The Trouble With Dying

My neighbor is dying.

Actually, they all are, but he knows his death is coming sooner than later. It is terribly sad, a young man and father dying of a brain tumor.

I bumped into him at the grocery store last week and this morning, as I wheeled my cart past where we’d stopped and chatted, I thought about him, our conversation, and hostas.

You see, as much as this young man is my neighbor, before last week, I’d never spoken to him. Not once. He lives a street over and a few blocks south of me and our paths simply never crossed before. His kids go to the schools my kids have attended – his oldest is a year behind my Middlest at school, and I run or walk past his house every day.

And yet I’d never met him. Then, a few months ago people started talking about him. His blog started being posted and reposted on my FB page, Middlest started talking about this little boy in her school who’s dad is dying.

Lives, crossing paths.

I was at the grocery store with Littlest. My neighbor was with his four year old. Littlest was happily distracted with a game on the iPod. As I reached in the case for a tub of hummus, I watched my neighbor try to heft a gallon of milk into his handicap scooter with his little girl’s help. As he adjusted the pile of things in the basket, she skipped away, attention caught by the kiosk of animal cards across the aisle.

My own kids pull away from me to spin that kiosk, reading each and every card that catches their fancy. Dogs in birthday hats, a frog in sunglasses, a cat with an orange-peel helmet. In my world, that kiosk is a source of frustration as I have to read card after card that one or both kids thinks is “awesome Mom!” and then put them back away correctly.

So I stood there, hands on my cart, wondering what I should do.

Obviously, here is a man in poor health. He’s having a bit of trouble getting the gallon of milk in the basket without setting it on the bananas. And his daughter is behind him, oblivious to all the strangers who could so easily whisk her away. I didn’t want to step on toes, to offer unwanted help, to create tension where there might be none. So I hesitated.

And then the milk found its place away from the bananas and she ran up to him to show off the “awesome Dad!” card gripped in her fist.

I turned my cart around and went on with my list.

But then, next to the cereal and boxes of granola bars, he appeared. I was deep into the ingredient list of two different granola bars and fielding advice from Littlest over what sounded best and what on earth would Biggest most likely eat, when my neighbor purred up behind me and reached for a box of granola bars. I was in his way and murmured all the appropriate things.

“I see you’ve got some hostas. You know, if you want any more, feel free to come by my house and get some. I won’t be needing any of mine anymore,” he said, nodding to my cart with four hostas tucked between Littlest and the cart.

It was the start of a lovely conversation about gardening and making plans and living what matters. And it was a conversation that was steeped in death.

As I wheeled back down the cereal aisle today, grabbing a box of Life cereal for Biggest, I thought about my neighbor’s words.

He is a kind man. The kind of kind man we hate to see die young. I am saddened by the thought of his wife and kids saying goodbye to him that very last time.

And yet, perhaps he is the lucky one.

His daughter knows no man more strong or amazing or handsome.

His son knows no man more courageous or protective.

His wife knows no man who loves her more.

My neighbor will die at the prime of his life but he will have all his loved ones surrounding him for that last goodbye.

He won’t die alone, forgotten in a nursing home. He won’t die a broken shell of the dreamer he once was. He won’t die in vain.

He will die, years before his loved ones are ready for him to go and because cancer found him, but surrounded by examples of all the goodness he brought into this world.

We are all dying. Every one of us is here but for a short time really.

I wonder how my own death will come about. Will I be left behind and forgotten, an elderly shell of what and who I once was? Will it be over in an instant? Will it be lingering?

I cannot control the end. But I can control the now. So I hope to do more of  what my neighbor did last week in the grocery store.

He looked around for his daughter. I saw his face wrinkle with concern and then smooth when he found her. And then he turned that motorized handicapped scooter around and rolled up to her. He pulled her onto his lap and then proceeded to read all the cards with her.

He knows he won’t get many tomorrows. So he is filling up each of his todays with as much as he can.

And he is offering strangers his perennials, so that he will live on, in gardens all over our neighborhood.

That’s the trouble with dying…too many leave without leaving a trace, with the todays empty because preparing for the tomorrows took precedent.

7 thoughts on “The Trouble With Dying

  1. Ahh Kristina…such a difficult subject to broach as many don’t want to ever face that life is so short and we, as humans, really don’t have the calendar. My greatest and hardest growth came from the dying and death of our youngest at 23. Life is so precious and while I often get caught up in the trials and trivia of day to day life, his death reminds me daily to live in the moment. To leave the world better than I found it, laugh, love and listen to my heart. Thank you for again bravely where so many will not! Blessings friend..Nancy

  2. I think Castaneda got part of it right – Death is always right there, just over your left shoulder. Yeah, see, just when you’ve about decided that you at least have some sort of a make shift handle on this whole life/death thing – it’ll come back on you with something different. Just a reminder, it would seem.

    A good thing to do with the plants, I think

    About my third or fourth attempt to wrap this up.

    That’s the thing about Death see…

    Thanks for this, kristina

  3. Reblogged this on This Grey Matters Blog and commented:
    Interesting perspective on dying young. Perhaps you need a little distance to see things this way, but I like to think of people dying surrounded by examples of the goodness they brought into this world.

  4. Your neighbor could have been my brother-in-law (another young Portland father) before his brain tumor took him in January. If I can be so bold as to suggest it, no matter how little you think you know the family, no matter how much you are praying for him, please keep reaching out to the family. Drop a pot of flowers on their front porch, bring them a bag of bagels when you pick up yours, they may seem to be surrounded by friends and family but they need more signs of love and support than you or I can ever imagine.

    • I’m sorry…such empty words and yet all I have to offer. We don’t get many days here with the people we love. You are right — when we connect even in small ways, it makes such a big difference.

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