The Angel of Death

LightMy best friend was buried on Good Friday of our junior year in high school. She’d been in a horrible crash with her boyfriend on a sunny spring break day. They were heading to the video store to grab a movie. They never made it. Chuck died at the scene. Marcie lived a couple more days. But I knew she was on her way out. I felt it.

Of course, I had no way to know how I knew. I just did. But, having a super-rational side, I brushed away the notion and just chalked it up to the dread of something bad happening turning into the reality of it.

I love her and carry her with me now. Sometimes I’ll catch a whiff of her — in a song or a photograph, or most recently, a silly fill-in questionnaire book we’d shared in 4th grade that fell out of a box I was throwing away — and my heart will stop for a moment. I’m full of the joy of knowing her and the sadness of missing her all at once.

Several years later I had the same feeling. The difference this time was that I didn’t know of anyone who was in peril. I was just banana crackers and trying to do anything I could to shove away the panic. I had an 8-deck game of solitaire going, the TV on, the radio blaring, and was begging my then-mother-in-law for company.

I got the call the next morning. “Granddaddy is very sick. We don’t know if he’ll make it through the day. Come home.” I made the trip from Boca Raton to Knoxville in about 11 hours. I didn’t call home the whole time because I didn’t want to know I was too late. He was Blind and in a coma, so his greeting me with a sweet and strong “Hi Gina!” as I walked into his hospital room was bliss and shock all at once.

I love this man more than any other human on earth. He was my saving grace as a child and my Tuesday date for years as his Parkinson’s and my Lupus stranded us in the living room reading Sam Venable books and laughing about how many dishes of ice cream we could sneak past Grandmother. He was a good guy. A really good guy.

He died as I talked with him — Christmas music playing in the background in spite of it being September — and I knew he was okay. I wore my wedding going-away-dress to give his eulogy and planned a picnic for the twelve who gathered to scatter his ashes in our mountains. It was the saddest and sweetest week of my life.  He still visits me — as birds — from time to time. Yeah, I’d think me nuts, too. But it’s true.

Like the time the Bald Eagle swooped over B and me as we visited the WWII memorial in DC. Grandpa spent The War in India and Grandmother worked at The Pentagon. Grandpa Eagle hung out with us as we read every plaque in the WWII Memorial and then perched in a huge tree for a couple of photographs. When we finally decided to walk on to the Lincoln Memorial, he took off, circled the WWII Memorial twice, and flew over the Reflecting Pool and beyond the Lincoln Memorial out of sight.

The most personal death I’ve lived through was that of my first child. We were happily readying our home for her arrival when I got that feeling again. I shoved it aside as hormones. I went to the doctor to be told everything was fine. I checked and rechecked every twinge and poke. And then the time came when I just couldn’t sit still with the knowing. My wasband took me for a drive and a walk and it happened — I lost her.

Losing a child in pregnancy is the strangest of all deaths. On some level you are the only person on this planet who knows this child. And she’s gone. And you miss her — the her you never got to meet or kiss or comfort — while you know her every heart beat. No one knows what to say to a grieving mother who has lost a child before their birthday. So, they tend to say all the things that only make it harder. How far along were you? (Far enough to love her.) There must have been something wrong with her. (She was perfect.) You can have another. (But I wanted her). So I smile, walk away, and say a little prayer of gratitude that they’ve never had to live through such a thing.

It is a personal, private grief that still catches me off guard when I hear someone say her name  — Sarah Katherine. It happened most recently at a graduation. I’ve burst into tears on playgrounds when seeing girls her age playing. I also have moments of happiness as I imagine her brushing past. My own, personal guardian angel.

It wasn’t until a friend’s father became very ill and landed in the hospital for the final time that I reluctantly gave in to the reality that I, somehow, know when people are preparing to go. Still living in Florida, I happened to be in Knoxville and driving by the hospital when I had a strong urge to call Stephen in LA. He answered and told me where he was — sitting in the building I had just passed. I spent the next week loving Stephen through his Dad’s final illness and the following week supporting him through his Dad’s funeral and memorial and interment. That’s when I was given the somewhat odd nickname, “Angel of Death.” I’ve tried to take it as a compliment.

There have been other deaths that have caught my attention. It isn’t always someone I know, but the feeling that someone is going is never unfounded. I usually get a call asking for my support about the time I’ve made it through my speed dial list trying to figure out who it might be.

So, it was especially heart-rending when my baby sister called me for help this week. I knew, of course, who she was calling about. She wanted answers — Would he live? Why did he have to suffer? What could she do to stop it? Was it wrong to pray for a different outcome?

“I know you’re the Angel of Death. Help me understand this.”

Oh, sweetie, I wish I could. I can make some guesses, but every person who lives on this abundantly gorgeous planet eventually leaves it. The timing seems as personal as any other aspect of our existence — and as universal. It happens when it happens. I tend to believe there is purpose and meaning in this going — even if the ones left don’t have the insight to know what that is.

I’ve been touched by enough people who have made that transition to know that regardless of how well-prepared or surprising their leaving is, they leave behind a need for the ones who love them to make a journey of their own. There are volumes written on grieving, so I won’t repeat that work here. I will say that it is a sacred space.

