When I was in fourth grade I decided that I would die when I reached 90. It seemed like a good number to me, even and stretched out to hold all that a long life entailed. But I didn’t want my parents or my brother to die before me because I’d miss them, and I didn’t want to die before them since they’d miss me, so I hoped that we’d all make it to the same day. That presented the problem of our other family members missing all of us, and as I figured it out in my nine-year-old mind, I realized that no one could die without someone else being affected.
On Monday morning, February 14, my mother’s father passed away, exactly one week after his 90th birthday.
My brother and I called our grandpa on his birthday, and I could hear the smile and pleasure in his voice as we spoke. It is strange to hear his voice now and to know I will hear it only in memory. I am not afraid of forgetting it, though, for I still hear my grandma telling stories, and I still know the exact way my nana said “Hello” each time she answered the phone and how her voice could push against someone with stubborn passion and just as equally soothe with gentleness. These memories of my grandparents envelop me at sudden moments, bringing smiles or tears despite the time that has passed.
The morning of the wake, I laid in bed reading To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck, and came to a scene in which one of the characters dies. In the aftermath, Joseph, the main character, reflects on the death of his wife when he returns to their house:
The clock wound by Elizabeth still ticked, storing in its spring the presence of her hand, and the wool socks she had hung to dry were still damp. These were vital parts of Elizabeth that were not dead yet. Joseph pondered slowly over it–Life cannot be cut off quickly. One cannot be dead until the things he changed are dead. His effect is the only evidence of his life. While there remains even a plaintive memory, a person cannot be cutoff, dead. And he thought, ‘It’s a long slow process for a human to die. We kill a cow, and it is dead as soon as the meat is eaten, but a man’s life dies as a commotion in a still pool dies, in little waves, spreading and growing back toward stillness.’
It comforted me to read this and to think of my grandpa growing toward stillness, towards rest, and of the calm readiness he held in the last year of his life. Both when I went to New Zealand and then to Alaska, I felt in his hug a complete goodbye. What catches me off guard is my lack of preparation despite this.
I first encountered the commotion of death the year after I developed my idea of living until 90. One night in fifth grade I woke and rushed to my parents’ room to find my mother crying with my father’s arm around her after a phone call telling of my uncle’s death. Three years later came another call that sent my mother to her knees, hearing that her own mother had suddenly died of a stroke. In another three years my nana passed away, though we had the opportunity to say goodbye to her. Finally, a year later, my mom’s sister Anne died after four years of battling cancer.
I no longer avoid death as I wished to in fourth grade. Life will not allow me to. For along with the people who’ve left my life there has also been my family dog, Rudy, and the farm animals I’ve helped raise to slaughter, and the wild animals–birds, deer, moose, mice, skunks, squirrels–that I’ve walked upon or driven by laying unnaturally and still, waiting for the vultures to descend and clean.
In this way I have come to see death as both shocking and necessary, as heart-wrenching and calming as the crushing force of waves against rock, and the coming in and going out of ocean tides. I still want to be 90 and to have the years ahead to dig into the soil, to run across the landscape, and to love so deeply as all my grandparents did.
On his birthday, my Aunt Mary asked my grandpa if he felt any different from the day before when he was 89. He replied, “Yes. When you’re 89 you can still say ‘I’m in my eighties. I’m young.’ Now that I’m 90 I feel old.” God bless him for feeling young through cataracts and heart problems, the loss of his wife, his daughter and son-in-law, and all the worldly changes since his youth when milk was delivered by a horse-drawn cart. May we all feel young so long.