According to a columnist in The New York Times, almost 60% of people do not experience “persistent sadness” after the loss of a loved one. In fact, “surprisingly, about 5 percent of the sample reported higher life satisfaction after their loss. They might have been in a stressful caregiving role. . .”
I hope I’m doing everything I can to reduce my caregivers’ stress—but it’s hard when I’ve got so many eager caregivers and I am so deeply lethargic. There is, of course, no reason that anyone should trust me to do anything right on my own. Left to my own devices, I take my nighttime medicines in the morning and then wonder why I’m tired all day. I’m probably better off letting someone else do whatever needs to be done.
That said, I do want to leave those closest to me among the 60% who do not experience persistent sadness after I’m gone. A couple of teary-eyed days may be OK, but as soon as possible I want the people I love to start enjoying their lives again.
We should be able to do that. We’ve had an extended period to discuss everything we should discuss. I don’t think there are hard feelings or unstated emotions left unsaid anywhere, and that’s good. (Ginny asked me what I meant by that. I meant that no one is carrying any grudges. She says she doesn’t even know of any grudges anyone in our family could be carrying. She’s right. We lead a remarkably friction-free life.)
But this does serve as a reminder that if there’s something you want someone to know, tell them. Tell them now. And if it’s something you want them to really believe, tell them often.
Our son* Preston died four days after the horrible events of 9/11. He was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, about ten blocks from the White House. I called him early on the morning of the attacks to encourage him to get out of D.C. as soon as possible. He wouldn’t do it: her pointed to the TV screens that were showing miles of backed-up traffic leaving Washington and Manhattan. I told him to try anyway. I offered to drive up and get him–a plan that was silly on its face. On a good day it would take over two hours to get from Richmond to Washington. Preston stubbornly refused to move. I ended the call telling him “I love you,” our standard sign-off. He said the same to me. It was the last time I ever talked to him. When his partner David called us the night of the 14th to tell us we should probably drive to D.C. now, we did it. Preston had had HIV/AIDS for more than a decade, so it wasn’t the first time we’d made the trip on short notice. We didn’t expect anything dire. We knew his condition, but had been lulled into thinking we had years. We drove up past the Pentagon, which was bright with construction lights from the damage earlier in the week. We went straight to the hospital. I dropped Ginny off at the hospital door while I took the car across the street to the hotel we’d be staying in. Ginny arrived at Preston’s room less than two minutes after he died. I got there ten minutes later. We didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. We didn’t even have a chance for our standard sign-off.
I quickly came to the conclusion that while we would have given anything for one more day with Preston, it was good for him that he died quickly. I was in the third year of my cancer diagnosis and I projected my thoughts and fears onto Preston. I knew I wanted death to be quick when it comes for me. You didn’t have to see the movie Philadelphia to know that death could be particularly cruel to AIDS victims. Ten years earlier, we had deliberately moved to a house in Richmond that had a first floor bedroom in case Preston ever needed to come home for his final days. We had a wonderful relationship with Preston, but we knew he was happier living with David than he ever would have been living with us.
Nothing about my cancer has been or will be as tough on our family as Preston’s death. We’re not meant to outlive our children, and even when they’re in the 30s—hell, even when they’re in their 70s—they’re still our children. Preston knew we loved him and we know he loved us. (One of the joys of having a gay kid is their gay friends—many from unhappy families—adopt you as their parents too, and tell you over and over again how lucky your son is to have you.) Still, at unexpected times, his name will come up and Ginny or I will break out in unexpected tears. It happened to me on a street in New York last year. We were talking to a filmmaker after seeing his movie about a gay family. Suddenly I couldn’t talk. It was a total surprise.
So there was for Ginny and me—and for Jason and David—persistent sadness after Preston’s death. If we’d had the extra weeks with him—the kind of time my family has with me now—maybe that gloomy period could have been ameliorated. I hope that’s true.
With my ample advanced warning, there should be no regrets when I’m gone. And that’ll make me very happy to the very end.
*Technically Preston was my stepson, but we never really acknowledged that. I was his Dad II.