Together (we cry)
My grandfather passed away a year and a week ago. On my phone, there’s a note dated February 18th, 2014:
United Christian Hospital
28, 0, 0, 0.
The last four numbers were the numbers I saw flashing on the screen before he died.
Looking back, it was almost surreal staring at the indifferent grey monitor, with its blue screen and skipping red line; the scene seemed disquietingly familiar and yet utterly unfamiliar at the same time. A small part of my consciousness recognized that the deathbed scene I had seen many a time on television – another world away – was now my reality, and yet this reality felt so different from anything I’d ever expected. Suddenly, I found myself solemnly dressed, surrounded by family, and staring into the face of a loved one soon to be lost. Suddenly, I was the kid crying onscreen, holding his grandfather’s hand, and watching as the tiny rise and falls of his chest finally came to rest.
Death hurts because it’s so sudden. One moment they’re there, and then – in a space of time so infinitesimal our human senses cannot perceive it – they’re not. I knew my grandfather was nearing his final breaths because the doctor had said so, but somehow that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the moment when the cardiac monitor dropped from 28 to 0, when all I could see was a straight, unmoving line. What was in between? I asked myself. What do you call the transient shift between what was before and what came after? There’s life, and then there’s death – but nothing filled the empty void between. There’s no bridge. No Charon to ferry you across the Styx. No stairs leading up to the pearly gates. We desperately create ideas of an in-between in an attempt to slow the passage to death, but really, who are we kidding? The transition from one to the other is fleeting. Instantaneous. Sudden.
Earlier this week, a family of four from Hong Kong were vacationing in New Zealand when their car veered into the opposite lane, colliding head-on with a logging truck. The mother, father, and 20-year-old sister were killed immediately in the accident, while 17-year-old Griffin Lee, a senior in high school, clung on to life in critical condition. Yesterday, he left our world to join his family in rest.
The people of Hong Kong were devastated not only because of the tragedy itself, but also because the family had just been so close. Students of the Hong Kong International School had just seen Griffin before they departed for break. He’d walked the halls with them, sat in class with them, laughed with them; he’d been tangible. Visible. Present. Each member of the family had touched the lives of the people before them in their own way – and then they were gone, three first, one following. The people around them were left wondering: Where did they go? And weren’t they just here, right beside us, only a few days ago?
When I heard the news, I cried alongside the rest of Hong Kong. I thought a lot about death – how it struck so arbitrarily, so suddenly – and I thought a lot about my grandfather. At that moment, I felt lucky, lucky to enough to have been able to expect his passing, to steel myself for what was coming. But then I brought myself back to the moment. I watched the decreasing numbers on the monitor still at 0 again. And I remembered how much that 0 still hurt.
It doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are for the death. It’s not the unexpectedness of death that hurts the most, but the suddenness of the actual moment when they leave this world for another. My grandfather’s death may have been ‘expected,’ and the Lee family’s ‘so sudden’ – but the gaping holes they leave behind are the same. For now, all we can do is hold our friends a little tighter, our family a little closer, and pray the dark angels don’t look our way. When the time eventually comes, we feel and we hurt. And together, we cry.
column for the lawrence as senior columnist. published 2/27/15.