How Are You? A meditation on death

Q: I’m so sorry to hear about your stepmom. How are you?

A: Oh, thanks. I’m fine. I’ll be ok.

A: I’m managing, I guess.  

A: Yeah, it has been hard. It was so sudden.

A: I’m . . . I don’t know. I’m coping, I guess. I have a bunch of mints in my pocket from the funeral home. The name of the home is printed on the wrapper. I’ve been pondering how that kind of marketing might benefit the business. Would you like one?

A: Not great. I spend a lot of time reliving that night. One minute I’m washing dishes, and the next I’m back in the emergency room in my snow boots watching them lift the sheet off her face. Or I’m sitting with my dad as the doctor walks us through the measures they took to revive her. I remember dumb things — for example, the hospital chaplain’s name was also Kathy. I envy people who have religion. “What are we supposed to do now?” I ask the chaplain. I’m looking for spiritual direction, but she assumes I’m asking about logistics. I leave, but can’t find my way back to the parking garage, and I have to ask a nurse for help. He walks me nearly all the way there. I drive home through the snowstorm. I drive carefully, and worry about whether my dad, who is also on his way home, is driving carefully.

A: The past two weeks have been difficult. I’m trying to explain death to my three-year-old. She sort of gets it. But then I ask if I can have one her drawings to give to grandma. I want to put it in the casket. “But grandma is dead,” she says, as if I’m stupid. She has a point. Why would a dead body need a Crayola sketch of our family? I don’t know how to answer. One of the children’s books I bought talks about heaven. I tell her that some people believe that you go to a really nice place with all of your favorite things after you die. She is skeptical. She wants to know how a dead person would be able to see anything in heaven. I don’t know how to answer that one either.

A: I’m angry, and I’ve been directing my anger mostly at the medical professionals who can’t give me a satisfying explanation for why a healthy 63-year-old died in an ambulance in the middle of the night. “Think harder!” I want to scream. Let’s get a conference room, her medical records, and a fucking white board. I’ll provide all the details about the weekend that preceded her death. Let’s form a hypothesis. Surely we can do better than a collective shrug. (It’s possible I’ve watched too much House.)

I recognize, of course, that the how doesn’t really matter. The outcome is the same. But still I keep making calls. Last week I called the fire department to see if they would let me talk to the paramedics who rode with her. The man who returned my call pulled the ambulance report from the night she died. He had a kind voice, but no concrete answers. I’ve been making a mental list of who to call next, and wondering whether I should request a hard copy of the ambulance report so that I can read it myself. This fixation doesn’t seem like a normal or helpful part of grieving, so maybe I’m not ok?

Anyway, how are you?


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