Death Comes Unexpectedly

It was 2012 and I was lying in the dark replaying over and over again how my grandpa looked laid out in his coffin.  Surprised; he looked like himself, but he felt so cold. I could still feel his cold waxy skin on my finger and shuddered at the thought of seeing him again. I’d never been to a funeral before and not knowing what to expect had me frozen in my bed. And then I knew what I had to do. I had to talk to my grandpa and ask him if it was okay that I didn’t go. I tripled checked with myself that my not wanting to go wasn’t based on nerves about playing the piano but I knew deep in my young soul that it wasn’t that. I wasn’t ready to face death in the traditional way. So I starting talking out loud feeling in my heart that my grandpa could hear, and then came the peace and I knew it was okay that I didn’t go.

It’s a hot and sticky July 4th 2015 morning, I am standing at the local church with the neighbors lamenting the fact that the pancake breakfast was what appeared to be left over Scout camp pulled pork added to scrambled eggs for breakfast burritos.  My phone rang, my brothers name showed up on the caller ID. Struck by the odd timing, I answered and heard him faintly say on the other end “Ann’s dead. Aunt Ann died.” My brain couldn’t process what he was saying.  Grandma was next in line. She was asking daily if she could go. We were prepared for her parting. But Aunt Ann.  He was wrong, I heard him wrong. “No” I said, not Aunt Ann. “Yes, Marci Aunt Ann.”  Suddenly I looked around I had to get off of the phone with him and find Danny.  I was stifling the tears and holding back the tormented sobs I didn’t want to draw anyones attention away from their awful burritos. As soon as I could get the words out of my mouth to Danny I had to walk quickly away I could no longer suppress the shock and sadness desperately trying to escape my pursed lips. It was all I could do to make it to the front door before the ugly, desperate sobs came pouring from deep within. Aunt Ann. Gone. Aunt Ann. Gone. Aunt Ann Gone. I threw myself across my bed like a moody teenager as my body shook with tears.

The next few days the sadness would sneak up on me, streaming from my eyes before I ever had a chance to stifle it back down. How could she? Why did she? How come I didn’t… the last thought the most painful as it had been on my mind to call her. Who was going to tell my how to parent based on something she had seen in one of her Soap Operas? Who was going to be planning dinner while we ate breakfast? Who was going to remind me about all the things that didn’t really matter, but in the moment did? Who was going to be my cool aunt who lived in California?

Standing at her viewing shortly before her funeral I recall the little girl reaching for her grandpas hand to find what was once warm and so inviting to be cold and waxy. I make my way to the casket, vowing to keep my hands to myself. Who was that unfamiliar face looking back at me? They had turned her lips up in a smile. Didn’t they know? She didn’t smile for pictures. Why was she smiling now? Suddenly I hear a voice saying it’s time for one last look before they close the casket. I push myself forward, not wanting to lose one last moment to look at a face, as unfamiliar as it may be, and suddenly I hear it. I hear the most gut wrenching sob filling the air with it pain only to realize it’s coming from me.   Momentarily filled with embarrassment from letting my feelings show I discover that trying to stop it is only making it worse. My mom gently wraps her arm around me as I fall into her shoulder and pulls me away. For just a moment I want to be that little girl again, the girl who knew that good byes are painful, and avoiding them helps ease that pain. Danny pulls me from my mom and I fall into his embrace, looking at the faces of my 6 children filled with shock and concern for their mother and promise myself that later I would have all the right things to say to help them know it’s okay.

2012 Like many other days returning home from being out with 6 children between the ages of 2-10 was chaotic and exhausting. It was a chaotic time of life, I had fortunately realized that having babies wasn’t actually a solution to my problems, unfortunately I had replaced acquiring babies to animals. The current count? 2 cats, 2 dogs (Great Danes no less), I think the water frogs were still alive, and we had newly added 3 bunnies. After realizing the stench of 3 bunnies was to much for the house we had relocated them to the back yard and taken on the challenge of keeping the dogs, the large, large dogs, away from the bunnies.  Each return home turned into a bunny head count, and I prayed that we could stay ahead of the Great Danes advances. Deep down I think I knew that inevitably we were going to come home and find we weren’t faster than the dogs. What I said to my children and myself was to the contrary. This return home was no different than all the others, until the girls reached the bunny enclosure to find 2 of the 3 missing. My gut flew into a panic, while trying to maintain a calm demeanor. I was reassuring as I help the kids search for the bunny. The longer it took the more hope I was losing. I did my best to keep a hopeful smile on my face while I headed to the front yard to see if they had ended up there. As I searched under bushes up front I was ripped from my search by the blood curdling death scream that I heard. As my feet started moving me towards to sound I knew the bunny had been found, and that it was dead. In my head I knew that choosing to bring animals into our family opened the door to my children learning about death. What wasn’t prepared for this was my heart. Facing my daughter as she looked at her bunny motionless on the ground I was unable to look her in the eye. The only words I could find to comfort her with was that the bunny didn’t suffer. Did I know this for sure? No. Was I comforting her or me?

