As a child I felt a little underprivileged. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were on the other side of the earth. While my friends gathered with extended family on Thanksgiving eating turkey I was with my three brothers and my parents likely eating an Indonesian feast. It is only now that I realize that the gastronomic trade off was a good one. Regardless it is still my sense that I truly missed out, that those family connections, those shared idiosyncrasies are something that we need in life to make us feel whole.
One of the other aspects of growing up without extended family is the lack of experience with loss. I never saw grandparents grow old and die. I never saw my aunts or uncles suffer illness and pass. They were simply names without real experiences attached to them that I began to hear with less frequency.
As a child I would lay awake in bed and worry about death. I worried that there might just be dark emptiness, nothingness. I simply could not comprehend it, it frightened me. As an adolescent my questions evolved, what is life? Why are we here? What is it all about? I felt almost frantic. I was impatient to understand.
My environment provided many Christian answers to my questions but I just couldn’t grasp them. It just didn’t “take”. One day while sitting in church I heard the minister say something about eternal life and something clicked, a light turned on. I anxiously awaited the chance to discuss it with my father and I asked him if it was possible that eternal life was reincarnation. He thought about it for a moment, praised me for my questions and said, “Yes, I think it could be”. I felt so relieved. I felt all the angst of my years of wondering dissolve. As a parent I look back and realize what a gift he gave me. I don’t really know what his personal beliefs were but he respected me as an individual enough not to impose his beliefs on me. I believe that it was a true testimony to his intelligence to demonstrate that belief is holy, that religion is sacred, that individual faith is not something for anyone to question or disparage.
As I grew older my circle grew as did my experiences. Family friends began to pass. A friend of mine committed suicide after joking to me that it might be a solution to his problems. Although I had gained a philosophy about death, I still struggled with the idea of loss. I began to volunteer to the local Hospice, I needed to understand how people coped with knowing that the end was near, how their families functioned under the burden of that knowledge. I saw an entire range of experiences, none fit into a formula or mold and my questions lingered.
My husband is what my father in law, Logan called his fall crop. Andrew was born when his father was 45. Logan was an adopted child, his 15 year old biological mother had given him up for adoption in 1918. His adoptive mother was very disturbed and abusive. His adoptive father was simply absent. When World War II began, he enlisted in the Army Aircorp and began receiving letters from a young woman named Dorace at “home”. They married as soon as the war ended. His marriage provided him with the family for which he had always longed. He treasured his wife and children and was happiest when they were together.
Logan lived to be nearly 90. He battled heart disease, Parkinson’s and Bright’s disease. It seemed that death was often at his door and each time he rallied and death was turned away. Andrew and I often speculated that it was his strong desire not to leave what he held so dear to him that kept him alive.
In the February of his 90th year Logan began to leave us. His heart began to fail and his breath became rapid and shallow. Logan began to slip in and out of consciousness. Hospice came and determined that it was a matter of days. The chaplain visited and gave Logan permission to “go”. The family was provided with an ample amount of morphine and instructions of how to make him comfortable. Hospice offered a full-time nurse, the family opted for a visit twice a day.
Each of us cancelled our work obligations and began quietly gathering each morning. Andrew’s mother Dorace offered tea and coffee, boxes of cereals and fruit were made available. Grandchildren were notified and those who had the ability to do so made travel arrangements. The children, after all had been saying their final goodbyes after each visit for years.
Each of us took turns sitting with Logan. Andrew’s sister in law sat holding Logan’s hand in one hand and a book of poetry in the other. She gently read, smiling and commenting on each piece. On occasion Dorace would enter the room and we took this as our cue to leave, the door would close and later Dorace would quietly reappear looking weary. In the evenings the house would fill with extended family and food. Spirits were poured and the party would begin. Our chairs lined Logan’s bedroom and people overflowed into the kitchen and living room. Stories were told, there was laughter and there were tears and then gradually as the night progressed the house began to empty. This continued every day and night for four days, each night the numbers increased.
Occasionally Logan had moments of what seemed like clarity. During the day when there were less than five or six of us he would wake, point at the ceiling and talk to people who were not there. Ever the host he insisted that his wife get a chair for the invisible man sitting on the floor. In one instance he pointed to the ceiling and said, “Come Dorace, this nice lady wants us to go with her”. Dorace responded tenderly by saying, “you just go right ahead with her, I can’t join you just now”.
On the fourth night we said our goodbyes and returned home. Andrew’s sister Jane, her daughter Carina and Carina’s husband stayed the night with Dorace. Our phone rang at about 2:00 the next morning. It was Dorace letting us know that Logan was gone. We returned to Dorace’s house which seemed so strangely quiet after the evening’s merriment. The coroner was called and we waited. There aren’t many words to say when one waits for a coroner at 3:00 a.m. There are gentle touches, comforting glances and a peculiar stillness.
The coroner arrived in a minivan. He was wearing a suit jacket, slacks and a tie. A young woman wearing slacks accompanied him. I don’t know what I expected and I’m not sure that any vehicle, type of clothing or combination of people would have seemed more normal to me. Dorace said goodbye to her husband’s body for the last time, he was placed in a type of heavy, black, zippered bag, transferred to a gurney and wheeled to the waiting minivan. I exited out of the back door, stood outside alone and watched them load the body. The air was very still and cold, yet I was surprised to see my breath. Logan’s body was loaded. The couple shut the doors, reentered the van, and pulled away. The only sound was the cold crunch of the gravel beneath the tires.