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.