I was a teenager when I first encountered death. It was summertime and the nights were uncomfortably warm. It was the kind of heat that made you sweat even if you stood still and we weren’t the kind that had air conditioning.
I was in my bedroom, thumbing through a fantasy paperback and from my room I heard an unearthly noise, louder than anything I had ever heard before. It was thundering and whining and awful and I couldn’t figure out what it was from my room. After it was clear that my parents and sister would remain asleep, I slipped on my flip flops and went outside to find out what had happened.
There was a body on the side of the road, face down – white helmet mercifully covering the cyclist’s face. There was the ruin of a motorcycle in a ditch, and in the middle of the road a tan sedan, lights showing more than anyone wanted to see. I was rooted to the spot, my entire body felt like it had been slapped all over, I literally couldn’t move once I realized what I was seeing.
Blue and red lights soon washed over the scene, as neighbors with more wherewithal had called for help. I eventually gathered myself up and slinked back to my hot room, paradoxically shivering. I didn’t speak of it the next day around the house, it was too personal. Word the next day was that the driver was drunk and the motorcyclist had died immediately on impact.
I’ve never made peace with death, but it no longer makes me freeze like it did that night.
The second time I was introduced to death was worse than the first time.
I was eighteen. I was hanging out with my friend Mike, his family had a sort of middle-upper class home with a dad who worked for IBM and whose mom liked to make fun of hippies with sandals and socks. In retrospect there was no reason for me to be there. I was outside and the sun was high in the sky.
If I were a smoker I would have had a cigarette hanging from my lip, but I was just hanging out and eavesdropping on a couple of 40 year old dudes shooting the shit. They were talking about golf and real estate.
Not far away from both my loitering ass and the group of 40 year old dudes, there was a wall made from stacked rocks, the kind that frames a gated community. One of the 40 year old’s young daughter was climbing on the rocks. I noticed and I had a sort of bad feeling about it, an alarm that emerged from the pit of my stomach. The situation was clearly unsafe, and I was debating with myself how I should tell the dad. I was imagining the, “don’t tell me how to raise my daughter you punk” argument.
The young girl climbed too high, maybe 4 feet and lost her grip. I saw her fell. Golf dad didn’t and only saw her crumpled on the ground afterwards. His life changed forever in that moment.
He rushed to her side and picked her up and yelled and moaned her name and rocked her but she wouldn’t wake up. I was nauseous. I should have noticed sooner, I should have warned golf dad quicker.
My third death though…that was the worst. I was nineteen.
I kept looking at the cheerful sun and the brilliant blue cloudless sky, and thought of how profane it was. On the day that I had to bury my dad the weather should have been as bleak as I felt. My dad was an amateur bodybuilder, his body a homespun temple. AIDS slowly took away each plank and brick, until only the frame was left.
The people that came to pay their respects? Long lost aunts and uncles, whom I never saw when he was alive. Who knew me and my sister as their nephew and niece but the connective tissue was weak at best. What they saw? Was my father’s body, flush with embalming fluids and looking plush in death, the comments on “how good a job they did” were like little knife cuts that I acknowledged but could barely feel.
AIDS took a lot from my sister and I. It took away our foundation, it took away a thousand conversations and didn’t leave much left except a profound depression that left me staring at walls and eventually homelessness as I had no mechanism to cope. Eventually I got to my feet with the help of friends and strangers and made a life (but that’s another story).
The point was, there was no support structure for this. There was no conversation, no community, no skills for me to acquire, and I was adrift at sea. The next time death was going to visit in a profound way, I was going to have to do something different.
My mother had been ill for several weeks, and my sister and I didn’t have the means to visit her. She lived in Incheon, South Korea and we lived near Seattle. We could have scraped together the time and money to see her, but she’d call and let us know that she would be out of the hospital sooner or later and in good hands, and surrounded by our family, we didn’t worry too much.
Then I got an email from my cousin, “You should come to Korea”, there were other words, but I knew what he was saying. I would be able to raise enough money to travel, but my sister didn’t have it. So I put together a fundraiser and the community helped out. I let her know, and she was amazed at the generosity and…opted to stay home. “I don’t want to see her like this. I want to remember her fat and happy.”
So? I flew to Korea. I was a wreck. I chronicled my trip through iPhone photos and a real time account of what was happening. And when I landed and my cousin picked me up, I was able to spend time with my Korean family. We ate, and smiled, and sort of cracked jokes. I visited my mom, she was unrecognizable, what turned out to be a kidney disease had made a ruin of her body. I told her that I loved her, I told her that she could go with God, and that I would take care of everything. She wasn’t conscious, but somehow tears escaped her eyes. Shortly afterwards she died.
I took her cremated remains and watched her be buried in our family plot. No words can really capture what I, we, were feeling. I went to my aunt’s home, slept and the next day we ate as a family, and then? I went home. I was turned inside out, and I knew that I had to do something different this time. I couldn’t freeze, I couldn’t just keep to myself about this.
I went to a therapist that was recommended to me, I talked it out. I used mental exercises in order to examine who I was and how I would relate to this last death. And you know what? It was better this time, this time I didn’t sink into an unmovable depression, because there was a path forward, a way to reconcile my feelings and my need to heal. I was surrounded by family and friends and love, and this was the major difference.
There have been other deaths in my life and each has made me change the rudder of my life, the trajectory alters as I contemplate their lives and deaths. Each death leaves scar tissue that acts as a sort of map.
For me it’s been to discover the strength found from relying on your loved ones. Hiding away and trying to sustain it all by myself? That’s empty nonsense. It’s a way to crumble. Apart. I’ve had to learn that sharing pain leads to retaining your humanity. You get to eat, cry, and even laugh together. What use looking strong, alone, if it leaves all your emotional tendons and sinews flayed and flaccid?
That’s what we’re told, that being stoic, bearing pain by yourself is manly. It’s the way it should be. But I say, let the people that love you help bear the weight. That’s what love is, it’s hard work and it’s high time we accept the work, together.
Tim’s Bio: I am a rarely spotted Seattle Native Son and an unprolific writer. Hobbies include prodigious coffee consumption and kvetching about the intersections of popular media, race and society. You can also catch my podcast about comic book culture at allcomicsconsidered.com.