“In the midst of life we are in death.”
The thirtieth: the date of my birth, but not yet deemed the date of my death. Also the thirtieth: the date of my father’s birth, but not that of his death. This, at least, I can say for certain. The date of his death was the seventh, thirty-four years to the date of my brother’s birth.
September 30, 1956 – March 7, 2020
My father’s life now has an end marker. Sixty-three years young or sixty-three years old? A life too short or a life lived long? I ponder if, and for how long, he knew it was coming. The end, that is.
Before the break of his leg, the sepsis, fat embolism, and double pneumonia, he had discussed his wishes with my brother: to be cremated and his ashes spread across three different locations. They sit now—his ashes—in my grandmother’s living room, beside those of my grandfather. They both died in that room, just seven months apart. I imagine when the time is right, we will spread them, as he wished.
He had also discussed what he wanted my brother to inherit: an old rifle I didn’t know he had, and his great-grandfather’s ring which he wore until his final days. I don’t remember when, or who took it off. Nor do I know if he intended anything specific for me. But I’m happy with what I have. T-shirts and sweaters to keep me warm, the rose quartz he carried in his pocket for two decades—another item I didn’t know he had. His old pager sits on my desk, and a frog made of tiger’s eye on my nightstand—the same stone of my mala, the one I wore daily, and prayed upon, as I sat at his bedside.
But why had he told my brother these things? So specifically. So timely. Sure, it would be logical to say I’m reading too much into it. After all, expressing such post-mortem wishes is not unusual, especially for someone who lived with COPD, someone who had been told if he didn’t quit cigarettes, they’d kill him sooner rather than later. But had he not fallen on the ice that day, cracking his leg just below his hip, would I be writing these words now? Would I carry the rose quartz in my pocket, rather than him in his?
At the memorial, my brother noted into the microphone that our father wasn’t expected to live into his eighties, or even his seventies. But that thought had never occurred to me prior to that day. Or if it had, I’ve subconsciously blocked it from my memory. All I do remember is, at age ten, begging him over the telephone to quit smoking, saying I wanted him to walk me down the aisle at my wedding someday.
Well, he didn’t quit smoking. And he’s not here to walk me down the aisle.
I suppose I knew he wouldn’t be. Or in the very least, I feared it.
And in the months leading up to his death, I felt it.
On February 25, I hopped out of the shower, checked my phone, and listened to the grave voice message left by my mom. With the towel still wrapped around my damp body, I called her back. A minute later I was uttering that question you never want to have to ask, because it means you’re hearing what you never want to hear: “What are you saying?”
What she was saying was that my father was dying and I needed to be on a flight as soon as possible. Any breath, the doctor said, could be his last.
Exactly one month earlier, on January 25, I wrote, I found myself crying in my therapist’s office on Thursday afternoon. Fear that death was on my doorstep ravaged my heart, and I allowed the tears to slip out from behind the big green sunglasses I hadn’t taken off my face. “Not suicide,” I said, “but a broken heart.” For once, I don’t remember what he said in response.
I attempted suicide some days later, on the thirtieth, exactly one week after I told my therapist I hadn’t felt it coming. But a death I felt, a death I knew was coming.
After the memorial, my mom was the first to give voice to the notion that he knew. By then we could look back, examine, consider his actions and words—far beyond his cremation request and intended gifts for my brother. I voiced my agreement. “I knew a death was coming,” I said. “Only I thought it’d be mine.” My aunt said she was glad that it wasn’t.
Three years earlier, on my twenty-eighth birthday, June 30, 2017, I worked a twelve-hour shift at the local university’s dining hall. A few hours into the day, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of dread. I continued to prep the salad bar as it grew and grew until I could no longer accept it as simply an unwelcomed and unwarranted fit of anxiety. Because this was not normal dread. This did not fit the confines of my usual internal crises. I, for no apparent reason, feared that my mom was dead.
I called and texted her repeatedly. Her lack of response only fueled my fear, but I continued to work, telling myself I was being ridiculous and that she was fine. Regardless, I called again and again, near ready to grab my car keys and run out the door. Instead, I called her boyfriend’s phone. And she was the one who answered.
To say that I felt a sigh of relief would be an understatement.
But a question remained.
Why had I suddenly felt that fear?
Just shy of two months later, my very-much alive mom and I took a trip to Lily Dale—the community of mediums that feels like the eye of a hurricane. I wandered the grounds as I waited for her to finish her session, until I abruptly stopped dead in my tracks. Just as it had on my birthday, a rush of fear surged through my body. It was sudden, but familiar. I stepped off the dirt road and stood by a nearby bench. Did I sit down at some point? I don’t remember. But I do know that I immediately pulled my phone from my pocket and checked Jenny’s social media—Jenny, the woman I love and can’t ever escape. Her post, from the very minute I stopped in my tracks, confirmed my fears. I was right. Something was wrong.
Afterward, I tried to listen as my mom described her experience with the medium. I remember she spoke of her friend who had died three years earlier from Hepatitis C induced liver cancer. I remember she was asked if her daughter had a drinking problem. (They were concerned. But I had quit drinking the year before.) It was hard to focus, though, because I agonized and mulled over what could be wrong in Jenny’s life. And at some point, I felt it—with no way of knowing—and I said it: “I think it has something to do with her mom.”
