Friday, September 20, 2013

Life and the other

To Two Friends.

Life would be sweet, were it not for the nagging death-thingy.

That inevitable; the punctuation mark at the end of the line.Which could be an exclamation point, question mark, period, semi-colon ellipses (my personal choice) -- who knows.

As a child, because we lived oceans apart from our nearest relatives and grandparents, death wasn't a person, it was an object. Something shipped from overseas, in a box stuffed with peanut packaging and sawdust. A painting, a grandfather's clock, a clutch of letters written in a hand I didn't recognize, in a language I couldn't understand.

Mostly, death was over there, and kindly kept its distance for three decades.

Eventually, of course, death made its way to my side of the universe. As I was ill-prepared, death brought a tsunami of denial, more so than sadness and depression. And I found the experience completely and utterly exhausting.

What I didn't realize until that time: death cuts the major cord, but leaves so many significant minor ones -- responsibility, things we've done, things we wish we hadn't, devotion, care --  flailing around in space, attached to nothing in particular. And it's ever so tiring to follow these cords, trace their source, find where they can possibly end and anchor.

At the turn of this last century, I was in my office, waiting for a lunch date, when I got a kick in the chest. Not an ordinary kick, not that I've ever had an ordinary or any other sort of kick in the chest, but I got a kick that crashed into my chest like a 747 .  "Oh God," I thought, "is this a heart attack? Should I call an ambulance?"

I locked my office door, and for the rest of the day, just laid with my head on the desk, waiting to see if I would die.

When I got home, the call on my answering machine said Dad had suffered a stroke around noon. My dad was dead.

When I flew to Seattle, his three kids organized the events to suit our abilities -- one would take care of the funeral and wake, the other pack and dispose of his lifetime of things. Mostly, I wrote, worked on my eulogy.

We each wrote three very different remembrances. I was staying at his house, and my eulogy started with what it felt like to open his sock drawers. He had three sock drawers. Each so orderly, arranged according to the socks' color, texture, and purpose -- socks for skiing, hiking, running; casual socks, and socks for fancy dress. Every pair in perfect condition, some older than I was, and exquisitely darned.

My dad believed in a lifetime of use, and beyond; he could repurpose anything. I must have spent an hour or two just admiring his socks.

Anyway, I think my sister's eulogy covered his life in Norway, and accomplishments here in the U.S. My brother praised his career, and art, and courage. And I basically talked about socks.

What I didn't include was that when my dad left earth, he sent a 747 to my chest to say good-bye.

So I think there is something beyond the biological that binds us to those we love.

And I think our job, once they die, is to grant them safe passage. An enormous act of will, concentration, and of course, leap of faith.

Safe passage to where?

Don't ask me -- don't ask a person who can't roll up one single pair of socks and find a drawer to put them in.

But safe passage somewhere. Somewhere without a map or name. A place where we can see the ones we've lost, sense the things we dream,  find the words we need.


  1. True

    As I sat in a room with my father's body, he, without words, told me he was sorry - relieving me of the burden of hate

  2. I love the focus on socks. Details like that can say so much more about character than a hundred glittering generalities (which have been uttered about millions of humans). The 747 surely gets my attention too. I may have mentioned that my scientific breakfast buddies razz me for using "karma" to suggest any kind of supra-rational experience, but they do happen, and the label/concept of "coincidence" seems pretty puny.

    Today at B-52, I finally responded to your request for Heaney and ended up on a theme slightly similar to yours.

  3. A very personal and deeply thoughtful piece.

  4. This is so beautiful. I don't want to spoil it by saying more.

  5. Beautifully done, and very moving.
    It's those little things -- like socks, a handwritten list in a desk drawer, a well-thumbed book on the nightstand -- which resonate more soundly than we can ever imagine.

  6. I wish you safe passage, no time soon.


  7. I wish you safe passage, no time soon.


  8. Such an exquisite meditation, lovely.

    It's my belief that whenever it is that we lose our parents, no matter how old we are and irrespective of our relationship with them or how we did or did not help them pass, we find ourselves orphaned. It takes some getting used to.

  9. So moving and beautiful written.
    There was a deep synchronicity between you and your Dad... I am very impressed.

  10. Oh, Karin. This is truly beautiful.

    I too had never experienced death until I was in my late 40's. That death was my father's. We didn't have a very good relationship in our latter years. In spite of our best efforts, we just seemed to rub each other the wrong way. Nevertheless, when "the call" went out to gather, I was the first one at his bedside. He didn't send a 747, but he gave me a gift before he passed away. He told me he loved me. And, the memory of that still brings me to tears.

