When Death Becomes a Mystery

We know that we are going to die. We read about death in the newspapers. People we know and do not know. Obituaries are posted on social media.

The further away a death is from me the less I question it. It’s just a fact. People die.

But then Sam Spratt died. He was 25 years old. On Wednesday, May 19, 2021, he was in a car accident and died at the scene. He was our neighbor and Juan and Crystel’s caregiver for over four years. Death suddenly became a mystery to me. Why did Sam die? Was he done living his life? Did he accomplish all that he wanted? My world instantly felt less safe. I was nervous getting in my car. Now I knew I could die. If Sam could die, I could die.

There is no more do-over for Sam. What he did in this life is done. Or is it?

Sam’s funeral was overflowing with young, middle-aged, and old people. Friends, neighbors, relatives, high school classmates. Attendees spoke about how kind Sam was. How understanding. The deep conversations they had.

Juan and Crystel experienced the same with Sam. Sam was 12 years old and the kids were 5 when he started nannying for us. Monday to Friday he came to our house while Jody and I were at work. He even spent an occasional overnight when Jody and I were out of town.

Sam and our children became a familiar sight throughout the Richfield community and parts of Edina. For years they pedaled their bikes to dentist and orthodontist appointments, Tae Kwon Do, swim lessons, movies, library, restaurants, bowling, swimming pool and the neighborhood parks. Sam took on the additional responsibility of Juan and Crystel’s friends for play dates in our backyard swimming pool.

I was compelled to write a blog post about our experience with Sam when I read a parenting book that warned against having a teenage boy babysit – the children would be at risk.

With intention, Jody and I welcomed Sam into our home and into our lives. We were blessed to have this teenage boy responsible for our children’s safety.

On Easter five weeks before he died, Sam walked down the street to our house to visit with Juan and Crystel. He was planning to come to their graduation party in June. “He wouldn’t miss it!” he said. The three of them chatted as they would do, cajoling and teasing each other. Juan and Crystel were ‘his kids.’ He had taught them how to read, made sure they brushed their teeth, and that they weeded the garden.

Now he’s teaching Juan and Crystel about death, grief, and loss. How to navigate when a loved one is no longer with us.

His death continues to be a mystery to me. I’m still asking questions. Still pausing my mind when I pass the area where he died.

Sam was right, though. He did show up for Juan and Crystel’s graduation. I finally looked at Juan and Crystel’s picture boards at the end of their graduation party. Juan had many photos of himself, Crystel, Jody and me on his board. Prominently displayed in the center was a photo of Juan, Sam and Crystel.

I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I nurtured two souls, Sam can say. I gave them my heart and they gave me theirs. To that end, I taught them love for another.

Sam Spratt October 17, 1995 – May 19, 2021.  Never forgotten.

Parallel Reality

Guest blogger Rosemary Ann Davis is a memoirist, poet, travel writer, photographer, and member of the original WordSisters writing group. 

It started with a cough.

As the numbers of those sick and dying from Covid 19 mount, I continue to have flashbacks to a different time. Forty years ago, another health crisis was just beginning in America and I found myself drawn to the chaos and denial. Having just left San Francisco, I began to hear about a “gay cancer,” and started warning my men friends back in the Bay Area to be careful.

The panic I felt that morning reading the sketchy details about HIV AIDS in the Star Tribune is similar to the disturbing feelings I had when going into quarantine for the coronavirus this past March in Minneapolis. The similarities don’t end. 

While uncertainty gripped me in the early 1980s; I learned more about HIV AIDS with time, and many visits back out West. As I learned how HIV was spread, I modified my sexual behavior; and now in 2020, I wear a mask, wash my hands, and keep 6 feet of distance.

Protests then and now have echoes of familiarity. Current marches around the world about government responses to Covid 19 remind me of San Francisco and D.C. marches in the states long ago. Dr. Fauci was in a key leadership position both times, now putting his AIDS work on hold to wrestle with the coronavirus. I remember AIDS marches where the doctor was vilified because the science wasn’t working fast enough for a cure. At one point I flew to Washington, D.C. to participate in a die-in at the White House. Laying on that hard ground surrounded by like-minded folks from across the country gave me a safe place to reflect on and mourn the one thousand young men who had died in my San Francisco neighborhood in one year.

