Wednesday, April 29, 2015

An Incomplete Puzzle: On Living and Dying

Let me preface this by saying this may come across as heavy-handed and bitter, largely because it is both. This is an accurate portrayal of the unfiltered misery we endure when someone we love dies. And that’s okay. It’s perfectly natural. This is how you’re supposed to feel. My case is not unique and something we will all go through, if the natural order of things comes to pass. While it came much sooner for me than the average person, I’d imagine it to be no worse; death doesn't become easier in your 50s and 60s than in your 20s or 30s, I reckon. This is a stream of consciousness I logged while coping with the initial event and aftermath of becoming the last in my lineage. I will likely offend a small number of people by writing this. The truth hurts, and there’s no point in writing this without honesty.


It was a little after 3PM on May 4th, 2014. I was enjoying my Sunday off, home alone while my then-fiancée was at work. I looked down at my cat, who was enjoying the sun beaming through the shade. I took pictures of her staring up at me, usually a difficult, camera-shy cat who was too relaxed to care about the camera looking her in the eyes. It’s a cliché, but everything was peaceful. And then the phone rang.

The final picture taken seconds before my life changed.

My Aunt Chris (whom I call Gee with a hard “G”) was calling. I was hoping maybe she wanted to go to dinner. I picked up and noticed she was upset. She was tasked with one of the hardest things a person can do in telling a son that his mother has died. I’ll never understand the amount of bravery that took, and will always love and respect her for it. “She’s gone,” she said through composed tears. I replied “who?” but I knew exactly who she was referring to; I did not need clarification. It’s something we say out of impulse when we don’t want to believe what we’re hearing, like your leg involuntarily moving when the doctor smacks your knee with the rubber hammer. I went into “maintain” mode, standing up and moving to the closet to get dressed. “Talk to me,” she said on the other line to make sure I wasn't passing out. I kicked over a bowl of candy and suddenly cleaning it up was my top priority. I was in idle-minded auto-pilot.

I made my phone calls after hanging up with her. First, to Val at work. I apparently told her co-worker that my mother had died, so she found out second-hand, though I have no memory of the call whatsoever. She would be home shortly. I called my best friend Reed next, who remained my solid rock on turbulent shores for the next 48 hours. My aunt Sheri. My friend Jen. Reed met Val and I at our house, and we rode over to my mom’s house.

The time spent there was just like loud static in my head. We arrived shortly before they carted her body out. I did not see her body, either there or the crematory, out of preference. I recall friends and family gathering at the news of what happened. A lot of powerful silence and forced conversation with neighbors inquiring as to what had happened. She died peacefully in her sleep. Her heart gave out. She was found by her boyfriend, Millard, surrounded by her three dogs, who refused to budge from her side. It’s the way we should all dream of dying, just not at the tender age of 59.

Mom and I at our favorite restaurant. We stopped going in 2014 due to her health.

In the coming days, filled with death certificates and cremations and closing accounts and switching bills over, we sat in the backyard and drank. We drank and we cried and we laughed. And laughed, and laughed, and laughed. The sum of a person’s life is measured by the amount of stories that live on after they can no longer provide us with new ones, and I have to say that my mother provided us with enough stories that she will never be forgotten to anyone she met, however briefly. The last time I ever saw her, I gave her a back rub and brought her Ted Drewe's, a delicious local frozen custard that was out of the way for her. She ordered a hot fudge sundae, and we delivered it on dry ice. The time before that, we had brought her food earlier that week. I sleep well knowing my last encounter with my mom was solely to surprise her with treats and make her happy.

Between the time of my marriage proposal to Val and getting married, I lost both of my parents. Everyone responsible for the creation of my existence is gone. I’m the next to die in my lineage by default, as no one else is left, something that has weighed heavily on me every day since. Next in line, order up, stepping into the batter’s box... Life can be cruel and it can give you callouses. People who say that everything happens for a reason, be it religious or some predetermined force, need justification for everything. Those people are wrong. Things do not happen for a reason. Oh, to have a dollar for every ill-conceived “she’s watching you from Heaven” comment I received after specifically and politely asking people to refrain from pushing their beliefs off on me just this once. There’s a time and a place for it, and this wasn't it. Some people allow their religious pride to run amok against conventional manners and good taste. Some were even offended I’d request such a thing! Yet they’re the ones oppressed. Oh, this society of backwards logic.

