Thursday, January 08, 2004

Life And Death In A Small Town

My husband's friend's father died last Saturday. When I heard the news on Tuesday I was surprised because I did not know he was ill. Then I found out he died in a car accident. He and his wife were driving home from a family gathering at his brother's house, in another small town just across the Colorado/Kansas border, when the van he was driving hit a patch of ice, slid off the road and rolled over. He was not wearing a seatbelt and was killed instantly when he was thrown from the vehicle. Now the horrible part of this story. His wife has MS and is in a wheelchair. The van was equipped with a wheelchair lift but it did not have an attachment that locked the wheelchair down nor did the wheelchair have any type of safety belt. When the van stopped she had broken one leg below the knee, three ribs, her collarbone, two vertebrae in her neck, and seriously bruised her lungs. She is alive but in severe pain. The last thing she remembers is her husband saying, "Oh, shit. Ice."

When I heard this story I was horrified. I had seen the two of them at the library just before Christmas. After they left that day I thought about how sweet they were together. How could this happen to two such good people? How could this happen to my husband's friend who is such a sweet gentle man? This thing has haunted me since I first heard about it. I can't stop thinking about his mother being in that van with that loose wheelchair as the van rolled over. How could something like this happen?

Today was the funeral. Normally the church's congregation only fills up about half the pews but so many people showed up today the church had to put chairs up in the balcony where the choir usually stands. On an off during the service the sound of people's muffled sobs drifted though the church. When I read the service bulletin I was a little shocked to see that today would have been the man's 76th birthday. Then I understood this was fitting in a way, it completed the circle of his life. Born on January 8th and then buried on the same date.

This was a man who was well loved by his community. He was the kind of man you like right away. The kind of a man you were glad to know. The kind of a man who was going to be sorely missed after he was gone. This man was so loved that even on a cold, bluster Winter's day half of the people in the church went up to the cemetery for the graveside service. It was bitter standing there in a inch of slushy snow while an Army honor guard lifted the flag that was draping his casket and silently folded it up to the sound of another soldier playing Taps on a muffled trumpet. After the flag was presented to the family the service ended and we headed back to the church for lunch.

I ended up sitting beside my next door neighbor and asked if she was there as a member of the church. No, she was my husband's friend's distant cousin. They had the same great-great grandfather. She then mentioned six family names that I recognized. Names that made up most of the town's families. She was related to all of them in some way or another. I found this fascinating since I don't know anything about my mother's family and I am so totally disconnected from my father's.

As we sat there we talked about our own parent's death. For me, my mother, and for her, her father. Both our parents had been ill for along time before they died and she said she felt guilty because she had felt so relieved after her father had died. I told her not to be because I felt the same way, it was normal. You are relieved that your loved one is no longer suffering any pain and also relieved that you, yourself, are no longer suffering the agony of watching a loved one be in pain.

I have always understood that death and pain are a part of life. As I sat there talking to her I accepted more deeply the fact that this is true. We do not like to see other people suffer and when they do it is hard to accept. So by asking how all of this could happen, I was not accepting that pain and death are a part of life for everyone, even good people. How could it happen? It was an accident. Accidents happen.

Life happens.

But I don't have to like it.

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