty blonde woman whom came to visit them because that’s how he remembered his mother. I’m still floored by that memory.
Those kinds of death I don’t – and will probably never – grasp. I looked at Dorothy sitting in the pew, with her sons on either side of her, and I couldn’t help but imagine what I would do in similar circumstances if David died. I would just want to crawl under the covers and sleep through the grief in a dark, quiet room. She doesn’t even have the luxury of letting it all out because she’s got two boys barely hanging on by a thread, whom can’t afford to lose both a father and be emotionally abandoned by a mother right now. Dorothy knows that and is doing the best she can.
I stayed up the other night and made a huge batch of homemade chicken noodle soup for them (hey I’m Jewish, that’s what we do when you’re sick or grieving) and will bring it by later today. While that’s a nice start, I need to be consistent because right now, they have all the support in the world. It’s a month or two from now that gets tricky.
I guess in the end, that’s the best way to honor the people who pass – try to make sure the ones that are left behind because of death are not left behind by the living. It’s the only way we’ve ever going to get through it.