I was in a very cranky mood this past Monday morning; my sleep was interrupted by our dog who decided 3am was a good time to go out. On top of that, I was dreading going back to work after almost two full weeks off and I took this frustration out on my wife by snapping at her when she asked me not to yell at the dog at 3:00am. Imagine how small I felt when, after my snippiness, she handed me the lunch that she made for me before I walked out the door.
While sitting in the parking lot at the train station, and feeling bad about taking out my crankiness on my lunch making wife, I came across some terrible news on Facebook; a guy I went to high school and college with had died suddenly over the weekend. He was 44 and his name was Steve.
Steve was a great guy and I don’t just mean that in the “untimely death makes everyone wear rose colored glasses while remembering the deceased” sense. Steve was personable, loved his family, was a very loyal employee (15 years at the same company in the media business – those in the industry who may be reading this, just let that statistic sink in) and was extremely generous with his time and all the event tickets he came across as a result of his job. I saw him just a few weeks earlier; we often commuted into NY on the same train and he was smiling as he chatted with me on the platform while discussing the adventures he had with his niece and nephew the prior weekend. The world lost a good one.
As I let this news sink in I felt my sadness turn to anger while internally asking myself ‘Why Steve?’ Out of all the people in the world who could have died last weekend, why was it Steve’s time? I started thinking about the dozens of funerals I had been to over my life.
I have been to more than most; not because I have a large family or because I hang with hard living crowd, but because I attended a Catholic middle school attached to a church. Now if you think I went to some kind of morbid school that required students to attend funerals on a regular basis, you would be wrong; I was much more enterprising than that.
I was an altar boy for the church attached to my school (St. Gabriel’s in Stamford, Ct). I knew that altar boys typically got a small tip for serving the masses for weddings as well as funerals and knew that funerals were typically held during the week which meant that I could be excused from class in order to help Father Bobby Valentine serve a funeral. Yes, the priest’s name was Bobby Valentine; though he resembled the actor Donald Pleasence much more than Stamford’s own baseball hero and restauranteur. Fr. Valentine offered referred to me and my twin brother Jimmy as shit heads, but that’s a story for another post.
Back to the enterprising part; every Sunday I would grab a church bulletin to look for announcements about anybody in the parish who had died during the prior week. If someone did pass away, I would approach Fr. Bob after mass and asked if he needed an altar server for the mass. He would almost always say yes and it was not only my ticket to some spending money but also a way to get out of whatever class I had at 10am. Double score!
The priest would always offer some words of comfort to the family of the deceased. Most of the time, the dearly departed was an older person so there was lots of points made about how full of a life the deceased enjoyed and there were often anecdotes and jokes made bringing those congregated at the funeral to laughter amid their tears.
But Steve wasn’t old, he was 44! What could possibly comfort the family of someone who died so young and beloved by others?
Then I remembered serving a funeral for a little girl who passed away after an accident on the playground and as well as some friends of mine who lost their son to an infection. How does one even begin to comfort parents who lost a child before their lives even had a chance to begin? It is unfathomable to me.
I want to believe that there is some answer out there as to why these things happen to good people. I am not fooling myself into believing that this is an original question; certainly it has been asked and investigated before but Steve’s passing brings it front and center once again.
There are times when I believe that there is simply no reason to it all. That people die not because of some grandiose plan but because it is how it is. There are rational and explainable reasons for it; accidents happen, the heart gives out, cancer takes over, etc. As rational as that all sounds, I am not sure that I buy it. I’m conflicted. I do believe that every life has a purpose and that there is a bigger plan for each of us; not being made by a puppet master in the sky, but by something that is bigger than we are. Something that, although we try, we cannot fully comprehend and I will share three stories around why I feel this way.
When I was seventeen my grandmother was in the end stages of her battle with cancer. She and I were very close and, while the thought of losing her was very difficult, I saw the pain that she was in and prayed frequently that her suffering would end. When I was in school a voice came over the intercom system asking that my brother and I make our way to the main office. My mother was on the phone and she asked that Jimmy and I make our way home because my grandmother was slipping away.
We went home and there were various family members around; people we had not seen in a long time and Jimmy and I suspected that our grandmother had already passed. We went inside and were told that she wasn’t dead, but in a deep coma from which she would never recover. Jimmy went into her room and said his goodbyes and when he came out with tears he mentioned that she was unresponsive. I went in.
