Friday, March 6, 2015

I've been thinking about death a lot lately...

I wonder if that is normal.  J had a patient die last week.  She was older and to the end and while he's had lots of patients and some die he almost never talks about it, in fact we rarely if ever talk about what he does you know because of this whole thing called HIPAA, but last week he had this conversation with this patient that he had to tell me about.  The patient was deteriorating, they'd spoken with the family and the other physicians and after they'd come to the decision that they were at the end of the line he had to sit down with the patient.  I don't really know what he told her but I know what she told him.  She said, "Come back and talk to me when you've got your head on straight."  That just cracked him up and so he shared that little bit of his week with me and then later I asked him if she was still around and he told me she'd died that evening.  I lay in bed that night and thought on that for awhile.  "What do you do when you are telling people they are going to die?" I asked him.  "I hold their hand," he told me.  "I tell them that I'm sorry, God bless them, and then sometimes if they want me to I pray with them."  These are the last words he said to me before he fell asleep and I swear I just lay in bed and thought about that for a good thirty minutes.

Manti TempleI've been pretty lucky in the fact that personally I haven't had a lot of experience with death.  I didn't even know a single person who had ever died until my step grandpa Gail passed when I was fourteen or fifteen.  He lived at our house, actually in our garage that had been converted to an apartment.  I used to go in and eat ice cream with them almost every night.  I've always loved sitting with my grandmothers and aunts listening to stories about their lives.  Gail was not a talker but Marvel was and I loved hearing about her high school boyfriend Zane, her days working at the creamery, the time she found out the boy she'd been dating who refused to dance but didn't refuse to kiss was technically on a mission, and how she meet Gail and got engaged in week.  This was during World War II and she thought he was going to be ship off.  Turned out a case of rheumatic fever saved him from this fate, but her choice paid off and they'd been happy together ever since until that day when I was fourteen or fifteen and he had a heart attack in the garage apartment.  My relationship with Gail was a little more cantankerous.  I remember him telling me to wipe my lipstick off because it didn't look lady like.  I remember him telling me to stop talking back to my mother.  The only story I ever remember him telling me was about was this time when had a job delivering ice cream and he once ate a whole five gallon carton while doing a run (but this is 20 years later so it is possible it was just a gallon and I'm remembering it as five...but if you knew him you'd also know five was entirely possible).  This morning when I was fifteen though he had a heart attack.  The paramedics were called and he was rushed to the hospital.  Within hours his body started to shut down as his blood went septic.  I didn't get to see him at the hospital, I'm pretty sure he never actually woke up.  I know all the adults gathered, they said goodbye, and they stopped the machines that were keeping his body oxygenated and he was gone.  Then we all headed to Manti, Utah for the funeral.  Manti is this tiny little blip in Utah.  It is just this little farming town and honestly there isn't much there, but there is this beautiful LDS temple sitting on on a hill and at the foot of the hill is a small graveyard.  That's where we buried Gail.  That experience was a turning point in my youth.  I decided the night before the funeral as I looked out at the lit temple from our small hotel room that I wanted to married there.  It was also the time that my grandma Marvel decided to move to Utah to live close to her only daughter.

In the years that followed my family life imploded.  My stepfather had demons and he let them rule his life.  He destroyed himself and he almost destroyed the family.  To this day this time in my life is still confusing.  It is full of hurt and disgust, shame and anger.  I hate my stepfather for what he did and yet because my own father left when I was seven he was also the only stable reliable father I actually ever had.  It is hard to properly explain how confusing that can be to a child and even now I can't really fully explain it.  The end result though was that my stepfather was gone and for me it created a strain on my relationship with Marvel.

  For years he was away and I would still go and see her.  Shorty after I turned sixteen I spent a week with her so I could see a friend who had gone away to college and another boy I'd been crushing on for awhile before he left for his mission.  In a totally unrelated note that boy happened to be an awesome kisser, I mean just amazing.  He was a horrible boyfriend though.  Just last week as I was going through a box of old high school and college mementos I found a letter he'd written me while on his mission asking if it was possible for him to have fallen in love with someone else while he was still in love with me.  Keep in mind he was suppose to be preaching the gospel, not checking out ladies.  I replied, "No." Right before he left though...pre the new girl and the mission there was just me and him, lots of good kissing and a week with Grandma Marvel.  I loved that time with her.  Every night she would make up the couches for us to sleep on (she hadn't been able to sleep flat on a bed in years).  We'd talk about Zane and Gail.  She'd tell me all the things my cousins were up to.  We talk about her sister Sandra and all the things her kids were up to.  I'd watch her curl her hair up the same way every morning.  Those girls from the 40's they were just a hoot with their curls.  The subject we had to leave alone was my step dad because on that we could not agree but in all other respects it was a great week.  .

The next year I came up to live in Utah for college.  I got to spend time with her again in her little apartment or then when she moved in with her daughter, at her house eating dinners, catching holidays, or on family picnics.  Those times were a little more fast paced.  My cousin Bryan who was quite the ladies man even in high school was always smooth talking my roommates but I still enjoyed the time I got to spend with them.  Then Marvel moved to Washington with her daughter and I moved back home because my Nana, my mom's mom was sick.

