Things I’ve learned about death after four fatal years

Life lessons from an unexpected string of deaths

One night in February 2014, my husband was on the phone with his mother. For several months, my father-in-law had been experiencing nerve pain in his arm. After a number of ineffective treatments and tests, they finally had a diagnosis. My husband didn’t get to hear it, though. In the middle of the conversation, I gave a loud, wailing scream.

It was very impolite.

But there was a reason. I had just opened an email from someone whose name I didn’t recognize. The subject was simply, “Triste nouvelle” (“Sad news”). It didn’t seem like spam, and I had to admit I was a bit intrigued. Unfortunately, what it contained was worse than a virus. A friend of a friend of a friend was reaching out to anyone they could to let us all know that Ana, our amazing, hilarious, vibrant buddy had unexpectedly died in her sleep while on her honeymoon across the world.

I read and re-read the message. I kept hoping that I had misunderstood. Maybe I was tired tonight and misinterpreting some nuance of my second language. I don’t remember at what point I screamed but I remember that some part of me still held onto hope. I stalked into the kitchen holding my laptop. “Is this right?” I think I asked my husband. He read the email, paled, and told me I wasn’t wrong. I screamed again, and he told his mom he’d call her back. She may not have known anything was wrong at the time — I can be, to put it mildly, a little bit dramatic.

In this case, though, the drama was justified.

I had met Ana through a former boyfriend, who took me to her birthday party more than a decade before. The minute I saw this full-figured, laughing, gorgeous, hilarious girl, I knew she had to be my friend. I had never felt that way so strongly about anyone.

I’ve often thought about how I spent months carefully pursuing her, encouraging my former boyfriend whenever he suggested we all hang out, finding activities we could do on our own. It was almost like a romance — but much more lasting. I knew the former boyfriend and I didn’t have enough in common. But there was something about Ana, this spark, this easy laughter and self-deprecation, this appreciation of all sorts of little things in life (some I understood well and others not at all), this never-ending curiosity about the world, that made her a kindred spirit, and more. Outgoing, hospitable, adventurous, a true Renaissance woman, she was a better version of me by far. And yet, as my dream came true and we became friends in our own right, she never made me feel I was anything less than funny and fascinating.

I think back to the person I was then — sure, I had my struggles and justified issues, but compared to hers, most of mine weren’t really that big a deal. And yet, boy did I go on and on about them, over amazing Chinese food at hole-in-the-wall places it was her specialty to discover and share with me. She told me her woes, too, but I would find out that there things that she didn’t tell anyone, or at least not completely. One of those was that her boyfriend, whom I considered a friend, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. When the truth came out, it was only because he had bought a ticket and boarded a plane for China, and she was trying to get him home after a few incidents. I came to realize the fear she lived in, that he would harm himself, or others, or her, the violent fights, the worry. My heart ached, and my conscience did, as well. Was there some point, I wondered, where she might have said something and I hadn’t heard her over my own self-importance? Was there some clue that I hadn’t spotted?

I think Ana would tell me I’m being too hard on myself. She would do it in a funny way, though. Like what she said when I was the skinniest I had ever been or probably will ever be in my adult life, due, few people knew, to OCD-induced panic attacks whose impact caused me to be too sick to eat anything. While others praised my svelteness and I weakly smiled, out of the blue Ana looked at me one day and said, in her unforgettably merry, Spanish-accented voice, “If you get any thinner, your nose will be too big.”

If someone else had said it, I would have at the very least stared at them in astonishment and confusion — why the hell would you say something like that? But when she, a friend who’d known me for so long and who also struggled with her weight but understood that being thin does not mean all is well with the world, did, I burst out laughing and felt relieved that someone had seen a different side of the situation, maybe suspected, even, that something was horribly wrong.

