Stopping for Death

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—

When death interrupts your day, you stop. Even as obsessive and introverted as I am—to contradict Emily Dickinson—I do stop for death. Death has nibbled peripherally at our lives twice recently. That these deaths were in the middle distance, not close, doesn’t matter. They stop us anyway.

Sunset, Pacifica, July 2021

Both deaths were connected to the Meher Baba spiritual group. Phil is the keeper of its email list. He sent group notices multiple times for both, first the suicide and two weeks later the death by massive stroke. People had to be called and consulted on wording and timing. People called us, disseminators of the news, to share grief and ask questions we mostly couldn’t answer.

We didn’t know young Ryan, knew his wife, Adrienne, the daughter of old friends we once saw often, before they moved away. Adrienne is an artist. We’ve been to her exhibits. Last year I worked with her, edited her collection of artist pandemic self-portraits. It is both a stunning art and photography collection and a document of a hard time in the world, artists from many countries having responded to her call. The book deserves to be published but now death has stopped it. For Adrienne, death has stopped everything.

We want to know about death. Our curiosity burns, even reading obituaries, which so often tell us nothing about the cause of death. About suicide especially, we want to know: how did he, why did he, was there a note, was there a sign? Questions we dare not ask. An office mate I once had, a young man, was always cheerful at work, went home one night and put a bullet in his head. Was there a warning? I worked with him daily for two years, searched my memory, found nothing.

On the days we heard about Ryan, about Beth’s stroke, we were on the phone all day. For us, accustomed to our quiet house, the hours I spend in my silent almost-solarium crafting words and Phil spends in his studio crafting images, those days were a gloomy limbo. Between calls and emails, I couldn’t work, was unable to concentrate. Death had stopped me.

For days afterwards, Ryan’s and Beth’s passings left a gnawing unease, a restless melancholy. I met Ryan maybe once or twice; hadn’t seen Beth in years, not just the Covid years. Beth and I did poetry readings together, back in the day, knew each other in that world as well as the Baba realm when we were yet young and full of energy. Beth exasperated me. She wrote fine poems on scraps of paper, then never knew what became of them, failed to keep them. She delivered her words like skipping stones across the water, to glint and splash and disappear.

Beth had more marriages than me and I had three. I know little about her life, her children. After my poetry reading era faded, I sometimes saw her at Meher Baba retreats and then those ended. At one of the last—also long ago now—I saw Beth outside the meeting hall with the three or four diehard smokers. They laughed, exhaling, looking like outcasts and rebels, looking like they’d never changed. Twenty years earlier I would have joined them.

Adrienne posts photo after photo of her and Ryan together, loving, happy, their faces warm, open. She dreams about him, dreams he’s with her on a beach, and then she looks away for a moment and he’s gone. An artist with unreliable income, her life has been upended. She has health issues. Insurance doesn’t cover suicide. Besides the pain of bereavement, financial calamity looms. Ryan’s is a tragic death.

Past seventy, our deaths no longer qualify as tragic. Beth was my age, never regained consciousness, died a few days later. Baba folk say she dropped the body, moved on. She went the way many of us want to go. There’s sadness in that—and comfort. Still, any nearby death stops us. We mourn. Review our lives. And then we resume.

Any help would be appreciated. Adrienne’s friends have set up a GoFundMe for her:

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7 Responses to Stopping for Death

  1. Jenny-Lynn says:

    Oh, Pat, my condolences and my appreciation for the grace in these words of remembrance. Death stops us, indeed, and can also impel us, not the least into poetry.

  2. Gre says:

    “Past seventy, our deaths no longer qualify as tragic.” True enough, and if I hit a tree tomorrow skiing, it will merit a paragraph in the Denver Post. And sadness for many, I’m sure. But I’m 70.

    The deaths of those with whom you are connected, Pat, are tragic, regardless of their ages.

    But the death of a thirty-year old, for example, is truly heartbreaking. My daughter’s best friend was killed in a car accident in Steamboat Springs a couple of weeks ago, and all of us were devastated. Still are. She moved to Boulder five years ago and hiked the Rockies more than I have in my forty-five years in Colorado. A very happy smiling world-traveling eco-warrior from Ohio. Gone.

    • dubrava says:

      Gregg, such a brimming young life, lost randomly, abruptly. Hard for everyone connected to her, especially for you and for your daughter. Hugs.

  3. Jet says:

    Beth exasperated me, too. She was fierce, honest, strong, impatient and ruthless. She was a poet, an artist, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a teacher and a friend. I will miss her dearly yet I feel her with me, encouraging me to keep my heart open and cry. “Paint, love, cook, and laugh”. She was my cheerleader at times and my counselor. I was blessed to meet her.
    Yes, death stops us. Yes. That is a meditation all in itself. thank you for your writing.
    There is so much to say in tragedy and pain.

  4. Laura says:

    I heard the news about Beth while I was away, and now returning to the valley with spring tearing through, I think of Beth. Her birthday month-so like her. She couldn’t wait to get her feet in the garden where our best conversations took place. Yes, fierce is fitting-many times she scolded me, pushing me to cast off my people pleaser child-self, but she did it in love, like a good counselor. She always opened her table, relished that others relished her garden fare. So much will I miss of her: yoga in the yard, reading each other’s poetry(or thought fragments), day trips, business ideas. But mostly her love of beauty and stopping in her tracks to take pieces of it in. That was Beth. I’m stopping in my tracks now…to pause for her.

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