Alterations of Death

The image of a blanket, woven with various patches, filled with stitching, and mended with quilting, is not one uncommon when we describe our human experience. Often have writers invoked the image of a patchwork quilt to describe the many pieces that constitute our lives.

Many of us have quilts made by mothers, or grandmothers, to which our mind immediately races when this image is invoked. We may even go to our closet, pull out those quilts, and gently pass our hands across the patches, the stitches, and the signature where our loved one’s hands had once been. Even as they made this quilt, and this quilt is a thing itself, it is not hard to imagine that that quilt can be an analogy for our lives: we are all nothing more, or less, than pieces of a whole that has been placed together by the relationships in our lives.

We are a whole quilt, but we are not whole without the many parts that make us who we are.

Any quilt, however, no matter how well made or how many times stitched, will eventually become worn if it is used. Quilts can remain pristine if we keep them in a closet and never use them, but the quilts that are used will eventually need to be repaired; they will need to be altered.

But what happens when our quilt is altered without being worn out, when something happens that rips the quilt into 2 pieces or pulls the stitching out and destroys two patches? What happens when the quilt cannot be turned back into what it once was and it has now become something that cannot be repaired? It just can’t. It has become something else.

This is what death does. Death alters the quilt and it alters it to such a degree that this quilt cannot be fixed. It turns the story of your life into another story even as it is the extension of the same story.

Some will come by and say that “the quilt gets easier to use” and that “missing piece will one day be a spot for a new piece” but all of that is crap. The quilt doesn’t get easier to use with time and it never becomes what it once was. Even if you try to repair it it can never get back to its originary state. It can be functional but even in that function it’s destruction is clear.

But why? Why can’t we repair the quilt and move on?

Because using the quilt forces one to continue looking at what it isn’t. If the quilt is in fact your life then being alive is a reminder of the part of the story that has taken an unexpected, and unnatural, turn for something that is not part of this quilt you’ve been unintentionally weaving.

Death alters our quilt; it alters us. The only way it doesn’t is if a.) that part of your quilt didn’t mean much and hence finding a new piece to fit into the torn spot isn’t too difficult or b.) we sedate ourselves from our own materiality with the allure of not death (I”ll fly away O Glory). Response “A” means that that part of your story was not consequential and response “B” means that perhaps we have not rested with death long enough to realize what it is: Death…the cessation of that which makes us alive.

It is hard to describe how death alters a person or changes our quilts beyond repair. All deaths are not equal.

I am not special. Many people have had death visit them through their family. In my immediate family, I have lost a cousin at 19, all of my grandparents have died within the last decade (I lost my first grandmother exactly 10 years ago this week), and I have experienced the untimely and sudden loss of my 65-year-old father. Going through the death of my cousin, and grandparents, did not prepare me for losing my dad; not even close.

All deaths are not equal but that does not mean we do not love all those that die. We can love them and say goodbye to them. We can see their contributions to our quilt and come to a resolution that this part of the quilt is finished but it is not destroyed. Our quilts can stay intact. But sometimes death visits in such a way that your life literally changes after it happens. Sometimes the quilt is mangled beyond repair.

We have all been to funerals, paid our respects, left, and then went about our daily lives as if we had never attended the funeral. We have all been to funerals of grandparents we mourned, yet we understood that 89 years of age is an honest age and it is part of the human condition to live, and die, in time. We hate it but accepting it is not an impossibility. We go to the church for the funeral, have dinner, good conversation, and then go to our homes…business as usual.

This doesn’t mean we are bad people; it just means that there is a season for everything and when things happen in season it is easier to accept.

When it snows in January we are fine; it’s the snowstorm in July that shakes us up.

THEN, there is that death that after it happens your life literally changes. It is not the same afterward. You cannot go back to business as usual. It alters you, sometimes physically. It destroys the quilt and there is nothing that can fix that loss. That patch is not made anywhere else and even “moving on” or “recovering” or “getting better with time” does not make the quilt what it was. It’s just irreparable.

People who have never had a loss in what I call “out of time” have no idea what I’m talking about. I have experienced “in time” and “out of time” loss and the latter is torture in its immediacy. There is something especially tragic about premature, sudden, untimely death. In this kind of death, you have the benefit of not seeing your loved one suffer, but you carry the eternal burden of no final words, no more moments, no more embraces of love. As quickly as you blink that person is gone…without warning. Depending on how interconnected your life was will determine on how this moment presents itself to you.