As much as we had that way of understanding each other and as much as I wanted her in my life, it wasn’t easy for me to be friends with Ana. In fact, it’s not easy for me to be friends with just about anyone I actually have to go out and visit and make time for. Online or long-distance is great, but I’m such an introvert that it’s hard for me to work up the strength to get out there and spend time with people, even those I love and enjoy. When she and her boyfriend broke up (but, good soul that she was, she continued to visit and care for him because he was all alone), she wanted to see me more frequently than ever. I usually went with it, grudgingly, feeling overwhelmed. But every time we saw each other, I ended up being glad. We confided so much in each other and laughed about everything, all of it. Nothing ever seemed too big or terrifying. When I found out she’d kept so much of her personal life a secret, I felt wounded, but never confronted her — maybe her silence showed how scared she really was. Only an asshole (one of her favorite words) would have made it about herself and questioned the validity of the friendship.

All I know about me and Ana is that I loved her and was glad she was in my life.

I also knew about her congenital heart condition. It was something she’d mention from time to time, but blithely, as though it was just a minor issue, easily managed with medication and regular doctor’s visits. Unfortunately, it was what killed her.

In the nearly five years since Ana passed, I’ve thought a lot about it. There is no relief or release because I had no time to prepare. She was young and so vivacious and full of plans and life and laughter. It was impossible to think she could die. Or, at least, to die in such a way. If she’d died in some fiery plane crash during one of her many trips to places around the world, maybe. If she’d died saving someone or in some sort of strange way, like something out of a film by one of her favorites, Almodóvar, okay, I suppose. But illness just didn’t seem to be what should have taken her. It snuck up on me.

My father-in-law’s illness was also unexpected, in a sense, and yet, after the initial shock, it was inevitable. He had been a chain-smoker since his teenage years. I used to have to wash my hair every night I was at my in-laws’ house because I smelled so strongly of cigarette smoke. So lung cancer was not a shock in any way. Still, that never makes it easy.

The quickness of his death, and the suffering tied to it added to the horror. One of my husband’s uncles had been diagnosed with lung cancer, had a lung removed, and went on to live a pretty normal, full life for a good number of years after. I think we all thought that might be the case for my father-in-law, too.

But his lung cancer was inoperable, and one of his many tumors lay on a nerve connected to his arm (hence the pain, which was the first symptom — not coughing or spitting up blood). This caused increasingly excruciating pain. I can’t and don’t want to imagine it, but when I found out that most painkillers, even the ones whose very names seem powerful, couldn’t do anything, I understood the magnitude a little. The painkillers that did help often left him weak and foggy. As in all advanced cancer, the treatment can be even harsher than the disease itself. He wasted away from both, all while watching my son, his long-dreamed-of grandchild, grow from a straggly little newborn to a robust, personality-filled cherubic nine-month-old.

My father-in-law was a complex man, but he always showed such kindness and affection towards me. We had so many things we loved to talk about, and shared some amazing moments. It was wonderful to have someone else I knew be as excited as I was to see some Caravaggio paintings in situ in a church in Rome. I don’t have many other people in my life who are art nerds, and he was that and an artist, as well. I never got to thank him for a sublime memory: The two of us are staring at Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. He notices that Michelangelo must have originally planned to place one of Moses’ legs in a different area, based on the subtle signs only a fellow sculptor would recognize. He was a key to a mystery, and someone who loved me, I think, like a daughter — and then he was gone.

We had gotten so used to phone calls from my poor mother-in-law, often going into long, confusing details about my father-in-law’s symptoms, treatments, medical visits, diet, and so on, that I wasn’t alarmed when I answered my phone one night in mid-December 2014. It would only be a short call, followed by others throughout the night. My father-in-law could no longer breathe. The ambulance had arrived. He was refusing help, forcibly taking off his oxygen mask. They were at the hospital. There was a decision to make. She put a nurse on the phone. The nurse explained that my father-in-law was in so much pain and so tired that he clearly wanted to die. He continued to refuse oxygen. Although assisted suicide isn’t legal in France, astonishingly, the nurses understood and wanted to allow him to die peacefully, as he wished. They just needed the immediate family’s approval. My mother-in-law, husband, and brother-in-law gave it, and let him escape suffering.

