When Death Becomes Us
Today, let’s talk about death.
Not that I’m an expert on death. That’s something I hope never to master.
But having witnessed death up close and then having experienced the aftermath — a deeply personal process which continues amidst chaos and confusion — I must admit it’s not at all what I expected.
Fact is, I’m not sure I knew what to expect.
Like I said, death is confusing.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky for my entire life. Both of my parents are still living. My mother and father have remarried and both have healthy spouses. Both of my grandmothers are also still alive. I have many other relatives, virtually all of whom are still living.
So, I’m not accustomed to death’s knock. I don’t know what it sounds like. I have no experience with it. I don’t know what to say, nor what to do when it happens.
But when death hits you, you’re forced to educate yourself very quickly. It’s a sobering crash course in both reality and pain. And, it’s inevitable.
So, you might as well learn something and try to prepare yourself.
Most deaths take place in hospitals — “officially,” that is.
Of course, many people die elsewhere, most of them inside their homes. But the official death pronouncement usually takes place in a hospital by trained medical people.
Every death is different. So, the circumstances surrounding the way is handled varies from case to case.
When we walked into the emergency room on that devastating morning which has come to occupy all my thoughts and energies this past week, a nice lady at a desk tried to help us. She asked the patient’s name. Next, she looked onto a computer screen. I suspect she thought we had come to visit someone.
The emergency room was a large place. It had many empty seats. A few people were waiting.
The lady at the desk changed her expression. Suddenly, she had a blank look on her face. She asked us to go into a special room. She didn’t say to go have a seat with the others and wait. She directed us into a special room.
That’s when we knew.
That’s when we knew the worst news was yet to come.
We walked into a small room. It was so spartan like. The lights seemed too bright. Even painful to the eyes. There were no pictures upon the walls. No joy. Nothing to distract. There were perhaps six or seven chairs, which resembled school desks like you might find in a classroom. These chairs were not comfortable. They were hard and cold. This was a sad room. A sad place.
A few minutes passed and the door suddenly opened. A man in a white coat, presumably the doctor had a clipboard in his hand. A lady, who looked like a nurse, was at his side. They introduced themselves and sat down in those hard and cold seats. They did not smile.
That’s when we really knew.
Flashing back to that moment still brings immense pain. A voice that was deliberate and necessary brought news that we feared. Ion Petre has died.
The doctor and nurse spent perhaps ten minutes with us. But it might have been longer. It might have been shorter. For us, time seemed to stop at that moment.
The only thought I could muster amidst this sadness was that just 45 minutes before this utterly unbelievable conversation we were now having, all of us — with Ion leading the way — were planning our day ahead together. And now instead, we were standing in a small room in a hospital being told something we didn’t want to hear.
The doctor and nurse departed.
The next few minutes are a daze, really. Another member of the medical staff approached. She brought Ion’s gold chain that had hung around his neck. She placed the necklace into my palm and said, “I’m sorry.”
We would hear those two words many times over the coming days. And yet, those two simple words “I’m sorry” — strangely, they never got old. We never tired of hearing them. They showed that people cared. They showed human compassion. Even complete strangers told us, “I’m sorry.”
Marieta and I walked out to the front of the emergency room. No one was around. We stood there outside, mumbling something to ourselves. Denial and disbelief, probably. It’s hard to remember our words and thoughts. Not that it matters.
And yet the day was so magnificently beautiful. The sky was so blue. Strangely, it was the first time I had noticed what the day was like. Tragedy had made me more acutely aware of my surroundings. At that instant, everything seemed more vivid. It wasn’t the feeling I would have expected.
The drive home was a lonely one. Words were spoken, but I don’t remember what I said, or what Marieta said, or what we thought.
It was a blur.
So, what exactly does one do next?
After pulling into the driveway, we just sat there. There was no road map. Indeed, death has no road map. We were were lost.
The house seemed quieter at that moment than I’d ever experienced. There were no televisions. There was no music. There was no laughter. But things weren’t entirely silent.
Outside, the birds sang. Funny how those birds sounded. They surely had been around the house before. But now they serenaded the moment of sadness with a sound of joy. Their songs were beautiful.
We also witnessed the rarest of sights. A monarch butterfly. It was fluttering around the back yard. In ten years of living here, we had never seen a monarch butterfly before. Like the birds and their songs, that magnificent creature seemed to express a beauty that was especially significant on this day.
Like the butterfly knew.
The phone rang. Who could it be, we wondered? Not that we were in any condition to talk at this moment of tragedy.
A lady spoke. She informed us that she handled organ donations.
I had answered the phone. I had to stop and put the phone down for a moment. I put on the mute button. I’m not sure what it was about the sound of her voice, saying his organs were needed. But that seemed to bring the pain home even more than I had felt before. It took me a few moments to pull myself together.