Not everything in life ends with a moral lesson or purpose. Life is a series of anecdotes, some funny and some funny in not-funny ways. Most with a lesson are harsh. Louis C.K. once said that a perfect marriage—the happiest possible outcome—ends with you burying the person you built your life around for 50+ years and learning to live without them and the happiness they provided. Anecdotes.

A few weeks later, I waved goodbye to Val as she left town for a couple of weeks to visit her family. My family largely dissipated, and though I wanted her to stay, I wouldn't be much of a man to keep her from her own family in light of what had happened to mine. She remained strong for me and broke down in private to keep me functioning. Her taxi pulled away and I crumbled on the front lawn, the prospect of being in an empty house for two weeks grating on my mind. There was no one left to tend to me but me, so I had to conquer everything in my path with productivity. Despite all the progress made with bill collectors and managing accounts I knew nothing about, I felt like I was drowning.  

The seats from our ballgame. Severe weather rolled through to delay the start. 

My pal Jesse picked me up to offer some reprieve a few days into isolation and took me to the baseball game, where I caught my first and last glimpse of Derek Jeter in person. The ballpark has always been the place I go to clear my mind of anything I’m going through. Despite a sellout crowd and standing room only tickets, we took a seat in batting practice and watched every seat but ours fill around us for a perfect view of the game. We spoke for hours about a variety of things, from losing our parents to debt, all while getting hit on by transvestites in a Rally’s parking lot after the car broke down. It was a memorable night, and the night I mentally turned the corner. I had to get tough, or I’d be crippled from the burden. Dinners with my aunt Gee and uncle Don helped me through it all. We laughed at a couple's hoarder van outside of a restaurant one night, which looked to be packed with every single belonging they owned. It was the type of quirky thing that Mom would have loved.

I've been told that I move too fast in these circumstances, and it’s insensitive to worry about the future and keep a routine in the wake of death. That’s incorrect. What’s insensitive is that the world doesn't stop turning just because someone you loved dies. This is no longer a world with something as beneficial as a grieving period. That went away last century. In the grand scheme of things, the faceless people who sign your paychecks and mail your bills don’t give a flying fuck about how you’re feeling today. You either keep running or get left behind.

One of the two storage facilities we cleaned. In view: two of the nine rows of containers needed moving.

In what would be the hardest thing I've ever done, Val and I departed at 7AM on June 6th to go a few hours into the country where my mother had two storage facilities. The owner was to evict her from the lease and discard her items, so time was of the essence—just another small thing you wouldn't think of in a world that doesn't wait. We elected to go alone to offer rest for the family, as the task was to be a daunting one and we felt they were handling enough as is. We had no idea how naïve we would be. As pictures can offer, the storage facilities were filled from front to back, top to bottom with Rubbermaid containers featuring all of my childhood belongings, as well as my mom and deceased grandmother’s personal things. To my utter dismay, most of the items we recovered were ruined by water damage, including pictures and family writings, as the containers had crumbled in from the elements compressed over time. In my hands were constant reminders of happy times accentuated by decay and destruction. Items that once brought hours of joy were destroyed; more misery to heap upon my weary shoulders. Lifting the hundred or so containers we recovered into the U-Haul amid the June Missouri heat, where humidity meets 100+ degree temperatures, was only bested by our 1AM arrival back home, where said containers needed to be unloaded to avoid an additional day’s rental of the U-Haul. Once the heavy lifting was over, it was 4AM. Val chose between showering or eating, wisely choosing the former, while I was too exhausted for sleep, a phrase I didn't know was possible, and opted for both. Neither made me feel better. The adversity we faced was enormous in accomplishing the task, but there was no room in my heart for celebration. My parents were dead, and I just hauled the remainder of the corpse of my childhood home to sort through on better days. It remains largely unsorted in my basement. I realize now that it was also naïve to assume there would be a day where I’d feel like going through it.

Val is the best person I've ever known. No one else would have selflessly done what she did at the storage facility. She is my consummate companion.