As my father-in-law went into decline, my mother, my confidante, had started proudly telling me and my siblings that she’d been losing weight. It seemed like a conscious effort on her part and nothing appeared to be wrong. She lived in relative isolation in rural Georgia, happy to be surrounded by nature and her pets, with adequate human contact from her coworkers and occasional visits with family and friends (yes, I get my introvertedness from her). She and I talked on the phone and then FaceTime, nearly every day. There was nothing obligatory about these calls on either end; we didn’t have a lot in common, but we just got along incredibly well and enjoyed talking to each other.

My mom was always so strong — small, squat and muscular, like a little heart. She had an astonishingly high tolerance for pain, the ability to deny away even serious health problems (a trait apparently common in Italian families), and seemed like she would go on forever, no matter the mistakes and often reckless decisions she made in her life. And yet, when my sister saw her for a rare visit, and when some of our aunts and uncles got together with her, as well, everyone realized something was wrong. She had lost weight but didn’t seem healthy. She grudgingly admitted to my sister that she thought maybe she had a stomach issue of some kind. She looked so unlike herself in person that my sister told me she thought it might be stomach cancer.

My mother came to visit me in Paris for the first time just a few months after my son was born. Neither one of us had been able to afford or otherwise manage it before then. She had never crossed the Atlantic before, but she bravely got on the plane with us, and then even more bravely got onto a plane back home by herself.

There are a few good moments I remember from that first visit, but most of it is a blur of difficult confrontations and doctor’s appointments. My siblings said I had the most sway with my mom, and at that time at least, it was true. I was able to force her to see my GP, then, after seeing his horrified reaction, to get a mammogram.

The diagnosis was totally shocking: terminal breast cancer.

Shocking because nowadays (thankfully), breast cancer isn’t usually one of the cancers people die of. Or at least, that’s not how most of us think of it. When I told people my mother had breast cancer, I had to specify that it had been detected too late; otherwise, they seemed sympathetic but certain that she would recover.

It was even more shocking because we had never thought of breast cancer as something that ran in our family. We have a whole litany of family diseases and many stories about them, but that one had just never come up. And yet, suddenly someone remembered two great aunts or cousins who had had breast cancer, just like that, as if dug out of secret graves.

My mother wasn’t surprised. She knew about them, and she knew that something was wrong with her left breast. She’d known it for a long time, but had denied it away for reasons I understand and some I don’t want to think I do.

She didn’t just know something was wrong the way the average person would. She was born with an instinctive gift for medicine. For inscrutable reasons, she had never fulfilled her calling of being a veterinarian, but she had spent decades as one of the most valued vet techs in the various clinics she’d worked in. She was often able to diagnose issues in animals as if by magic and understood ways to treat and manage conditions the way other people might know little lifehacks around their household. When I was little, one of our cats’ kidneys shut down. She drove to the clinic where she worked, got what she needed, and administered fluids to him several times a day right there on our kitchen table (the bag of fluids suspended from the ugly lamp just above it). Once, when I sliced my finger so badly with a knife that I should have gotten stitches, she accepted my refusal and made a treatment plan that involved her taking time to deep clean it twice a day, tightly and expertly bind it in bandages, and monitor it. She knew what was happening to her own body, but chose to ignore it.

In the years to come, she kept fighting. When she went into one miraculous remission two years later, she returned to France to be with me and my son during a difficult time. It ended up being like a sort of grace. I have many memories from that visit that I will always cherish.

I had learned from my father-in-law’s experience that when someone has cancer, doctors don’t always tell the truth — or not the entire truth, anyway. When my mother had “plaque” on her brain, they downplayed the seriousness to us. When, despite targeted treatment, tumors bloomed there, they told us they were just going to adjust the treatment, then try something new. No need to panic.

