Love Alone Makes Death Feel Less Like Theft-by tasha kolar

Image: abbyladybug via flickr

Image: abbyladybug via flickr

Babi (bub-by) was the first in my life. I was eleven and she was my Czech great grandmother.

The sound of my dad sobbing in the parlor was the most spine-chilling thing I had ever heard. No one ever sat in the parlor in those arch-backed chairs with stiff velvety upholstery. It was an alien sound coming from an unfamiliar room.  I could see my mom through the slatted door, sitting next to him, hands comforting, the portable phone blinking in her lap. It was odd to see my mom holding not one of her four children, but rather this frail and shaking wreck of a man. I knew what had happened from the sounds he was making. That Babi had died. It was resigned weeping - not like the sounds he would make if a young person had been killed unexpectedly. Babi was 98 years old.

She had captivated, and also intimidated, me. I think. (Though not on family visits. Those were fine, Mom allowing me to cling to her skirts no doubt.) One time, I was invited to spend the weekend with Babi. We rode the bus to the grocer's, returned to her studio apartment in a high rise for the elderly, and I learned from her veiny and wrinkled hands to form svestkove knedliky (the most perfect plum dumplings). I was having such a nice time. But, for some reason, I insisted on calling my mom to come pick me up.

No thank you, I didn't want to stay the night. To this day I have no idea why I cut the visit short. Was she speaking unintelligibly in Czech? Did she boss me around the kitchen? Was the smell of age so noxious? I wish I could go back and spend the weekend with her. Play checkers and watch soap operas. I regret my failure to squirrel away as many moments with this woman as I could. She was practically a mother to my dad. His face glows brighter telling stories about his boyhood with Babi than any other time I can think of. And that means something. A person like her is important to a person like me. She stopped existing, though. And I didn't really know that could happen. But I suspected as much. Maybe that was what I was afraid of when I called my mom to come get me.

Long before my weekend with Babi, Death made herself known to me. She whispered to me late at night when I was 7, 8, 9, curled in the fetal position in the antique canopy bed Nana had given me as a birthday present, my tearful eyes peering out the darkened window. I was too young to understand when the rules of probability were being misapplied, and so I believed every word the Voice whispered. "Your mom will be driving home from her shift at the hospital very late tonight. After midnight. So dark. Those curvy Auburn roads. Drunk drivers common on a Friday. The odds are not good - especially because she makes this treacherous drive home from work (surely exhausted) every second weekend. That makes her more likely to... die. On the road. The more one drives the more likely one is to crash - it's only a matter of time for her." [Even as I write this, the old familiar nerves tingle. The irony that I could be invoking disaster by using this condescending tone to name the ancient fear childish.] I worked this fear late at night like a rosary, finding some kind of solace in worry. Preparing for the worst seemed safer than being surprised.

But a fear is different from an event. Insidious whispers different from soundlessness. A death can be like becoming deaf to a sound you once knew. Losing a color. This - a death - is a violent reordering of the insides. A crushing and rebuilding of What Is.

The ripple was even greater when Papa stopped being. He was like home base - as safe as a human presence could be. Like a plant, he consumed all the carbon dioxide of a situation, easily oxygenating the room and making it possible for anyone to thrive. After he was gone, the polarizing personalities in the extended family clashed so much that I eventually reconfigured my holidays to avoid the day before and the day after.

But screw the holidays. What really changed was... well, if I could stop knowing someone I knew as intimately and enduringly as I knew Papa, maybe there was no God. Maybe my relationship with this God that I had grown up with (who's laughter I had never heard, bear hugs I had not felt, proud gaze I had not enjoyed), maybe that could be just as fictional as this dead man now was. The memories of Papa - they were short stories and film strips. Not a living person. And if something as real as Bill Newell could stop being, then it seemed likely there was nothing Real. Just encounters. Fluidity. Brain chemistry. Days.

Four years later when his wife finally followed him, after she spent years striving to keep on keeping on and then years pining for their reunion... the possibility of a living Reality had managed to reassert itself on me. Nihilism, atheism hadn't made a compelling enough case. And, now guided by the unrelenting sense that Nana is no less real now that her body is buried, I have been accepting her exit with more grace than I could have asked for. She, who was the Last Unicorn to me, the narrator of my life's direction from birth,  the wicked witch whose henchman I loved to be, the stubborn woman who took me to pierce my ears when my parents refused to allow it. I suppose I just don't know how to believe she is no more.

At first, I was furious with her. My entire life, she'd never prepared me for the possibility that she would leave - painted herself as a survivor who'd endured the Depression, been thrown from a bull onto a barbed wire fence, rollerskated down the steepest San Francisco hills, fallen out of a second story window, been hit by a car three times, battled cancer four times, broke her back, and surely survived more death threats I’ve forgotten. Death was not in the cards for her, she intimated religiously.

But she left me after all - ME! How could she??? Her death felt like pure betrayal for a good while.

Later, my anger relaxed into peace. Eventually, I chalked this up to the conviction that I had loved Nana as well as I could. And gave her as much joy as a granddaughter might. No regrets. I think that’s what has allowed me to release her, forgive her for going away.

Regrets are what haunt. If I ever loved someone, I know it was Nana. Probably to the detriment of my bonds with other grandparents. And my many acts of treason against her - they elude my memory kindly. I see them there, lurking in the corners, but they are decidedly meager in the looming shadow of our fierce bond.

Each death, I've experienced so differently. But the ache - that is consistent. It's strange that my childhood death fantasies were always about my parents or siblings, never the old people. I didn't know that they would leave such craters in the surface of my heart.  It seemed natural that the grandparents would die eventually - only horrifying if someone living in my house were to disappear before their time. But death is not natural at all. Ever. Even if medical miracles have showered on us dozens of years and thousands of memories after someone's natural time of death. Papa had an extra 30 years. Nana, 25. Babi, who knows? Still it's not natural for them to go.

I almost unconditionally love change, surprise, disruption, adaptation, a fresh perspective - for better and worse. But the elimination of a human being is not well with my soul. It is an irreparable emptiness that only faith can calm. I dread the next funeral I'll attend but have tried to stop fearing specific deaths, knowing now that preparedness helps no one. Only love. Love alone makes death feel less like theft.