They say you won’t know your friends until your loved ones die, or when you run a charity. I was coping with both simultaneously. We raised over $5,000 in memory of my mom for Stray Rescue of St. Louis. The money raised would go towards building a plated bench in her honor outside of the Stray Rescue facility, which is a no-kill dog shelter that she supported with monthly donations since its inception. I dealt with people doubting the decisions I made, be it the lofty amount (“aim for the stars, land on the moon,” I say), the method in which we accepted the donations (GoFundMe, which was newer at the time), or whether the bench would even be made. It was all on my shoulders, through success or failure. We achieved the goal thanks to countless donors and the site was reputable, though the bench is still in the process of being made. I often become frustrated to this day with Stray Rescue’s lack of urgency in getting the bench done nearly a year after we gave them the money, but then I am quickly humbled when I view pictures of the injured dogs they've nursed back to health in that time span. It will be made when it will be made, and the money saved lives—something far more important than the bench itself. I should not be resentful towards them. I just hope donors understand that I am not sitting on my hands with the project, and have been proactive throughout the year on a weekly basis without fail in keeping the focus on getting the bench made.

Running a charity drive for something so personal is intoxicating. It boils bad feelings on the burner. Every donation swells your heart, and then you realize a certain person hasn't donated a dime—or even acknowledge it in the slightest—while clamoring on and on about the latest throwaway piece of garbage they purchased. “I didn't really need this, but I thought I’d buy it anyway.” Those nuances to managing a charity drive can ruin friendships, or sever members from the family tree. Those who disappointed me with a lack of acknowledgement for what we were doing and accomplished will never be forgotten, for better or worse. On the other side of that coin, I’d be speechless at seeing hefty donations from people I've worked with, or social media acquaintances who chipped in or promoted our cause so passionately. I thought that the world became less charitable with my mom’s death, but these people proved that if anything, her death inspired others to be like her.

One of the positives to someone dying that you loved is the worry is lifted from your shoulders. There’s a constant dread in my mind that something terrible is going to happen. I used to worry about this as a five-year-old boy, sitting at the screen door, waiting for my mom to pull up from getting the groceries. “What if she’s dead?” I’d think, “What if someone hit her, and she died?” This developed into a graver worry later in life when her health began to decline. I sat in bed on Christmas Eve 2012, wide awake at 3AM, and thought “This could likely be my last Christmas with Mom.” I got one more out of her, but I wasn't far off. I told her at Christmas 2013, “I appreciate every holiday I spend with you.” Somewhere in my mind, I knew she knew it was her last, too. She spoke of it in that way. After she died, it hit me while passing her old hospital, where Val and I took her and saved her life from pneumonia towards the end. She’d have died if we’d have done nothing, and I’m proud that we did. When I realized I was free of those worries, it was oddly relieving… at least until those health worries were replaced by the health worries of other family members five months later. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Still, the several months without those worries were refreshing, a new sensation unlike any other. I’ll always appreciate them, however brief they were.

Gestures, big and small, go a long way. These are the people who mattered most: Val, for being the person to keep me upright every day and supporting me with everything. Gee, having been there every step of the way, lifting me up on bad days and lifting me higher on good days. She has the sweetest heart and I wish I could do more for her than I do. She is like my mom, in that she is such a good friend in addition to being family. Jen, who had a pizza delivered from 2,100 miles away the day mom died, just so I would not go hungry or forget to eat. Reed was there for everything, including feeding me and being my brother. Millard and his nephew Jeff have taken care of mom’s house, offering me one less burden to bear. A day never passes where I don't appreciate that. Tom and Mary, my in-laws, drove 585 miles to be with me and help in any way possible, including handling double duty at the wedding since I no longer had parents to help us prepare, to which Jen deserves additional credit, as well. My friend Tim, who purchased a collage of photos of my mom, which hangs in my living room. Jesse Fenton, again, for helping me mentally turn the corner and take control again. My co-workers did my work for me for two weeks when they were not contractually obligated to. All of the acquaintances and close friends who donated to Stray Rescue floored me; for every one person who disappointed me with a lack of caring, five-to-ten surprised me with their generosity or verbal support.

I collect baseball cards. It's a hobby that offers me a chance to be a kid again and keep me light at heart, regardless of how dark this whole write-up has been. A common practice in the world of baseball cards upon the death of an athlete is to create a card featuring a signature of the deceased. Having owned the final check my mom ever wrote, I decided to do just that as a fitting memento to keep in remembrance of her. A guy I know created the card for a small fee, while I helped with its design and wrote everything. It is among my most cherished possessions.

Life doesn't get any easier. It finds new ways to get your hands dirty and ruin your good looks, one after another. In the past year, I've fought tooth and nail with credit card companies over fraud when lawyers deserted me, and I won by myself. I have dealt with bad medical news that will change my life forever, or—worst case scenario—provide me with my next great tragedy. My best friend nearly died due to heart complications.  Life never gives reprieve. Life is a series of problems. You've got to get tough. You can’t control the majority of what life throws at you, so you need to become strong enough to face it. Given the age my parents died, I’m in my midlife crisis right now. It has changed my perspective on a number of things, as I am no longer afraid to speak up and confront someone I disagree with. My life experience has given my opinion credence, and makes what I have to say valid as a human being who has weight behind what he thinks and feels. No longer do I sit on my hands and not call someone on their bullshit. I never took anything for granted before my parents died, though I suppose that would be the ultimate lesson to take away from such an event. Appreciate everything. From the random gifts you receive, to the comfortable silence of a car ride in good company, to the holidays you share with your loved ones, to the long nights of laughter with a friend. They all matter, to some degree. Acknowledge them.

People often ask me, “If you could say one last thing to her, what would it be?” I’d say nothing. I have no regrets. If your parents are still alive, I implore you to live as I did and never waste a single opportunity. Say what you need to say. I miss her as a friend far more than as a mom. Parenting bloggers say you shouldn't try to be friends with your kids, and I scoff at the notion. My mom was one of my very best friends, and a blast to be around. She was the type of person who made waiting to see the doctor fun, something not everyone could do. There are times like these when I miss her most. Not many people are awake at 3:52AM, but she was. Since her death, my only friend on nights like these is the loud, awful silence while everything is still in the world outside my door.

Relationships are like puzzles, and each person in them holds certain pieces. Together, you have a complete picture. When you wish to revisit the puzzle, you will call that person and ask them for pieces you may have forgotten about to complete it. No longer can I piece together things that happened in my childhood and receive a clearer picture of those happy times. The puzzle is incomplete from here on; pieces will deteriorate as my memory fades, making an even more incomplete picture. The memories we shared together now cease to exist when I die. It will be like those puzzles never existed in the first place. Tell everyone you know at least one little story about someone else in your life, so those puzzle pieces will be scattered throughout the world long after you leave it.


  1. Dave, this was touching, heartbreaking, and something that is no doubt incredibly difficult to quantify and share. Thank you for writing it, I appreciate our friendship, and remember, while being tough (I agree about that outlook on life), remember to celebrate the spots of joy with your entire being.

  2. You have never written anything un-wonderful. I don't know who could ever be offended by you. I had to read in pieces, but thank you, sometime it is much easier to empathize with someone else's pain, loss or struggle than to confront your own head on. You have a great wife(only having read about her) and all be it difficult to live without someone in your life remember you were blessed with her so you aren't alone. That would have the worst tragedy. I don't think you will ever let your mom be forgotten. It is so nice to see such love between a mother and son that resulted in a great man being raised. Maybe she was ready and the peace came from knowing she gave you all you needed to be great on your own two feet with your lady on her tippy toes on them making beautiful music. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for sharing this David. Life is as you described and I rather see it through your eyes than any other version the world likes to throw at us. It's real because it's the truth. I often felt this way. This dread that eventually will come to us all. I think about when that day will come for me. Since I was a kid I had those same thoughts. I had surreal dreams of my father dying in a stunt car crash. My dad was never a stunt driver and is a garbage man today. The world doesn't stop. That is the other thing. How will I do anything or want to continue when my loved one go. When my dog dies? When some anomaly of my life happens? The world doesn't give a shit, but some of the people around you will. One thing I noticed from people dying it either brings out the worst or the best from people. You don't forget how people act during those times, but I guess you learn to forgive also. It's so deeply personal isn't it? This world only likes to sing about themselves and we lost touch of how to say the right things to those suffering unless you can empathize. Thanks for letting me get to know you and your mom more.