2017 Pushing the landlord one more time (that year) to let us add a dog to our lease was met with a stern no. Unlike past times we pushed a little more and asked why. He gave one reason after another, the one that stood out to me? “Because the dog will die, and that will be sad.” I instantly flashed back to the scream I heard that day, while I understood the reason he would say that, I also knew that kids can heal from that sadness. He didn’t give in (that day, eventually we wore him down), and his reasoning stuck with me.

2018 We had just returned from a 3 day vacation I was rushing up the stairs to use the bathroom after the long drive. I was almost up the stairs when I heard the cry. Not as shrill and sharp as before but still familiar, I turned around knowing what had happened.  Katelyn rushed up the stairs and fell onto my waiting lap. Her guinea pig had died. She buried her head into my shoulder and the tears streamed down her cheeks. I slowly and calmly rubbed her back. In the past I had tried to find the words that I hoped would help the pain go away as quickly as possible. Those words generally turned in a tickle and joke, because I had learned that the pain my child felt was a pain that I felt. But this time? This time I sat and let her cry. Knowing that in time the pain would pass, hoping to teach her the pain of death is not something to run from, it’s something to feel, something to grow from, and something to understand can happen unexpectedly.

**The title of this post comes comes directly from my favorite childhood movie PollyAnna.  At one point the pastor is delivering his sermon and pounds the pulpit and declares that “DEATH COMES UNEXECTEDLY!” His fire and brimstone is something I hear in my head almost every time death occurs. It used to add to the pain and discomfort, but as I’ve grown I’ve come to learn that whether expected or not death brings with it pain. Hiding from the pain or trying to numb the pain may make it go away temporarily, but choosing to walk through the pain has painted the scars it leaves into a rainbow weaved into my story.

 

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Chaos and Quiet

I knew the next morning was going to be rough because we were getting the kids to bed so late and I was mentally exhausted. I also knew that because of the chaos of the night I would be getting a 2 am wake up call from the 5 month old puppy.  I was close the dog got up at 2:30.  Some nights I don’t have a hard time going back to sleep, other nights it’s more difficult. This was a night in the middle. I don’t remember going back to sleep, but I do remember being awake thinking about the next days schedule.  When the alarm went off I struggled to get my eyes open to push the snooze button.  Before the snooze time had run out my 7 year old, and one of our cats made it known that it was in fact time to get up.  I struggled.  I struggled to get up, I struggled to wrap my mind around getting the kids to school, I struggled to find the get up and go to get up and go.  I finally did but 10 minutes later than I “needed” to.  Thank you Curious George and PBS for keeping my early riser occupied until I got up.  As I slowly got up I started to question the dependance that I had created of my oldest three. I am the alarm, and on days that the alarm is tired it wakes them up late, it’s not a great system, especially when “the alarm” was supposed to switch someones laundry when she got up at 6:30. It was now 7:20. The newly proclaimed pescatarian was searching to find a lunch box as school lunch had suddenly become unacceptable. A small argument occurred on the order of operations and how lunch box finding was at the end of getting ready not the beginning.  Another small eruption over the lack of French toast sticks, that turned into a lack of oatmeal portion size occurred. Tears on the couch for no reasons were a backdrop to matching/appropriate school clothing conversations. Trying to silently remove my mind while keeping me psychically there I sipped hot coffee and prayed I would be able to suppress the yell in my throat.  We made it to the car, and were so close to successfully leaving when the daily disagreement about who was sitting where started up.  Still being mindful of the yell in my throat I told them I would count to 5 and then be pulling away from the curb.  They barely made it in, but they did it and we were on our way.  With the chaos of the morning I was happy to see we were on time and soon I would be home in the quiet.

