Sunday, October 01, 2006

Death and Greiving

My Uncle Donald Braun died. He was my dad’s identical twin. Monday, my half sister Rachel called and left a message, but my phone was dead. Tuesday I received a second phone call from Rachel, but I had been out cold calling while my phone recharged at my apartment. When I came back for lunch, I noticed several missed calls and new voicemail, so I checked my voicemail to see what was going on. Rachel had left a message saying that I needed to call because she had some bad news. My heart skipped a beat, and I knew something had happened to either my dad or Donald. I felt heat travel the surface of my skin from my head to my feet, and sweat formed immediately at my brow. I was hopping for someone being in hospital rather than the alternative. When the next voicemail was Dad calling from Rachel’s phone, I eliminated his death as an option. I was relieved but anxious and concerned; I needed to know what was going on. I often fear the worse, so I was hoping that my expectation would be alleviated and I would be told something serious, but not mortal. Rachel didn’t answer the first time I called, so I left a calm and happy message , hoping that my cheerfulness would improve whatever gloomy state of affairs was occurring. She called back quickly, and requested that I sit down, in the background I heard my dad ask if I was driving. I wasn’t driving, I was standing in the bathroom removing my earrings, but I obediently followed her request and found a seat at my dinning room table. The request and the seriousness of her voice gave away the situation. I knew she was going to tell me Donald was dead. She had already told me, just not in words. I didn’t gasp, I didn’t cry, I didn’t even feel all that particularly stunned, I felt like someone had told me they were going shopping at the mall. I didn’t have a reaction, my reaction was numbness. I asked the basic questions, “How did it happen? What’s happening now? Who is coming in? When are we meeting?” When the conversation was over, I closed my phone, set it in front of me, and stared into space. I tried to reflect, “How do I feel?” “Why do I not feel more?”
In high school, I would joke that I had a heart of stone; nothing could make me cry. Movies would make my eyes dampen, but tears didn’t dare go overboard, they went as far as the rim and stopped still in their tracks. I honestly thought something was wrong with me. My mother assured me that it was emotional stability, but I felt incomplete. I finally did cry, breaking my streak of over five years, my sophmore year when our two week theater camp came to a close. I was so happy at my tears, I almost reversed the flow that I was so happy about.
I would describe myself as a very sensitive and feeling person, so the fact that I did not feel an extreme loss, or much pain agitated my inner conscious. I am a woman of many emotions, but the death of an uncle wasn’t moving me. Instead of pain, I felt guilt.
The rest of Monday disturbed me very little, although something felt remiss. Tuesday was different. I didn’t want to join the world of the walking. My bed was my haven, the covers my protectors, the world my predator. I had a strong pull towards my most frustrating character flaw, avoidance, and it had more strength on it’s side of the tug-a-war game than I had in opposition. I was sad; I felt something. My reaction was not tears, but avoidance, but though it wasn’t much, it was something.
While I was Italy, I had received notice that Donald had fallen ill, been hospitalized and diagnosed with lymphoma. I was told not to worry, because although serious, it was treatable and not terminal. It was a type of cancer of the blood that had no cure, but wouldn’t kill him as long as he continued his treatments. He had been treated in San Antonio, so Dad could be near. He moved in with Dad and his health started a steady increase towards the happy end of the spectrum of health. It then leveled off, and he still struggled with fatigue and walking without a cane. He moved back into his apartment in Austin with the notion that he would clean it out, take his valuables, move back to San Antonio, and when his health improved they would travel around the country in an RV. Donald had been in his apartment for a couple of months, making little progress. My dad called him one day as usual, but Donald didn’t answer. After several days of trying without response, he called Rachel to visit Donald to make sure everything was all right. He had already been dead 10-12 days when she found him. An autopsy was difficult because the condition of the body. His death certificate states lymphoma as the cause of death, but the family believes it was something linked with his upsurge of fatigue.
The service was very true to Donald, held outdoors at McKinney Falls State Park, with trickling water as the background music. Standing under a tree, we prayed, told stories and comforted one another on such a tragic loss. Standing in a circle, facing the other members of the Braun Family, listening to Donald’s life story told in 10 minutes, I came to a realization; I didn’t know Donald. I had been on family vacations with him, gone camping with him, had many a dinner with him, and laughed with him, but I didn’t know him. These are the things I knew about Donald; Donald was the most gentle soul of the Braun Family. He was the protector of his younger sister, and always tried his best to take care of her. He was kind hearted and always had nice things to say. Of the twins he was the more optimistic. He lived by himself in Hyde Park Austin in a tiny, cramped apartment full of junk (or his collections, whichever you please). Despite his clutter, he always added to a conversation. He was well read and knowledgeable and had a great laugh. He had been married and divorced once, but didn’t have children. An ultimate bachelor, he was slowly attempting to move out of his apartment to move in with his twin and ultimately travel around the country, if his health improved. I knew that I liked him and enjoyed his company, but I didn’t know very much about who he was.
Through the stories, I learned that the Donald I didn’t know, I would have liked even better than the Donald I already liked. I learned he loved critters, bugs, amphibians, mammals, all animals intrigued and fascinated Donald. He had a peace and gentleness about him that comforted animals so they didn’t fear him. He had joined the airforce for four years, mudlogged in Alaska, and his last position was a supervisor at a Metal health facility. One co-worker showed, and told stories about Donald as a professional. She said he was the most patient man she had ever encountered. The patients often cursed and fought with the supervisors, but Donald always kept his cool and didn’t take his frustration out on the patients. He was a favorite among the nurses because of his sweet nature.
I have now attended several funerals, experienced many deaths, and each time I come away thinking, I wish I knew them better. How is it that these people that have died before me, whom I have spent a great deal of time with, slip away without me really knowing who they are. My great uncle Vance, my great uncle Floyd, my great grandma, and my grandpa are all loved ones who have died recently. They are family but somehow I missed something. I missed their life history, what made them tick, how they came to be who they were in life. I know that it is hard to get to know people fully, but maybe we should try harder, maybe I should try harder. Their lives are important and should be preserved if not on paper but in our memories and actions. We are all connected to one another, and the more we know and share about one another the more enriched our lives will be.


Rachael said...

That's beautiful Vanessa. *wipes a tear* *or a dozen*


Pamela Braun said...

Vanessa, what a wonderful tribute to my dear brother and protector. And a lovely reflection of you and your growing depth. May we both learn to take every opportunity to connect with those we love. Thank you. Pam

Kimberly said...

That was really sweet Vanessa. I love how you take a positive and caring slant to things. Love, Kimberly