Before death is final
Friday Maggie and I picked up a U-Haul van and headed to Oberlin to pack up some furniture my mother was giving to Maggie for her new apartment.
With the help of my sister we loaded a desk, chairs, tables, a wine rack, a television table, and the headboard from my father’s bed.
Maggie’s childhood bed had been a frame that my father had used growing up and then I’d used in my parents house until I moved out.
Now that my father has died, my mother wanted Maggie to have the headboard from his bed. It’s a beautiful piece that we carefully loaded onto the van and bungie-corded into place.
We carefully drove the van back home and filled it with a dresser from Elena’s room - one that had been in my sister’s room growing up - and Kim’s white trunk which she’d filled with off-season clothes.
I’d worried that Elena’s dresser would be filled with her clothes but remembered that we’d cleaned it out a couple of years after she died.
I knew Kim’s trunk was still filled with her clothes. I haven’t yet faced going through her stuff even though it’s been five years since she died.
Exactly five years.
The truck ran her over five years ago last Thursday and she died five years ago yesterday.
In between these two anniversaries, Maggie and I loaded up the U-Haul and moved the desk, chairs, tables, wine rack, tv table, headboard, dresser and trunk to Philadelphia.
I used to fly two or three weeks out of every month for work.
I’d mostly fly to Europe.
I loved being there. I hated flying.
I hated how people behaved in airports and airplanes even before COVID.
I worried about the germs and dirty surfaces and coughs of people around me even then.
I had vague fears of dying on an airplane.
Friends were sure I loved to fly because I did it so much.
I loved being there. I hated flying.
I also hated flying for what’s going to sound like a silly reason.
You get on a plane in one place, in one time zone, in one culture - and hours later you arrive in a completely different place, time zones away, surrounded by different people.
I know. That’s the whole point of flying. But you almost don’t have enough time to adjust to the new surroundings. You’re eating and sleeping schedule are off - but it’s more than that.
People describe it as your soul takes time to catch up to where you are. It travels at a slower speed than flight. You are not completely yourself til it does.
On the other hand, when you drive, you have plenty of time to transition from where you started to where you’re going.
Your soul doesn’t get left behind.
It exits the highway with you when you need to stop for coffee and to refuel.
Maybe it gets a little lost in the gift shop while you’re in the bathroom but it notices you’re leaving and trots along beside you.
This weekend between the anniversaries of Kim’s accident and death I thought a lot about her, Elena, my dad and each of their deaths.
When someone dies, there’s a space between their death and your understanding that they are really gone.
One night Elena was an ordinary six year old doing her homework and playing with friends who had stopped by. The next day she was gone.
It took Kim and me years to realize that this was final.
At first it didn’t feel real. Maybe she’d wake up.
Then it felt as if we were in some awful dream. Maybe we’d wake up.
No one woke up.
And still it took years for us to feel the finality of her death in a way that the pain would shift from the immediate loss to the long term ache.
It’s not that her soul departed with her - there are pieces of someone’s soul in all who love them - in all who care and pay attention. Elena had a very large soul that lived in everyone who knew her.
That part lived on.
But at some point, Kim and I understood that Elena was gone.
With my dad it was different.
He was sick for a long time.
None of us minded doing the things he needed done - wheeling him to meals, speaking to him hoping he could understand something, visiting or calling when we could…
But at some point, he wasn’t himself any more.
It’s like he was gone before he died.
It made his death easier to accept.
I still miss my dad and there are conversations I wish I could have with him.
I miss seeing him in his chair and mom in hers.
I miss the rhythm of their interaction.
But he wasn’t him at the end. He was the same physical self - but there was no part of who he was that was recognizable. This man who had lived his life keeping active, telling stories, and thinking deeply could do none of those anymore.
The difference between Elena and my dad might have been their age or it might have been the suddenness of Elena’s death contrasted with the decline in my father.
The night before Elena died she was scooting around the front hall on her indoor turtle bike.
Her sudden death meant that we spent our time wrestling with what happened after she was gone and not before.
I mourned my dad’s death but I knew he was gone.
Let me clarify that.
Gone is a personal experience.
He may be gone for some people but not for others. For my mom, my dad may still not be gone.
Here’s how I knew. When we visited my mother after that, I didn’t glance at his chair expecting to see him.
For me, he was gone.
Kim’s death was as sudden as can be.
I’d just heard from her about our dinner plans. We’d thought of going out for a late celebration of our anniversary but she’d decided that we should grill hamburgers instead.
An hour or so later a social worker at Metro Hospital called me to tell me that Kim had been in an accident.
Kim’s dad and I got to the hospital at about the same time.
There’s no reason to relive that day - though I do - nor the next few when it was clear that she would never recover.
She went from being Kim to not being Kim in a moment.
Even after her death and her funeral she still wasn’t gone.
Not for me.
It took years.
Sunday, I got up early and drove the empty U-Haul back from Philadelphia.
I dropped it off and biked home.
I said something to Maggie last week about “my house”.
Not our house as in me and Maggie. Maggie is moving away to begin the next phase of her life.
Not our house as in me and Kim. There’s no Kim and me in the house.
That’s when I realized that, for me, Kim is gone.
Kim had a very large soul that lives on in everyone who knew her.
A bit of her soul stays with me. Selfishly, it’s not enough. But it’s what I have.
That and the contents of the trunk we cleared out and the memories of our time together.
Those will stay. Kim is gone.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 74. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe