This is a very hard post to write because I’m going to touch on a significant regret. But I think it’s worth sharing. Because if you haven’t yet said good-bye in this way to someone you love, one day you will – hopefully at the end of their long life, well-lived.
When I revisit the day Mark died, and the day after, there is one significant thing I would change: I would stay with him. And, if possible, I would have asked for his body so that I could do some sort of ceremonial washing. Every person is different, and every death is different, so this is not a one-size-fits-all prescription; rather it is an encouragement to try to know what’s right for YOU.
Anna Whiston-Donaldson, writes in “Rare Bird” of when she saw her son, Jack, after he died, but she fled the horror. He had drowned; she did not feel that was her son. I have seen the bodies of elderly people who have died and they little resemble the once-robust person I knew. Perhaps I had not noticed, over time….my vision blurring and missing the shrinking, the loss of flesh between bone and skin. Almost as though the soul escapes a too-tight space.
Mark looked…like Mark. Like Mark sleeping. I don’t remember actually seeing what I know to be true – that he had a breathing tube stuck down his throat, that there was blood on his face, at least in the operating room (he was bathed later, before we saw him at the funeral home). I know (now) that underneath the sheet that covered him when I saw him, less than two hours post-surgery, there was likely a disaster of hastily opened flesh. The team had worked quickly and had done everything they knew to save him, including open heart massage.
What I DO remember, overlaying all the raw and terrible emotion of those moments, is that I put other people’s needs ahead of my own. And that was wrong in every possible way.
I had been discouraged from seeing Mark and insisted on being taken to him, so I already felt like I was being granted a favor and shouldn’t take too long…I shouldn’t stay there for more than a little. I knew the medical examiner had been called and that I could not be present for that final assessment. I thought (oh yes, this is so me) that, perhaps, the operating room – he was still where he’d died during surgery – would be needed for someone else. In other words: I did not feel I could linger as long as I wanted, in my good-bye.
We did see him again the next day at the funeral home, where I was aware it was overwhelming to Steve, Sarah and Steve’s stepmom, Mary…they left after about 15 minutes with Mark. I walked out with them, but then went back one more time. And there is still a lingering sigh in my heart. I understand now the importance of the washing ritual, common to other religions but also the choice of a person still able to exist in the moment. Although it may have shocked me to see his injuries and what I expect was a not-terribly-neat stitching up of the incisions made, and although his body was ultimately cremated, it would have helped me so much to go through that slow and sacred process. I think it would have helped me accept the fact that he really was no longer in that body.
And so, dear reader, when this time comes in your life: I hope you will find a way to do what’s right for you.
At this point in time, regardless of that one enduring lament, I am pretty consistently aware – even in my dreams where Mark appears, where my subconscious rules – that he is dead. But it’s funny, because sometimes the denial (oh God, the hope…the wistful wish that maybe this is all just wrong, a lie, that Mark is still alive) is still right there, quite active; you can still have these insane little hopes surface and resurface…and this is where I wonder if I would have these delusions, had I spent more time with Mark, post-mortem. Like, in Joan Didion’s book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she talks about saving her (deceased) husband’s shoes in case he needs them when he comes back…you go just a little crazy, when someone you love suddenly leaves you.
The other night, in a similar fit (I’m working on 2 years of magical thinking), I actually Googled “secret government programs that identify and then kidnap excellent video gamers” because – on some level – this cannot be real. There has to be some mistake. I want Mark to be alive, in this world. I want Mark, just like the kid in the “Stranger Things” series on Netflix, to be trying hard to get home from wherever he is that isn’t. But I know, somehow, that it’s me who lives in the alien land; it’s me who is not home.