In 2017, my workplace started offering us bereavement leave. Two days per year. I’ve barely noticed it in my benefit package, let alone taken it. With an active tween and a couple of fit and overscheduled parents, it didn’t cross my mind that I would need to use those two days.
Or that those two days wouldn’t come close to covering the need.
A week ago. Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. I receive a call that my dear friend Eric had fallen dead in his bathroom. He was only 46. Cardiac arrest. Eric didn’t know he had heart problems.
Friday. 5:30 p.m. I load my car with boxes and shipping tape and go help Eric’s housemate pack up his belongings for his family. Twice we stumble across cards I had written to my friend telling him things I appreciated about him. Our phones ping and ping, feeds overflowing with appreciations and memories. The magnitude of his complexity staggers me. I knew barely a fraction of these pieces of my friend. He had so much more to explore and love than I ever imagined.
Saturday, 8:30 a.m. I drop my partner at the airport. He is flying up to New England to keep his father company during his last days. The docs only admitted the old man to the hospital a few weeks ago to run some tests. They were trying to identify and treat what had weakened him so suddenly. Then they stopped trying. He moved to hospice. Advanced lymphoma had ravaged his body. He didn’t know. No one knew.
Sunday, 12:00 noon. My son and I join fifty-ish friends on a rooftop bar. It is a place where we play trivia. When we last visited this venue a few weeks ago, my son handed his Rubik’s cube over and Eric solved it in under a minute. Now in the mid-day sun, we all hug and reminisce and roil together in the loss of our good friend. Even the server who takes our big group photo tells us how much he liked Eric.
Monday. 8:30 p.m. My phone pings. Up in Massachusetts, my partner’s father just died.
Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. Home now, he shudders when he notices the time. He says 8:30 will be seared in for a while. He tells me he has a little death in him. He took a fragment of it from his dad. He can feel it, restless in there. He and his sister were holding their father in their arms and they felt him leave. They opened a window. They kissed his face.
Wednesday now. The phone pings. The service in Massachusetts is confirmed. It will take place on the same weekend as a celebration of life for a friend and fellow congregant from church. She died too early of a rapacious breast cancer. I’ll have to choose which funeral to attend.
My partner’s father was from Scotland and loved to sail. They will scatter his ashes at sea. Grandsons in New York and California are checking flights. Dear ones from all over the world continue to post memories. Stories of the man’s goodness.
He was good. He was other things too. My partner is sorting out which things to remember and which to surrender.
The phone pings again. It is one of the friends I’m working with to plan Eric’s celebration of life. His body is going to Idaho. His family will bury him next to his mother who also died too early. Eric’s multitude of friends in the DC area want to say goodbye. More than goodbye: we want to say the things we didn’t write down in cards, things too raw for social media posts. We want to be in the company of others and hold the many vibrant pieces of him together for a moment.
In 2017, my workplace started offering bereavement leave. It never crossed my mind that we would have so little warning.
It was hubris to imagine myself immune.
It’s always been true that this touch might be the last touch. That these precious cells and channels and fluids thrumming together as the only self we know can turn against each other. It’s always been a matter of time until we open the window for our parents. Or they for us. It’s always been possible that my son would witness two of the people he is closest to in his life spin out from the shock of simultaneous, sudden losses. That he himself might lose one of the few grownups outside his family who cared deeply for him and considered him a friend.
The scene, no matter how well staged and scripted, contains within it every unlikely plot twist. The edges never hold firm. The fragments that comprise us also undo us. Death rattles around in all of us.