She’s still here

By Nick Dilonardo

I heard life described in an ethics class as being in a circle, dancing in locked arms with all those you love – your friends, your family – while one by one, they are taken from you by death. It was a morbid sentiment but it made sense to me as the classroom squirmed: this life is divided into those who think about death, and those that don’t. Loss isn’t easy. It has its stages. We go through them not just in death, but when we lose a friend too. In death, it’s final: they’re gone. You can’t text them. You can’t call them. You can’t ask for their advice.

This is what brought random tears to my eyes the other night on my drive home: as I thought to call my mother to ask her opinion on a matter, I instantly and without being able to help it thought of how much I would like to be able to ask my grandmother instead. The realization – strange, that even years later, it still strikes me like an epiphany – that I can’t ask for her opinion, and won’t be able to ever again, at least without some serious smelling salts, was bitter and strange. Worse, it was tinged with the realization that I take being able to call my mother for help for granted. Everyday, she wakes up, goes about her day, and goes to sleep. Somedays, she takes a call from me and we talk. Someday, I won’t be able to do this. For me, at times, this can be overwhelming. Call it typical Italian male madness over their mothers if you’d like, but I get guilty, no matter how hard to the contrary I try. I can always be a better son. I know I could be a better brother. It’s a curious gift even from a benevolent god that we as humans know of our inevitable demise. I don’t know if Sparky or Rex thinks about the big doghouse in the sky, if it exists, or if that sexy Shih Tzu from two streets will be there too. What separates man from animal is his ability to reflect – his very concept of himself as subject. It’s our ability to reflect on our existence and to question it that makes us human. Arguably, it makes us all-too-human.

I asked a friend last weekend at Coachella when we were hot and bored what the stages of loss were. I hadn’t considered them the last time someone died. I thought of them now considering the loss of a friend. Do we experiences those losses similarly? Do we in both cases begin with denial, move to anger, start bargaining, then accept? Come to think of it, I think I went through this when the 49ers lost the Super Bowl. What loss – what death robs of the living – is the chance for that phone call for advice. It’s never getting your grandma to approve of another girlfriend again. It’s Christmases that feel a little empty. It’s an empty chair at Thanksgiving. It’s also a gift. Without our concept of death, without knowing and experiencing that pain, life here with the living would be almost without purpose. All things must come to an end, and thank god or whomever for it: It’s finality that brings us to bear with the present. But as I’ve begin to learn, even though those we love die, they never truly leave us. Just because grandma won’t be able to tell me how darling my fiance is, I can still, when I get past the pain and the avoidance, hear her voice. As time passes, as I become more accepting, I’ve gotten to the point where I can stand to hear her voice in my mind’s ears. I’ve gotten to the point when I can smile when I think of her. I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer avoid it.

They may no longer be in our lives. My grandma may no longer be able to demand that I eat breakfast. But when I say “madder than a wet hen” or “everything has a price” she lives on, and I begin to think it’s silly I ever cried when she died. Each and every person, as long as we can remember, as long as our mind works and memory lasts – our family, our lovers, our teachers, our friends, even the guy working the coffee bar who always knew I was hungover – they may leave this earth, but that doesn’t have to mean they leave us. I can ask WWJD. I tend to ask What Would Grandma Think? Sometimes, the answer is overwhelming. Sometimes, I don’t need to hear about how messy she thinks my room is. But other times, I smile, wishing I could hear her ask me if there’s anything she can feed me again. I don’t need to believe in god to believe I’ll see her soon. The truth is she’s all around me. She’s right here with me. She’s the voice in the back of my head. In the end, that’s what we are left with by those who leave: it’s the gift of their perspective. It’s their voice between our ears.