I first met Death when she came for my hamster. I was six and it was summer. Mr. Squiggles had escaped his cage and eaten my Play-doh while I was playing outside. When I returned, she stood there over him, pulling his soul from his body with two delicately long fingers. An apparition of Mr. Squiggles popped from his body and shook itself. He ran around her and she silently giggled. Spotting me, he ran through open air and into my hair, a sweet breeze replacing his usual nuzzles. He pranced in front of me as if to say, “look at me, look at me, I can fly.”
Death watched, tall and reedy, all dressed in blue. Blue. The color of Mr. Squiggles favorite hamster ball. She was eerily beautiful. Affection gleamed in her eyes, and I wasn’t afraid. I never had been I realized. I knew she would take good care of Mr. Squiggles. I knew her intentions were good. Death nodded an “it’s time to go” nod and I kissed Mr. Squiggles on the head before watching him run back to Death. With a final leap, he landed in her outstretched hands.
“Goodbye, Mr. Squiggles. I love you,” I heard my voice say. Death tipped her head in goodbye and they evaporated, taking my calm understanding with them. Bursting into uncontrollable sobs I ran to my mom, burying my face in her apron. We buried Mr. Squiggles in the garden and the flowers the next spring were extra vibrant.
When I turned 12, Death visited me again. My papa was 68, a farmer for life, working in the fields, harvesting alfalfa, when he had a heart attack. I was visiting the farm for spring break. In the stables, brushing the horses and feeding them apples, a familiar calm settled over me. I turned around, Death and Papa stood in the early morning rays.
She wore a green billowing dress. The color of the fields Papa tended with all his heart. Papa looked younger, back straight, eyes bright with life. But I knew he was dead, after all I could see through him. When he opened his arms, I couldn’t help but run into them. Warmth blanketed me, his vaporous arms wrapping around me.
“I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you, too,” tears filled my eyes despite the calm I’m now sure Death provided.
“No tears, my child. I am content with the life I lived. I am ready for what comes next.”
“I don’t want you to leave, Papa,” I whispered.
“I know. But I’ll always be with you. In here,” his ghostly hand over my heart. Streams flowed down my cheeks, despite the damper filtering my emotions. Tucking my head under his chin, we stood there in the stables for a long moment. I held tight, to him, his hugs, his smile. I wanted to remember them forever.
Placing a hand on our shoulders Death gently reminded us it was time to go. I pulled back, watery evidence of my grief still covering my face. Papa kissed the top of my head, my bangs ruffling in the accompanying breeze.
Papa extended an arm to Death, always the gentleman. Resting her hand in the crook of his elbow, they walked into the sunshine, smiling.
As Death took Papa, sobs blossomed in my chest. Turning back to the horses, I let all my grief pour out. I couldn’t show Nana. She wouldn’t understand. So I brushed the horses, crying until there were no more tears to cry. You must be strong, for Nana and Mom.
I was 17, driving home from a party. My friends were all drunk and I was the designated driver. Carousing in the car, they turned the music up too loud and talked over one another, laughing. “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas came on the radio and we all started singing. I closed my eyes for a moment, dancing in my seat. Glancing in the rear view mirror, Death sat between my gyrating friends, cloaked in black. My voice fell with my heart, to my gut, through the floor, onto the road. Looking over my shoulder, there she sat. No mistake. Sadness dressing her face.
Choking the steering wheel and stared hard at the road. Who was it this time? Who had she taken? Why did she have to come now? Meeting her eyes in the mirror, everything slowed, her calm filling me. Her arm rose from the jumble of limbs, delicate fingers pointing to the road. Turning to see, everything stopped. Somehow we had traveled into the wrong lane. Bright white headlights blinded me, and I tried to shield my eyes.
Life restarted and panic replaced Death’s calm. A scream brought my voice back to me and I turned hard right. Too hard right, hard left, calm down. Calm down?! Breaks screeched, accompanying my friend’s terror. Squeezing my eyes, I prayed, to whom ever would listen, please, please don’t let us die. The car stopped and so to everything else. No noise, no light, no breathing. I peeked through lashes, I was still in the car. It had stopped off the side of the road, perpendicular. Shock filled the car.
“Is everyone ok?” I tentatively asked. Words burst from everyone and I sighed with relief. Checking the mirror, I found my friends safe, Death gone. A look over my shoulder, confirming the other car was alright. Death nowhere to be seen.
