I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dying.
When my mom and dad had been dating for about three years, his dad passed away from pancreatic cancer.
(To be honest, it took me about five minutes to remember what my grandpa had died from. A bad memory and four grandparents dead before I was born makes it a little difficult to keep it all straight.)
My mom told me, “Sometimes death pulls people apart, and sometimes it brings them closer. I really think this brought your dad and me closer.” Shortly before the finals week of his senior year of college, my dad suddenly went home for the funeral. His teachers mailed him his finals. He didn’t walk in graduation from Penn State.
He was twenty-two, and his dad was dead. He wasn’t the head of the family now though. He had three older brothers and an older sister. He was the baby, and his dad was dead.
I’m the baby of my family as well. I’m twenty-two and in my senior year of college.
When I leave to go back to college, I hug him—hard.
At night, when he kisses me on the head, slightly to the left of where he normally does, I tell him, childishly, “wrong.” He kisses me again, in the center, where my part meets what would be my bangs (if I still had them), where he always does. It feels like home.
When I was in tenth grade, I wrote a novella inspired by the stages of grief. I went to the local library and checked out the book On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In it, she interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of cancer patients. She analyzed how people deal with dying—and death. She went through the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Kübler-Ross explained something in that book that stuck with me to this day. The stages are fluid. Sometimes we’re roaring with anger, sometimes we can’t believe it’s happening, sometimes we can’t get out of bed, and then sometimes we’re angry again.
There’s no right way to deal with death and dying.
When she was twenty-two years old, in the middle of the night, Sarah’s father died of a heart attack. I’d known Sarah since I was in middle school. We met through my best friend’s family.
I found out through a generic Facebook, “I’m so sorry,” post. I texted my best friend, “Is something wrong with Sarah?” She texted me back, “It’s awful. Her dad is dead.”
I gasped and felt secondhand grief burn the corners of my eyes.
At the wake, a few days later, I walked through the line. Sarah’s uncle looked perplexed when he saw me. “I’m—I’m friends with Sarah,” I explained, gesturing towards her. I wished I was wearing a different outfit, instead of my stupid roughly black shirt that I wore to work all the time. It seemed too festive. I could hear Sarah’s mom wailing down the line.
His face lit with recognition. “None of Sarah’s other friends went through the whole line. They just went straight to her.” I winced at the wake faux pas. You were supposed to say your sympathies to everyone in line.
My mother—behind me, always, in support—made a sympathetic noise.
“I— sorry,” I said, hesitant, unsure of how to make it better.
He made an it’s-okay type of movement with his shoulders, and I went down the rest of the line. When I got to Sarah, I was already tearing. “I always cry at these things, I’m sorry. I feel like I’m supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ but that sounds so stupid.” I really wanted to say “fucking” stupid, but I had seen her small cousins running about.
She laughed, and I was stunned. “It’s okay.” She looked at my tearing eyes. “Wow, you weren’t kidding.” She seemed rather nonchalant, but she always did, so it was hardly something new.
My mom murmured an apology and moved aside. I talked to Sarah for a few minutes, while there was a break in the line. I couldn’t tell you what about. What do you say to someone whose father has just died?
I feel like I remember her mom hugging me, but then again, maybe I hugged her. She was sobbing, barely supporting her own weight. I remembered that Sarah’s dad had taken a heart attack in the middle of the night, and I wondered how someone woke up next to their dead husband and didn’t just scream and scream and scream. I was sure the horror movie scream woke Sarah up.
I had never asked her. I never will.
When I was a little girl, I used to cry in the middle of the night because I didn’t have grandparents. My mom and dad would come in and comfort me: It was okay that Keri, my best friend, saw her grandma every week. It was okay.
I pouted though. It wasn’t fair.
My dad told me stories about my mother’s mom. She was always baking, and he was sure—he whispered, like a secret—that she was flying around in heaven with peanut butter stuck to her wings. I giggled, they tucked me in, and I fell asleep.
Years later, I made a reference to peanut-butter winged angels. My parents didn’t remember.
It’s strange, how things that comfort some people don’t comfort others. It’s strange how I never had grandparents, but they didn’t have parents, and they’re the ones who comforted me. Maybe that’s what parenthood is all about?
The first time I saw a dead body, I was in elementary school, and Keri’s grandpa had died. I knew I had to go to the wake; she was my best friend, but I was terrified. I hid near the back of the room, while my mom went to the front and murmured to her parents that I was here. Keri, delighted, ran back to me. I told her, “I’m really sorry about your grandpa.”
She told me, “It’s okay.”
I was already crying—always a sympathetic crier, in a room aching with grief—and she handed me tissues. I looked down at her sneakers and black jeans and wondered why my mom had said I had to dress up, if Keri didn’t have to.
Her grandma came over to me then, and she grabbed my hand. “Come on, Theresa.”
Eyes wide with terror, I looked for my mom. She shot me a look that quite clearly told me she didn’t know a polite way to extract me. Her grandma—for a reason I’ll never understand—led me straight to the casket and put my hand on her dead husband’s face. Grief makes people do funny things, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary for his granddaughter’s best friend to touch his face.
I cried regardless.
In twelfth grade, I took genetics. I filled out a family tree and asked my mom to confirm how my grandparents had died. I felt stupid for not knowing, but then again, she had no idea how most of my great-grandparents had died. Thirty-some years had faded the grief.
Late in my high school career, sitting at my desk, listening to Taylor Swift, I was interrupted by a knock on my door. Slow and solemnly, my mom sat on my bed. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. If something wasn’t wrong, she would’ve just stood in my doorway. I muted the music.
I don’t remember how she told me, what words she used. My Aunt Karen—though—she was definitely dead. My eyes welled instantly, and I covered my mouth. “How’s Daddy?”
“He’s— okay,” she said, hesitantly, slowly. She told me what had happened—or I guess she didn’t, because they didn’t really know. Aunt Karen had died in her sleep. She wasn’t old per say, but when my mom was in the hospital having me, Aunt Karen was having a brain aneurysm and a stroke and becoming permanently physically disabled. She was “lucky” she hadn’t died eighteen or so years ago.
My tongue felt thick. “Should I… talk to him? I don’t want to make it worse.” Relatives had died before, but never someone this close to my family. Never someone I had seen every Christmas and every Thanksgiving.
She told me she thought he would like that. I walked down to the kitchen, slowly, where my dad was facing the window at the sink. “Dad,” I said—and swallowed, hard.
He turned around, and he was crying—real, big tears. It was the first time I remembered ever seeing him cry.
I did the only thing I knew how to, and I hugged him.
I’m still thinking a lot about dying, and a lot about what it means. There’s no right way to deal with death or dying—and maybe there’s no right time to start dealing with the potential for death or dying. Maybe I’ll never know the most comforting thing to say, and maybe I’ll never stop crying at funerals and wakes.
My dad lost his dad when he was my age. My parents were both orphans by the time they were thirty. I look at a calendar, think about the next eight years of my life, think about my parents, think about death and dying, and think about the fact that I’m crazy paranoid (knock on wood), and know they’re likely to live another thirty years. I hope my future children know them.
I don’t know why I think about things like this.
I think, maybe, I’m afraid.
Theresa Kelly is a senior at West Chester University majoring in English literature secondary education. She is the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. Theresa has previously been published by Lip Magazine, Daedalus Literary Magazine, and Literati. Email: theresajoykelly[at]hotmail.com