But I had that feeling my mom sometimes did when she would tell us an animal or person was going to die. I heard about the cancer in her brain and knew it was the end, no matter the fancy treatments and small respites. My husband was at work all day and my son was spending some of his school vacation at my mother-in-law’s. I shut myself away from the world and marathoned TV shows and ate ridiculous amounts of seasoned meat from a local Portuguese restaurant. It sounds sort of funny, and that’s exactly it. That’s one of the things I learned about death — or, rather, grieving.

I often think of my husband as someone who doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He bottles most of them up, denies them, is sometimes overwhelmed when they seep out anyway. He has problems with empathy and feels horrified by public displays of any kind. And yet, when we found out Ana had died, he let me cry for a while, then, essentially said, “Let’s watch TV.” That time, we didn’t gorge ourselves on seasoned meat, but on a horrendously cheesy French reality show. It felt wrong, and yet, I know Ana would have laughed at it. And I realized, too, that maybe there is nothing else you can do.

That is another thing all of this death has taught me: There is nothing you can do. You can cry and scream and write blog posts, and that may help you heal a little, and will hopefully help to share something about those you’ve lost and set down some memories. But ultimately, you need to have something calming, soothing. You need to stop thinking.

And you need to laugh.

Ana taught me that, first. I would confide some of my darkest secrets to her and we’d end up cracking up about some silly aspect of each one. She would tell me about coworkers who were making her life miserable, stressing her, making her question everything, and we’d crack jokes about them and laugh at the nicknames she made up for them. And it helped.

We knew my mother was truly at the end, to the point where the hospice nurse had told my brother and sister-in-law, whom my mother lived with in those final years, the exact day she’d probably pass. My brother was also very close to my mom, and he told me that he felt it was coming even sooner. And it did.

When he called me, my husband and I were eating lunch here in Paris, half a world away. I had just said how I knew my mother wasn’t going to be here much longer; soon after, my phone rang. My brother made the announcement, I started to cry, and then, hearing him cry and all the sadness in his voice, I took a breath and said, “How can I get on a plane now — I just ate shrimp tacos!” Across the ocean, my brother, who had just discovered my mother’s body, laughed.

Since that time, he’s often repeated the story. It makes me seem silly, a bit airheaded. But I knew what I was saying and why. I was helping my mom. I was giving a gift to my brother, who I’ll never be able to repay for caring for my mom and seeing things that no one should have to see their parent go through.

When we found out that my mom was terminally ill — after Ana, after my father-in-law’s diagnosis and increasing suffering — my husband and I took solace in something that Oscar Wilde, one of our deceased neighbors over at Père Lachaise, once wrote: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

It’s a line so absurd it makes audiences and readers laugh when Lady Bracknell utters it; for us, it was a way to acknowledge the absurd circumstances we found ourselves helplessly in the middle of.

There were other deaths that came these years, as well, several in our periphery, some closer. That uncle of my husband’s who’d survived lung cancer for a number of years sadly succumbed. A friend’s beloved cat died and spun her into a pit of grief. Another friend’s boyfriend tragically passed. Two dear online friends left this world (I still cherish their words to me and for everyone); several online acquaintances did, as well.

My sister’s ex-husband’s dad, a great, boisterous man who was always kind to us, died suddenly of the flu one night.

Another thing I’ve learned: Although a death of a loved one is never easy, in many ways it’s easier when it’s expected. My father-in-law, my mother, and the next BIG DEATH I’ll talk about, all seemed ready when their time came. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to watch them in decline or in pain. In fact, it’s torture, as you experience them dying in small ways steadily over time. But there is a great solace in being able to prepare in some way, and, most of all, in feeling that they got that chance. I don’t know for certain if all three of them made peace with death, but their actions and in some cases, words, make me think they did.

And now, here is our next BIG DEATH….

In the fall of 2017, we noticed that our cat Ali was peeing blood and making painful noises when he used the litterbox.

