Death is one of the largest looming shadows we come live under in a lifetime. We are born to do it, eventually, and we are born to experience it as a third party many times in one life, all our lives. This leads us toward a tendency to measure life lived or the life we are living underneath the plumage of this umbrella, an endemic umbrella we don’t usually notice until it’s pointed out to us.
Sure, this is all metaphor, but until someone actually experiences death, all we have are metaphors and symbolism to try to explain it. “Try” being the ideal word.
Death is not something Americans have been conditioned to handle very well. In other cultures, I’m sure some similarities can be found in other cultures, but in America, it’s a totally devastating force of natural law, inhibiting more than inspiring.
It’s that thought process that inspired me to write.
This story came to be written because of the loss of a friend, a guy I knew for only four years of my life, but had a great deal of impact on me. The day after his death was a tough one. Having to deal with it at work didn’t make it much better. I couldn’t look a single coworker in the face when they tried bringing it up. I learned the value of long hair that day, as I pulled it over my face to hide my eyes.
When I came to the end of my work day, I still had an hour left before my shift was over. I began writing. This story technically started as a Facebook post. Numerous people approached me after that and told me how that post put words to something they couldn’t really express. Based on all the positive comments, a post grew into a eulogy, and a eulogy into this story.
The catharsis that went into “The Elephant” has helped me a great deal. It’s put a lot of death behind me. And it’s the first piece of writing I’ve ever been 100% proud of.
I hope it helps people. I really do.
This story is dedicated to Alan LaFlamme, who fought the “Good Fight,” and to my friend Pope, who knows how all this feels from our side.
“There’s one thing that’s real clear to me:no one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow”
– Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
“I’m sorry” are the two most useless words in the English language. They’re like the open notes of a Neil Young song, ‘cept they never come back to you. Or, if they do, It’s in the form of something even more useless, like “I’m (We’re) thinking about you” or “I’m (we’re) praying for you.” I don’t know, maybe if they could prove that the words of the prayers converted into memos and landed on the Big Guy’s desk, then maybe I could find some comfort. Would He read ‘em, though? That’s another question for another time.
“Okay” is a word that doesn’t know you as well as you think it does. It’s as ambiguous as a smile, and it don’t know a fuckin’ thing! “I’m okay… I’m okay…” Death is an endless stream of okay’s and not a damn person knows what they mean.
This, all of this, comes to me as I look down at your final resting place: under an old oak tree, overlooking a valley, a runway for God’s opulence, leading to His intent: the mountains. They wear snow caps that look like silver fish dishes. All they need are large hands to lift them, and maybe the world’s secrets would all be revealed or maybe all of its pain could be contained. The grass waves in the breeze, speaking in reassuring tones. That you would be well looked after. That the worms would try to come for you, but the pine box don’t give up her dead easy.
I asked why the grass believed so. It told me that it felt my pain, and that I gave the wood purpose and God made man and gave him reason.
The ground is damp with dew as I sit next to a gossamer emblazoned to a bush, not far from the old oak tree. I feel small here, like a grain of sand or a drop of water, and if you combined the two they’d disappear where they were. Sitting here, I do the only thing I can do, I think of you. I think about how far we’ve come, and I think of the elephant that came to us when you got sick.
I assumed that day would be normal in the doctors office. That the weight loss was a sign of old age; that the vomiting was just a flu that made you tired. Your hair had been thinning for at least two years. It was already silver, like a lion’s mane and had been for as long as I’ve been an adult.
I was with you in the doctor’s office. He made you wear a green gown, and when you put it on, it made you seem meek, like you would inherit the earth. He examined you under the hideous fluorescent lights. He hooked you up to a machine that beeped, and made me sure it was measuring the beats your heart had taken during its lifetime, and if it had taken too many, it would end your life right there. The doctor looked entirely too young to be weighing and judging your life, but there was something that made him seem old too. His thoroughness, maybe?
He sent you for tests, and when they got the results, they made you come back for more. They told us stomach cancer, stage four. We knew what that meant, stage four. You told me then that cancer was a jealous illness. It wanted to be us, or as like us as possible. You said your shadow didn’t look quite right. Like it was missing something.
When we walked out of the doctor’s that day, the elephant was waiting in the car, in the back seat behind me. I saw him in the rear view on the way home. I’m not sure if you did. I don’t think you did, but he stuck to me, never left my side the whole time you were dying. He was strange looking, with a man’s body. He wore a blue suit that made him look kind of angelic, the kind that late night show hosts wear. His head looked like an elephant’s, though smaller, but definitely an elephant’s. Still, despite being smaller, it took up about half the back seat. It was finely detailed too, appearing gray and scaly, giving him the appearance of being old. Sparse gray hair ran along the entire length of the trunk. He had no tusks though and that made me feel a little sad.
The first night home he hovered over my bedside, at times moving in close. I couldn’t tell if he knew I was awake, but I just tried to ignore him. That’s all I ever did was try to ignore him. In the shower the next morning, I could see him through the clear shower curtain. At one point, I think he poked his trunk behind the curtain, but I couldn’t tell for sure.
