I was ten when I was introduced to Death. It was my parents' 17th wedding anniversary and the first time I saw my father cry. He had just come home for lunch when he was told the news. His oldest sister, my aunt Frances, had died that morning from a heart attack. I don't remember crying, just that it hurt to see my dad so upset.
Two months later, Death tried again to get my attention. I had just returned from Outdoor School and my mother was still at work. My sister, Tamera, came up to me and said she had some bad news to tell me. My oldest sister, Rita, told her to "shut up, mom's going to tell him." I looked at them and said, "My godfather died." They were stunned and asked me how I knew. I don't know. I don't even remember meeting the man. I just knew him as Mr. Senko. I wasn't upset. I just felt sad.
Realizing I was too young to fully comprehend his work and not getting the reaction he hoped for, Death retreated for two years.
When I was twelve he returned and this time struck closer to home. It was the second time I saw my father cry. Dad had just come home from work when the telephone rang. I watched him talk to the caller. His ears turned read. He hung up the phone and called for my mom. When she walked into the room she asked him what was the matter. He grabbed her and hugged her. "Mike is dead," he said and began sobbing. I was stunned, numb. After my parents left to see the person who called, my uncle sent me to the park to get my younger brother and my sister Tamera. He told me not to tell them anything, just that they were to come home. When I found them, Tamera refused until I told her what was wrong. She told me, "If it's true, don't cry. It will only hurt mom and dad more if you do." She made me promise, and being a year older and smarter than me, I figured she was right and I promised.
It was late when mom called from the coroner's office. She told her brother, my uncle, to make sure the six of us kids waited up for them to get home. When they walked into the living room, mom stood next to me. I still remember her words. "Children, I have some bad news to tell you," she said. "Mike is dead." I remember looking at my sister and shaking my head, then crying.
Satisfied, Death left me alone. In his absence, I graduated from the eighth grade and enrolled in a boarding school at Mt. Angel Seminary High.
Then two years later, when I was 14, Death came back for a visit. This time he came for my father's dad. Grandpa was old. He was senile, as we called it then. He had a stroke and ended up bedridden. Mom and Dad brought him home to live out his remaining days with us. I was away at school when he died. Mom and Dad came to the coast, where my school was spending the weekend. When I saw them, I knew, but mom said the words anyway, "Grandpa died this morning." I didn't cry, not right away. Seeing my dad and the people I loved hurting hurt me and I know I did cry, for them, but Death once again claimed his reward and left.
It was 1977, I had just graduated from high school and was home for the summer. I received an unexpected call and I accepted a job I never imagined I would. As a groundskeeper at a cemetery, I spent my days mowing the lawns, picking up dead flowers and repairing a rock wall. Occasionally I was called upon to help bury a casket. Though I wasn't touched by Death directly, I was surrounded by him all summer long.
After summer, I returned to the seminary and left Death behind. Not happy with this arrangement, Death decided to take a vengeful strike.
I had come home for Christmas break. Things were going great. My mother and I picked out the tree, decorated the house, baked cookies, set up the outdoor nativity set. It was a special time we shared every year for the past four years.
The evening before Christmas Eve, the family watched Little Drummer Boy on TV. I loved that Christmas special except for the part where the Drummer Boy's mother and father are killed. It caused my heart to ache for him and brought a silent tear to my eyes every time. About 9:30, I was tired. I told my mom and dad, "good night," and went to bed. I don't know how long I had been asleep before my sister Tamera burst into my bedroom screaming, "Matt, Matt, something terrible has happened. Mama's laying on the floor and won't get up." I remember getting out of bed and walking into the living room. I looked through the branches of our Christmas tree and saw her laying on the floor in front of the fireplace. I instantly knew she was dead.
The EMTs came and took her to the hospital. My dad and his brother followed. I arrived there with my oldest sister Rita shortly after. We were all taken to a private room with no windows across the hall from the emergency room reception counter. There we sat and waited. I watched the clock on the wall tick away the minutes and grew impatient for news about my mom's condition. Finally, at 11:50pm, dad had enough of waiting and went to see what was happening. The rest of us followed. When we reached the emergency room counter, everything seemed to unfold in muffled sound and in slow motion. The priest from church came out of the back where they had taken my mom. He looked at dad and shook his head. What is that supposed to mean? No one ever told me flat out, "Your mother has died." or even "Kathleen is dead." The priest just shook his head?
Just then my younger brother came running into in, sobbing. He had called the hospital and the nurse told him the news, mom died at 11:30pm. He dropped the phone and ran the eight blocks from home to the hospital. He grabbed Dad and they began to cry. My older sister started crying, too. I took a step back. I felt tears in the back of my eyes but I was confused. This couldn't be happening. Not now. Not then. "No!" I shouted. "She can't. It's Christmas. She can't." My dad looked at me and said, "Just thank the Lord we had her this long."
Thinking back, I remember things my mother said to me as though she was preparing me for that day. One of those things she told me was to stay close to her brother, my Uncle Craig, and if I needed to talk with someone, talk with him. That I did and we became close.
After her funeral and the Christmas holiday vacation ended, I returned to college, with the hope of things being normal and untouched by Death. The first day of classes arrived it felt good slipping back into my safe routine. Then something happened. My professor didn't show up for his class. The dean dismissed us. The next day, the same thing. I overheard the dean talking with another professor saying that Professor Green wasn't answering his home phone. The last anyone saw him was at a New Year's Eve party. That afternoon, two of the professors went by Professor Green's house and found him. He was sitting in his car with the garage door closed and the key in the ignition, on. Death had claimed my safe haven. I spent the next ten days in my room in tears. After speaking with my counselor, I returned home.
