My friend, Robin, pointed out that I wrote a comment on a blog post regarding the death of my friend, Derek. The comment was “Why do people come into our lives if it is only their intention to leave?” She said that comment shredded her, as she often feels the same way. I tried to back my thoughts up to five years ago, in reflection of why I might have said that. It was a comment made in the midst of grief, but it is a question for the ages. Why do people come in, allow us to get attached to them and then, suddenly, they are erased from our lives? Death, estrangement or just a simple case of growing in different directions. People that you love just sometimes…go away.
I told her, people come into our lives to teach you lessons. Lessons that are either great or small. Everyone has an expiration date in the lives of others. Whether it is due to physical loss or emotional detachment, we all run our course. There are friends I needed long ago that I just don’t need any longer. They were there for their reason at the time. To support me, to love me, to be by my side while I went through something or for me to be there for them. People I thought would be in my life forever suddenly vanished. But, when I look back on it…it was a moment in time that bonded us. Something we shared. Something that we related to and we needed each other to figure out the equation. Once the problem was solved…it was time to move on, for both of us…or just one of us.
But when one is not ready for that sudden absentia, it leaves pain in its wake.
And questions. Lots and lots of questions.
I am no stranger to loss. I have lost a great number of people in my life from death. I have lost a parent. I have lost a child. I have lost friends who I thought I could never survive without. I have lost pets who were like children to me and I grieved them more ferociously and vehemently than I have some actual human family members.
It’s never an easy process. Ever.
I have become nearly superstitious when it comes to death. I won’t let any one leave my house without saying “I love you” before they go. We could be in the middle of a heated fight…and if they leave my home without a hug or a kind word, my stomach always knots up. I think, I am going to lose them now. Now that we parted harshly, those words will be the last words we ever speak to each other. I think this is because my last words to my friend Derek were “I’ll see you tomorrow…” when he asked me to please come out and hang out with him, and then, tomorrow never came for him. Or, perhaps because the last words I ever said to my father were “I hate your fucking guts. I never want to speak to you again.”
Guess what? I didn’t ever get to speak to him again. He died a week later.
So, it has become a life mission of mine to make sure that I never part harshly with any one. I don’t think my heart could take another memory of someone leaving this world with the last thing having been said between us being something cold or hateful. It’s a huge burden to live with and a bigger one to die with. I find myself apologizing and justifying constantly to people who no longer walk this earth.
“You know I didn’t mean that, right, Daddy?”
“I should have come out to see you, Derek. I should have found a baby sitter. Maybe you would still be here, if I had.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t kiss you goodbye, Snoop. I’m sorry I was too busy to kiss you goodbye.”
I keep hoping for validation in a situation where I know I will never get any closure.
Of course my Dad knows I didn’t mean that. I was a teenager. 19 years old. I was angry with him because I needed help with something and, in form with the lousy father he was, he didn’t come through for me. I think now…who really owes whom the apology? Why aren’t YOU sorry that you didn’t do what I needed you to do for me? Why was I constantly put in the position of begging you to be my father? Why am I making myself feel perpetually guilty for saying such a terrible thing to you before you died. I didn’t kill you. YOU killed you. YOU chose to get into a car, loaded up on drugs and alcohol, careening into an oncoming truck, potentially robbing the driver of that car of being a good dad to HIS four children. He was probably a great dad, just out for the day, driving to or from his job so he could get home to his wife and kids that he valued. YOU, Dad, were the bad guy in this scenario…so why am I feeling guilty?
Because words spoken cannot be unspoken. Simply put, you can’t un-ring a bell.
And of course, Derek has forgiven me a million times for not having a baby sitter to go out on other nights. So why is this one eating me up…getting the best of me? Because this particular night…he killed himself. How could I have possibly known that your request for my time was to be spent talking you out of ending your life? You were a drug addict. You put those drugs in your body. You chose to take more than your body could handle. You died. I have to continue living knowing that if something would have changed that night, it could have altered the course of your life. You might still be here.
Then again, you might not. And, as I always said, you were dying since the day you were born.
Only this time, you took my heart with you.
Why am I angry with myself, when you chose to make me walk in the pain of losing you over what I will only ever believe could have been “fixed” had I just been there. Why shouldn’t I be mad at you, Derek, for causing me this never ending grief and turmoil over those last moments?
Why? Because you’re not here. I am. And you can’t blame something that no longer exists.
So, how do you get through the guilt? You don’t. No matter how many times people say, “don’t blame yourself”, it’s hard not to. It’s hard to gloss over the obvious…that the last things you said to these people are what you are going to have to live with. It’s strange. Most of us don’t even recall on a day to day basis what the last thing someone said to you was. But, let that person die…and suddenly, you have no recollection of anything else but that. I can scarcely remember any other words uttered between Derek and I, or my father and I, save for those last words.
Why do I only dwell on the fact that the day my precious dog, Snoop, passed away, I was too busy with work to give him a little pat on the head before he went to the kennel? We were leaving for vacation that afternoon…and I was so busy playing catch up, I just yelled out, “Bye Snoops!” I never got up from my desk to give him a hug and a kiss.
