I was somewhere between my parents getting divorced and watching a girl die-which means I was about four or five years old. That is the moment in time that I associate my first real encounter with death. I know there was no way I had the ability to understand or process the incident, but I never forgot it. My father left my mother to care for me and my siblings, which I can't even fathom, I have a hard enough time trying to take care of myself. My mother found a very pious woman who ran a daycare out of her home somewhere in the Minneapolis suburbs, somewhere that I'd be safe while she worked to support us. I have memories of the sitter baking bread, making us sing church songs and sticking bars of soap in the mouths of those who said bad words. It was where I learned to wiggle my ears, a trick the sitter's daughter taught me. But it was also the place where I learned what death really meant. It was during nap time, sometime in afternoon. The sitter had a fairly large two-story home on the side of a hill. Her backyard spilled down the hill and ran into a tiny forest with a large swampy pond at the end. It was during naptime that two other children snuck outside, a boy and a girl, both somewhere between two and three years old. They entered the forest where the girl saw a large, grassy field just beyond the edge of the trees. She ran towards it to play, as any child would do, only that grass wasn't grass at all, it was bright green algae covering the pond. There are limits to what I actually remember, but I remember three things specifically: a cluster of people in the kitchen...her daughter crying and frantically calling 911, the emergency technicians trying to revive the girl in the gravel driveway...performing CPR as burping noises came out of mouth along with spurts of water, and crying in my mother's car for reasons I couldn't fully articulate when she came to pick me up.
My mother and I ran into the girl's mother a year or two later at Burnsville Mall. I can't recall their exchange, but I remember it being about her daughter. The woman said hi to me and I remember thinking, even then, that she looked sad, but not the sad I had come to understand sad, it was a new kind of sad that I hadn't encountered before.
The second time I remember being the most affected by death was when I was ten, and I had just finished watching the movie My Girl in 1991. I have no idea what the marketing campaign was for that movie at the time, but I'm pretty sure I was pumped to see it because Macauley Culkin was in it and he was still red-hot from his success in Home Alone. Now, when I tell you that My Girl tore me apart in ways I didn't even realize I could be torn apart, I mean it. That movie pulled at every heartstring in my body. There was something about the main character, Vada Sultenfuss, that I connected with, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what it was. Maybe it was the fact she was a hypochondriac (which some people might say I am) or maybe it was that I was in the same age group. But when she loses her mood ring in the woods and her best friend Thomas J. (who is allergic to everything, even chocolate) goes back to look for it, he gets stung by a nest of bees, to which he is extremely allergic to, and dies. The emotional gut-punches the movie struck me with probably would still affect me if I watched it now. Her reaction to hearing of his death, her going a little out of control during the funeral and later wrapping it up with a devastatingly touching poem that she reads aloud in a writing class she had been taking over the summer.
Death freaks me out, it always has. Perhaps it's the sense of loss that I fear the most, something that is gone, something where there is no reversal. When I watched that movie, I knew I had no interest in feeling that type of grief—ever. Yet, I knew that one day, it would enter my life in a very personal way and I wouldn't have any choice but to deal with it. I'm pretty sure that fear of loss has seeped into other areas of my life and has inadvertently shaped how I act in relationships. I tried to outsmart getting hurt and I tried to avoid having my heart broken, because those emotions were far too close to that sense of grief I was so afraid of. So when Six Feet Under aired in 2001, naturally, I avoided it. It wasn't until I moved to San Francisco and one of my best friends forced me to watch it with her. I didn't want to...DEATH FREAKED ME OUT. It was one of the most life-changing moments in my own personal history, not to mention in the history of television. The last few episodes of that show, and of course the finale, had me blind with tears. It affected me for days. When Claire Fisher has to say goodbye to her family before she drives her car off across the country to start her adult life, it struck a cord. I had done that myself, and it was hard. Change is hard. Loss is harder.
In 2015, my father called me while I was at work to tell me "this was it." I didn't answer because I was working, so I didn't get the voicemail until I got home. He had taken pills and even though the police found him, he eventually stopped breathing at the hospital the next day. I went to visit my mom and stepdad soon after, and found myself telling everyone I was fine. It wasn't until my mom forced me into the car, drove down the road, parked on the side of the street and forced me to open up about what I feeling. There I was again, 29 years later, in my mother's car, experiencing a hurricane of grief and emotion. I've always been extremely sensitive, and I've always avoided grief and emotional pain because it felt like it would kill me. But it won't.
Over the past few years, I've discovered a lot about myself and even more about spirituality. I believe that there is an energy that we are all apart of, and you can call it whatever you want: energy, spirit, higher consciousness, God, whatever, but we are all a part of this infinite source. And energy never dies, it changes form, it moves. The more I tended to my spiritual practice, the more I connected with and understood the concept of energy. I believe, no—I know that death isn't the end. And we all may not agree on what we think happens once we leave our physical body, but something does. Maybe we are all just biology, but even in that case, we return to the earth, which is really just matter, and matter is energy. So yes, everything does end, but it never truly dies.