A week from my 44th birthday, I was in the hospital watching over my mom. Six years ago she had been diagnosed with stage three lung cancer. Instead of kimo, radiation, and too much hospital, Mom had decided she wanted to travel the world, start a business, and take care of her grandbabies when she could. She made a bucket list and checked everything off. And now she was dying.
I was certain, not because the doctors had told me but because Death stood in the corner wearing a yellow sundress. Yellow like the sunflowers in the vase next to Mom’s bed. She’d always loved sunflowers.
Three days and three nights Death had watched us watch over Mom. And every day I became increasingly angry with her. How could she do this to my mom? I had never blamed her for taking my loved ones before, and I was grateful for that night some 26 years ago, but this I could not forgive.
When my mom slept and everyone else was taking a break, I asked her, “Why? Why are you taking my mom? It’s not fair! Why couldn’t you have let her live?!” Sorrow filled her gaze and hot tears of rage and hatred, love and blame, sorrow and acceptance blazed down my cheeks. I didn’t understand. And why hadn’t she gifted me the calm she had before? My heart screamed agony, my insides hollowed out. Curling into a ball of fury and mourning I cried, hard. Death cradled me in her arms, a mother soothing a baby, rocking and stroking my hair.
Days seemed to pass before I woke up. I was at home. It had been days. And Mom was gone. Remembering brought more tears to my eyes. Death had taken Mom after letting me cry and cry. She had allowed me one last beautiful moment with my mom, laughing and smiling about our shared lives. I’d kissed her forehead, like Papa had done to me so long ago, and she’d closed her eyes, forever.
I am now 89 years old. I have lost count of all the times I have met Death. Between pets, friends, and family we have had many occasions to meet. One could say we are quite close. Each time she visits she stays a little longer. I have come to appreciate her company. Our conversations, although somewhat one sided, have enabled me to move forward though all the loss that comes with life. She is my most treasured companion in times of struggle. Soothing my soul and providing peace.
Sometimes I wonder if Death visits others. Does she grace others with her calm? When I told my mom about Death at age six, she’d frowned, checking me for fever. I haven’t told anyone about Death since. Not even my husband. A dog of mine died while we were dating and out of curiosity I asked him what he thought death would look like if they were a person. He’d shrugged, replying with something about the grim reaper. That was the closest I ever got to telling him about Death.
Today, Death sits across form me at my kitchen table. The morning sun making her glow angelically.
“Good morning, Death.”
“Good morning, Little One.” This is the first time I have heard Death’s voice. It’s sweet, like rain. Her endearment makes me feel like the six-year-old me that first met Death so long ago. Young and free.
“How are you?” I ask, just like two old friends reconnecting.
“Happy to be a part of this experience,” she smiles, laughter dancing on her lips. “And you, my Little One?”
“Enjoying this beautiful morning,” I smile back. “May I ask you something, Death?”
“Why me? Why do I see you and others don’t? Do you visit others?”
“I visit everyone. Whether they see me or not is their choice. They must be willing to open their hearts or be ready to pass on. You have always opened your heart for me. You are a rear treasure. I myself was quite surprised when we first met. A living had not seen me in quite some time and I had become use to my solitude.”
“Solitude? What about the people you take?”
“I do not take, I guide. And often they are quiet. I get the occasional curious one that asks me all sorts of questions,” she chuckles. “But most are ready to discover what comes next for themselves and are in no need of conversation.”
“And what comes next, Death? Where do you guide those ready to pass on?”
“That is for you to discover. Describing it would not mean much, as experiencing it will be much more profound.”
“Is it a happy place, at least? Are they happy?”
“Yes, Little One. It is a place of joy and love.”
“For all? Even criminals?”
“Yes. The universe does not discriminate based on how one lives their life.”
I look out the window and comfortable silence blankets us. Birds sing in the trees, crickets chirp in the grass, a lady bug crawls across the glass. I remember my life. Beautiful and full. There were ups and there were downs, but life has been good to me. I am happy with the life I have lived.
“Are you ready to discover for yourself,” Death inquires, “what comes next?”
I stare at her beautiful blue dress. The color of the sky. The color of my husband’s eyes, my children’s eyes, and many of my grandchildren’s eyes. The color of my bed spread and the flowers in my garden. The color of the sky.
Calm fills me. Death is here for me I think as I stare into her eyes, endless like the night sky.
“Yes. I believe I am.”
Photograph by Mariah Renae Photography