Red Light, Green Light, In Between Light

A day or two before New Years my grandmother called me. She wanted to know how I was feeling. And doing. My infant daughter had died in October. My mom’s dad in September. My other grandfather, Noni’s husband, months before in June. It was a grueling year. Finally grinding to conclusion having ground us first.

She found it nearly impossible to be without Papa. Cocooned in sorrow. Her picture of herself as content, even alive, gone with him. In 1979.

My dog had died in April. Dog. Grandfather. Grandfather. Daughter. A sliding scale of despair. April seemed terrible. Then I learned there were worse things.

My grandmother worried about me. That’s why she called. To see if I was better. Healing. I told her I was because I didn’t want to worry her. Didn’t want to splash my pain on her.

And then, on New Years Eve, she killed herself. I was on the mend. The last permission she needed.

That’s how I saw it.

Green light. Live. Until she said no. STOP. Red light instead.

Her hastily scribbled note said she couldn’t go on without him. Wanted to be with him in the year of his departure. As close to him as she could get. So she made it happen. Red light to life.  A choice.

My dad didn’t say a lot. Stoic till this day. He dispatched her various detritus. Then her ashes at Donner Pass the way she wanted, where she’d floated my grandfather’s remains in the late summer. Their favorite place.

Dad’s brilliant blue eyes, the echo of his mother’s, dimmed. And no matter how much those eyes danced and twinkled in the years that followed, no one could speak of her life without thinking of her death and at least momentarily, he would blink.

We knew. Whenever Dad looked at the son I later bore and said to me, “How your grandmother would have enjoyed this boy.” His tell. The sharp knife at his core twisted.

My then in-laws were visiting from Iowa when it happened. Were standing in the kitchen when my husband took the call from my dad early New Years morning. He came into the bedroom to tell me.

Dog. Grandfather. Grandfather. Daughter. Grandmother.

Later in the day, a quiet day in which I hadn’t much to say except for a slow trickle of tears, my mother-in-law turned to me and said, “She had the right to choose. We all do.”

When my husband did a version of the same years later I wondered if she remembered what she’d said to me that day. If she thought it applied to her son as well as my grandmother.

I didn’t call my in-laws right when I found my husband. It was nearly 9PM where they were. The last good night’s sleep I figured they might ever get. So in the morning I called his cousin, Mort. Told him. Asked him to go to the church to get their favorite preacher, and take him, too, to tell them in person and attempt to give what would never be. Comfort.

There’s no best way to tell a parent but the phone seemed wrong.

Like my grandmother, my son’s father chose. He switched his light. Green light, I’m hereRed light, I’m not.

The Earth spun in reverse and day became night.

No mate gone before, incipient illness, or grown children flown the coop taking purpose with them; no way to explain the unthinkable. Except to say, sometimes there’s sickness we just can’t see.

But my mother was different. She slowed. To a crawl. Then stopped. In the center of the road. She let life march over the top of her. We stopped too, to give her a hand, to hold off the stampede and pull her to her feet. We did it several times. Beefed her up, held her up, cheered her up, loved her up, and sometimes ordered her up.

It didn’t matter. She glowed neither red nor green. On a dimmer, a dial she wouldn’t let us touch. She didn’t commit. To life. Or death.

She opened the door. Let death in, played hide and seek, cat and mouse, and eventually let it have its way.

We could only watch.

Now we scatter each wondering what we might have done differently.

What do I not understand about aging at this age that will become clear as I move along? Will it frighten me so much that I choose as my mother did? Death by default. Not red or green light, but instead in between light.

Is it suicide? Is it choice? Is it neither, instead capacity worn by age and inability to grasp consequence?

Is it a right? A choice we’re entitled to? If so, what do we owe?

And what are we, left behind, entitled to? Other than the sorrow, tears, frustration, missing, messiness, confusion, the ‘if only’, and ‘what ifs’?

And the anger.

P2200113-2I want my mom. When she carried her green light for life. Once looked out the kitchen window at the neighbor’s fancy-shmancy car, parked in their driveway crunched from a wreck.

“Well, I’d say today that car is a little more Benz than Mercedes.” She chuckled. Satisfied with her play on words. Back when her light was on bright green.

Glowing. Fading. Flickering. Gone.

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About Pamela Hester King

Wife, mom, grandma, friend, consultant, colleague. These are my roles. Writer, learner, teacher, dreamer, seeker, playmate, artist, lover. These make my heart beat.
This entry was posted in Death & Dying, Grief, Loss, Memoir, Suicide and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Red Light, Green Light, In Between Light

  1. Mrs. P says:

    Wow…Pamela, I had not know that you had experienced so much loss, more than any should. Your post today is very thought provoking. I won’t be sharing any opinions today as I feel that life and death is a personal matter. Though I would hope that somewhere in the equation…responsibility for others…comes in to play.

  2. Ashana M says:

    I’d say everyone does have that right to make a choice. But implicit in that choice is that you, as being among the living, aren’t enough to make someone else want to live and your pain is something the person who suicides is willing to risk. It doesn’t come without consequences.

    I also think most people making that choice aren’t making an informed choice. They are making a choice distorted by the weight of emotion. In that sense, it may not be about choice at all, but an act of passion–like murdering someone because you lost leave of your senses. Even if it is pre-planned, it’s perhaps that the repeated moments of despair extend long enough to carry out more of its pieces, like being crazy with rage for weeks or even months. We can’t sustain anger that long, but we can sustain hopelessness.

  3. tersiaburger says:

    So much loss…so much pain! I believe that everyone has the right to decide – red or green….I also believe that death is a conscious decision…In February 2012 my daughter made the conscious decision to die. She gave up her fight to live. No more hospitals she asked… We respected it. She only stopped breathing 11 months later.

    Your pain pours from the post. I suppose we have to allow our loved ones to go when they choose to go. It is hard. Hugs!

  4. Nancy Payne says:

    Very touching, Pam. I had no idea you had all of that going on in the same year. I was the naive younger sister of your friends–too busy in her own life to truly care what was happening in yours. Aware? Yes, but I did nothing … So now, older, wiser (?), I am in awe of the lady you’ve become through all that you’ve faced in your life. I can hear Anne Marie talking about the “Benz” across the street. Ha! She did have a good sense of humor! But if she was mad, look out! I knew better than to ignore her. I will continue to enjoy your writings. Go hug that great husband of yours. Lots of strength for you to lean on.

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