Let me stop to say something about Ali. When you talk about a cat, many people imagine this cold, moody ball of fur and claws. Some cats may be like that, but most are not, especially to the people who share their lives with them. But even if you don’t believe that, even if you hate cats, you could not have hated Ali. Even my father, who is violently allergic to cats and finds them completely unappealing, was utterly charmed by Ali’s warmth and friendliness.

Ali was more like a dog or even a very needy person than a cat. He was soft and beautiful and gentle. He never lashed out at my boisterous baby, then toddler, son. Despite cats’ legendary independence, he ended up literally becoming sick over being left alone for four days with an automatic feeder and water distributor. He couldn’t even handle us going on weekend getaways.

He was always on one of our laps, sharing our bed, sharing our space. He was a true force of love and life. He did some annoying “cat things” like barfing up hairballs, but even then, he always somehow knew to do it on the hardwood floor and would even leave a comfortable, warm bed to do so. He didn’t like to play very much, just loved to cuddle. He would occasionally catch a mouse (they share our nearly century-old Parisian building, no matter what anyone does) and bring it to us. It was never dead; my husband would put on heavy gloves and bring it outside.

Ali hated fireworks, the wind (he would hiss at it when it blew in my in-laws’ garden, the only place he was allowed to go outside), lemons and especially lemon chicken (how vile to cover his favorite meat with his least favorite flavor), anyone messing up his perpetually shiny velvety fur (even at the end, when he was in organ failure, his coat was astonishingly beautiful), and riding in cars (he did not mind trains). Most people who met him, loved him.

Ali was a friend. As someone who works from home, he was the living being I was around the most — he was, I often said, my coworker. How many articles, blog posts, novel chapters, poems, short stories, emails, tweets have I written with him on my lap?

I could go on, but this isn’t just a post about Ali or about any of the dear ones I’ve mentioned here. It’s about what I’ve learned from their passing. I could go on about all of them, fill so many pages, write poetry, fiction, biographies, speculations, gossip, dirges, prayers. I will. I do. I just wanted to write all of this about Ali because he passed only about a month ago. The blood in his urine and the pain weren’t, as we’d expected and hoped, another bout of bladder crystals. They were, in fact, signs of a tumor growing in his bladder.

When we found out, I clung to his life. I wrote to my brother-in-law, a talented veterinarian who lives abroad, and we sent him the ultrasounds our local vet had taken before telling us the tumor was inoperable. It was tricky, my brother-in-law wrote back, but not inoperable.

We became “those people”, finding a specialist in feline bladder surgery. When I brought Ali for his operation, the staff told me they had detected a heart murmur. I had to make a split decision — let them put him under anesthesia for the procedure and risk his life then and there, or let the tumor continue growing and kill him anyway. I chose the former.

It was worth the risk.

The surgeon told us the tumor seemed to have been completely removed but that microscopic cells could remain and grow. She told us that if this happened, there was no more hope; chemo and radiotherapy are ineffective in feline bladder cancer (which came as a sort of relief, since I didn’t want to put an animal through suffering like that if he had no say), and his bladder size had been so reduced by the surgery that it could no longer be operated on.

Ali was like a new cat at first, more playful and lighter on his feet than he’d been since he was a kitten. And then, one day about two months later, there were drops of blood in his urine.

We didn’t want to know how long we had. We asked my brother-in-law if we could manage his pain, and found out that a simple over-the-counter antispasmodic did the trick. In the end, Ali was with us for nearly nine more months. Most of that time, he wasn’t in pain and lived a normal life. We got to have so many more good memories with him, so many more cuddles and pats and funny moments, so much crying into his fur, holding him for comfort, so many meals stolen (he couldn’t resist most kinds of chicken, and sausage filling drove him crazy), lots of feline mischief.