My Nana, Florence, was the second person I knew who died.  That first year I was away from home I got a call from my mom telling me she had cancer.  That night I cried, I mean just ball baby balled all over the front of this boy I was totally in love with.  When he left my dorm that night the entire front of his shirt was soaked.  I didn't know what I would do without my grandma.  She was larger than life.  She was tall and big boned, with large hands and a large nose like mine but she was so confident with herself, even as a young girl I recognized she was sexy and fun and amazing if you ignored her questionable taste in men.  She was brave and bold and she told almost unbelievable stories.  She had a beautiful voice and even though she'd been forced to quit school after the eighth grade she taught me of the importance of education as I watched her go to college and get a degree in her fifties.  She made me feel beautiful.  She taught me that it was okay to follow my heart when it came to politics and religion, that it was okay to question the established order.  She taught me it was okay to change your hair color, to paint your finger nails in a carpeted room, to eat chicken wings.  She always had a way of making you feel like she loved you best and I think that is why all her grandchildren fiercely love her and would claim they were her favorite if pressed.  I like to think I might just be a little like her, although hopefully with slightly better taste in men, I'm mean obviously not the best, let's not forget the mission dump.  He by the way at this point in my life called me up and asked if we could make out just to see if the spark was still there.  I declined.  When she got sick I transferred to a school back in my home state to be a little closer.  I got another whole year of holidays, parties, and get together's out of the deal, the next year though things started to go downhill, and by early November she was in hospice care dying.  Everyday I came to sit with her. I brought flowers and stuffed animals, stories of school, and cheesecake trying to tempt her to take just one bite.  I tolerated my grandfather with his pork rinds and his politics so I could sit with her.  I helped change her and bathe her and I wondered over how someone so large could have become such a wisp of a thing, just a fraction of her former shelf.  The day she died I had gone home briefly for a nap when my uncle called to tell me she was fading and to call my mother.  By the time I got back she was gone.  I miss her almost every day.  I wish my kids would have had the opportunity to met her.  I wonder what she thinks of me.  If she is proud.  If I would still be her "favorite".  I have so many questions I wish I could have asked her, things I didn't even know to ask until I was an adult but by then it was too late.  I dressed my Nana with my aunts and cousins.  We argued about the dress my grandfather had brought, if it was the one she really wanted.  Turns out it wasn't but my grandfather didn't find that dress for months.  I remember rubbing my hand across the bottom of her foot, one of the few places left that still felt soft and real and wishing that she was there to help me say goodbye.  She'd picked out this purple coffin and paid for it herself before she died so that no one would have to worry about it.  We buried her in the desert.  It was dry and dusty and Arizona.  The moment she passed I felt released from that place, as if the only think anchoring me to it had disappeared and like that I was gone.  I untangled myself from my current boyfriend and job and moved back home to Utah.  I think my mother must have felt the same way because maybe year after that she moved the rest of my family to Utah which became our new home base.

Meanwhile Grandma Marvel was living it up in Washington.  By then my stepfather was back and her and I lost touch in a way.  We'd pass on good wish to each other through my mother and I'd send her pictures and cards but I wanted nothing to do with my stepfather and since he now lived with her I lost my ability to talk and see her freely.  She died almost four years ago.  I was driving back home from a trip to Utah with my mother-in-law.  My mother called me with the news.  Marvel had fallen, broken her hip and had to be taken to the hospital.  They wanted to do surgery on her but her blood pressure was so low that in order to keep her alive they had to keep her inverted with her head down.  She was in terrible pain.  With two children by her side, one in the air, and one unable to be found (he worked in the backwoods of Alaska), she asked to be put back up.  She died testifying of Christ and when she told everyone it was time for her to pass she said Gail was at her side holding her hand and that Sandra who had died a few years before was sitting on the end of her bed.  She was laid to rest at the foot of that beautiful hill in Manti.  I wish I could have gone but I'm still to this day in a place where I don't want to see my step father and I lived on the other side of the country.  It was impossible.  I miss her too.  I know she got a kick out of the fact that I married an almost doctor.  Him making it there would have made her proud and I know she would have loved to see the mouth on this child of mine.  Remember she lived with me when I was a teenager.  There is no way she wouldn't enjoy seeing me get a little pay back.

Then there is my sister Jo who died just this last summer.  Luckily her partner was right there at the time and he and the paramedics managed to get her heart started again.  What would I do without one of my sisters.  Sisters are not just something you can replace with another...each one is special, unique, and necessary.  When we were young Jo drove me crazy.  She was everything I wasn't, thin, graceful, and an excellent speller, her skin was light and while it was always obvious that I was always "something else" she could pass for white and looked a lot more like our mother's family.  Frankly I was jealous.  But she was also a wonderful playmate.  She never complained about the fact that I always made her be Joseph in our family nativity.  She was creative with a great imagination.  My senior year of high school I moved schools to a new place and without her to eat lunch with everyday I don't know that I would have survived.  Today as grownups I'm in awe of her.  She is a vegan, she was in a National Geographic article, I kid you not.  She works as a librarian.  Can we all say dream job.  She lives without a car with her book selling Partner who gives the best hugs, who helps produce documentaries on the side and who I will love forever because he saved her life.  I haven't known that much death in my life but each one has left me feeling profoundly less.  I'm so thankful that at this point in my life I still get to have my sister as part of it.


  1. I enjoyed these stories. It's amazing how thinking of death can bring back such memories.

    Now which ones are you in these pictures? that one picture towards the end in front of a fountain in Savannah, Georgia? I was just there two weeks ago and it looks like Forsyth park!

    I've been thinking of death some this week, too. A girl who attended church with about a dozen years ago died after giving birth to her first child. She was 28. I have cried off and on ever since I found out.

  2. Such a lovely post, Crystal. What wonderful grandmothers. I am so glad your sister survived. As for me, I have been surrounded by death my whole life. So many funerals. I think about the people I am missing constantly, with love and smiles and sometimes tears.

    When my mom was dying, we had such a lovely visit with her doctor (he came to her house--Oh Canada!) and when he had described how her death would go, she said, "Is there any way to speed up the process?" and he just smiled and patted her hand and said, "Actually, death by liver cancer is not a bad way to go, comparatively speaking."

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