“At Least You Knew It Was Coming”

I learned this morning that this essay was selected as an honorable mention in the 2022 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. It’s been so long since I submitted the piece that I’d nearly forgotten about it. They won’t be publishing the honorable mentions, so I thought I’d share it here.

^ Photo taken at the place where we buried my dad’s ashes.

“At Least You Knew It Was Coming”

My dad has been dead for 23 days. Nearly a month now. But this is not going to be an essay about grief, or maybe it is, but it’s not meant to be morose or overly melancholy. It’s merely an attempt, my attempt, to articulate what it feels like when someone you love dies after being sick for a very, very long time.  I’m told that when death comes unexpectedly — when, say, an otherwise healthy 41-year-old drops dead on his doorstep from a heart attack or the phone rings in the middle of the night or the police show up on your doorstep — the surprise, in whatever form it comes, is a trauma all its own. This makes sense to me. My 11-year-old and I were hit by a drunk driver last summer. We were listening to the audio version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and I was smiling a little as we drove along the small island highway. Isn’t it strange that I remember this? I was smiling, enjoying the saturated greens of the western hemlocks, the red bark of the waving madronas, and the presence of my boy beside me, when the realization landed: in the span of maybe two seconds I understood that the oncoming Ford F 150 swerving into our lane was not going to course-correct. 

Even now, months later, remembering the splintering, sickening slam of impact and the explosion of airbags and the screaming of my son, sets my heart to a strange staccato. How quick, how incomprehensible, how stunning it was. There were minor injuries but they were soon healed and quickly forgotten. The trauma of the experience, however, required its own recovery and it continues today as I white-knuckle my way through traffic and my eyes dart wildly, scanning for all vehicular eventualities. I imagine the news of an unexpected, inexplicable death is something like this. There is the death, and there is the news of the death; the conveyance; the supersonic suckerpunch, the split second on the small island highway when a casual drive turns into destruction and chaos.

That’s not what happened with my dad. It wasn’t swift or sudden or shocking. On the contrary, it was agonizing in its slowness, like one of those giant Galapagos turtles lumbering in the late afternoon. He started showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease when he was 63 and he died four months after his 74th birthday. Much of the time his disease seemed endless. Glacial in it’s drifting toward a different way of being. And many of our friends and family, even we ourselves, took this to mean that the blow, when it finally came, would be easier to bear. Foreknowledge was supposed to mean that we would forego some of the grief. But the gradual nature of my dad’s illness did not, in the end, make the burden less cumbersome to carry. And yet I cannot convey to you, reader, the countless ways that a kind and well-meaning friend or acquaintance in recent weeks, after hearing news of my dad’s passing, has waved a hand before I’ve even finished speaking, and said, “Well, at least you knew it was coming.”

I’ll grant that this is technically true. We did know that it was coming. I also understand the impulse to resort to such platitudes. If I haven’t said the exact words myself, I’ve certainly thought them. When I read an obituary I always skim to the end before doubling back to read it in full. Maybe you do the same. I scan it because I’m looking for the cause of death. I want to know how it happened! How old was this person? Why are they dead? Could their death have been prevented, avoided, altered? How can I keep this from happening to me and mine? It’s normal, I think, to be curious. Part of the biological contract to do whatever it takes to stay alive. The mind wants to make sense of things, to categorize, to minimize risk and pain and loss. Before my dad died I would search for the cause of death in an obituary and sag in relief when I found the words, “following a long illness.” 

But here is what I have learned: understanding that someone is going to die doesn’t diminish the pain of their eventual passing. Having time to prepare myself didn’t open a magical trapdoor so that I could slide past the painful parts and land in the cushioned contours of supposed closure. Which is really too bad. It would be nice if it did. We think it won’t hurt as much if we’ve “prepared ourselves.” I thought it wouldn’t hurt as much anyway. But it hurt like hell. From the early days of his disease with his neverending repetitions of the same tired questions, to the exorbitant donations he started sending to obscure presidential candidates, to the terrifying night-time wandering and the elastic days of his actual dying, the sorrow was unceasing. Foresight didn’t mean we got a pass. It only meant two things. It meant that, yes, we skipped the shock of a sudden bereavement. This was, I’m certain, a mercy. But because we were granted such a gift, it also meant that we were hurting for eleven endless, arduous years, living in a relentless, repetitive cycle of both anticipatory and actual grief, and then, after all that, he actually went and died on us!

None of this is to say our prescience made it worse. There is no worse. Death is death and a long runway or a short onramp doesn’t change that. I’m only saying that when we opt for the solipsism of “at least you knew it was coming,” in an attempt to distance ourselves from the discomfort of death, we unwittingly inflict additional pain on someone who is already in agony. We need to reach instead for new words. We need something different to pull from our pockets when made to mingle with someone in mourning. A simple acknowledgement would probably do the trick. Because even if we don’t know how to handle death or deep sadness, a base acknowledgment would surely be better than taking cover in cliches and banalities like “at least you knew it was coming.” We can practice together. I can say: “My dad has been dead for 23 days and we knew that it was coming for eleven years.” And you can say: “Wow. Eleven years. What a long time that is to be sad.”  Then I can nod, and you can nod, and we can just sit awhile, and hold that truth between us.

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