I’ve always seen death as an event. A sudden heart attack. A phone call out of nowhere. An isolated instance in which any forewarning, preparation or prior consideration of death is rendered meaningless. I saw it as a destructive force, pushing everyone and everything out of its way. Then I met Sophia.
I remember clearly the first time I ever set foot in her room. She was cheerful and her eyes lit up when I entered the room but she seemed tired in a way I have never encountered before. We quickly became close. We shared so much about our pasts: our families, our fathers, our high schools, middle schools, middle school teachers, Easter traditions and favorite seasons. It was a quick friendship. It was a friendship based on the past. I’ve never had a friendship based solely on the past. There was no discussion of hopes and dreams, what we were doing tomorrow or where we would go if we could visit anywhere in the world. However, it wasn’t any less rich. It was filled with anecdotes, laughter and rich conversation. The past became as important, enriching and fun to discuss as the present or the future.
At first, I did not see the importance of focusing on the past. But relatively early on in my weekly visits, one anecdote made me realize the importance of these conversations taking place in the past. We were talking about a road trip she went on to Florida with her friends and husband. She told me they went skinny dipping and that it was the most amazing experience of her life. She told me how warm the sun was and how much she loved to lay on the beach. She told me how fun it was to drive from Pennsylvania to Florida in her husband’s car. Then she told me abruptly that she wished she could drive away like that again. She wanted to get in a car, drive away and feel that specific kind of freedom that only comes when you’re driving. It was the first time she had expressed any kind of desire that existed in the present moment. It was the first time she had spoken about wanting to leave her completely bedridden state and drive away. I asked her if she wanted to continue talking about these things or if it was too hard. She responded by telling me that everyone in that story had long since passed away and that she was ready to join them so she wanted to think about old times.
It was after this exchange that I realized the importance of mine and Sophia’s friendship existing as a recollection of the past. Although it was a collection of past stories for me, to her it was a reminder of where she was going. She was going to reunite with her old friends and her husband. She saw her death, at some level, as a way of returning to this point in time during which the people she loved were by her side. It was through this realization that I began to see death as a much slower and preparative process. It is not just always an event. A sudden heart attack. A phone call out of nowhere. It can be a process of preparation, recollection and reflection which allows for a transition from one state of being to another.