There is no place to begin when you need words for death.
We knew Heidi Siemens-Rhodes was dying. We hoped that she wouldn’t. Even to the last day I hoped that somehow her body would turn the cancer and claw back to life. But her body, like mine, is made of elements and compounds and chemistry that can only withstand so much life before it has to come apart.
She was 38, as old as I am. Her husband is my age. Her kids are my kids’ ages. Her mother is left, and her brother. So are lots of family, even more friends and acquaintances, co-workers, and people who knew her only in small fragments. We are without her.
Many of us — and there really wasn’t any more room, except out in the street — stood in the shaded front yard of her family’s house on Sunday evening (June 24). We sang some hymns, There was prayer. Candles were carried up onto the porch. The end of her life was very near, less than an hour away, though no one could know. We wanted relief for ourselves, and for her, and especially for her family.
Inside the house, just on the other side of the front window around which we gathered, she was waiting. It is impossibly cruel to wait for death. The father of my dear friend Andrew died suddenly in January of a heart attack. The father of my dear friend Nina died of cancer in April. My grandfather died of 95 years of life a few weeks ago. The waiting is very short for some, and very long for others. Most of the time I try not to recognize my own waiting.
I am surrounded by life and death. It is stacked above me into the sky. It is anchored below me in earth and in water. When I think about the truth that I will have to do what all livings things do, I am sometimes left bleak and breathless. Other times I feel desperate to do something — anything — to remind the future people that I was once alive. I have to stop and see myself for what I am: A decent, unremarkable kind of person, who is going to live and die like all the other decent, unremarkable people. I feel some shame admitting that this fate doesn’t seem good enough for me. I guess I’m not alone in wanting a larger effect.
I was thinking about the landslide of love that I receive from my parents, which they received from their parents, which they received from their parents. Also not just parents, but many others inside and outside of family, because as we all know, sometimes family isn’t the place that love comes from. But it does come. It is far less traceable than even a family tree, which can be tricky enough. How many nameless, unknowable people, over how many uncountable generations and centuries, contributed to the steadily gathering momentum of love that has arrived in my life?
Like life, love is tenacious and will take a mile if given an inch. It can build fertile intricacies out of the rawest resource. I don’t know whether love is exclusive to humans, but I am quite certain it is elemental to us. And it is wrought in our bodies and minds out of the same atoms and chemicals that add up to living bone and blood. Love, again like life, is this earthy thing, that moves well beyond individuals, and spreads into the most inhospitable, absurd, lifeless kinds of places and moments.
I didn’t feel any relief, standing outside of Mitch and Heidi’s house on that Sunday evening. But — seared with anger and heartbreak and fear and disbelief — quiet love welled up. It felt stronger than the red maples above us, deeper than the late sun above them, older than the ground beneath us. It felt like something that is everywhere, and which I long for. It was all of those people, and all the people who weren’t able to be there.
Heidi’s life was filled with love, and her death was consumed by it. She added to the evolving aggregation of love in her family, in her neighborhood, in this small city and beyond. The love that she received, tended, and dispersed grows all around, in unknown ways, a steady exponent that multiplies inwardly and outwardly. Love is spirit and also the long genetic chain of who and where we are. This is what Heidi is. This is what each of us is.
There is no place to begin when you need words for death.
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