I’m still fairly young, but I’ve had quite a few experiences with death. The first of which was my brother. I was two when he was born too early. He’d only weighed a pound and lived for a day or two. I’ve dreamed of him on occasion, blonde and blue eyed like me. I like to imagine that he and I would have been very close. His name was Philip.
When I was nine my grandmother, whom I’d never met, died in a fire because she fell asleep while smoking, but the first death that directly affected me was my beloved dog named Rambo (yes, he was named for the movie). Around the age of ten I’d just stepped down from the big yellow school bus onto the red dirt road that led to my home, a little tan trailer nestled on the edge of the woods and creek. I will never forget the moment one of the neighborhood kids ran up to me barefoot and red faced, “Yer dog is dead!” he drawled with a smug expression. I suppose he was proud to be the first to inform me of my loss. I wanted to punch the look off his face, Well, I often wanted to but especially in that moment. “Which dog are you talking about?” (I had three dogs at the time). “You know, the one that sleeps at the end of yer bed.” As soon as these words registered I dropped my bag and began to run as fast as I could down that dusty road. No not Rambo. No he’s not dead. He can’t be dead
Honestly, I don’t remember being told that after Rambo had slipped through my legs and out the door, as I left for school that morning, he’d gone into the neighbor’s yard. There had been some sort of commotion with their dog and the neighbor had taken it upon himself to shoot Rambo using a bow and arrow and then drag him into our woods to die alone.
I do remember using scotch tape, wrapped around my fingers, to collect some of his black hair that was still at the end of my bed. Rambo had his own chair in the living room where he sat every night until my parents went to bed, then he would mosey into my room and sleep in my bed. He had belonged to me more than anyone else in the family and I had been his girl. I remember sobbing in bed that night. I felt responsible for letting him get out of the house that morning and I felt guilty that my last encounter with him had been kicking him out of bed because he’d been passing gas and the odor was so bad it woke me up. I have to say, I felt his death more keenly than most other deaths that I’ve experienced. I think as we get older we develop a sort of mechanism that triggers when these things happen that keeps us from fully experiencing these depths of sorrow. I’m a grown woman now and I still miss Rambo and I’ve never had another dog. Though, this may in part be due to watching Rambo’s son get shot down by hunters a few months later. When he slipped out the door I ran out after him, not stopping for shoes, into the woods. There we came upon a little group of hunters and their dogs. Rocky, (obviously, my family has a love for Stallone movies) immediately got into a fight with one of the hunting dogs. I was standing only feet away as the hunter shot Rocky and walked away laughing. Slowly, I walked home, into the front door, and just quietly sat on the couch. I think I was in shock. No other pet has ever entered my heart.
My next experience with death was a man named Tadpole. Tadpole was his nickname and he lived in a little trailer up the road. He was an older man with a grizzly beard and he wore a little cap on his head and suspenders on his pants. He became friends with my family and had a vast collection of movies. His collection spanned shelves across an entire wall of his living room. I would visit with Tadpole often and he always greeted me with a kind smile that crinkled his old eyes. “What will it be today little Leah?” He said, as I searched through movies I’d already seen numerous times. My favorites were Spartacus, Moses, Krull, and Anne of Green Gables. I’d choose one and then chat with him for a bit, but kid that I was, I was always in a hurry to rush back out to friends and imaginary adventures. Tadpole didn’t have a car so he rode his bicycle to work each day. One day I was told that on his way home or to work he’d had a heart attack. I remember running to his trailer and pounding on the door. Of course it was locked, but I tried with all my might to pry it open. I just wanted to sit and cry inside among his piles of newspapers, books, and movies. When I realized that neighbors were standing outside and staring at me I slowly walked back to my home and wished I’d sat longer through his endless chatter about bird watching and uses for different plants and herbs. As is human nature, before too long, I was back to romping through creeks and building forts.
When I was seventeen I had my first miscarriage with my now husband of thirteen years. Babies ourselves we went to have an ultrasound done because I’d been bleeding off and on. No heartbeat was found and the doctor said something that has stayed with me ever since, “It looks like an 11 week fetal demise.” How clinically detached from compassion his words had sounded to me. I was scheduled to have an operation to remove what remained of what would have been my baby. I hadn’t even told my mother that I was pregnant. My boyfriend’s mother had been present but all I sensed from her was relief. Relief that her son wouldn’t be stuck with me and a baby. That night as I explained to my mother the situation I had an onset of horrible pain and bleeding. As I ran in the direction of the bathroom a huge blob of blood fell to the floor. Horrified, I picked it up and not knowing what else to do I flushed it down the toilet. It was not until many years later that I actually mourned that loss. I know that whatever cells had begun to come together to form my baby had already dissipated, but that doesn’t change that fact that I wish I had buried that little remainder and had a place to go to when the realization, of the precious little life that I’d lost, finally hit me.