My first day back at work, he stood by my cubicle as I made calls to customers. He had the posture of someone who wanted to engage in water cooler talk or maybe he was simply judging me. It’s hard to tell. The head always threw me off. The thing about elephants is, whenever you see a picture of them, they look mostly happy or people tend to interpret them as looking mostly happy when they’re not being hunted. But this elephant looked apathetic all the time.
The day that sticks out most is the one in the supermarket. Finally, I couldn’t take it and in the check out line I started yelling. The person behind me assumed I was yelling at them, but I wasn’t. He felt too close. I felt claustrophobic. When you’re already being worn thin by a cancer diagnosis, it doesn’t help when a human looking elephant can’t respect your space. The person in front of me was kind enough to calm me down and let me go ahead of them. I’d never cried in a supermarket before.
I’m aware of him now, sitting next to me, through the corner of my eye. I’ve a beer in my hand, I now realize. The top of the can is warm where I’ve been holding it, and I put it down next to the gossamer bush in the dew, hoping it will cool down a little. I’m bothered by warm beer.
His suit has changed color today: blue to black. It makes him look like a mourner three days too early. He feels sad now when he hasn’t felt like anything before. How can you tell an elephant is sad? Do their trunks hang lower? Their ears?
“I am the quiet contemplation of silent actions. What am I?” He asks.
I pause for a little while to think and then I say “Death,” in a hushed tone, almost whispering, a hint of grief present. At first, grief is like the secret sauce on a Big Mac: you can’t stop ordering ‘em because of it, and soon you start asking for it on everything the menu has to offer. You might get sick of it, might not, but it’s all part of the process of ordering. Or maybe the ordering process? Did I say that right?
“Why did you ask me that?” I say, but he doesn’t answer. The beer can is cold again and I slug it quickly. The first bit is warm, becoming colder the more I drink. The view is continually beautiful here with you, if you’re here with me. And with the elephant.
This is the day of your final rest. The day of earth’s inheritance. The ground is lucky to have you. I’m luckier to have known you, been raised by you with the advice a grown man gives to his boy.
The day goes by in big chunks. Through most of it I silently contemplate you. In the church – a place I’m sure you’d never stepped foot in – each quiet moment has a breath of its own. When the services starts everything moves swiftly, like a curtain caught in a breeze: from the awful organ dirges suited for pirates; the off key priest who sounds like Dracula’s long lost cousin. Your family is in the front row, in the pews who’s wood shines like a bar top.
All that’s swift slows as the priest asks if anyone would like to share memories of you. I can’t let you go without saying something.
Walking to the pulpit feels like a leaf falling toward earth. If it could feel anything, do you think it would feel like it was flying before it hit the ground?
At the pulpit, the elephant stares at a distance from the back wall of the church. His head still looks big from here. I feel like an archaeologist who’s unearthed some great discovery and has the job of presenting it to the world. I let the silence hover for a little bit more, wrapping itself around me.
“I stopped believing in goodbyes a couple of funerals ago. If you’ve ever spent any time with me, you know that. Often, I’ll just get up and leave without saying anything. I don’t mean any offense by it, it’s just… when it’s time for me to go, it’s time. I don’t know how to explain it any other way. I don’t say goodbyes because I’m never ready for the conversation to end, and goodbyes are nothing more then future hellos. Without ‘em, nothing has to end, right?
“When I think of my dad, I don’t think of his final frail and tender moments. And if I did, I’d take pride in the fact that he died with dignity at home, and not in a strange place where doctors speak highbrow English, and the only other sounds uttered come from machines that don’t realize there’s more to living than simply being alive. Instead, I think of the guy who used to say, ‘now, Johnny, don’t shove your good news in someone’s face. You don’t know the kind of day they’re having.’ I think of the guy who said, ‘don’t go the extra mile for someone if they can’t even meet you the first.’ I think of the guy who described the action of fixing something with your hands as being ‘better than sex.’ I laugh at the stupid jokes, and remember all the skills he taught me. I also think of the guy who used to tell me to ‘shut my ball washer’ whenever I complained or went on too long.
“Death’s kind of funny. In a manner of speaking, we’re all a little dead now, cuz death takes a little bit of us in every single person we’ve lost. What it takes is indescribable and irreplaceable. It’s something that was renewed every time we came into contact with the now dear departed. But in its place all these memories come to the surface and find new meaning and weight in all our lives. They makes smiles and laughs where there were none before, and an unequal amount of sad, tearful ones too, until the part of us that was once sad realizes how lucky it is to have known them at all. It gives the dead an opportunity to live a second, very different life in the laughter and tears of us all, ‘til the day we finally give out.
“Until then,” I say, cracking open a beer at a church pulpit, “I’ll need a few more of these and a few more photo albums on my lap.”
I walked out after that and the elephant didn’t follow. I never saw him again. I didn’t go to watch as they lowered you in the ground. After all, I said goodbye to my goodbyes years ago. Instead, I walked into the bar you drank at all the time and your favorite bartender was working. He asked me why I was drinking?
I told him, “I’m drinking today to find out if it’s dry at the bottom, and if it is, I’ll have another.”
Every thought returned to you that day.