A somber reminder of beauty in the face of death

Phil GrechBy Phil Grech | gargoyle@flagler.edu

As soon as I touched her wrist I felt ice.

It’s a feeling you don’t expect. Touch the desk in your room and it’s room temperature. Touch a dead body and quickly discover just how cold it is after heat and life have evaporated. The chills down your spine don’t compare.

After the police finished an investigation of the room where my best friend’s wife, Katie, died, they left the scene. Mike was laying on an outdoor chaise lounge of the balcony at the house overlooking Lake Oconee. I walked over to him, but had no idea what to say.

We were there because our friends Brandon and Jackie were getting married. I was a groomsman in the wedding. On the morning of the ceremony, we woke up to discover that Katie had passed in her sleep.

I couldn’t ask how he was doing. That was a ridiculous question, so I asked the only question I could think of: “Is there anything I can do?”

He looked at me from behind his sunglasses. “Can you perform a resurrection,” he asked.

“Of course not,” I told him.

“Then no,” he replied, “there’s nothing you can do.”

I left him in silence.

The remaining 16 people who had been staying at the lake house had no idea what to say or what to do. We should have been preparing for a wedding. Celebrating the coming together of two people, not mourning the separation of two others.

On the long drive to the lake house, Katie had talked about how far apart everything is in rural Georgia. Then she pondered, “I wonder how long it would take for an ambulance to reach you if something happened.” She told us how she would want her funeral to be performed and how she would want to be remembered. (She will never know it, but Mike did everything she had asked).

That morning I woke up at 9:30 a.m. Mike was screaming for someone to call 911. He was standing over her, trying to shake her out of sleep. Out of death. Before I opened my eyes, my hand scrambled across the nightstand for my cell phone. I called 911 and told them we needed an ambulance.

Katie lay in bed, her hands still clasped together, supporting her head as though she were still asleep. Her brown hair laid gracefully across her pale face. Her facial expression was peaceful and happy. It was as though she fell asleep thinking of happy moments, then never woke up.

It was fitting — a final symbol of how she lived her life. How much she loved the simple things. How rich and bonded their mutual devotion was. I have never seen it in another couple. It’s what I hope for one day.

Neither one of them ever needed anything because the other was always there to provide it. Before one sneezed, the other was already making chicken soup. Before one had the chills, the other was reaching for a blanket.

I never saw them fight or bicker. Only laugh. And sing. They sang to each other — something you don’t often see. I wonder if I will ever see that in another couple.

The responses from Katie’s friends were just as diverse as the people themselves. My friend Todd said to me, “It would have been nice if Mike had gotten to say goodbye to her.”

“That doesn’t matter,” I told him. “He showed her every day.”

No doubt she laid in bed that last night knowing that she had loved, was loved, and still is today.

Thankfully, all of Katie’s friends were open to talking. That openness isn’t as common as it ought to be. I never understood how people get squeamish or uncomfortable when discussing death. Why not talk about it, though? It reminds us of our mortality, but also how we need to reevaluate our lives — to live purposefully.

We often avoid these questions. It is easy to be slowed down by the dampness of ordinary life — to fall into its catatonic surrender. But shouldn’t we be reminded of our mortality? Our own mutability?

There have been dozens of times since that day that I’ve stopped myself from complaining. Kept my mouth shut over a petty grievance. I remind myself that I should be spending more time thanking and appreciating, and less time complaining or worrying.

It can be hard to remind yourself to live a “beautiful life.” I want my life decisions to have purpose — to be enriching and rewarding. But it’s easy to forget when stuck behind the idle car at the green light.

That’s what Katie has taught me. That’s her legacy now. That I need to learn to take deep breaths. To remind those who are close to me that I love them and care about them. I want to show them.

On the hour and a half drive to Atlanta, where the emergency responders took Katie’s body for her autopsy, Mike leaned his body against the passenger door. His head was propped against the window as he held a can of High Life in his right hand.

The road was quiet and smooth as the car hummed along. Mike started singing in Irish Gaelic. The song was “Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.” It means, “You are welcome home.”

“That’s a song Katie and I used to sing to each other,” he told us afterward.

As the car sped toward Atlanta, we sat silently. Mike had stopped singing. We weren’t sure what to discuss — what to say to break the silence. Finally, someone cracked a joke. It loosened up the air, but not much. We reached the airport where Mike was meeting his sister, and we turned around and headed back to the wedding.

I had just enough time to put on my black and red tuxedo and drink a Guinness before the ceremony. After the wedding, the celebration moved back to the lake house. I hadn’t had a chance to be by myself the entire time. I walked out to the dock that stretched into Lake Oconee and lost it. My tears fell into the lake. I gathered up my stuff, left the house and got a motel room.

After checking in, I touched the desk in my motel room. Cool, but not ice. I was still here, still breathing, still warm. The ever increasing stack of unpaid bills accumulating in my small apartment no longer mattered. The next morning I woke up, checked out of the motel, and drove home.

Two months after Katie’s death, the coroner’s report came back. We had all wondered how she died and now we had an answer. Only it wasn’t an answer. The cause of death: undetermined natural causes. Two months of waiting and we hadn’t learned anything. Only it didn’t matter. The cause of death wasn’t as important as the legacy she left behind, and what she had taught us with her beautiful life.

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