Not long after this my grandfather came to live with us because he had terminal cancer. I’d only met him once because he and all of the rest of the family lived up north and I grew up in the south. He was so sick that he spent his days laying on the bed of my little sister’s room. I would watch as my mother and father took turns helping him to the restroom and feeding him. I was a senior in high school and spent most of my days away from home. Call me selfish or self absorbed but I was a teenager after all and I had developed an uncanny ability (since childhood) to block unpleasant feelings and live in a happy world of my own creation. This had been my only escape and defense when my mother would on occasion become emotionally, mentally, and sometimes even physically abusive. And so I don’t remember much about this time that my grandfather was dying. He had ended up in the hospital where, because the bed was too low, he had suffocated on the fluids in his lungs. Looking back I feel guilt and shame for avoiding his death.
One day when I was eighteen, I was sitting on the couch of my first apartment with my boyfriend (now husband) with the TV on in the background. The news was on and we both heard the name of a friend of ours. The report stated that he had died in a car accident. In shock we called up the place where we all worked, but I couldn’t get the words out to ask if it was in fact he that had died. Without even knowing the question the girl on the other end confirmed our fear. We went to comfort our friend, his wife. Over days and months we were there for her whenever she needed us, but while life went on for us, she remained trapped in a state of mourning and denial. Over time we grew apart. She resented our ability to move on and be happy and we avoided her sorrow and anger at life.
In my late 20’s I stood on the edge of a pier gazing into the murky waters. I stood there wondering if I should end my own life. Hours earlier I’d received a call that I was in fact about to endure a fourth miscarriage. The nurse (not the doctor) had called me and matter of factly informed me that I should expect the miscarriage to take place within the next week. She said something about it being a “blotted ovum” and that it wasn’t even considered a real pregnancy. I raged at her words as dreams of a little boy cradled in my arms died along with him. I knew he was the little boy I’d been waiting for, I even knew his name. I mourned for him just as if I had held him, nurtured him, kissed his head, and fed him from my body. I was alone in my suffering. No one can understand this kind of loss unless you have endured it, not even a husband. Needless to say I walked away from the pier that day and 2 weeks later I awoke to sheets so soaked in blood that it looked like a murder scene. I was rushed to the hospital and the pain was so bad that even morphine couldn’t touch it. My bleeding wouldn’t stop and the doctor said if he didn’t perform surgery that I was at risk of needing a transfusion. As I was being wheeled into the operating room I happened to glance into a the room of a new mother. The husband was by the door and gave me a smile and thumbs up…he must have assumed I was about to give birth. I insisted that I be put under for the procedure. I remember shaking uncontrollably and crying as I slowly fell into oblivion.
In the same year not long after this, the brother of my heart committed suicide. I won’t speak more about this other than to say that, between his death and the physical and emotional trauma of the miscarrige, I started suffering panic attacks and anxiety on a regular basis and was diagnosed with PTSD.
I did go on to suffer a fifth miscarriage, but with this one I received emotional healing. This may sound strange to you, but any woman out there (who has had a miscarriage) can relate to the anguish you feel over losing a baby and the thought that you could have done something differently. I was finally sent to genetic counseling and it was discovered that I have a certain chromosome defect that will cause me to miscarry about 75% of the time. There is nothing I could have done differently. There’s a certain amount of peace that comes with that knowledge. Even through those hard times I was able to have perfectly healthy children whom I live for.
So what is to be learned from this? Well, for me it’s compassion. It’s so easy for us to ignore death and the dying when it doesn’t directly affect us. This can be a natural part of the desire for life to go on, but we have to try to face the reality of death. We have to try to be there for the friend or family member that is dying or has lost a loved one and just allow them to feel lousy without jumping on the impulse to encourage them to think positive thoughts and they will get better. Hurting people get tired of hearing that. Sometimes you just need to feel like shit and be allowed to feel that way. Let them feel that way but stick around for when they need your word of encouragement or advise. Most everyone I loved and considered family disappeared when I fell apart because they just couldn’t handle it or were busy with their own lives. I know what it feels like to be alone while sifting through the dank rubble of my collapsed emotions and mental state. I want to learn from this and be a better person so that I can be truly be there when I’m needed.