Oddly enough, we were somewhat prepared for this moment. Marieta and I had both recently read an excellent book that had been highly recommended. It was called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Essentially, this book describes what happens to human bodies after they die. READ MY REVIEW HERE
The lady asked if the center could take some vital organs that might save and help others. This was a no brainer. If Ion’s death could somehow give life, or at least a better quality of life to someone else, then this would bring some measure of comfort.
The center wanted bone marrow, skin tissue, and the corneas. After some deliberation, Marieta agreed. We even asked the center to give the recipients our contact information. This was important to us.
Imagine the thought of looking into someone’s eyes, a stranger’s eyes, and actually seeing someone you loved.
That was the hope — that by giving these vital body organs to a stranger, someone else would be able to enjoy a life that was now denied to Ion.
But instead of this happening, the next few minutes morphed into a total outrage.
A few minutes after requesting the organs, the same lady informed us they could not use anything from the body. The reason: He was a foreign national.
I’ll bypass repeating the harsh language I used in response to this preposterous policy. Where did they think Ion was from — some poisoned slum in a third-world country? He was from Holland, a nation with a general population that’s probably more healthy than the United States.
And so — typical the arrogance of the American medical establishment — the skin, the heart, the liver, the corneas, the bone marrow, the whatever — went completely wasted. I presume some poor being is still waiting for a transplant. Meanwhile, the organs of an otherwise healthy adult male are disposed of.
An absolute outrage.
Anyone want to make the case that a typical American corpse is less risky that someone from Europe? I can’t even begin to express my level of anger on this issue. And it’s something I had no idea about until I experienced it with my brother-in-law.
You tell me if the poor soul who desperately needs a transplant cares if the organ is from the United States, or wherever.
This is punch someone in the face, burn down the town hall, insanity!
What a fucking waste.
Our learning experience was only beginning.
We sat in the back yard that entire day. The sun went down and turned to night. We continued to sit in the back yard. Occasionally, someone spoke. At times, someone cried. Mostly, there was silence. Except for the birds.
I don’t remember eating. Maybe we did. Maybe we didn’t. Food, which had been one of the many highlights of the day before, had become an afterthought. No one cared to eat.
Some phone calls were made. A few e-mails were sent out. A priest was called, this by request of Marieta’s mother. She remains a believer and was certainly entitled to seek comfort in this more traditional manner. Ion was her son and this was her way of grieving.
No one slept that night. Or maybe we did sleep. But we didn’t sleep well.
By Tuesday, flowers started to arrive. From friends. From relatives. From people we knew. And even some people we didn’t know. A few neighbors brought food, which was most welcome.
I’d been in the other end of this exchange many times before. But this was the first time I’d seen flowers and cards and comments and e-mails come into my home. And I must admit — they meant something. They meant everything.
Making funeral decisions is a whole new level of pain.
It’s a reminder. It also symbolizes finality.
It’s hard to believe this, but even after someone you love had died, you still think they might actually come back. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. You might imagine them waking up. Or getting a phone call in the middle of the night, saying there has been some terrible mistake. You do wonder if some miracle might bring Lazarus back from the deceased. As long as the body is still around, anything is possible. That’s what you think. It’s even more true for a person who died that was healthy.
But once you’re inside the funeral home and see the caskets and the people wearing dark suits, it’s once again a reminder of the finite. Of universal mortality.
The process is so businesslike. Like buying a new car or getting a bank loan or taking out a mortgage. Questions. Contemplation. Paperwork. Dying has become a business.
I found all these questions to be terribly intrusive, almost offensive. And yet, they had to be asked and they had to be answered. How would you like him buried? What kind of coffin? What kind of service? Announcements. And so on and so forth.
Given that most of Ion’s life was over in Holland, we opted for a small private service here in Las Vegas. That service eventually took place on Thursday. Out of respect for the privacy of the family, I’ll say no more about it. But it was beautiful. I think it brought some degree of peace. Not acceptance. That comes later, I’m told. But enough peace to make it through the day.
And on to the next.
The body of Ion Petre, a good man 60-years-old who loved life and spoke four languages and was a civil engineer and was born in Romania and who had a sister and a mother that survives him and who served in the Romanian Army and who immigrated to Holland and who loved music and who loved to tell stories and who had many friends and who loved beer and who drove a Citroen and who traveled often and who always laughed and loved and so rarely said anything bad or did a bad deed, was incinerated on Friday last.
His body is now ashes, his name is but a memory.
In the coming weeks ahead, we who survive him will spread those ashes and that memory in places Ion still yearned to visit. Places he wanted to go. Places he longed to see. With the people he loved the most.
Indeed, Ion is destined to make this one final journey.
Together. With us.