Beautiful Death

It’s all just death. All of it. Your life and mine. The trees and the grass, the frogs and the fish, all die beautifully.

I. Bubbles

I pulled into my father’s farm tonight, two years and a day from the day my wife died, to do my part in handling my father’s estate. He died in the driveway near where I parked. His wife died a year before my wife did, in the bedroom. Five dogs lie in graves in the yard. Ephemeral ghosts of life gone, one day to be forgotten, splayed about this land. Soap bubbles born of a magic wand, life breathed into them by a higher power, launched on the wind, who danced in the air and shone in the sun, and hit a blade of grass and popped.

And there is beauty in that. There must be.

People should blow more bubbles in their lives. Launch them into the sky. The longest one you can manage will last about a minute. That minute is one forty-two millionth of your lifespan, if you live to see eighty years as my father did. And if you live that long, your life will account for one forty-four millionth of the time life has existed on Earth. You’re a soap bubble. So am I, and so were all these people and dogs.

There’s a photo, not too long ago, of my wife and I, and my father and his wife. All found their blades of grass before I did. I’m the last one left. There’s a video of us from that same day, snow falling outside the window, cardinals in the bird feeder, dogs by the fire. Drinking coffee. All those bubbles popped.

And there is beauty in that.

Someone asked me today why being a human is so hard. I told her it was Eve’s fault. When mankind bit the apple of consciousness, we were cast out of the Eden of blissful ignorance, burdened with the self-awareness of our own death. My father used to tell me that. He used to say that dogs and cats and animals are happy because they don’t know they’re going to die, and that man’s anxiety and anger and distrust and hate and greed comes from the knowledge that he must. Self-awareness is the blasphemy of Genesis, the burden of touching God, and the curse we bear until it consumes us.

But there must be beauty in that.

Fear not, anonymous reader of the glowing screen, I bring you a gift of magic. A bubble wand of immense power, with which you can blow self-aware soap bubbles. It’s cute and fun. They spring to life, infused with a soul as real as your own, and if you listen closely, you can hear them. Use it. Be God. Give birth to life, cast it across your yard into the breeze, to fly. Watch the bubbles closely. See what the bubbles do.  Listen to them.

Some of them scream.

The anguish of their realization that the grass is just below, and will end their existence in a short moment, dominates their flight. They wail in agony, beg for forgiveness, wish they were never born, fall on an extant blade and pop. What have you done? You monster. You careless, unthinking, cruel God of Sentient Sky Foam.

But listen more.

Some of them do not cry. Some of them marvel at the sun, which pours through them in a kaleidoscope of infinite color. They gape in wonder at the trees, the flowers, even the grass, the image of which also pours through the bubble, distorted and inexact but hued with beauty. They bump into other bubbles and merge, beautiful and unique familial shapes born of their collision. And they too fall to the grass, and pop, but their flight is magnificent to behold, and their magnificence is born of their choice.

And every bubble that marvels outweighs one hundred bubbles who scream.

And then they are forgotten by you, the creator, their souls a brief bout of beauty in a century of experience. The Earth will not remember you, but the experience of your flight is yours to make. You may wail, or you may marvel.

And there is beauty in that.

II. Dropping Dead

About a month before my father passed on, we were talking on the phone about the sort of shit adults talk about. Playing Eric Berne psychosocial games, born of generations of taping. “Ain’t it Awful” was the night’s choice, where we variously complained about the world in an attempt to make each other feel worse before hanging up, a common American subliminal pastime. The topic was health care costs. The subtopic was how end of life care constitutes between a quarter and a third of a person’s entire life healthcare expenditure. Both of us lost our wives to cancer, so we knew the numbers. He dropped a blue-collar epiphany on me, in the way he so often did.

“The problem, BJ, is that nobody just drops dead anymore. Remember back in the 80s, and folks would sometimes just die? ‘What happened to John?’ ‘Oh he just dropped dead.’ Now it’s ‘Oh John was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer and spent two months in a hospital at Wake Forest, and sadly passed away.’ There’s your healthcare costs right there.”

Was his assessment true? I don’t know. It’s a math problem than an actuary could answer with a big enough data set. But it was prophetic, because his housekeeper found him in the driveway a month later in his bathrobe, blood on the gravel, wood for the wood stove cast about him during an apparent fall. We waited for three months for the medical examiner to determine a cause of death. In the end they simply said “natural causes.” He dropped dead.

He wanted to die on the farm. He didn’t want to go to assisted living, and he didn’t want to quit drinking. The drinking thing was a point of consternation with my siblings, but I told dad my opinion was if he wanted a drink he’d earned it. I was my wife’s cancer nurse for a year and a half, he was his for a decade in fits and starts. We bonded over that shared burden. He couldn’t fathom how I bore it while having two kids and running a business. I didn’t understand how he could bear it at his age. Did me saying he earned a drink shorten his life? I don’t know, maybe it did. But I don’t think it would have mattered.

III. The Hurricane

When my wife died I was running this tremendous stoic male “bearer of burdens” program to hold everything together until after the funeral, being her de facto hospice nurse, kids therapist, business owner, and being the pillar for all the other people around me who were losing it. I’d done a lot of my grieving beforehand, since I knew what was coming better than they did, but I quite honestly didn’t have time to do the rest. About a month after she passed things started to unravel a bit, but I didn’t notice them unraveling because I lacked the perspective. I thought I was fine. One Wednesday night about an hour past midnight while polishing off a second bottle of wine and smoking cigarettes in my yard, throwing pinecones at a tree, it occurred to me that my behavior was that of a depressed person. I didn’t feel depressed, but I was doing all the depressed things.

I bought a twenty-year million-dollar term life policy. I counted the years until my kids were going to be in college. My children were ages three and five when my wife Buffy was diagnosed, five and seven when she died. I made a pretty simple plan. Be the best possible father for twelve years and then buy a boat and sail it into the eye of a hurricane. Buffy would be in there waiting for me, he face framed in the gale.

That was a stupid plan for every obvious reason, not the least of which would be my kids bickering over the insurance claim with some adjuster who wanted to assign me as missing instead of dead. And now that I’m publishing this, the plan is obviously dashed anyway. Maybe that’s why I’m writing it. But I think it’s an important frame for my dad.

My twelve-year plan, and my obligation to my kids, carried me until I got my head right again. He didn’t have a twelve-year plan. He didn’t need one. He just had some dogs, some chickens, cable news media anxiety, and a lot fewer house guests because of Covid.

IV. Fire in the Wood Stove

I think he went out like he wanted. I think he lived like he wanted to live. I think he struggled at times to see the beauty in the bubble. I think we all struggle with this. The curse of being human. The curse of self-awareness. But I do think he saw the beauty, throughout his life, when he focused. He flew far. And then he hit a blade of grass and popped.

And I think there’s beauty in that, and I hope to find the same beauty. Godspeed dad.


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