National wit and beloved folk philosopher Will Rogers once said, “If there are no cats in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” That, my friends, is an intentional misquote: Rogers actually said “dogs.” However, making that change is something that E.D. most assuredly would have liked. E.D. adored her kitties, who were in her house when she died unexpectedly last week. (See below.)
It’s been a week and two days since I found my dearest friend E.D. lying on her bed, dead as a doornail. I think it’s a part of being human to mark time from the actual passing until we forget to keep track. Our first Christmas without E.D., who cherished the holiday, came upon us suddenly and within days of her death.
E.D. was one of those people who are as reliable as the sunrise. For example, if she said she’d be somewhere at 6 p.m., she would arrive at least 5 minutes early. My hubby Ken, E.D., and I had a yearslong standing dinner date every Monday night at our local Altadena Mexican restaurant. We hadn’t heard from her all day. I texted and texted. Nothing. My husband called: No answer. Very odd. It was now an hour past our usual rendezvous.
I had to go to feed a friend’s cats, so I ran that chore, then decided to swing up to E.D.’s house. Her car was there; not a good sign. The visceral sensations started: a knot tightening in my diaphragm, my throat closing. I knocked on her door, then pounded while yelling her name. Again, nothing. Maybe a co-worker came by to pick her up?
Ken texted me and said, “It’s a little unethical for me to track her phone, but I’m her computer guy, and I can do it.” I said, “Do it.” We discovered that her phone was still in the house, which proved that she hadn’t gone somewhere else.
I went back to pick up Ken, as we live only 6 minutes away from the house. We both were preparing ourselves for the worst. I texted a series of CYA messages to E.D.: “Hi, I see your car is here. I’ve knocked and yelled your name with no response. I’m concerned. We’re going to get more aggressive about getting into your house. This is so out of character for you.” Then I remembered that I had her key from years back when I’d taken care of her kitties.
I let myself in, yelling her name as I entered. I turned left past her kitchen into her bedroom, and there she was. I automatically felt her pulse: She was ice cold. Ken backed away to give our beloved sister privacy, as she mainly was undressed. It looked like she’d been getting ready to go to work.
We called 911, and Ken was still in denial, saying, “It doesn’t look good, but maybe she can be resuscitated.” I yelled, “She’s dead; she’s been so for a while.” I had no filters for gentling the experience for him, as I’d felt how cold she was.
I have never found a loved one dead before. I’m writing about it now because I think most people want to know “what happened.” Some are too shy to ask; very few come right out and ask. Because we are storytelling creatures, we learn from the experience of others. Finding her was an utterly intimate act. I’m so grateful that no one else found her. It’s probably presumptuous, but I believe she would have wanted me to be the one and not some stranger.
I know that whatever animates us — a soul or universal consciousness or, whatever you call it — is simply inhabiting our bodies, the vehicle we walk around in. Seeing her reminded me that we are truly meat bags. It was apparent that E.D. was not “in there” anymore, which was comforting. I could also tell that whatever happened, happened quickly, as there wasn’t any sign of suffering.
I rue how “taboo” our society has made death and dying. There are movements for bringing death home rather than feeding the highly sanitized and isolated industry of death. As the maven of death and dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “It is difficult to accept death in this society because it is unfamiliar. Even though it happens all the time, we never see it.” As it is, I’d like a tiny container of E.D.’s ashes. We had plans for adventures, and I will take her on them while in my handbag.
• Do you live alone? Always give someone you trust a key or provide a key hiding place.
• Have a reliable and trusted buddy? Check in with each other.
• Get over the reticence to ask, “What happened?” I assert that we’re mostly all dying to know.
(I’m using initials to respect my friend’s privacy. Her last day is also my story to tell, so I’m telling it. For more info on the Death Positive Movement, a term coined by mortician and advocate Caitlin Doughty, visit caitlindoughty.com.)
Ellen has been writing Consider This… for decades. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.