Death is such a strange thing.
Maybe strange isn’t the right word. It is as present in all of our lives as birth; it is as definite. And yet it is unfamiliar. It is not warm and happy. It is generally not cause for celebration. Birth requires work, a process. Birth requires delivery and breath. Birth is something that grows. But death is a moment. Death is almost invisible.
Death is the reason I never met my grandmother, Fleeta. It is also the reason my uncle is no longer here. My father told us the news in an email last week. My uncle died from a heart attack in Oklahoma, a month shy of his 78th birthday.
My father said, “I am numb.”
My Uncle Bill was my dad’s only sibling. My dad was the baby, and Bill was his big brother. I think when my grandparents both passed away Bill became both brother and bridge to being a Choate for my dad.
I looked to my uncle to tell me stories about his parents and grandparents, who died before I was born. He was funny, he was warm. He brought his mother to life for me. He told me about her siblings, their parents, grandparents and ancestors who fought at the Alamo.
He told me the story about how he was such a wild child his parents tied a strap to his back so they could hold on to him in public. He described himself as an incorrigible kid, getting into things he shouldn’t, like the time he tried to shave with his father’s straight-edge razor or the time he fell off of his Uncle Henry’s big dog house and broke his wrist.
“I can see they had their hands full with my propensity for injury,” my uncle once told me, as he described the ways his mother — a nurse — cared for him when he was ill. “That might explain why it was seven years before your dad came along.”
My uncle told me that his mother had endless patience for him. He said he knew God loved him even more than his mother did, so it must be a lot. And he said that his grandchildren could never behave worse than he did as a child, so he loved them unconditionally.
My aunt and uncle cared for my grandmother in their home at the end of her life. She battled cancer for years, and eventually, she deteriorated. She didn’t speak. She didn’t get out of bed. One night, she seemed to be doing worse, so my aunt and uncle called an ambulance. As they followed it down the road to the hospital, my uncle could see the paramedics frantically pressing on his mother’s chest as he looked into the back window, and he knew what had happened.
“It was at that moment I had a very unique feeling, never duplicated elsewhere, except when I would return from Air Force special duty tours, and my whole family came out to the gate to meet me,” my uncle wrote in an email. “It was a very peculiar, thrilling sensation, and I felt it that night while looking in on mom for the last time.”
My father says one of my grandmother’s sayings was about death. “On into progression,” she’d say. Maybe that’s what makes death so hard to describe. Perhaps it is not an end in the way that birth is a beginning. Perhaps it is a shift, strange only to the living.
I hope my uncle’s last step was as he imagined — thrilling and full of family to greet him. At his homecoming, the scene might have been like one depicted in his favorite poem. His mother had first hung it on the wall, and he quoted it in the last Christmas card he sent to friends and family.
To My Son
“Do you know that your soul of my soul is such a part
That you seem to be fiber and core of my heart?
None other can pain me as you, dear, can do,
None other can please me or praise me as you.
Remember the world will be quick with its blame.
If shadow or stain ever darken your name,
‘Like mother, like son’ is a saying so true,
The world will judge largely of mother by you.
Be yours then the task, if task it shall be,
To force the proud world to do homage to me.
Be sure it will say when its verdict you’ve won
‘She reaped as she sowed, Lo’, this is her son.' "