By the beginning of November, he’d started eating less and we decided to test an experimental treatment for cancer. We did a lot of research and bought some pills online. At first, things seemed to be the same; no particular side effects, and no remarkable recovery yet, either. My husband left for a week-long trip. A few days into it, I noticed that Ali seemed to be having pretty much every potential, rare side effect listed for the medication, including neurological issues.

I think most of me knew that this wasn’t about the medicine at all. His lack of appetite and overall weakness had only continued, even when we started the treatment. But I thank God that I could tell myself, “Maybe it’s just side effects.”

On the night of Thursday, November 29, he came and slept by my head, putting his paws in my hair the way he had for years. He’d only recently stopped — because he was watching a new generation of mice who were sneaking out of the hole by the radiator in the living room, I told myself, but I think it was probably mostly due to discomfort or even some kind of confusion.

A few hours after settling in with me, he woke up and tried to jump off the bed to vomit (even at the end of his life he refused to vomit in the bed), overshot the jump, and hit his face into a wall.

He didn’t get hurt, but that showed me that things were really, really bad.

I had been so afraid of bringing him to the vet when the time was going to come. Whenever I’d think about it, my legs would lock and I’d wonder what I would do. But because I thought that maybe he was suffering the side effects of the medicine and maybe we could get him some fluids and have a few more weeks with him, I had enough hope to walk up there after I’d brought my son to school.

It was such an unusually beautiful, sunny day. Even Ali, who never liked being in his carrier, seemed to appreciate it. I felt peaceful walking there, and as if Ali was enjoying the moment.

When we got to the clinic, he meowed for the first time in days (that should have been another way I knew things had gotten very bad — he was a very talkative cat) when I left his cage on a nearby chair and went to the desk to check us in. I sat down and opened his cage door and he just sat there peacefully, taking everything in while I stroked his chin and chest. It was so strangely calm and all right.

When the vet examined him, he told me that Ali was essentially in organ failure. We knew the tumor was huge by now — you could feel it if you palpitated his stomach. It was just his time.

The doctor said there was unfortunately no hope for any kind of recovery, even temporary. I asked if Ali was in pain and since he said no, I asked if it would be possible to keep him comfortable and on fluids until my husband returned home a few days later.

Before I left the clinic, I asked to see Ali again. He looked at me as though he didn’t want me to go, but he didn’t meow. That look broke me for a while.

And then, another amazing thing happened: my son and I went to visit him the following evening, and it was like he was no longer there. Just twenty-four hours or so before, he had still mostly been alert, he had responded to petting and was looking around, and had given me that look before I’d left. Now, he barely seemed to register or care that we were there. It was hard to see, but at the same time, it felt right. It made me think of my mother in her last days; it’s as though they were already on the journey away from their bodies, to whatever there is after.

The next morning, at 8am, I got a phone call from the clinic: Ali had died peacefully in his sleep. My dearest wish for him at the end of his life was that he would have died one night in bed with me and my husband, feeling loved and peaceful. But at least this was a close second: warm, cared-for, and surrounded by pillowcases with our scent on them that I’d brought from home. I believe he knew he was loved and not abandoned or alone.

I can’t believe that through those last days, I had to take care of my toddler son on my own — and that we managed mostly to have fun. That’s another thing I’ve learned from these deaths: You can and do go on, and in some cases, you find out you’re stronger than you thought.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t horrible moments, moments of empty sorrow, of missing someone so badly, of aching at the fact that you’re still here and they’re somewhere else. Once, on a train ride to my in-laws’, I came upon this poem in an old New Yorker:

When I finished reading it, I couldn’t stop crying. At the time, it made me think of Ana, the first of these losses and the only one who had died at the time. Now, I realize that it perfectly sums up for me that great divide between the living and the dead.

It’s not to say I believe those who have passed just…end. I think some of them do watch us, and maybe most stop by occasionally, while some others just move on. I don’t think it has to do with how much they loved you in life, but with their own spiritual journey. I can’t explain it; it doesn’t come from philosophy or religion or anything else. It’s just a feeling I have, influenced by a few things I’ve experienced.

