Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Death and Coping from Across an Ocean

While living in Mali for nearly a year and a half now two relatives of mine have passed away. 

It was over a year ago when I received the first email from my Aunt Connie about  her son, Klayton.  He was a marine and after having served in numerous posts around the world he was stationed in San Diego.  He was a newlywed, having met his wife in the Philippines, and was eagerly awaiting the finalization of her citizenship allowing her to join him in San Diego.  Not long after living back in the US he began having severe back pains.  Numerous trips to the doctor revealed that he wasn’t dealing with a nagging muscle strain rather he had an aggressive cancer that had eaten away one of his vertebra. 

Over the following weeks in-depth tests told us what we all were afraid to hear, the cancer had spread throughout Klayton’s upper-body.  The prognosis was bleak, but he fought hard through some extremely intense treatment. 

How an extremely fit 25 year old marine in good health became overwhelmed with an extremely aggressive cancer is another story.  
(A link to an article written about Klayton:

I exchanged a few emails with Klayton around this time and his spirits were high.  He brushed off what he was going through and asked far too many questions about me.   I was coming to San Diego only a few months later in February for my sisters wedding so we made plans to get together for dinner with our significant others.

That date never came.  Klayton died early in the morning two days after Christmas with his father and his wife by his bed.

The last time I was with Klayton was at a family barbeque at his parent’s home.  I hadn’t seen him since he joined the marines and when we spoke that day I almost didn’t recognize the man he had become.  Part of me will always think of him as my little cousin, this rough and tumble ball of energy always moving, not this well composed incredibly kind man I saw before me.  He was so very content yet had so many plans for the future.  I was, and still am, so proud to call him my cousin. 

Dealing with death…  There is no easy way to handle this process.  Read all the books you like and think you’re prepared, but once it happens the finality proves to be more intense then any recreation you could have planned for.

The news of Klayton’s diagnosis was overwhelming.  He’s my younger cousin, a marine, a newlywed, he’s just starting his life, this can’t be real.  I believe that it is therapeutic to be with family and friends during these times.  People who are all in the same boat and can try to cope together.  My situation was different. 

Klayton’s mother was doing everything she could to inform family members of updates via e-mail, as well as researching possible treatments and making sure Klayton was getting the best care there was.   I read these emails from across an ocean in a tiny computer lab surrounded by people I barely knew.  Fortunately, I had my girlfriend to talk with when I felt like talking or just to sit with me when it all felt like too surreal of an experience to comprehend.

About a week and a half ago I got a phone call from my father.  I just finished lunch and saw that it was an international call so I excused myself and excitedly took it.  The moment I heard his voice I knew this wasn’t a casual call.  Very recently my grandma had been suffering from flu like symptoms but they escalated one night and she was rushed to the hospital.   I don’t have all the details but it seems that after an emergency surgery they discovered cancer throughout her body.   She regained consciousness after the surgery and was cognizant as family from around the state rushed to the hospital as the severity of the situation was apparent.

She wasn’t able to speak, but I’m told she was able to squeeze the hands of her loved ones as they gathered around to offer what they knew to be their final good-byes. 

My grandma died in that hospital bed surrounded by family.

I’ll remember her for always being there.   She never seemed to be in a hurry or needing to be anywhere else.  She’d sit and listen to you, quietly nodding, for as long as you could talk. 

She was a beautiful example of what it means to be silently strong.  She was never going to talk your ear off but she was always there with a cute little smile and her hands crossed gently across her lap.  That night they rushed her to the hospital she was doubled over in pain, but she managed to get dressed and put her make-up on.  She had convictions and she lived by them, until the end.

Death is a part of life; an undeniable fact, that people awkwardly recite in times like these.   I’m not claiming there is an alternate truth, but I do believe quite strongly that it doesn’t help. 

In theory, when a loved one passes on we should celebrate their life and be happy about the times we shared.  Initially that works, but it isn’t long before the reality that there will be no more new memories sets in and the reminiscent smile slowly fades as your eyes well up. 

I wasn’t at Klayton’s funeral.  I wasn’t able to hug his mother, his father, or his wife.  I wasn’t able to grieve that loss with the rest of my family. 

My grandmother’s funeral was last week.  At the time I knew much of my family was gathering to say good-bye I was carrying on with some semblance of my life here.  Nearly any topic would trigger the thought of my family back home. 

I wish I could have held my mom’s hand.  I wish I could have hugged my grandpa. 

It takes courage to say good-bye, to accept this inevitable truth of death.  Coping with family is like standing on the edge of a cliff ready to jump into the water below.  You can’t chicken out and run away because everyone is there with you ready to jump together and while it will be hard, you will all jump, and it will be ok. 

Stepping to the edge of that cliff alone is a different challenge.  No one is there if I decide not to jump.  I can bottle it all up and sneak away and few, if any, will ever know.  But that’s no way to live. 

Life happens.  Sometimes it’s magnificent and sometimes it hurts like hell, but it’s real and it’s happening right now. 

The question that I’ve found the most comfort in is, ‘what would Klayton or my Grandma want me to be doing right now?’  I know they wouldn’t want me to become bitter and angry with how unfair life can be.  They would want me to live and laugh and smile.  

So that's what I'll try to do today and let tomorrow take care of itself.