When We Go

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.



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8 Responses to When We Go

  1. Marion says:

    It’s a lovely story, Isabel, thank you. Your blog posts always provoke thought.
    I’ve lately been thinking about some of the other things we leave behind. Will my family find the financial files on my computer or remember where I keep the password-protected file of passwords – and the safety deposit box keys? Well, that will all get sorted out fairly quickly, I hope. Nevertheless, I do want to limit the physical debris that others will have to clean up after me – no, I haven’t been told to “get my affairs in order”! But still. Files from special projects. Souvenirs of vacations. Oh dear, all the photos of people that no one else will recognize, or of places where I went alone and snapped away happily at the scenery. Text books from public school, high school, and university! I could go on and on. These things will have little or no meaning without my mind to be attached to them.
    So, I’ve had a new item on my ‘do’ list over the last year or so. At the bottom, it’s true, but every now and then I tackle a bit of it. I sort out a shelf or box: do these things matter? When I imagine myself as someone else going through them they mean nothing. In most cases I realize that the things mean nothing to me, either; I’m keeping them because I have them. It’s a funny habit. If I have the memories, do I need the ‘souvenir’? And if I barely remember that theatre performance, do I need to keep the ticket and program?
    It’s spring too, bringing on these urges to throw open the windows, let in the fresh air and sunlight and clear the cobwebs and detritus from the corners. And wash the baseboards – but now I’m on to something else …

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – Ah, yes, the ‘stuff’ problem. After helping my mother move to Vancouver, I found I had no inclination at all to buy anything on my sojourn in Phoenix. Now that I am home, my first impulse is to throw something out. I don’t suppose it will last – the acquiring impulse is strongly ingrained – but while it does, I shall make hay. And little piles for garbage picker-uppers, recyclers, and thrift store resellers.

  2. Alison Uhrbach says:

    I agree with the “the stuff” dilemma! I found after my dad’s death that I was touched by some of the things he DID keep – and yet overwhelmed with the futility of collecting any MORE stuff for myself. Like you, Isabel, I now question the whole need to buy anything really – I’m too swamped with things from the past that I fear my kids will have to deal with at some point. Yet, the longer something has been kept, the harder I find to get rid of it. I find I adopt the philosophy “if it brings me pleasure, keep it for now”. But, spring is coming, and the cleaning bug may hit me yet!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Yes, hard to find balance, in this as in so many things. I’m thinking of instituting a new rule – if something comes in, three things go out….

  3. Jim taylor says:

    Powerful. Thank you.
    There comes an age, somewhere after 60, maybe even somewhere after 70, when we/I recognize that the time left is finite. It could be 15 years, 25 years, but whatever it is, there is no endlessness any more.
    For me, the “stuff” to deal with has been the archives of all my writings that I have kept religiously for 40 years. I think my ego believed someone would want to look all this stuff up, someday, to see how I put all this stuff together…. If I don’t do something with it, my daughter will simply throw up her hands and feed it into the shredder. Or vaporizer, or whatever they have in those days to come….

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yes, I used to tell my parents that if they popped off unexpectedly, we were going to burn their 1,700 square foot bungalow (with undeveloped basement serving as storage) to the ground, rather than trying to go through it all. As it turns out, they moved before we got to that stage. But I have seen my mother agonize over throwing out old lecture notes for classes she taught 20 or 30 years ago – they are a part of us, and it’s hard to let go.

  4. Susan Wright says:

    For me the issue isn’t leaving behind a confusing jumble of stuff, in fact I’ve left the odd thing behind already–glass beads in a little wooden box, a dried chili pepper (a gift from a child) and a 50 cent piece in another wooden box–to allow my children the opportunity to wonder at this mysterious woman they knew as their mother. What I’ll miss is not being around to see my children grow into their future selves. It brings me to tears just to think about it.
    Thanks for the post Isabel, thoughtful as usual.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – Well thanks a lot – you make a good (albeit unhappy) point about the “kids”. Shucks. Wanting to see how things and people turn out is a big driver, that’s for sure. On the kids, I guess we’ll have to settle for having had our wee spell of influence before they were 5. On other matters, we’re just out of luck.

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