I’m standing in front of my closet, swapping heavy, dark winter wear for the brighter, lighter garments of spring. When the annual exchange is complete, I begin to look through a neighboring rack of dresses, nearly untouched during the last year spent largely at home. I pass by one, two, three black dresses before I think, “I should check their sizes.” And sure enough, I realize that not one of them will fit my post-pandemic body. Immediately I decide I need to order a new, correctly-sized black dress.
There’s no pressing need for a black dress; however, I like knowing I’m prepared.
When and why did I develop this “always be prepared” attitude…and toward funerals of all things? Curiously, I begin to wonder about my first experiences with loss and summon the scant memories I have to resurface.
I recall being with my mother in Florida for a church youth camp—she was a chaperone, and I was a ten-year-old tagalong—when she got the news that her father had died suddenly of a stroke. My next memory is walking into the airport terminal in Knoxville to find my uncle waiting for us. Although this was my first time to fly on an airplane, I don’t remember the flight. I do remember my uncle’s words: “He was a good man.” He was a good man, a good grandfather, and now he was suddenly gone. Later that evening I pondered this reality as I stood in my grandparents’ house and looked at his well-worn, now empty, red leather recliner.
Two years later my beloved Aunt Rita died of cancer. Surely I must have known she was sick, for I am certain my mother traveled to Rita’s home in Maryland to care for her at some point. Yet, I cannot recall knowing about her illness or anticipating her death. I can only recall her last visit to Tennessee, an annual occurrence that I eagerly anticipated. She had given me a copy of Shel Silverstein’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends for my twelfth birthday, noting the occasion on the first page with her flowing script and signature. I see the date written in her hand…1982…and wonder if she, if we, knew her death was nearly upon us.
As I sit in this space of recollection, snippets of childhood memories surprise me with their sudden return. I remember the day my best friend’s uncle died in a plane crash, the waiting and then the weeping; the unbelievable discovery that an elementary classmate had drown in the nearby lake; the whispered revelation that a friend’s father had died by suicide; and the evening our neighbor came to the back door to tell my mother that her father in Kentucky had died. She was driving there tonight; could Mom watch her children? I wonder, as I sift through these memories, is this how I came to know death? And if so, what did I learn?
I can well guess because the belief seems still deeply and dangerously rooted in my being: I learned that death is stealthy, swift, and indiscriminate, so I had better be watchful, cautious, and prepared.
I’m curious…how did you come to know death? And what message did those experiences hold for you?
The message that the unpredictability of death warranted my vigilance kept repeating into my adult years.
A childhood friend, only 21-years-old, dies in a tragic car accident. “Watch out—those you love are not safe.” The best friend of my oldest son dies by suicide. “Be careful—you could lose your sons too.” A dearly loved young woman dies suddenly of an unknown illness. “Be prepared—you and those whom you love could die in an instant.”
News of each loss strikes me like a slap in the face, knocking me off my feet and leaving me befuddled and searching to make sense of the message. The solution seems obvious: armor up—become hyper vigilant, live cautiously, and detach emotionally. Isn’t this what it means to “be prepared”? Isn’t this what will save me from more unbearable heartbreak and loss?
As sensible as the solution seems, I know it’s a lie, but more than that, it’s a poison that will lead to an early death for me—not a physical one, but an absence of deep attachment, a loss of heart, and a blunting of emotions that would be the end of me.
I know that to live is to lose, and for that, I must be prepared—prepared to risk, to love, to lose, and to grieve.
This choice is the far more difficult path, for it means feeling the pain, allowing the tears to come, and, in the end, turning toward hope once again.
Yes, I still prefer to have a black dress ready to wear (loving-kindness to the girl and the woman who learned to be so prepared). I wear it with a tender heart that is open to loving, losing, and lamenting. In that way, I refute the message death brought time and again and honor myself and those whom I have loved and lost.
“Although I cannot see your face / As you flip these poems awhile, / Somewhere from some far-off place / I hear you laughing—and I smile.” – Shel Silverstein
Susan Tucker is a lifelong lover of story, and with curiosity and openness, she often explores in her writing the tension that life holds. A former English teacher, Susan loves meaningful use of language, especially when used to stir the soul and whet one’s appetite for more truth, goodness, and beauty. Susan and Tim, her husband of 27 years, are adapting to an empty nest since both of their sons are now away attending college.nbsp