    Blessings, my friend.

  11. Again, you make me think.

    Yours is by no means the first account I've read: a sensation of a close family member's passing before hearing about it.

    But it's the most emphatic in terms of the experience you describe.

    My own experience is a bit similar.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  12. God, Karin, this is really good.

  13. And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  14. My father delivered a gift to his alma mater and at the reception, he looked at my mother and said "We have to leave. Something has gone wrong." I met them at the airport, he looked at me and I knew he was going to die very soon. As I drove them to northern California to their home, all he said was "Take care of your mother." This to his long-haired, long-skirted hippy rebel daughter. He said it because he knew I could, and would. With a look and few words, we reached understanding that jumped over political and stylistic choices. We gave each other trust, the greatest gift. Oh, and he was an engineer. His socks and ties were all in vary good order, some well-darned.

  15. so moving....we are all of us history sooner or friend has been dead for 2 and half years now and at the weekend we, her friends, celebrated her youngest daughter's 15th birthday, we friends didn't used to hang out with each other because we hung out with her but now we have created a whole new memorial friendship.....everyone leaves their mark.....

  16. This isn't something I'm able to read in one sitting.

  17. I'm glad he came through for you in the end, PA.

    Something we'll never know, Banjo 52, Optimist, and JE, whether what we take as some sort of cosmic communication is actually coincidence. Which means, I guess, we get to choose.

    Thank you, Pierre, Sonia, Chieftess, Terri, and Margaret. And Ms M, yes, and maybe the handwriting most of all.

    Becky, that's the plan -- no time soon.

    Paula, how right you are. We can be an orphan at 4 or 40.

    Carolynn, that can make up for a lot.

    Doris -- of yes, the ties, too. Shoes. The tool room that looked like a well-appointed hardware store.

    YAH, would like to hear more about that.

    K, kind of long for me, wasn't it.

  18. After my mother died in May, I learned from two of her friends that she spent years telling them that I would not let her see her grandchildren, that I snubbed her, that all of the other relatives (in-laws, all) were better than me. And yet, she called me to manage the nursing home and hospice when my father was dying, and she couldn't get them under control, and she called me weekly, sometimes daily, during her last 2 years, to "straighten out" her home health providers. They eventually learned to call me for "help" in getting her to "cooperate." My parents' lives were a mess, and their trailer was a mess. What a tangled web the relationships weave and leave behind.

    All of the comments here have been profound, nearly as moving as your post.

  19. It's a very poignant piece, Karin, and your final paragraph, especially, will be a comfort to our recently bereaved friends. My granny,whom I loved more than anyone,used to say that if she found a teaspoon forgotten in the dishwashing bowl, it meant I was thinking of her. Same with me. Even now, when I find a spoon in the bubbles, I think of her. Pity the dishwasher makes this happen less frequently now.

  20. When Dan's father was dying, I was the one designated to go pick up the oldest brother from the airport...Dan's dad and brother never got along...they were two bulls in a china any rate, someone told Jess (the dad) that Steve would be arriving soon from the airport. At 4:20pm I thought to mysel..."Jess is gone", at the time, we were just about at Torrance...about 30 minutes from Newport where they all were. Within minutes we got a phone call that Jess had passed.

    I've had many similar experiences with both people and my biggest regret is that I didn't follow the nagging feeling to go visit my dad, the weekend before he passed. He passed on Valentine's morning. I always thought it was his way of saying he loved us...he had been in a convalescent home for over 4 years and couldn't talk or eat real food due to a stroke.

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  22. I had a similar, though much less, dramatic, feeling when my mother died.

    I see her in myself, my daughter, my nieces.

  23. I like your very positive attitude: only death can keep life from being sweet!

    We're making progress. Same time next week?

  24. Sad and beautifully written.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  25. Beautiful, Karin. It is amazing how connected we are to those we love, even over great distances. I definitely choose cosmic communication.

  26. My father died when I was 28. We hadn't spoken for four years. I got a call from another country at work to tell me. It was one of the three worst days of my life.

    There were good reasons why we hadn't spoken... and I don't see how I could have done anything differently, no matter how I ached (and ache) for that not to be so.

    That I couldn't fix that relationship, and will now never be able to fix it, is a life-long pain. I have nothing positive or helpful to say about this; I just needed to write it down. Again.

  27. Honored you found this place to write it down, Soilman.

  28. Thank you. I wish I could show this to my dad. He'd say that he'd wish he'd written it himself.