The quilt changes; its not the same and taking advice from people who have never had their quilt destroyed beyond repair…or living in a culture that just replaces quilts…leaves no room for the real-life PTSD that can follow death.

Death, the kind of death you feel in your bones, alters you. The quilt is never the same and it is hard to describe if you’ve never lived through the kind of death that is only beginning once you put your loved one in the ground.

I said at my father’s funeral that his death would change history. Probably not world history, but my history, my family’s history. Like Back to the Future an alternative 2017 was created when my dad died, and we have been on that alternative timeline ever since. Unlike Back to the Future, I am unable to go back to that time in history and make it right.

When I consider the alternative history, it is shocking how much has changed even though so much has stayed the same. My quilt is jacked up but places I take it are still familiar.

What alterations have happened?

For starters, and sadly, it has now been long enough for my little girl to begin forgetting her grandad. My daughter is 2 and when my dad passed those 2 were just beginning to develop a relationship. Her personality was coming out and my dad always loved the babies. He loved how the babies would be captivated with him and reciprocate his childish demeanor. First it was my 3 boys, then my sister’s girls, and my little girl was next to be the apple of his eye. But now…he is a faded memory. For a few months after she would mention that “grandad was sleeping” because that is how I described him at the funeral home.

But now? She’ll see him in a picture and ask who he is. He died just 2 weeks after her 2nd birthday. Their relationship has been altered.

My boys were 11 and 9 when my dad died. They did a lot with him when they were younger. My dad loved his boys; they were, after all, the first grandkids and twins to boot. As they got older my dad would wrestle with them, take them four-wheeling, and toss them around in the pool. He would bring them home pizza, share his A&W Root Beer with them, and teach them Karate. Two of my oldest boys have autism so they did not always reciprocate affection to my dad as he would have liked but that’s not because they didn’t love him; it’s because they have autism and relate to people around them differently than the norm. My dad struggled to understand that as my boys got older.

Now? They have no grandparent to do that with and cannot learn to develop the kind of relationship with an active grandfather that would have been so pivotal for them.

In business, changes have been drastic. After getting a crash course in self-discovery of all the things my dad never showed me, I became chief executive officer. Don’t let the title fool you; it really means I just get to do more work. My sister and I split up the office work, but I believe I may have taken any stress on myself that my dad used to carry. My work weeks went from a standard 45 hours to 60. My focus went from strictly operations to wearing all the hats one needs when running a small business. I now find myself in the sort of job that will not get done even if I work 16 hours a day 7 days a week. When you own your own business there is always something to do and you bring work home with you every day. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t have to think about when he was here. Now…I get to be concerned with all of it.

As the CEO and CFO of our company, my dad was the gatekeeper. All of the family, and even employees, could come to him in confidence with any item. Now that privacy was over. What was once hidden became transparent as I know needed to have that knowledge.

Familially, my mother, who had been married to a man that owned his own business, suddenly had to rethink her relationship to myself, my sister, the business and what it means to be a widow at only 58. She is still struggling with that transition and experts say widows can take up to 5 years to adjust to the loss of a spouse. My dad was kind of the intermediary between all of us in the family and since his death we have had to renegotiate how we relate to one another, and in many instances, discovering we do not know one another as well as we thought.

Academically I have had to put on the brakes. I had just begun my 2nd year of a Doctor Of Ministry program and was doing some intriguing research when my dad passed. Suddenly, I had 0 motivation to write and no inspiration to do so. I found myself questioning the very academic enterprise itself. If life could be snuffed out without warning, then what am I doing wasting my life writing papers no one will read and reading books that I can discuss with maybe 5 people? When I am dead I doubt anyone will recall the articles I’ve written or the books I helped edit. Most likely some poor student will come across them incidentally but for the rest of the world my meager academic contributions will be swallowed by the oblivion of academic prose.

