By Dave Markwell
As I begin shaking the dust from the page and attempt to produce words more regularly again, I’m finding some interesting things. Last week, I had a partially complete column nearing its end when I decided to scrap it. I liked it, didn’t love it, but I understand that if I loving every word I wrote was a prerequisite for writing them, I probably wouldn’t write very many. Nonetheless, my concern about the column last week wasn’t technical. I was just afraid.
The previous weekend a good friend’s dad passed away. My column explored my thoughts about this. My fear was talking about death again. My column is titled “Feel Good Friday” and I was insecure about my column becoming a downer. So, I chickened out. I don’t do this very often and it’s bothered me.
All week I’ve been exploring what my problem was and the only reasonable conclusion I’ve come up with is the fact that death is sad and scary to talk about. As such, we – certainly in the U.S. – avoid talking about it much. We keep it tucked away on a high shelf and only pull it down when we absolutely have to. We look at the floor and fidget when the topic arises. We shift our gaze and feet and change the subject. Even the strong become timid in its path. It’s uncomfortable and we don’t like being uncomfortable.
Through my life, I have experienced the deaths of people I loved. At 19, I lost my younger brother. I’ve lost valuable grandparents and my dad. I have learned things from these losses. As I grow older, the main takeaway I’ve discovered is that I’m not alone. We all suffer these losses. It’s part of being alive. Death is part of life. This inescapable fact troubles us. It makes us feel bad. I suppose the question I’m pondering these days is: should it?
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should be jumping for joy at the loss of a loved one, but I also think that avoiding thinking about and/or discussing difficult things doesn’t prepare us well for them happening. And they happen. I think we actually breathe more life into the sad feelings by avoiding them. They become the monsters under the bed and grow even more fearsome by our not climbing out from under our cozy covers, placing our feet on the floor and leaning down to tip our heads and look them in the eyes. When we do this, we take the power away. The negative energy can be transformed into something else, something more valuable and true- the fact that life existed and was beautiful and that the people we love don’t leave us. They remain in our hearts and memories forever. This truth holds hands with the sadness of loss. They are connected.
I guess missing someone is a pretty good sign that we loved them and that they loved us and that the life we shared was meaningful and important and beautiful for them, too. They were loved and knew it and we mattered to them, too. This is an important thing to consider, and though the sadness is real and inevitable, this piece is just as true and real, and maybe a more complete part of the story.
When a terminally ill Warren Zevon was asked about what his experience had taught him about life and death, he answered, “How much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.” Now, I like sandwiches. A lot. So, this idea may have struck me as especially significant, from a literal sense, but digging deeper, the “sandwich” could be anything. It’s a little thing and easy to overlook, but provides joy and sustenance and feeds parts of us unrelated to our stomach. It’s a little big thing. Like many of life’s finest things…the little things are the big things. A sunrise, a conversation, a walk through the trees, the sound of waves hitting a beach, the smell of chicken grilling or a lover’s freshly shampooed hair. And a good sandwich. Little things make life big.
My wonderful girlfriend, Kelsey, is a hospice nurse. As such, we talk about death often. Again, as such, I’ve become more comfortable with the topic. Through her stories I’ve come to understand that beyond the clinical process and cold reality is a warmth, an opportunity for connection, and a stripping down of pretense which creates space for the powerful acknowledgement of love. At no other time in life is this awareness more alive than at the end of life. And this is beautiful and something worth stepping beyond our fear to let ourselves feel.
When my buddy’s dad passed, he wrote a fine tribute. It was honest and raw and true, and I was touched. I sent him a note saying they were the easiest and hardest words he may ever write. Easy, in that, it was easy to find good things to say about a good dad. Hard, because you never imagine having to write them. Well, we all end up writing them. So, I suppose, shaping a catalog in our hearts and minds of moments to archive and pull off the shelf whenever we need them is a worthwhile effort. We construct eulogies every day and the best ones contain bits of summer baseball games, sunsets and long drives and sea breezes and a warm hand in ours…and sandwiches. I think this is just called being alive. And being alive, while we have the chance, is about the best we can do in preparation for death. There’s beauty in all of it and there’s nothing to be afraid of…
[EDITOR’S NOTE:”Feel Good Friday” is a regular column written by Des Moines resident Dave Markwell, whose first book is called “A Feel Good Life” (buy it on Amazon here). Dave extols to all neighbors: “Enjoy where we live. Put your feet on the pavement and truly feel how great it is to live here!”