How was your winter?
The winter wasn’t bad, but I lost my wife on Tuesday. We buried her yesterday.
I stopped breathing, stunned motionless by this exchange, overheard at the ballpark. My brain, however, was racing, careering off one wall and then another. Could it be a totally tasteless joke? That was hardly credible, but anything else seemed impossible.
As the subsequent conversation made plain, it was no joke.
Sitting in a row that backed onto the stadium concourse, I was an involuntary eavesdropper as the bereaved husband gave his acquaintance, encountered in passing just behind my seat, a blow-by-blow and devastating description of his wife’s passing. Starting with the ‘There’s nothing more we can do for you’ talk with the cancer clinic, and ending with the chance fall, the broken leg, the surgery, and the blood clot that had killed her. That had spared her, maybe, all things considered.
The acquaintance floundered a bit, evidently caught totally off-guard both by the fact of the woman’s death and by the man’s controlled, almost matter-of-fact recital. I empathized. I didn’t even know the couple, and my brain was going pocketa-pocketa. I lost my wife on Tuesday.
It was now Saturday and a glorious day for a home opener, beyond all reasonable expectation in a country where the April weather is chancy. The sky was blue, the afternoon sun warm, the crowd atypically and wonderfully large, and our boys were winning.
Suddenly this glorious day was all too vivid, and much too much. There she was, dead, barely in the ground, and there he was — there we all were — at the ballgame. She was missing all this. We buried her yesterday.
Middle age is when you start believing that you’re going to die some day, when you take that one crucial step past just knowing. It imparts a certain edge to your point of view. I had an irrational but acute sense of it being me that was just-that-week dead and buried, and everyone else out at the ballgame without me. Sitting is all that saved me from staggering under this anticipatory but nonetheless real wave of anguish — the pain of being left out of all that will happen after I die.
The two men parted ways and the game reclaimed only some of my attention, the rest now occupied with something coiled heavily inside my chest. Not grief, exactly, but a sense of loss that had more to do with my own mortality than with this woman I did not know. I was heartsick over the heartlessness of it all: life, death, and the way the world goes on without us, leaving us behind. The way it will go on without me.
Two innings later, another conversation behind my head. As a scene in a novel it would seem hopelessly contrived, but truth really is stranger than fiction. Two men again — the flummoxed acquaintance from earlier and another man, evidently from the same extended circle of friends. Still raw from that afternoon’s unexpected encounter with death, they spoke candidly, at length, with little regard for their unintended audience.
An involuntary member of that audience, again I had no choice but to listen. To listen, and to learn why a widower would be at a ballgame the day after his wife’s funeral. The wife had been a baseball nut, never missing a home game of our local Triple A club and attending the Major League games just a few hours down the road whenever she could. Long before her accident, yet knowing she was in her final illness, she had organized a group of friends to attend the home opener together. She had planned to be with them, of course; that not being possible, they went ahead anyway, the day after her funeral.
We buried her yesterday. Missing out — well, yes. Left behind — maybe not.
Her friends were at this game to celebrate her life and what mattered to her, taking her with them as they continued on their own journeys. They weren’t leaving her behind; on the contrary, they were cherishing what she had left behind.
In life, this woman’s passion for baseball had spilled over, enriching the lives of her family and friends with her enthusiasm for the game and for their fellowship. In death, then, as in life, her passion brought together the people she loved and who loved her.
It’s not what we take when we leave this world behind us, it’s what we leave behind us when we go, sings Randy Travis. Death is made undeniably hard by our awareness of our mortality. Knowing that things will go on without us can be insult added to injury: a feeling that our death won’t make a difference. But knowing that things will go on can, instead, help heal the injury, reassuring us that our lives make a difference and will continue to shape the lives of those we love, even after we’re gone. It all depends on how we choose to live — and what we leave behind us when we go.