There comes a point when Death stops slowly and quietly creeping, whistling nonchalantly like he’s totally not following you at all, you just happen to be going the same way, and begins chasing in leaps and bounds; this point is what people refer to when they say “It all happened very fast,” ignoring the weeks or months of pain that preceded the sudden decline.
That point came for my godfather last week; at the beginning of the week, my father and I were making plans to see him in May, by Thursday night, we were scrabbling for a way to get up to Springfield, Oregon in time, and on Friday morning, he was dead.
I woke up on Friday morning in turmoil after the events of Thursday night, which ended with a decision to not attempt to go up, taking a wait-and-see approach in the hopes my godfather would rally. I decided I wanted to go to work in the Noyo Food Forest to do something with all my restless energy. Unbeknownst to me, my father was waking up 15 miles away at the same time, also resolving to work in the garden; his, rather than the farm’s. As my father and I grow older together, these strange parallels emerge. Soon I will start wearing flannel shirts and my father will be listening to Robyn.
We both wanted projects, something physical to focus on, something outside. This is how we deal with death; we dig and chop and weed, no gloves, bare hands and sweat is all.
I arrived at the garden at nine, and worked steadily for several hours on a project I’ve been eying for weeks; cleaning out the old pot shed, which is a tangle of potting containers of all shapes and sizes, interwoven with shards of terra cotta, weeds and random garbage. I don’t know whether to call it an organizer’s dream or an organizer’s nightmare, but it was precisely suited for my frame of mind. No one wanted to deal with it so everyone left me alone, and I worked steadily, watching order slowly develop from chaos.
Around 10:30, I was tugging at a stubborn piece of irrigation tubing trapped under a pile of cell trays and I had this strange flash, for a moment. Like Leonard was standing there watching me, bald head gleaming in the sun, a little smoky chuckle at my struggles, and suddenly the tubing gave way and the moment was gone. I attributed it to having Leonard on my mind, until my phone rang.
I already knew before my father said anything. Life isn’t a movie. There would be no last-minute rally, no precious window of opportunity to see him one last time. No touching bedside moment where the sick man looks graceful and strong instead of being mired in the attendant miseries of death, the fug of cancer and medications and loss of bowel control, the indignities that come at the end. No great revelations; everything had already been revealed.
My father hates to be the bearer of bad tidings.
“He was done,” I said, finally.
I hung up and methodically went back to the pot shed, because I wanted to be done, too. I carted away the last load of garbage and swept to pick up the remainders of the terra cotta and looked at my work and then I left. At my father’s house, we weeded his strawberries and then sat in the kitchen, remembering Leonard. I drank the fusty gunpowder tea my father keeps for me, because no one else who visits his house drinks tea. I’m an atheist, and my father might be more of an agnostic -- it seems to change from day to day. I don’t believe I’ll see Leonard on the other side, nor do I believe in a G-d, benevolent or otherwise. I believe that my godfather is gone; as my father puts it, there’s a barrier crossed in death that you do not come back from. There’s a shift that happens where the abstract threat of death becomes vicious reality; the dog that always barks when you walk by has finally gotten out and bitten you.
People sometimes say that it must be so hard to be an atheist, because I can’t find comfort in times of death. Many seem to have a driving need to understand atheism, finding a life without a deity unfathomable and perhaps frightening. This simplistic view of life as an atheist is really sort of tragic, and there is a certain arrogance in assuming that a deity is the only path to comfort, or that comfort is needed. Maybe I want to be angry for a while. Maybe I don’t want comfort.
While the particular arrangement of atoms that was Leonard (for a while) isn’t here any more, while the electrical signals that swirled through his gray matter are silent now, as long as he is remembered, a part of him is still here. And those atoms will be recycled into something new and different; perhaps right now, I am breathing oxygen that Leonard breathed, once.
Leonard’s life was one of redemption, and while he had different views about death and dying than I do, I don’t think he’d necessarily object to my theory. Thinking and acting were the legacies he left to me, and those are good legacies to leave behind if you ask me. He said of himself once that: “He’s also known demons and been/A fiend.” He devoted the later years of his life to poetry: reading it, writing it, encouraging it. I read "The Sane Man Speaks" on Friday night, thinking of him, hearing his distinctive voice rumbling out over the room, his one good eye roaming across the audience.
That is where my comfort is found -- in keeping the voices of the dead alive. My godfather was an important influence on my ethical development, and on my work, and that means that I honor his memory doing what he loved best: writing.