People dying in both health emergencies remained isolated. AIDS patients were abandoned by parents in droves because of their gayness, while Covid patients’ friends and relatives are kept out of hospitals to avoid infection. If they were lucky, people with AIDS were taken care of by their lovers’ mothers, the ones who were accepting. These days, some dying of the current virus can speak on the phone or other electronic media with their family members if medical people have the time to accommodate them.

I’m still grieving my friends who have died, and wrote a book, Before They Left Usto honor them and those times before and after AIDS took them. Although there have been many improvements in the fight against AIDS, I still donate to the cause, attend memorial events, and deliver food on the holidays some 40 years later. My friends are still with me, whenever I visit the Bay Area, am back in the Midwest, or wherever I am. That’s the kind of effect the AIDS crisis had and continues to have on me.

 

While we are now nearing 175,000 dead of the pandemic in the U.S., I’m sure that these losses will also affect the surviving families for years to come. Grandparents, middle-aged parents, even children, have all died from this. What changed the direction of my life and turned me into an AIDS activist, perhaps will change theirs as well. Loss can do that to you.

Our federal government has been at odds with its citizens during both of these epidemics. In the 80s, the President wouldn’t even say the word “AIDS,” much less address it. Now, it feels as if we are being told it is more important to get the economy going than to concentrate on lowering the infection and death rates.  What good will the economy be if hundreds of thousands of us are dead?

So, what can we learn from all of this? To a large extent it is up to us to change our behavior to avoid getting the infection and transmitting it. We can also encourage others to do the same. Speaking truth to power—whether it be engaging in conversations or protesting in the streets, can be a form of influence.  Most importantly, we can show compassion particularly to those with the virus, those who are grieving, those who want to honor the dead, those who are working towards a just and healthy society, and even those who are not.

 

 

At The Funeral

In January, a time before the corona virus, I sat with three friends from my writing group. Our other group member was up front, a part of the funeral party. Her mother had passed away.

We had done this before, sat together for a funeral. Then it was one of our own group members who had passed on. This time, it wasn’t a sense of déjà vu as much as it was a strong sense of community, of being with your tribe, your writing family. These people who read and commented on your stories, knew your family and your journey through life. We’ve been together for over fifteen years.

I had Kleenex scrunched up in my palm. Tears would come from who knows where, but they would come.

It touched me that we were supporting our friend and supporting each other. Several of us had taken the day off from work. Being present for one another was important. Sacred circles show up for each other.

The church was full of people of all ages and races to honor this woman of 89 who had passed away. A testament to her and the family she raised.

My shoulder brushed my writing friend sitting next to me. I dabbed at the corner of my eye. Being at funerals often connects me to other griefs and in that moment, I keenly felt my estrangement from my siblings. My bond to my sacred circle of writing friends made me feel the distance from my siblings even more. My Kleenex became soggier. I pushed my glasses up.

How Great Thou Art, chorused through the congregation. I imagined my feet reaching to the earth’s center.

While in prayer, I let myself grieve the alienation from my siblings. I was doing what I believed.  I was honoring myself, my partner, my children and my beliefs. I was honoring the essence of who I am. I stayed in this revered place with the universe. Wrapped myself in love. Cloaked myself in love. I was in a blessed place in this church, in this pew, and with these people. I felt love all around me.

While in communion with the Universe, I added a prayer, Universe, please help me find my memory stick. I had been putting blog posts on the stick and had yet to back it up. I knew that I should. Every writer knows that. The memory stick had blog posts on that I might publish after more revision. I’ve learned that the best time to write a blog post is when I have the greatest feeling. The memory stick was holding a lot of me. I had been looking for the stick for days.

In The Garden filled the place of worship. When I raised my eyes I could see clearly. I felt liberated. The veil of sadness had lifted.

At the podium, our writer friend was reading a story that she had written about her mother. A story that was familiar to the sacred circle. She was full of light and joy. Her gift bringing forth laughter.

Following the recessional, we said goodbye to our friend and decided the rest of us would gather for lunch. We needed to be together a little longer before we re-entered our daily lives.

Opening my car door, I moved pieces in the basket in the back seat that held loose items in the car. There was my memory stick. Thank you, Universe, I breathed. I am loved.