For the next six months, I floundered. I walked around in a daze. I spent three weeks in California with my mother's parents. I felt at ease talking with grandma. She offered to help me find a job and get me set up in my own apartment if I decided to stay there in Sacramento. It hit me one night, when I looked at grandma, I wasn't seeing her, I was seeing my mom. I decided to return to Hillsboro, to look after my younger sister and brother.
December came and I had high hopes of making this Christmas a merry one for my dad and siblings since last year's had been the opposite. With help from my younger sister, we put up the tree and baked cookies and pies for days. The house was decorated to the nines, an "MGM Production" as my sister used to tease me. "Everything done just so. Everyone had their scripts." It was true, everything was going great.
Then on December 17th, only a week to go before the big day, I was working the swing shift, alone. It was late at night. The phone rang and Death was on the other end. My cousin, who was like a second mom to me since I was ten, had died.
With my heart broken and me in tears, Death retreated and watched.
I don't know how I managed to muddle through the next year and a half. I guess keeping busy working a part-time job on top of my full-time job, seven days a week, helped distract me from feeling.
But Death wasn't through having its fun. On July 4th, Death took another swing. My Uncle Craig telephoned to tell me that my grandmother, had died.
By that time I was overwhelmed. I had become numb. I couldn't hurt anymore. I couldn't feel anymore. It was all happening too fast. I didn't have time to process one loss before I was hit with another and another. Three years later when Death snatched my mother's father, I felt nothing. I couldn't cry anymore.
Over the next seventeen years, I just existed by keeping busy with work. During that time Death knocked repeatedly. My roommate's father, whom I watched slip away while I stood at the foot of his hospital bed; my mother's adoptive-father, my dad's mother and my dad's oldest brother, Albert, the one I was named after; my niece's two newborn sons, Daimon and Darian; not to mention, six co-workers and friends.
At last the year 2000 arrived filled with excitement and promises of a brighter future. It was a new millennium after all. We had left the 1900's behind with all its grief. But just over two weeks into it, Death returned to let me know he was still here and still in charge.
On January 19th, my father phoned to let me know his brother William had succumbed to cancer. Barely a week after Uncle Bill's funeral, on February 3rd, another phone call. This time it was my Aunt Olive who died. Then little over a month later, on March 8th, my brother called to tell me he heard news that our mother's youngest brother Kirk had died. While still confirming that news, the next day another call came. Uncle Melvin on my dad's side had died.
It was happening again. Too many deaths too fast. I wasn't able to handle one without getting hit by another again and again.
May brought news that my step-grandfather had died suddenly and another cousin. October claimed my roommate's mother and my dear friend. By the end of 2000, Death had claimed seven people dear to me, more than any single year in the previous millennium. Being unable to cry anymore, Death retreated and left me alone.
It was another five years before I heard from Death again. This time it he knocked the wind out of me. I received a phone call from my aunt. Her voice was as soft and sweet as ever. "Matt, honey," she said. "We lost Pat." Patrick was more than a cousin to me. He was a dear friend, too. I spoke at his funeral, probably the hardest thing I ever did or would do. But Death was not satisfied.
A year later, my dad's sister Helen died unexpectedly. Three months later, my step-grandmother Mace. And then less than six months later I received the phone call I dreaded ever since my mother died. The coroner's office in San Francisco phoned to inform me my Uncle Craig had died from a heart attack. I was inconsolable. Death had his desired reaction. Satisfied, he left me alone for two years.
When he came again, claiming my uncle Jean in 2009, I had no more tears. Death was shaken this time. In 2011 he took my aunt Margaret, still no tears. Confused, he retreated. He waited and watched and thought he had me. On April 21, 2012 after seeing me the day before hug my nephew, he struck him down. Sadly, Death was left disappointed when once again, I couldn't cry. Still greatly confused, he went back to his drawing board to come up with a new plan.
In 2015 Death returned and took three more swings at me: in March he claimed my aunt Ila, then in May he grabbed my cousin Michael and eighteen days later, my uncle Leonard. Still, I had no tears.
Bewildered, Death sat back and watched me, trying to figure out what had happened and why he wasn't able to get the reaction he so desired from me. He decided to strike again.
On March 20, 2016 he swooped down and grabbed my aunt Nola. Then eight days later, he put phase two of his plan into action. My father suffered a stroke, but Death wasn't immediate, he wanted to wait. He had an elaborate plan this time. On March 31st, a dear friend Glendora entered the hospital for an seemingly minor infection. She died unexpectedly less that 24 hours later on April 1st. Then sixteen hours later, on April 2nd, Death took away my father. After the initial shock of seeing my dad take his final breath and shedding a handful of tears, I went numb. I couldn't cry. But Death's plan wasn't complete. He grabbed two more of my close friends and another cousin before his two month rampage was over. He then stepped back and waited to collect his reward. But I had no tears. I felt numb and dazed inside.
I don't know why I can no longer allow myself to grieve, to cry. I know it's not because I don't care or feel love, because I do. Perhaps it just hurts too deep. Or, perhaps my faith in God's promise of the resurrection is stronger and more sure. For whatever the reason, Death has retreated once again. But I know he is still lurking in the shadows waiting for another opportunity to strike when I least expect it.