A few weeks ago something unexpected and terrible happened to a friend of ours. Our friend was a pilot, and a very good and careful one. But on this afternoon, suddenly, unexplainably, Reade’s plane crashed into the Wyoming mountains – and he was gone.
Watching his wife and children stand up in front of the huge group of friends attending his memorial service to speak of their father and husband, I thought (selfishly) of my own losses. Owen’s uncles, Keith and Chuck, who passed on suddenly and unexpectedly years ago, and Owen’s grandfathers, to whom we also had to say goodbye before we were ready. How do you cope with loss of a piece of your life?
How do you get to be ready to say goodbye?
Walking with Owen and the dogs a few evenings ago, I ambled from the fields to woods and into the cemetery of our local church. As we wandered through it, I found myself wondering idly where I might want my plot. Now, I have every expectation of living to be something like 96, as my grandmothers did. There is no real hurry to think about such things. Still, it seemed it might be nice to have a say about which way my mortal remains are facing. Over there, I thought — as Owen went in hopefully under the pine trees in search of discarded plastic — under the tulip poplars, at the edge of the farmer’s field.
I don’t have a way of explaining to Owen that someone is gone, and not coming back. I know that Owen knows who his extended family is, because of the way he acts when the great huge mob of us is together – for instance the semi-annual Simons Thanksgivings. During events involving large groups of cousins, aunts, and uncles, Owen behaves differently than say, at weddings, or other occasions with large crowds of people milling about. In general, he is more relaxed. In this way I know that he recognizes his family, his peeps, the group that belongs to him. He has some internal conceptual framework explaining why all these people are suddenly in his space. The mayhem of other gatherings is un-orchestrated noise and confusion – the mayhem of family is warmer, and something he enjoys. I think. But as far as explaining why someone isn’t there anymore, I have no way to bridge the gap between life and his understanding of it.
When my dad suffered a sudden stroke one December morning eight years ago, we took Owen with the rest of the kids and drove up to Philadelphia to say goodbye to their Grandpa. It was an unexpected, shocking event, and one of the ways I coped was to worry about how to fit Owen into that situation, at the hospital, with other relatives, their expectations, and their unknown level of tolerance for Owee behaviors in such a situation.
My father had been a man who loved order, and beauty, and peace, so the introduction of an Owen into his life was no doubt always a challenge for him. After all, he already had a son with special needs, who tested his patience fairly regularly. One of my sisters has video footage from a Gladish family reunion meal in which little Owen is massaging Grandpa’s head, face and neck in a sort of extravaganza of sensory exploration. My father looks to be cheerfully grinning, possibly gritting his teeth – he was always a team player – while the family laughs and chats about the attention he is receiving. He does not look what I would call relaxed. I never saw this encounter until I saw the footage, years later, since I was buried in the kitchen cooking at the time (coping with large numbers of people in my own way).
When we arrived at the hospital, my brother-in-law stayed downstairs in the hospital lobby with Owen while the rest of us went up to see Dad. But it felt strange to me, not to have Owen with us. Down the hospital elevators I went, and brought Owen up. His grandpa lay on a hospital bed, an oxygen mask obscuring most of his face. He was on a ventilator, and didn’t seem to be very much present, if at all. We all touched him, and said things to him, and he was unresponsive. In an effort to connect Owee to what was happening, I put his hand on his grandpa’s foot and told him to say goodbye to grandpa. But this time Dad twitched – several spasms passed through his leg.
My first response to his twitching was as if my unconscious father had said “Yuck! Don’t touch me!” This seemed like something he might have felt, in such a situation. Owen almost figures unpredictability, uncertainty, and my father was certainly no lover of chaos. I wryly smiled, imagined him thinking, “Did you wash that kid’s hands?”
But I also wondered if his twitching meant something more. Reflecting on it all these years later, I see that could just as easily have been a tremor of goodbye. My dad had a generous, loving heart, and a good sense of humor, and those traits formed a larger part of him than his desire for order, or his impatience with mental slowness or with noise. Dad did not know to say some things, articulate and urbane as he was, that Owen nonverbal and uncommunicative in a different way, says with touch. Maybe on his last day on earth, Owen’s grandpa responded to a touch he that couldn’t appreciate before. Maybe a nonverbal human is more receptive to other energy waves than those of human words through the air, or human thoughts moving through nerve synapses.
Or — maybe not. All I know is that Dad didn’t respond to anyone else. Only Owee got the spasm.
What did Owen take away from saying goodbye to grandpa? It seems so often Owen’s job with us is to be a conduit for things that he himself does not understand. He generally doesn’t understand. He copes. Earth and its inhabitants’ ways are a mystery to him. There is a kind wisdom of in that – so much we don’t know about the ones we love. Owen brought us a last experience with Dad – one last response, perhaps a goodbye.
As one who understands death – or at least understands that she does not understand it – I salute the passing of our friend Reade this winter, and thank him for bringing thoughts of other lost dear ones. Life is rich with all kinds of knowing, all kinds of speaking, and all kinds of love.