I’ve written before about how some people I know have been visited by ghosts. On my mom’s side of the family, it’s so common to have a dream or some other type of interaction with a recently passed loved one, that it’s more or less expected. I used to say that I don’t get these visits, and I’ve always wondered why. But now I think it might be that I don’t get the visits in the ways I used to expect.

In the days following her passing, other family members had visits from my mother in the form of physical interactions and dreams; as I was getting ready on the morning of her funeral, I suddenly smelled the scent of blow-drying hair. I don’t use a blow-dryer and hate the sensation of it — but blow-drying my sister’s and my hair when we were little was a nightly ritual my mom performed. And she herself loved her hair and was devastated when her cancer treatments made her lose it. I think that unexpected, inexplicable scent was my mom’s way of saying hello. Maybe it was the only way she could come through to me. Maybe my mind is blocked to visits in dreams, for some reason.

With Ali, it was a little clearer, but still uncertain — until another person’s visit. Shortly after his death, I was lying in bed feeling a panicked kind of regret, wondering if I should have made the clay pawprints I took when we visited him at the clinic for the last time. Had it hurt him in some way? And suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt this rush of pure, powerful, unconditional love, and I knew it was him and he was telling me it was okay, that he was all right and that he loved me. It was such a powerful feeling, but I doubted myself. Had it just been my imagination?

About a week later, my husband had the day off work. When I came back from dropping our son off at school, he was up and bustling around with the radio on. He told me that while my son and I had been getting ready, he had had this strange lucid dream. He was lying in bed, petting Ali, who was stretched out happily as he used to be when really getting into a good petting session. My husband knew he was dreaming, he kept telling himself he was, but it was so real.

I told him I was jealous that he’d gotten a visit from Ali and that I thought I had, but in a different way, and I talked about that rush of unconditional love. He looked at me in total panic for a few secconds, and then said that was exactly the same thing he had felt, and it had freaked him out because it was so powerful (as I said before, my husband isn’t great with feelings). He didn’t want to think about it too much and plunge back into sadness — hence the reason he was up with the radio on.

Although these visits shook us, I’m so glad they happened. I feel a sense of peace and a sense that maybe someday, if I’m lucky, if all of this wasn’t some shared illusion, I’ll be with those I love and have lost too early, again.

These thoughts are about death, but what I’m really trying to say, what’s most surprised me in this series of deaths, is how much of what I’ve learned is to reach for life.

I cry but I also laugh. I make myself remember the good things, recall voices and expressions and those little, wonderful shared moments. The lilt of a Spanish accent, the smell of authentic Chinese food wafting over Parisian cobblestones, a secret of a masterpiece revealed, wisdom shared over a smoky dinner table, so many, many hours — days, years in total — of phone calls full of confidences, laughter, gossip, critiques, thoughts on everything, plans. The comfort of my mother sleeping in the room just beside mine during one of the loneliest times of my life, the joy of her playing with her grandson. The softness of velvety fur, happily closed cat eyes, shared or stolen food, a lap staunchly settled into, paws tangled in my hair.

Yesterday, for no understandable reason, our stovetop stopped working. In the ensuing stress, I heard my friend Ana say “It is no beeg deal. You have a roof over your head and you are not dying.” And I felt as if it was something she’d told me at a recent dinner, even though we haven’t had one of those in nearly five years. I squared my shoulders, relaxed, smiled and thought, “Thanks, Ana.”

Something else I’ve learned through all these deaths: Those you love really do live on, in so many ways, even in moments when you least expect to hear from them.

In this new year, I hope my family and I will emerge from our stroll through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, for hopefully many decades at least. I know this won’t be entirely possible. There will at least be little deaths along the way, of course. But there have been so many big ones, in such rapid succession. I hope that for a while, that will be enough. All you can do is hope, though. As close as you might walk with death, you will never really understand or know him, even though something inside of you, inside of all living things, knows his shadow and his call.