Today would have been my grandmother Viola Crawford's 105th birthday. She is the woman sitting on the couch next to my grandfather Charles, who is holding me when I was about 6 months old. My mother Mary is on the floor, my aunt Lena is on the far left. I think that's my aunt Pearl and her husband Claude between Lena and grandma.
I had reason to think about her today, not just because it was her birthday, but because of an incident I witnessed this afternoon. It is sad and perhaps morbid, but as I get older in life the press of mortality begins to make its presence known and so I think about such things more often.
I had to go to our Sector office today to give a new hire briefing. I do this every week with another fellow. He's the unofficial TRW historian; I'm the unofficial Northrop historian. In any event, I was stopped in the left turn lane at the corner of Aviation and Marine. The turn signal had just gone red for me, so oncoming traffic was still waiting for the green.
I noticed something very small and white running in the crosswalk in front of the waiting cars. It was a baby opossum. The little thing just managed to get to the center line when the light turned green and the cars began to move. It's retreat was cut off. The possum tried to continue across the street, but traffic on my side was still moving and it spooked the baby back to the median stripe.
I knew this would not turn out well, but there was little I could do but watch and hope a miracle would happen. None came.
The poor creature was terrified. It couldn't go back; it shouldn't have gone forward. But it did.
It made it part way across the first lane before it was hit. Unfortunately it was not killed. The pain was palpable and the poor creature writhed in agony. The light changed and the cross traffic turn lane began its transit. The third vehicle around the turn rolled over the possum and the writhing stopped. The possum was dead and I began to tear up and cry.
I became aware of death at an early age. I don't know why; no one I really knew died when I was five, or at least that I can remember. But I do know I was terrified of it. I remember asking my mom why people had to die. She told me that if people didn't die they would grow so old they would shrivel up and turn to stone.
That wasn't very helpful, but what else could she say to a five year old that would've made them feel any better? The heaven option didn't sit well with me, either, for some reason, but it was better than nothing, I suppose.
The reason I bring this all up is because many times I've thought about what it is people think and feel before death. There are so many unpleasant ways to die. That poor possum showed me one way. There was fear. There was pain. There was blessed release. And I mourned.
My grandmother on the other hand....
I watched my grandmother, who was strong and willful and a force of nature, become a hollow shell. It was a long, lingering illness that took four years to kill her. As she neared the end it became unbearable to watch. What I remember most is the vacant, thousand yard stare and the look of what I perceived - rightly or wrongly - as fear: fear of the unknown.
There is a line in the song "Old Man River" that goes, "I'm tired of living and scared of dying...." I know I heard her say she was tired of living; I'm guessing she was afraid of dying. There was fear there and I could see it.
As a result, she lingered and withered and became a ghost of her former self. In the end, she needed permission to die, to know it was okay. I suspect she's not alone. Once my mom told her it was all right, she passed that night.
I wonder if people are the only creatures that need "closure?" We lament the lost and wonder if they will ever return. We need the burial rituals to assure us our loved ones are really gone and hopefully to a better place.
Will the mama possum miss her baby? Or was it weaned and out of sight, out of mind? I guess it depends. If no one comes back when they are expected to then they are missed, at least for a bit. But life goes on and so do they. But do they mourn and need closure?
I have seen cats go into mourning and wail for a lost companion. Some recover; some never seem the same. So it is with people. Circumstances and personalities will drive responses, and so will emotions. It all depends.
In the end it was a relief when grandma passed. She was no longer suffering. In the end it was a relief when the last car rolled over the crippled possum. It was no longer suffering. They showed me that there are some things worse than dying. It is the process I'm scared of now, not the result.
But it is no use fretting about it as the end result is unavoidable. We all will face the great unknown at some point and plunge into the darkness to who knows what. I don't want to be scared and I don't want to be in pain. And I don't want to die abandoned and alone. But I can't control any of that. All I can control is what I do now. And that's okay. In the end it's how you live that counts.
"Salt River Cliffs" ©
8 months ago