To my surprise, she woke up when I sat in front of her. “My Michael,” she said referring to the way she always greeted me. “I was waiting for you.” We had a little chat and then she told me she was tired and then went back to sleep. That would be the last conversation I would have with her unless you count what happens next.
That night, she had not yet passed, and I went to sleep. I had a dream about her where she told me that she was leaving. After the dream ended, I woke up and there was a knock at my door. It was my mother telling me that my grandmother had passed. I was not surprised and all I could muster was, “I know.”
I remember my mother telling us a few days before grandma died that she thought she was delusional. My grandmother confessed to her that various people had been coming in and out of the room including my grandfather and her brother; both of whom had died a decade or so earlier. We assumed it was the morphine, but now I am not so sure.
I question that because this past February, we lost my mother in law and I will never forget the experiences we had at the end of her life. Norma went from being an incredibly independent eighty eight year old woman to someone who needed around the clock care all within a few short weeks.
Towards the end of her life, I found her walking in the kitchen looking for her brother Ernie who had died a few months before (Norma was not on any medication at the time). I asked who she was talking to and she said, matter of factly, “My brother, he’s here.” Another time, my wife found her mother in her closet reaching for a suitcase and looking to pack it for the trip she was about to go on. Although there was only one catch, she had no plans to go on a trip. We chalked it up to general confusion and did not think anything of it until coming across a pamphlet from Hospice which explained what people go through in the end stages of dying and one of them was using travel metaphors during the process of dying. I say process because for the terminally ill, death isn’t something that happens all at once, but evolves over time. There is a belief that the soul knows that it has started a journey out of this life before the body does.
Maggie Callanan is a hospice nurse who has witnessed more than 2,000 deaths and was profiled in the New York Times. She shares the following observations:
Talking about having to get ready for a trip is common; people often use travel metaphors for death. But when it comes to destinations, everyone is seeing a different place. One man, for instance, was an avid golfer who told me he had just gotten an invitation to play a tournament in a foursome with his father and two brothers, all of whom were dead. People shouldn’t dismiss such remarks but use them to start conversations. “I said, ‘Tell me, do you know where you’re teeing off?’ He said, ‘No, because I don’t have my things together.”’ I interpreted that to mean that he wasn’t going to die immediately, which turned out be true. And people shouldn’t contradict dying people who claim to have seen dead family members, instead, they should ask to know more.
These experiences help strengthen my faith that there is something awaiting us after our time on this world is up; why else would we have these experiences? Yet the support I have provided focuses on either the experiences of someone who is dying or the experience of one who has worked with the dying. What about the living?
In 1998, to satisfy some life insurance underwriters, my father had to take a stress test. He was in his early 60s and appeared to be extremely healthy. He did not smoke, was not overweight, and exercised daily. What we didn’t know was that he was a ticking time bomb; three of his arteries were clogged. A triple bypass was scheduled for the following week. Note, “The Donster” is still living today and at 83 just won the “super-senior” flight of his country club’s championship.
He admitted to me a few years back that when he was going through the operation, he had a near death experience. He “saw the light” so to speak. Waiting for him were his mother and father, both of whom had died years earlier. We know it wasn’t lack of oxygen that caused an hallucination because some of the world’s best doctors were making sure all of his vital signs were fine. From what I remember my father telling me, his parents told him that it was not his time and then the experience was over.
If you have stuck with me for the past eighteen hundred words you may be asking yourself, ‘Wasn’t this post about a guy named Steve? Yes, it is – but it is also about my making sense of his death. The truth is, I believe Steve’s death is incredibly sad; as I mentioned before, the world lost a great guy but his death isn’t senseless.
If you were to take a look at his Facebook wall, it is full of people sharing the great memories they have about Steve. His wake, which I was able to attend, was full of people comforting his mother, sister, niece, nephew, and cousins. In short, his passing brought many people together who may not have seen each other in a long time. His death brought remembrances of good times and reminder that there was one guy who, while gone, left a positive mark on the world. Perhaps one day, when all those who loved Steve are at the point when their lives are ending, and they are talking about their upcoming trip, they just might see Steve again smiling while he asks, “I have an extra ticket to the UCONN Men’s game at MSG, do you want to go?”