Death knocked for my great grandmother Ley. I was twelve. Louise Ley had bristly whiskers that scraped when she kissed, very white hair, and the pungent odor (not unpleasant) of aged women. The phone rang; she was gone.
My grandparents, in their own time, passed. Howard Rhynard baited my hooks. He taught me tools, fixing things, and mowing lawns. He constructed the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton that even now haunts my study. ALS stole his body at sixty. Howard departed with dignity despite daunting disabilities. Ada Lancaster left next. She poured great iced tea. Her hugs made night frights vanish. Ada stocked maraschino cherries and beef jerky, to accommodate my foibles. Ada endured chronic stomach ulcers, and smoked. On her death bed, Ada spoke of God to indulge me; she knew, for me, metaphysics matter. Emphysema slowed, then killed, her. Ada’s affection was a perpetual torrent. Paul Lancaster took me stream angling in Montana and Alberta; he bequeathed his passion for dogs and YMCAs. He told jokes. Paul abused his liver and driving privileges with tippling. Paul died a decade after ears and eyes failed him. Edith Rhynard passed last, clinging to life despite chronic cardiac insufficiency. She baked supreme cinnamon rolls, and taught me Jesus and Selah summers. Edith died by merciful morphine overdose. The hollows each grandparent left in my heart brim with memories.
My high school sweetheart, Debbie, succumbed to flesh-eating bacteria. She was forty. Debbie endured adolescence with me, and revealed miraculous femininity and empathy. At her death, we were no longer close. I still feel (oddly) that we may bump into one another in the Safeway cereal aisle one day.
Dolph, Tom, Sterling, Velma, Olga, and others. Aging friends: time has stolen each. Some fought wars. One fled war. Some naturalized. They raised families, or chose childlessness. They scraped through the Depression, and watched Americans walk on the moon. They fought World War II and Korea and Vietnam and the Soviet Union. One lost a son at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. They survived obstacles, lived full life. Some fell where they stood; attrition wasted others. Losing each was painful. Shakespeare (English, 17th century A.D.) understood. His King Claudius said: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions” (Hamlet). We pray flat water, but maelstrom death churns our passage. Our boat shudders in dark winds on a troubled sea.
Life gives, but also takes. Depredations bid us reshape ourselves. We knit new faces into our fabric with loose threads where friends are ripped away. Death rends the weave again and again. We darn and patch. For we are this tattered tapestry, loomed of life and death. The dead live in us. We, in our turn, become the dead, living in others. Life’s skein unwinds toward a future. Death walks by our side, hand in hand.
I nurse wincing gratitude for the company. Sometimes.