This evening I went to the visitation of a retired professor from the college where I work. He taught psychology, and I actually took his class when I was a student there a lifetime ago. He was a guy who always wore a smile. His death was a bit unexpected, although he hadn’t been in the best of health in recent years. Apparently he died of cardiac arrest in his sleep and I hope his passing was quick and peaceful. That’s how I’d wish everyone could go…silently moving beyond this life and into what’s beyond without interruption. A friend, who also knew him as a teacher and his colleague, said he once told her he had been witness to the messy emotional events that are both the start and end of life (his children’s births and his wife’s death) and that we were lucky to have everything in between. How true. I’m thankful today for having crossed paths with this man and his wisdom and for the in-between I’m still experiencing.
I admit, I was really shocked when I heard of Robin Williams’ death today. And saddened more than I thought possible. After all, I didn’t know him personally. I’m also not someone who normally follows celebrity news carefully. So I was surprised to find myself in tears over his loss. But then again, he had been an actor since I was a small child. He’d been around in movies for pretty much all of my life. Hearing about his death today felt a little bit like losing an uncle I didn’t get to see that often. In his memory, I rented and watched one of my favorite films What Dreams May Come. And I’ve been thinking about what his death means to me. And why I feel so affected. I think the key is simply to look at some of the characters he’s played over the years: Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, Chris in What Dreams May Come, Daniel in Mrs. Doubtfire, Adrian in Good Morning Vietnam, Peter Pan in Hook, Alan in Jumanji, Armand in The Birdcage, Hunter Adams in Patch Adams…The bulk of his characters were inspirational. Characters who were compassionate, often struggling with their own issues but trying to help others overcome theirs as well. Because Robin Williams was such a great actor, it was easy to believe that he was just like his characters, which makes his loss to apparent suicide seem so much more tragic. He’s supposed to overcome. He’s the guy who’s always searching for the answers and fighting the good fight. How could he have found himself no longer able to?
I posted back in June about a friend of mine who had committed suicide and how much it affected me. My disbelief now is not as great as it was then, of course, but it’s familiar. When I hear of anyone’s death from suicide I immediately think of all the wonderful things they’re missing out on. However, that’s my view and I know that and I’m thankful that it’s my default. It helps me personally when I’m struggling. But there’s a line in What Dreams May Come that seems poignant What’s true in our minds is true, whether other people know it or not. We can’t always tell what struggles people are going through, and even if we did, we may not understand them anyway. Not all of our demons are the same. But there are many people living with depression or anxiety or any other illness that becomes a daily struggle. We may not be able to see it. Robin Williams is a perfect example, a man who always seemed so full of energy and laughter on the outside. While I’m sad to hear of his battles with depression and his death today, I’m thankful we were blessed with his talent. I wish his family peace tonight.
I found out today that a guy I went to grade school with died recently. Apparently he had been battling lymphoma for a couple of years. Today was his birthday; he was born the same year I was, which is probably why, even though I hadn’t seen or heard of him in years, his passing seems so strange and sad. While I find myself feeling old some days, when I heard of his death, it reminded me of how young we really are. His was a life cut short. It’s another reminder that no day is promised to anyone. Although I wasn’t friends with him currently, I do remember my old classmate. So I was thankful to read in his obituary that he lived his bucket list, working as a pastry chef and traveling around the world. He lived in London for a year. He died in Hawaii. From the list of things he enjoyed, I’m guessing we could have been friends: the ocean, hot days outside, good wine, the Christmas season. I’m guessing he knew his time was short and tried to live it with as much gusto as possible. His family ended his obituary with the following, wise words for all of us. He lived life with fullness and joy. We are reminded through his life to live each day with the possibility of nurturing curiosity and spreading kindness.
It was a good day. In many ways. I sit here at my computer thinking about what made it worthwhile, even though it wasn’t overly exciting or special. But it had all the necessary stuff of life for me: beautiful weather, a little work, good conversations and quality time with people I care about. I’m lucky.
Today I’m usually reminded of someone I loved long ago. He killed himself on June 2. We were both 25 at the time. I still remember the phone call and how the sun shone through the window on the counter top where I was standing in my kitchen. I remember how I turned absently to look into the refrigerator and how, in my memory, there was nothing there. I remember how hard it was to breathe while trying to understand the message I was told. He overdosed on some pills he had found in his mom’s medicine cabinet. He didn’t want to keep living. And in the moment I hung up the phone, I knew everything was changed for me. In that split second, I was a different person. It’s strange how some moments are trans formative. How we can look back at a single point in time and say, yes, that’s when my life took a turn. His death stripped me of my naivety. I had never lost anyone so suddenly before. Especially someone who chose to leave and never return. That moment was my epiphany.
It was only after his funeral that I was able to see a different side to the man I knew. His mother told me of his battles with depression and alcohol, facets of himself he had kept hidden from me. Apparently, he had tried to commit suicide at least once before, when in his teens. He had grown up with abuse. Everything she told me was opposite of the person I knew. A guy who was brilliantly intelligent, funny, laughed easily, well-liked. He was set to graduate from college with high honors. He had plans to live in Alaska. He loved animals. And he loved me. His mother told me that in the time frame he and I were closest was the happiest she had seen him. The most well-adjusted. She had hoped he had turned himself around. But he obviously hadn’t. And her comments only added to the guilt I already felt. I wondered how I didn’t know or hadn’t seen any signs. I agonized over what I missed because I hadn’t been paying enough attention. I recounted every time I could think of where he asked something of me and I didn’t respond right. Of when he may have needed me and I wasn’t there. I wondered how I could have saved him. I hated myself because I didn’t.
