Death is a natural part of life. I’ve encountered it many times and long ago decided not to be afraid of it. A few related moments have stood out over the years though.
In 1996 I had temporarily dropped out of high school to take over my fathers business, Quality Coffee Inc. He was unable to complete the deliveries and conduct repairs so it fell to me as the oldest to take over. Many lifelong memories resulted from that experience among them the first time I ever saw a dead body.
While the name has changed a few times over the years there is still a funeral home at the corner of 291 and E 39th St in Independence, MO. They were among my father’s customers so I parked and made my way inside looking for the break room. I hollered out and popped my head into the office but found no staff present. Walking around shouting, “Quality Coffee… here to clean your coffee machine…” but only found dead air. Eventually I located what I was looking for and swapped out the coffee pots, cleaned the machine and took stock of supplies writing up what they were low on.
As I left the room I turned to go back to the van and saw out of the corner of my eye something new, a gurney parked along the hallway. On top of it was an elderly lady dressed in dated clothes and decked out with far too much makeup. I paused, but only briefly. I knew she wasn’t there when I went in, and at this point I still haven’t seen anybody else. As a result I quickly made my way to the van and left with haste. Reflecting back on it the most likely explanation is that someone moved her there just to mess with me but in the moment I was pretty startled. It was the first time I had seen a deceased person up close and I think the lack of another living person (as far as I could tell) to share the moment with made it feel even creepier.
My next brush with death came many years later. I was married to Andrea at the time and we were visiting her maternal grandmother in Liberty. She had been fighting health issues for a few years and we would visit her from time to time. Sam, Andrea’s mothers was there, and the three of us took turns watching over her. There was a medical bed set up in the living room with an EKG next to it to track her progress. She had been unconscious for several days and many felt the end was near.
All of a sudden the machine started to beep and her breathing began to slow. We all hurried in to be there with her. Sam held her hand but she still wasn't responding. We all held our breath and watched over her with only the slow beep to break the silence. Gradually at first the sound began to stretch out further and further until finally she was gone. Nobody looked up for a long time, we all just stood there close together comforting each other. Eventually Sam broke away, having just lost her mom and needing fresh air. I called the hospice line while Andrea went out to comfort her mother. While I don’t remember much about what happened next everything leading up to it is cemented in my mind.
She was a kind lady and is sorely missed. Witnessing someone depart this world was a bizarre experience. Movies always make it dramatic and while it is a significant moment we watcher gently let go. The pain was was gone for her but amplified for us. In 2009 my father passed. Upon arrival at the hospital Trish gave me the bad news and I was escorted into the ER room to see him. They left to give me privacy and I was once again alone with a dead body however in this case it was my father. He was the person I had known the longest and despite our checkered history I loved him dearly. I know now I was in shock in that moment and it felt like an eternity I stood there looking down at him.
The lower part of his body was covered with a sheet and his hairy bare chest was exposed. They must have attempted to resuscitated him because there was a large clear mask strapped to his face with a connection for an oxygen tube sticking out. His hair was ruffled and his skin was pale. I was torn between hugging him out of love or yelling at him for leaving me. Instead I did neither and stood there slack jawed with my mind racing till finally someone came to claim me. In my minds eye I can see every detail of that room, every piece of equipment, every imperfection in his skin and I can hear the low humming of the overhead lights. Brushes with death are both significant and memorable.