Death, the word that usually clears the room, only it didn't clear the room this night…
“Can’t stand the noise, eh. You getting old, Chip?” Andy yelled from across the room.
“Well as a matter of fact, yes, and so are you.”
Andy chuckled. “Only in years, Chip. My inner me is as insane as ever.”
Chip rolled his eyes. Liz, ignoring them both, spotted Andy’s wife, Judy, in the kitchen. She was putting together some cheese plates with crackers as well as warming some finger food. They hugged like sisters. They were roommates their first year in university and unlike many of the girls forced into sharing a room with a stranger, Judy and Liz became fast friends.
That left only the other singles in the group to arrive, and for unknown reasons, they were always last. The group had suggested many theories as to why that was, most not at all flattering, but it hadn't daunted Susan or Zach and the next door bell was Susan standing in the hall, leaving Zach to arrive a good twenty minutes later.
It was an unusual group, seven people who deemed one another important enough to nurture this friendship over thirty years. Now in their mid-50s, children raised, jobs less riveting, ex’s banished, and futures less programmed, a new phase of life was upon them, the end game, and though they had shared their problems of smart-mouthed kids, financial worries, job losses and marriage break-ups through the years, they were loath to explore this stage of life in any way other than jokes.
As each grabbed a LeBatts Blue and scattered themselves over the chairs, chesterfield and floor, it was Zach who would speak the words that always started their evenings together. There had been occasional attempts in the past to drop this tradition, labeling it corny or childish. But, now that they were getting older, the ritual had strangely become infused with new meaning. Wherever they chose to meet, the convener stood, which quieted this talkative crowd, an often caught the attention of nearby tables. Then he or she would speak these same words they started with so long ago. Zach, who’d been a Fine Arts/Drama major and had gone on to stage and screen, was the convener this evening and everyone liked his delivery best. Zach stood and said in piglet’s high squeaky voice:
“We'll be Friends Forever, won't we, Pooh?' asked Piglet.
Even longer,' Pooh answered.”
Pooh & Company was what they called this themselves back in the day, and Pooh & Company they still were. Yet, little did they know the further poignancy the quote would acquire before this evening ended.
With the gathering convened, small talk popped up in various groupings of the seven. They kept a serious line of chatter going until Chip said above the din, “Did you all hear about Richard?”
Richard had started with the group when they graduated from university. He brought his new wife Drew to it and stayed until his marriage broke apart. Everyone tried to get him back, but he plunged into his engineering career and began to travel internationally on oil and gas seismic crews. Chip had seen him a couple of times, but each time Richard was evasive and distant. Chip told the group he thought Richard was in trouble, maybe depressed, but it was impossible to follow up as he’d ship out and be gone again without warning.
“I ran into Toby who told me Richard had a heart attack last week and died on the spot in Kuala Lampur or some place in Malaysia.”
The group stopped talking, then intermittently murmured then sat quiet, then murmured again. They were at that time in their lives when death was a new frontier, one that was increasingly in their purview, and tonight, thanks to Richard, these friends crept a little closer to its edge.
“Is there anyone among us who believes they’re not afraid of death, their own that is? Just curious.” Susan, a professor of literature, asked the question and quieted the room better than an old schoolmarm wielding a ruler.
“I think everyone is afraid to die, unless you’re some high level mystic who’s already experienced himself as something other than his body,” Buddy offered .
“Woo. What have we been reading, old Bud?” Andy, the business admin grad cum journeyman welder explained his mid-career shift by proclaiming he made three times as much in the trades as he did in business plus there were no meetings or company politics. “I just figured what we see is what we got.” Andy saw things from what Buddy called the existence level. If you could see it, touch it, hear, smell or feel it that determined it was real. “When that craps out, there’s no more welding it back together. That’s the way I see it.”
Liz, the mathematician in the group, piped up next. She was comfortable in the abstract and not inclined toward religion like Susan. “What’s the problem with the notion that we are more like equations than just lumps of flesh?”
“Help me with that one,” Zach said.
“Well an equation has the ability to solve problems, communicate relationships, speak to us in many ways, and yet it is never used up or worn out. Maybe what’s real about us is more abstract like an equation, and the body, like the symbols in math, just carries that abstraction around.”
“There’s got to be something to that.” Chip joined in now. “I was reading this book on Buddhism and it was talking about this meditation that monks in training do where they see themselves dead and then going through the various stages of decay or something to that effect. It seemed the point was to lose attachment to this notion, while we’re still alive, that we are only this body. It certainly would be a lot less frightening to die, if life and death felt like opposite sides of a coin rather than death feeling so foreign and final.”
Susan, the only avowed Christian in the group, asked “How could you possibly think it would be a grander notion to be an equation than a human being?”
“It was a simile, Susan. A way of helping us to expand our view of what we might in fact be. Doesn't the Bible say we’re made in the image and likeness of God and isn't God something that is basically unfathomable, beyond our ability to imagine, even? I mean if we’d all be honest here, everyone is scared shitless to die.” Liz looked at Susan questioningly.
“I’m not,” she said. “I know where I’m going and what it’s like.”
Judy, who hadn't said anything to this point, finally entered the exchange. She was a nurse in pediatrics. “I think where the admissibility of death as a natural occurrence falls apart for me is in my work. Nothing or no one has ever explained to me why children should suffer and die.”
