Death at the Periphery

November 30, 2017 – 7:28 a.m.

The phone call came two minutes before my alarm was set to go off.  I remember the way the light felt—the way it washed the room in a soft gray, as if the gamma had been reduced to a fourth. Outside, the sky was a pale winter blue and the sun was just beginning to peak its head out for the morning. My dog, Oliver, chewed on his bone in the living room. Garbage trucks rumbled down the street, clanging metal trash containers against metal sides. The neighbor’s dog (a Napoleonic, yippee thing) squeaked down the hall. Sleep was still crowding my eyes and clouding my thoughts. My head hadn’t even left the pillow.

“Grandpa died early this morning.”

My dad’s voice.

“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t think of much else.

I’d be lying to say that we hadn’t expected this—his death. But the sting of human frailty was still there, poking me between the eyes: Loneliness. Jesus wept. The grass withers. Flowers fade. A good man, a great man, gone—just like his father, and his father’s father before him. He had melted into a shadow of what he once was. Arms and legs once sun-stained, strong, and nimble, had become idle markers of age, now gone.

Dust to dust the mortal dies.

It is hard to give word to the numbness that sets in. If you are anything like me, you hang up the phone, force your muscles to contract and bend, and sit at the edge of your bed. You cry. You become a bumbling soul, as if your entire being has been slathered in Novocain. Mouths move up and down like ventriloquist dummies but no words come out—at least your ears are deaf to them. Your eyes begin leaking at random intervals. Empty chairs become your enemy.

Don’t sit there! You want to scream, however irrational. That is grandpa’s chair!

You stare at the head of the table where he used to sit, always waving across the cavernous divide at your grandmother.

Hi, Nan! he used to joke.

Someone else has taken up residence there, and you are just glad it isn’t you.

Your soul heaves.

You imagine him as he was: tall and lanky, sunscreen on his nose, bobber hat pulled down around his ears, one leg extended up onto the edge of his sailboat.

Don’t push off, he used to say. He meant don’t push away from the dock. Doing so was the quickest way for a bath.

You laugh a little.

You may not grieve as those without hope, but you do grieve. Your joints crack and ache with every clod of dirt being shoveled over marble urns or wooden caskets. Lips quiver, cheeks grow red with tears, and you curl into yourself as the pain seeps out into mourning. Even the Catholic priest, with his hair cropped high around the collar—the one who knew your grandfather well—scuffles through the liturgy, the last rights. Mourning.

In the midst of it all, you can’t help but think of the apostles, the prophets, the blood that ran down hills, the chains and shackles of our humanity, growing the seeds of our discontent. Somehow, despite history, and the way time steals itself from us, you imagined that he would be in your life forever. Even with death at the periphery, silently stalking your every moment, it seems to take you by surprise. It sucks the air from your lungs and fractures your reality. In an instant, your present is split in two and you are forced to make a new reality with only a memory of the one you have loved.

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