It took me many, many years to finally stop carrying his death around with me. I let it define me for too long. The grief, the guilt, the anger. I carried it with me like a treasure I was afraid to let go of. It wasn’t until I had a long period of hard times myself that I finally understood the low point someone can get to where death seems a viable option. One particularly dark day of a very long year, I finally understood how hard it can be to stay hopeful when life seems so set against you. But thankfully, I never gave in to that despair. I knew I had things to live for. I forgave him that day. And it became easier to move on. I finally realized that setting aside the weight of his death didn’t mean I would be forgetting or not caring anymore. I needed to let him go for me. His death was tragic, of course, but it wasn’t my fault. It was his choice, and I’ll always think it was a terrible choice. He’s missed out on so much. And he had so much he could have contributed. The world really is a beautiful place. Especially on days like today when there’s sunshine and ice cream and laughter and love. I’m thankful.
You may recognize the first lines of “The Way of the World” by poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox: Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone. It’s true that it’s easy to have friends around you when things are going well; most people can handle the good days.
I’ve been blessed with a large, close family. Regardless of the moments we’ve gotten angry or frustrated with each other, when it comes right down to it, we are there for each other. And we’ve had times over the years when that’s been proven. Times when one or another of us has dropped everything and gone to be with the other. Not every family is that way. I’m lucky mine is.
But I’m also lucky to have friends I feel the same way about, especially since my family is so scattered. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had numerous people extend their condolences over the loss of my father. I’ve gotten cards from unexpected people. Hugs from colleagues. A plant delivered to my house. But what’s touched me most is that I’ve also had several close friends who checked in with me daily, sometimes several times a day. Grief manifests itself in strange ways. I’m not usually an outwardly emotional person. I don’t like to cry in public. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. I’m much more comfortable being the one other people can lean on. But I’ve found myself close to tears periodically with random triggers. A song, a card, a memory. While I feel like I’m doing ok, I know that the grieving process isn’t over. Death has a way of making you reflect not just on the life of the person lost, but on your own life. For me, it’s reminded me of the brevity of our days and reinforced my desire to live a meaningful life. I’m sure this reflection is part of the process, but it also adds another emotional layer to an already stressful event. And I know that for other people, it’s not always easy to know what to say or do for someone during this time. Therefore, I’m so grateful to have people in my life who look beyond my I’m ok and check on me anyway. It means more to me than they probably realized.
My dad died today. My sisters and mom and I sat by his bedside all night last night, listening to his labored breathing, holding our own breath every time he stopped too long between gasps. He never woke up. So we chatted amongst ourselves and cried intermittently and finally, around 2 am, requested pillows and blankets and tried to sleep on wooden folding chairs. There’s something exhausting and guilty-feeling about waiting for death. The constant wondering if the next moment is going to be the last one together. Just after 5 am, when it was just my mom awake by his side, my dad simply stopped breathing. My mom said she had just told him he didn’t have to hold on any longer. He could go, and so he did.
I have to admit that when I first got the call yesterday that my dad had taken a turn for the worse and maybe wouldn’t survive the day, I didn’t want to go back to the hospital. It wasn’t that I had just made the three-hour drive back home, it was that I didn’t really want to face it. I wasn’t sure I had the energy or the strength to watch my dad die. But then I knew that whatever I felt didn’t matter. What was real was that the man who spent his life taking care of me and my sisters and my mom would be gone within hours, and I had the privilege to be there by his side. No matter how much it would hurt to see, this was a gift, to say a final goodbye.
I’m thankful my dad was a Christian. He believed that he was headed to a better place and had absolutely no fear of death. I know that made his final days easier for him. And I’m sure he was looking forward to seeing the many people he had lost in his almost 67 years: his own dad who died too early in his 30’s, his mom who suffered from Alzheimer’s, his brothers, his son, his best friend. It must have comforted my mom also, allowing her the strength to tell him to go to the others she believed were waiting for him.
The world lost a wonderful man today. A man with a hearty laugh and a deep love for people and animals and the Lord. A man of strength and honor and commitment. A man who loved my mother and her children as his own. He was my stepfather, but I never thought of him that way. To me he was always my dad. I’m thankful he entered my life so long ago. And I’m thankful I was there when he left so peacefully this morning.
It’s not surprising how the end of someone’s life brings family together. In the last few days, I’ve been able to see my aunts and a cousin whom I rarely see anymore. Not because we don’t want to see each other, but because we don’t live close and it’s difficult. I’ve also gotten a chance to see my sisters who are scattered across the country. We’ve had a chance to reminisce a little and catch up. I’m thankful for the closeness we share, even across the miles that usually separate us. When someone you love is getting close to leaving this world, the important things tend to emerge. I’ve been reminded once again that life is short and death is the only certainty. What we do on our way to the end is the important thing. Live while you can. Love gently but fiercely; live passionately but with dignity; forgive and move on. In the end we only have each other.