“That’s why we baptize them.”
“Susan, I love you, I do, but please don’t offer rote platitudes in the face of what I see day in day out. I have trouble hanging on to the notion of a loving God, quite frankly.”
The room was quiet, the roar of the gas heater coming on the only sound in it.
“Well if all the world’s a stage,” Zach offered, “as the great mind of Shakespeare proclaimed, doesn't that imply that there are many levels of theater playing on this planet and that perhaps our lives are merely roles that we either mature into fine acting or get hooked off the stage. It would certainly make everything less personal, which I think would make life easier.”
“You all sound like heathens to me,” Susan said.
“Well we are to you, Susan, but not to me. So maybe Jesus was bang on when he suggested we not judge one another.” It was always hard for Liz to honor Susan’s views on that one topic. Liz had trouble imagining how a woman who read as much great literature as Susan did could be attracted to the fairy tale-like qualities of heaven and hell. Liz didn't have a faith to defend, and it was clear from many other conversations on this topic that she found it difficult to grasp why defending one’s faith felt like such a need. Why couldn't people just practice their faith and leave you to yours? she thought.
The atmosphere felt heavy, so Buddy got up and began passing out a second round of beer along with the food trays. Ten minutes or so of small talk lowered the tension. Judy started back on the original conversation.
“I don’t want to live with a fear of dying, and I don’t know what to do about that. Do any of you know someone that you feel truly isn't afraid to die? I would love to talk with them.”
In a reconciliatory voice, Susan offered, “Maybe I could invite my minister to one of our meetings.”
“Susan, I’m not asking to be converted. I've never met a minister that had anything but platitudes to offer the grieving and believe me I've seen a lot of them. Usually people who know the truth about something be it life, love or death, can offer more than empty promises. I don’t expect you to change your beliefs, Susan, but I would ask that you at least grant others the religious latitude that they grant you. I don’t know anyone in this room who has a funnel to God, do you?” Susan stared at the floor, unwilling to respond.
“I have a sense,” Chip offered, “that there is something extraordinary yet oh so natural about death. I've been reading some Eastern stuff as you might have gathered from my earlier comment. The Eastern spiritual philosophies don’t seem to run from the big questions like our Western ones do. I was reading this fellow called Kabir and what he said about death enthralled me. He said: 'Death is not extinguishing the light, it is only putting out the lamp because dawn has come.' That’s what you were pointing at, Judy, wasn't it? This man feels like he truly knows death yet doesn't see it as something to be feared. His words certainly neutralized my fear for a while anyway.”
In the midst of all the talking, Judy noticed Buddy. He had said almost nothing the entire evening, and now he was off from the group sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees which were pulled tight to his chest and his head resting on them. His face was turned away from his friends, and as Judy watched she could see him shudder as he breathed in. She got up and made her way through those sitting on the floor. She was so focused that she caught the attention of the others. She squatted down next to him, wrapped her arms around his and rested her head on his shoulder. She whispered, “Buddy what's wrong?” The room was completely still.
Buddy turned his head and tucked it into Judy’s neck. He whispered back in jagged breaths, “I’m dying.”
Judy rocked him ever so slightly. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly to offset the shock. Then she whispered back to him, “What is it?”
“Cancer,” he said so quietly she could hardly hear. “Six months at the most.”
She spoke as softly back to him. “We will be with you every step of your journey. We’ll make sure you get home without a hitch.”
The love that made that promise, gave Buddy strength to raise his head but he looked at the wall as if embarrassed to let even these old friends see him so distressed. Judy said softly, “I’ll tell them. Just let me continue to hold you so fear can’t have its way with you.”
Nursing had placed Judy in the face of death more than the others. She moved into that persona now and said, "Buddy is going to give all of us a chance to rid ourselves of our fear of death.” She saw brows furrow and eyes look thoughtful. “Buddy is dying, and he has about six months left. It’s cancer. I have promised him that we would all be there for him from now until he leaves us, no matter what. If he wants company here, we will take turns staying with him. If he wants to stay with one of us, then we’ll do that. And perhaps when he finally bids us adieu, he will have helped us find grace in death.”
Buddy shyly turned to face the group. His old sense of humor visited in that moment and he said, “If anyone among us does not want to take me on as a project, please don’t do it out of duty. I will rat on you to God. If you don’t want to be involved at that level, be honest about it. No hard feelings. You know what a prig I can be sometimes, so don’t overestimate your saintliness.” That brought them much needed laughter, and that night everyone committed to do whatever it took to get Buddy home at curfew.
Five months and three days after that evening, Buddy left this life. The group would talk about that time as the most extraordinary experience of their lives without exception. It was ugly at times, cruel, frustrating and required a level of maturity most hadn't reached to that point in their lives. But then there were the heart-felt conversations in the middle of many nights and the stripping away of beliefs that no longer withstood the reality of what they came to understand about themselves and one another. Buddy dying engaged them with life like they’d never known it before.
On the final evening, they sat in a circle around Buddy’s bed. They spontaneously spoke the Pooh quote, each person adding the next word. Buddy was the last to speak. He gifted them with six final words a few hours later:
“Oh no, I’m afraid.