And now, he’s gone too.
I can flip the switch on this, you know. I can remember my best friend Norman dying. I held his hand. I kissed his lips, dry and cracked as they were, as he lay in a hospital bed while the leukemia ravaged his already small, frail body. He knew I loved him desperately and he said to me, “I’m not afraid, you know.” I said, “I am.” He said, “Don’t be. It will be grand. Gay pride day in Heaven, can you imagine?” The vision he conjured in my mind of angels in rainbow wings and gold lame loin cloths made me laugh out loud. He laughed too, and that laughter is what I remember. That, and my husband leaning in to kiss him goodbye. I will always remember those moments when I think of Norman.
Then, there’s my grandmother. I can remember stroking my grandmothers hair just a mere few months ago, her telling her that she loved me so much and patting my cheek. I knew at that moment, I would likely never see her again. She was so sick. The dementia and the Alzheimers were eating her mind and body away slowly. But I was there. I held her. She knew she was loved…and she was able to let go. She usually asks me when I leave, “are you coming back soon?” to which I always reply, “Of course I am, silly. I love you!” But this time, she didn’t ask me. She just smiled at me and went back to sleep. Maybe she knew she was leaving…maybe I did. I pulled a flower hair clip from my own hair, and put it in hers.
Maybe that was our goodbye. I don’t know.
The mind chooses to remember what it chooses to remember. Sometimes it is terribly cruel. Other times, it is graciously merciful. It shames me to say, I barely remember my son, those last moments before I had to hand him away. I barely remember his face. I don’t remember the smell of his hair or the feel of his fingers wrapped around mine. There was no time to remember. No time to ingrain that moment into my memory. And, ironically, I find that to be both cruel and merciful.
So, how do you get through the anniversaries of the deaths of those we love? How do we stop the self fulfilling prophecy of relegating yourself to a life of wallowing in guilt and anguish for the things we did or did not do while that person was still alive?
The truth is, we don’t.
We make mountains out of molehills in our minds. And, on the opposite end of that, we make molehills out of mountains…just so we can cope. We have to force ourselves to cope in the best ways we know how. For some, it helps to allow yourself a day of grief. It almost feels contrived. I felt great yesterday. I will feel great again tomorrow. But, right now? Right now all I feel is pain, devastation, anxiety and the ever looming fear that I will add something else I said to that list of regretful final words.
It’s truly a source of anxiety for me.
The other night, on Facebook, my son wrote a status:
“I don’t think I can deal with this. Please tell me this isn’t happening again.”
I read it at 3 am and immediately, I flew into panic mode. To hear your teenager say, “I don’t think I can deal with this…” conjures up every news article we have ever read as parents of teens taking their lives over things that would scarcely disrupt the life of an adult. I knew from that statement, something had happened between him and his girlfriend. Did she break up with him? Did she cheat on him? Hurt him in some way? Is he REALLY not able to deal with it? Am I going to go to bed tonight and wake up in the morning to a phone call that he was found hanging in his closet, a note to his girlfriend on his bed and his Facebook page open to a status that says, “goodbye”? Sleep was done for me at that point. It wasn’t going to happen. I was FAR too afraid that if I go to bed, when I wake up in the morning, I will hear those words that no mother ever, ever, EVER wants to hear.
I’ve already heard them once before. I couldn’t live through it a second time.
Admittedly, I panicked hard. I called his fathers house, where he was staying, at 3 am and crying into the phone, begged my ex husband to please, go check on him. Make sure he’s asleep. Please watch him. Please keep an eye on him.
Because in my heart, the terror of “last words” looms large.
It is terrible to be a slave to what if’s and what could be’s. Yet, I still find myself scared to death of those last words before someone leaves the house, hangs up the phone or walks away from me. It is my own cross to bear, my own personal problem that I have made into a much bigger monster than it honestly is. But, when you are living a life that includes a lot of loss, you can’t help but feel that way sometimes. Especially after a fight with someone.
So, ridiculous as it may be…I make sure that I tell everyone how much I love them. It’s really something we should practice any way, the fine art of letting the people in your life know how much they mean to you. It should not take estrangement or death for those words to finally find their way to your mouth. It should not take fear. Instead, it should be part of living. Nothing is more important in this world than the love we take and the love we make. Nothing. Mistakes become regrets very quickly and while I know I can’t walk around 24/7 telling everyone what they mean to me, I can make sure that the people who are in my life daily know how well loved they are…so that if their time should come, or mine…we all can remember that our last words were “I love you”.
They say that there are some things that should just go to the grave with you.
“I love you” should always be one of those things.
“it’s only love. it’s only pain. it’s only fear that runs through my veins…
it‘s all the things you can’t explain, that make us human.“
RIP Derek Wollen, the inspiration for this post…and the pain that accompanies it.
August 25, 1980 – November 15, 2007 i miss you so much. so, so much.
And to Debra Wollen, who left to find her son on November 24th, 2007.
A mothers love leads to a mothers death. i pray you both found each other…and peace.