death is certain, and that is terrible

[Dust Jacket: Death, Suicide]

Every death is tragic. I'm pretty sure about this. Even if the death is peaceful, or unnoticed, [or as in one prominent recent example, violent but cause for celebration among many,] it's still tragic. Either for what the world could have gained or what the world lost. Usually both.

I'm the eldest grandchild on both sides. My grandparents are only slightly older than several of my friends' parents. The first person I was close to who died at an advanced age in my conscious memory was my neighbor Frances, a tough, joyous little woman, who passed away when I was in high school. My Great-Grandma Beth passed almost three years ago in her late 90's. I miss them. It was new both times. I didn't get to say goodbye to Frances, and that was tough. I got to say goodbye to Grandma Beth, got to hold her hand, kiss her forehead, tell her I was proud of her like she had always been proud of me, even when I wasn't earning that pride. And that was tough, too.

14 people in my peer group, people I knew, people I'd seen recently, have died suddenly, most by suicide. That's not even that many, I believe. When you go to school and grow up knowing people, you get funeral invitations. I wish that wasn't so. I was one of those kids who would think about death and not be able to sleep at night and stay up until I passed out from exhaustion some nights. My babysitter is the first death I remember, and she killed herself when I was about 7. It's one of my clearest childhood memories - her sister came over to play with me and my sister and it was already dark out and my parents talked with her parents in hushed tones. It's not a fun memory.

This death is different. My friend Marlys passed away suddenly yesterday morning after being rushed to the hospital Wednesday night. She wasn't yet 75, because she's close in age to my grandparents. They live on the same lake. I saw her April 30th, three weeks ago, Opening Day for freshwater fishing, like I had every single year of my life that I wasn't in college. My grandparents didn't always live at the lake, but as far as I was concerned, Dick and Marlys had always lived there, with a short T-dock and a fire pit and lots of parking space for RVs and a lawn sloping down to the lakefront that my godfather would pitch me wiffle balls on.

Dick and Marlys, inseparable in my mind and I'm sure almost everyone's. They're equal presences. [I can't use past tense just yet.] Dick is a big, jovial, loud guy who looks like a fisherman: ruddy face, broad arms, always teasing me about getting a girlfriend until I got a girlfriend and then he would tease her about being with a bum like me. Marlys is a little, powerful, magnetic woman who held court in her home. Well, outside her home, anyway. I rarely went inside their house because it was always Opening Day or summer and we'd be fishing or outside the fire pit or on the lawn. She was usually by the fire.

When Marlys told you to 'come here', you did; she had a certain authority over me that comes with knowing your parents and grandparents love someone and respect them. I always felt comfortable around her; there wasn't the muttering and feet-shuffling that sometimes came out when I talked to other older folks. Maybe it was because I was taller than her probably before I was in middle school. And she - like everyone in the lake gang, a crew of 4 couples who had known each other since college in the early 50's, including my grandparents - always knew how I was doing better than I did, because my grandma and grandpa had told her.

She was one of the few people I knew who smoked and was always polite about it; I remember seeing her alone on the porch at my high school graduation party and going out and talking with her. From what I've heard so far, she had cancer and didn't know it. My father called me to tell me and I was completely unprepared. I'd seen her three weeks ago. I'm so happy I did, and I'm happy I gathered 'round with everyone else as the gang gave her gag gifts.

I'm not sure when it started - I don't remember it as a kid, but I might have been running around playing football or re-casting off the dock - but every Opening Day, the folks who knew her best would give her gag gifts - tacky tributes, useless tools. A sign for a planter that says 'Grow Dammit'. The ugliest hunting cap ever, with neon earflaps. Awful needlepoint found at some thrift store. Marlys' reaction was so consistent I'll be able to remember it forever - first amused, then quizzical as she figured out the pointlessness of the tool or the humor of the gag, then chuckling, then passing it around the circle around the fire pit.

I took a picture of her opening one of the gifts this Opening Day. I've been looking at it a lot.

None of this is revelatory, but it helps to write it down. Death happens, it's scary, and it would probably be scarier to not feel something. The sudden passing of someone who's been constant for so long is terrible - for Dick especially, for my grandparents, for me, for the world, really.

I love you and I miss you, Marlys.