I’ve also been touched by enough people who have sent me the feeling that they were going before they made their exit to trust that the soul knows. And it prepares. And, somehow, it’s ready.

Even if we aren’t. Even if they are young. Even if we want just one more bowl of ice cream with them. Even if they are loved. Even if they’ve fought hard to live. Even if we light candles and wish it were different.

But that doesn’t stop us from loving and hoping and living.

Until it’s our turn.

Workout 5 or Why I’d Procrastinate My Death If I Could…

The MegaChallenge 200 or 5 or... Well, it's a start!I love to work out. I love to write. I love to bake bread. I even love — truly — tidying our house.

But I procrastinate each and every one of them until my pants are so tight that I have to buy the next size, my blog goes un-updated for a year, we are forced to eat stale crackers, and the piles of clutter threaten to overtake the lawn.


Because I’m a professional procrastinator. That’s why. I work best for a deadline. Tell me it’s due at midnight and I’ll whip that assignment out and have it on your desk at 11:56. Sharp. And it will be gorgeous.

I used to believe that this was a character flaw. After reading about the first third of Martin Seligman’s latest book*, I’ve decided that it’s my preferred method of accomplishing goals. I am a precontemplator — I work on a task for as long as I’m given and then I finalize the whole thing just as it’s due. If I constantly missed deadlines or turned in shoddy work, I might feel the need to fix this methodology. Since it’s worked for me for decades, I’ve decided to stop fighting it.

So — the question becomes — how do I apply this same work-for-the-deadline mentality to my health goals?  At the risk of hearing the Universe moan, “Duh!” I’ll say it.

I must set a deadline.

The MegaChallenge 200 is about that deadline. It really doesn’t matter whether I work out 100 or 200 or 242 times a year. It matters that I feel some internal pressure to complete a task and mark it off. I’ve stopped pretending that I can be all Zen Master about this. I’m not going to manifest some universal peace and bliss about working out. I just have to put on my shoes and go play some music I love and run! I’m always glad that I did once I actually get on the machine.

So, I have gotten on the machine 5 times since May 22 and once — today for 46 minutes of glorious running to nowhere — in 2 weeks. I am not counting the 15-30 minute walks with Champ as workouts because my body could care less how far I walk. I don’t get any noticeable physical upticks unless I run. So I will. 195 more times before the next MegaConference.

Don’t anyone dare tell me I don’t have to.

*I pre-ordered Flourish and had it in my hands the day it was released. I’m reading it. Along with 18 other titles. I’ll finish it.  Eventually. And then I’ll write a great review. Right after I put out these other fires that I’ve been setting around here. Really.

Life and Death…

It is such a fine, fine line between here and there. Two of my very favorite people have been dancing on that line for the last bit. One is hanging on with every ounce of her being. One just teetered over the edge.

I’ll start with the still living. Gammy–as my kids call her–was out of my life for 21 years in spite of being one of the kindest people I have ever encountered. I got to reconnect with her this summer when I reintroduced myself to my paternal clan–and we are very early in the rebuilding stages. She went in for “routine”* surgery last week, was sent home the next day, and should have been fine. But she wasn’t. I’ll spare you the details, but she has been through 3 additional surgeries and tons of trauma (she needed some 6 pints of blood and 4 pints of plasma on Sunday alone!!) and is–amazingly–alive.

How close?? How close did I come to never seeing her again? My sisters and dad are almost speechless with fear and exhaustion and I feel like I am watching the whole thing through binoculars. It is impossible to describe the feeling of being so tightly emotionally bound to people you barely know. I want to gather them in and nurture them–but I don’t even know them well enough to have a clue what they would consider nurturing! I am just praying that I get the chance to learn. I almost didn’t.

Tracey's FlowersTracey’s mom, Noreen, was one of those women who just gave–and not the leftovers–she gave her best. When I married the wasband, Tracey and her brother were both in the wedding. Now, Tracey is an incredibly talented artist–with style in surplus–who did all sorts of wonders for my wedding. But, as a bridesmaid, isn’t that part of the job?

But her mom? Her mom didn’t get an official title in the production, but she sure should have. She made Tracey’s dress, drove a 15 passenger van full of guests across 3 states (and earned the nickname “Maria Andretti”) , assisted with the video, posed for pictures, offered sound advice, entertained the hotel staff, managed to smile the whole time, and then returned that van load safely home.

I can’t even look at the pictures right now. It reminds me that I have let some people slip away. I sort of lost some of them in the divorce. I got “too busy” to keep up with others. I missed the opportunity to reconnect with others.

Yeah, I believe in an afterlife–and all the solace that provides–but I am still very, very sad for those of us who will miss her amazing ability to be so casual about what a big deal she was. I am very, very sad that she got away without a goodbye. I had plenty of warning. She fought cancer for a very long time. I thought about calling, sending a card, sending flowers. I thought. I didn’t. I let her get away. Shame on me.

*I have always corrected anyone who called surgery “routine.” It is routine only for the medical personnel involved. I know there are folks who have lots of surgeries–but I doubt even they consider turning off their bodies, having them sliced open, having things rearranged and removed, sewing the whole package back up, and then waking up to round-the-clock vitals checks as a “routine” part of their day.

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