I would learn later that night I was right—again. Jenny’s mom was dying from Hepatitis C induced liver cancer, a disease my mind had already visited and despised that day. And so like I sensed the death of my father and feared it was my own, my intuition on my birthday had not been completely wrong; it was only misplaced. Someone I loved deeply was in the predicament I thought I was in; not me. Jenny’s mom died later that year; not mine.
This isn’t a terribly uncommon occurrence. I’m not alone in whatever phenomenon it is to sense death, be it your own, the death of a parent, or even the parents of another—people you’d never met. I had seven years prior, before I even knew of Jenny’s existence, described May 2, 2010 as the darkest day—without offering any sort explanation. Years later I would learn it was the day that Jenny’s father passed away. And on October 12, 2017, I wrote this to Jenny: I was overcome with an odd, but strong sense of fear just a while after sundown. I rushed away from a rest stop, as if doom was lurking. Sometimes when I don’t know why sudden strong emotions overwhelm me, I worry it has to do with you. Her mom died the next day.
But being common or not makes it no easier to consciously comprehend, nor does it make it recognizable as it’s unfolding. I did not knowingly sense my father’s death. Even after he broke his femur—which I would later learn to be very dangerous for a man of his age—I did not make the connection to the overwhelming sense of dread I felt. And perhaps neither did he, to whatever subconscious sense he felt. After all, what the soul and the heart know is far from what the mind does.
* * *
I read, in 2019, “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. The magical year is 2004. Her husband of forty years, John Gregory Dunne, has just died, and her only daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, is fighting for her life. (She would die in 2005, aged 39.) In this devastating memoir, Didion describes her own grief, and toys with the very idea that I am now: did her husband know that his death was on the horizon?
Did my father?
When he died at the age of 71, John Gregory Dunne, also a famed writer, was working on a book. So was Didion. A week or two, as Didion details, before his passing, Dunne passed off information he had intended for his own. “You can use it if you want,” he told her.
What did he mean? Didion writes. Did he know he would not write the book?
Didion examines many instances that she would later, in this year of magical thinking, look back upon differently. In November 2003, for example, Dunne insisted they take a trip to Paris. The problem? Didion didn’t want to go to Paris. Dunne, though, was persistent. He sensed if they did not go then, he would never see Paris again. At the time, she took this as blackmail.
So they went to Paris that November.
And on December 30, he died at the dinner table.
Never to see Paris again.
* * *
There is no science behind sensing death, or anything out of the ordinary for that matter. The brain expects pattern. In animals, cats for example, who have been known to predict human death in the hours leading up to it, the only scientific evidence offered is due to the chemicals released when the body is dying. Their sense of smell is greater than ours.
So what about us then?
To anyone with deep spiritual beliefs, I imagine the answer is rather simple. It’s an inner knowing. But what exactly that means, or where this knowing comes from, is far more complex. Is it passed down from a Higher Power, through our higher selves, souls, or spirits—whatever you’d like to call what is not our body? Did my father’s higher self, and the higher self of Joan Didion’s husband, receive some sort of message, or send some sort of message? A way, perhaps, to prepare for their imminent passing? And what about me, who, as far as I know, is still amongst the living? Did my higher self, undoubtedly connected to my father’s, and evidently to Jenny’s, get a message too?
Or did we know all along?
In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion offers no logical explanations, no theories of science or spirituality, as to how her husband may or may not have known his death was imminent. She only tells the story, because like me, and like you, she has no way of knowing—consciously anyway.
That’s what gets us, isn’t it? Not knowing.
* * *
It was New Year’s Day 2020, or the day after maybe, that my father stopped by my mom’s house, where I was staying for the holidays. I sat on the couch and explained I had a headache. I wasn’t exactly up for a visitor, but I asked if he wanted to watch old home videos with me anyway. He couldn’t stay, he said, and I could see the tears well up in his eyes. I closed mine and lay down, not wanting to see him cry. But I could hear it in his voice. He placed his large hand over my head and rubbed it gently. Even now, I can still feel it.
“He was crying because you had a headache?” my mom asked afterward.
“I don’t know,” I said.
And maybe neither did he. I’d see him just one more time before he fell, before the beginning of the end. And on that day, as I described in “How Much My Father Loved Me,” I think I knew. I think he knew.
And yet, we knew nothing at all.
On a visit to Lily Dale in 2018, my mom and cousin sat on a bench by the water—the same one we’d sat on the year before. But what I hadn’t noticed on the day I feared something was wrong with Jenny’s mom—was the memorial plaque on that bench. Perhaps it wasn’t there yet, or perhaps I just wasn’t meant to read it. But as I thought of her nearly a year after her death, I saw it—the memorial plaque in honor of a man who carried the same names as her—only his first was her last, and his last was her middle. In this place where the energy swirls so vibrantly around you, I felt it all inside me. There was something so incredibly full circle about that moment, about that plaque. And is that not what death is? Completing a circle. Maybe some of us are just more aware of it than others.