As a journalist, death is something I’ve come face to face with almost daily at times. Writing about how lives can be changed in an instant from a car wreck, housefire or homicide has made for many nights void of sleep while sitting at an all-night diner drinking coffee with my mind full of thoughts.
Covering these news events can make a person wonder about their purpose, the place they have in the world or the impact on the lives around them. I know that those are some of the thoughts I have had rolling through my head as I stared at my coffee cup at 1’o clock in the morning.
But, with all of my writing, there has been a distance between myself and death. It hasn’t come for me yet and hadn’t knocked on my family’s door for a while up until this year. For that I am grateful. To have that time to spend with family and friends and to make lasting memories long after the photographs fade away is very precious.
This year has been different, though, because death has come calling twice in the span of a few months. The first was my grandfather, Rich Lee, who passed away in February. My Grandpa Lee was a man whose personality would enter the room before he did. At most family gatherings he waited for a break in the conversation so that the attention would be drawn upon him. He kind of reminded me of Jackie Gleason or Groucho Marx, both of whom were always quick with the joke.
Before I went to elementary school, I sat in the back seat of his Buick as he taught my mom how to drive. On these drives, he would sometimes shout “advice” to other motorists on the road. Like Gleason, his timing was always spot on. When I would ask my mom about these moments, I would get a partial answer, which always seemed to quench my curiosity.
Over the years, what I came to like the most were our conversations and talks on the phone. I got a lot of sound advice – some practical – that came from his career as an accountant. Other times, it was about women; he was married for more than 73 years. Sometimes, it was just plain nonsense.
When he passed, it was tough news to hear from my mom. It was even tougher writing his obituary the next day. My stomach felt like it was in knots putting it together but I am glad I had the opportunity to honor him.
Death came again in July for my cousin Holly Ehlert’s husband, Matt. He had a long fight with cancer and underwent several rounds of treatments. Like my Grandpa Lee, Matt was a tall man but had a quiet personality. However, once you got to know him, he would open up to you and the conversation would just flow.
I knew things were getting near the end when my mom called me and said Matt was under hospice care – and it was only a matter of days. The next day, I took off from work to see him and provide support to my cousin Holly. Even though he was in a hospital bed, Matt still managed to shake my hand and smile at me.
Conversation during the visit was light. It was about being with Matt rather than talking but I did take home a lesson from that day. Watching Holly look after him and caring for his needs gave me an insight of what unconditional love is really all about. This type of love goes right to the core of a person and was powerful to witness firsthand.
It’s not what it’s portrayed like in the movies or on television. Sometimes, it is a simple act of holding a glass of water so someone can have a drink because their hands shake constantly. Writing Matt’s obituary was difficult but, having listened to Holly speak about him, that unconditional love shined through once again.
For the past few months, I have talked with family, friends and colleagues about this rough portion of the trail I’ve been on and have gotten a lot of good advice. Being around people and not isolating yourself from the world has helped, as well. I have also dug deeper into my faith, searching for answers and have found much strength there.
As for now, I have found a new normal with my relationship with death. It has not been an easy path but things are getting better slowly. A quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson sums up my feelings at this time: “It is not length of life, but depth of life.”
Andrew Branca is an award-winning journalist for the Waxahachie Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.