Suddenly it became apparent that our normal commute was backed up and we were headed on an alternate route to school.  As gratitude for our safety overcame me, the yell in my throat dissolved while I worked on keeping us safe on the rest of the journey.  As we neared the school talked turned from the car accident, and distracted driving to police officers and their presence at the school.  We made it to the drop off spot, arrangements were made to get everyone checked into school and I headed back home. I was a little frustrated that I missed my favorite part of the morning radio show I listen to on the way home, but feeling relief at successfully dropping the kids off. I walked in the door at home and it was quiet. The silence enveloped me and I was able to finally wrap my mind around scheduling the kids bi-annual dental check-up. Feeling buoyed by that success I looked up the college counselor we needed to schedule with and reached out to her, feeling like I was on a role I switched laundry, started a new load, and ate breakfast. I sat down to map out the rest of my day, and while my brain was wildly planning all of the things I was about to do my body settled in to recoup from the chaos. I eventually succumbed to the sitting and the phone rang, a friend on the other line, as I said hello my brain reminded me of our to do list for the day. As the conversation developed my brain quieted down. She talked I listened, I talked she listened, the other line beeped; the kids school. I let it go to voicemail as the automated call was probably to remind me of up coming student led conferences or an upcoming fundraiser. Two minutes later the other line beeped again, it was one of my oldest. Was she calling to tell me that the automated call was due to a tardy or an absence?

She said “did you get the message?”

“I got the call, I haven’t listened to the message yet, what’s going on?”

“The school is on lock down, kids stole guns that go to our school and they’re out there.”

As I tried to shove the tears out of my voice I asked her again what was going on, where was she? Where were all my other kids? Is everyone safe? Is she okay? Yes everyone is safe, yes she is okay.

I quickly ended the call with my friend, trying and failing to keep the quiver out of my voice the lump out of my throat, the tears out of my eyes. The message, thank you Apple that the transcription worked. The message boiled down to “not an active situation”. Breathing, calming, news, the news must be covering this. Turn on the news, small blip in the slow crawl on the bottom of my screen. Google, google always knows. Search, story, answers, more questions. Battery dying. Find charger. Phone rings, other oldest on the phone.

“Did you get the message”

Calmer this time around, I gave and got all of the details either of us had. She was okay.

Had my 3rd child emailed me? Why do I keep her phone at home while she is at school? This isn’t supposed to happen. Check email, she’s there. Is it that boy? Yes. Are you okay? Yes.

Call husband does he know? He knows. He is the calm voice of reason. The kids are safe at school that’s where they’ll stay. Going to pick them up now will add to the chaos. I keep checking the news, are they really okay? Yes they really are okay.

Finding the quiet in the chaos. I must move my body to slow my mind. Shoes on, dog on leash. Moving, calming, moving, calming, back and forth I feel the quiet settle in. I re-enter my house and am enveloped in the same quiet that was there after school drop off. I sit in it.

The phone rings, the school again, this time I answer hoping for more answers on the end of the line. I must show ID to pick my kids up from school. Child calls;

“mom, you have to pick us up.”

Trying my best to keep it together the calm vanishes, I shove the tears aside, “yes, yes I know.”

Another child calms, I detail the plan as though I had prepared for this all day, another child calls. As I reassure her that I have a plan, I am reassuring myself I have a plan. The tears managed to stay back while I assured my kids I was there for them.

I feel it. I want my mom. I call, try to act casual, two minutes in I’m sobbing. Sobbing and asking my mom if she can go buy popsicles because after I pick my kids up from school I need to bring them to her house so they can eat popsicles. So she can hold me while I hold them and make sure they are okay. My mom, my angel, is off to get popsicles.

I arrive at the school and from a distance can see the full parking lot and feel the reverence and gravity of the situation. Bodies moving slowly. As I walked through the parking lot I had to fight the urge to hug every police officer and teacher I passed. They were calm and collected I would act the same. As I worked through the ID check out process I chuckle at how a little “red tape” can sure do a lot to remove the emotion from a situation! Children are checked out and safely in my arms. Three of my kids don’t know what’s happened, they recanted what they were told; “it was a red air day, but it wasn’t and that is why we had to stay inside.” The oldest three asked questions and answered questions I tried and failed to manage the information shared because I hadn’t been able to tell the youngest three what had gone on.

We spill out of the car at my mom’s house, her and my dad both outside, and child number 5 falls into my arms, tears streaming down her face. “Mom, I’m scared.” Through  my tears that I’d been pushing around all day I told her she was safe. I told her all the reasons she was safe, reminding myself all the reasons she is safe.

Details are shared, speculations are made, politics are put aside. Popsicles and cookies are eaten. The quiet in the chaos is found.