Death caused me to question the value of everything. Those that know me know academics was a big part of my life. I love to learn, write, do research, teach. I was not a smart kid in High School but in the liberal arts I had found my passion. Suddenly my dad’s death made me question my motivations and how I spent my time. What once had supreme value became almost meaningless. I had to take an “incomplete” in the class I was taking at the time of my dad’s death and it took my 9 months to write the last two papers I needed to finish the course. It seemed like a monumental task that beforehand would have been chump change for me.

Recently I received emails about registration for classes and I had to be honest with my advisor that I am still not in a place where I can meet my own expectations. I believe I can do good work and I want to finish. My thesis project is novel and would be a fine contribution, but now I have business responsibilities that take precedent over my passion for learning and working in the faith. If my dad had not died, I would be starting year 3 of my Doctor of Ministry and probably have a few chapters of my thesis written. I would be 1 year from graduation. Instead, I have completed 1 year with nothing but academic ambiguity lying in front of me.

Personally, one of my main hobbies was powerlifting. The night before my dad passed I was in the gym prepping for a power meet in the late spring. I was weighing 180lbs at 5’7 and deadlifting 450lbs, doing sets of 315 for 10-15. My lifts were strong. I would spend about 4/5 days in the gym, getting workouts in when I could depending on work. My goal for my meet was a 400lb squat, 500lb deadlift and 330 on bench. Even if I had to hit the gym from 11pm-after midnight I would get it in.

Since my dad has passed, I am lighter than I have been in a decade. I stopped eating nearly half as much and found minimal time for the gym with my added responsibilities and lack of mental focus for heavy weights. I weigh 150lbs and have lost most of my strength gains. I have went from benching 315 lbs to having a max of 230. Now I can’t pick up 400 lbs and I used to be able to just bend down and pull that for 5 reps like it was nothing. Spending hours in the gym is no longer appealing to me. The killer mental focus I used to have for weight training is gone and I am unsure if it will ever come back.

Basically, none of my clothes fit. I went from needing XL T Shirts to now being able to wear Medium shirts I haven’t worn since 2010.

Lastly, his death altered my view of things. Things I used to enjoy buying, like vintage baseball cards, have lost appeal. The problem is that when he died all his stuff stayed here. Stuff that he loved, like his car and some of his coin collection, just sits to be eaten by moth and rust. We all know we can’t take it with us but when someone leaves suddenly, and the things they loved are left behind just taking up room, we realize that so much of what we “enjoy,” or pursue, is worthless in the end.

In addition, things usually only mean something if you can share them with others. It’s no fun to buy a car, a new ring, or even an Al Kaline rookie card if you have no one to show and share it with. Our relationships make things matter but in the end the thing is nothing more than a token that deepens the relationship.

There used to a bumper sticker that read “he who dies with the most toys still dies.” Its cliché and when I read it back in the day it seemed obvious…but when I really learned that lesson it changed how I think of things and how I spend my money. Stuff is just stuff; it is meaningless. So why do I work, if not for things? If not to have more money to buy more stuff?

Now I work for my family and for those that work in my company. I don’t work to have things; I work to make my company the best it can be to provide for my family and be the best it can be for my employees. A job well done means more to me than any money I can make from the job because that is how I will be remembered when I die.

No one will care what I had in my house, but they will remember how I treated others and handled my business. My family will remember how I put them first.

Death that you feel alters you. You don’t have to seek it out. You won’t have to wonder if this death is an altering death. You will live it and it will change you. It won’t leave you alone; you won’t get over it; you’ll basically learn to live with it even though you’ll suck at living with it most days.

The trouble with deep death is that it alters the quilt we’ve been working on and not time, a trip to Hobby Lobby, or looking forward to the final eschaton will make that better. The quilt is just jacked up and that’s kind of not fair because the ones that die don’t have to deal with death like us.

This is where death gets tricky. Only the living experience death. The moment of death is felt by the dying but only those left behind get to live through death. Those that die are relieved of that burden. The only way to live past death and avoid it is to die ourselves. Ain’t that some crap?

Death is full of irony, dialectic if you will, in that death is the only release from death; it’s the only way to save the quilt. For us unlucky ones that get the quilt destroyed without proper wear and tear we are just stuck with the reality that death alters us, the quilt will never be or feel the same, and the journey toward remaking that quilt is one that will most likely end only in the death of ourselves.

 

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