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Blurring the edges between life and death

by Debra Hale-Shelton | March 15, 2020 at 1:53 a.m.

Sometimes the hardest memories are the most important ones, for time has an uncanny way of putting life and death in perspective.

In the present, there is no cushion of time between celebration and eulogy, right and wrong, good and evil. The painful death we mourned last week may have opened the door to another life, perhaps a better one. The divorce that ended in a sterile, sharply divided courtroom may have opened minds and hearts to new loves, adventures, maybe peace or reconciliation.

Consider the ring. It's been 10, maybe 11 or 12 years since I lost it--a platinum circle with a single large diamond. It was my engagement ring, later accompanied by a more humble silver wedding band.

At first I fretted over the lost ring, which I had worn since March 29, 1997, the night my husband proposed. The diamond had been part of an even grander ring that once belonged to my father-in-law's mother--the kind of woman who had family dinners where the men wore tuxedos and the women wore their country-club finest.

The in-laws even had the ring appraised before I wore it: $10,000, they said. I neither had nor have any reason to question them.

I remember the day I realized the ring was missing. I was getting ready for work and couldn't find it. I thought perhaps I had dropped it and it had rolled beneath a lacquered chest my husband's grandmother bought in Japan long ago. I looked for the ring, but not that hard.

Months later. I moved the heavy chest to see if it might have landed there. It had not.

I never saw the ring again. I told my husband, who didn't seem too concerned for a man who once hoarded collectible coins. I never mentioned it again to him or his family, nor they to me.

I had planned to leave the ring to my daughter, though she was too young to care when it vanished. Since then she's become somewhat of a minimalist, opting for more modest jewelry.

By contrast, my silver wedding band cost a mere $100 and was engraved with a message from my husband, just as the one I gave him was engraved with a message from me. He wore his ring maybe once or twice. I wore mine routinely at first, but removed it without hesitation when it was uncomfortable and later tossed it into a dresser drawer, where it has sat for years. I've rarely worn it since.

Perhaps I should have looked harder for the engagement ring. But all these years later, the diamond and the platinum mean nothing to me, other than perhaps they'd have helped pay for my daughter's college education.

For by the time a marriage is broken, shattered like a diamond over and over, a ring means nothing other than what might have been and maybe never was.

Coping with the harshest signs of aging--in both of my parents and now myself--once haunted me but now consoles me. I can now see not only what might have been but what thankfully never was. Once I mourned only the loss of youth, but now I celebrate the peace, gratitude and an unfettered acceptance of all life has to offer.

It was about two years ago, for example, that I rang the doorbell to my parents' apartment and Daddy opened it. Still wearing pajamas and barefoot, he was sitting on the storage part of his walker. Bent over slightly, he swept a few shards of glass into a dust pan. Dried blood covered his bald head.

"What happened?" I asked.

"I fell during the night. I'm OK. It's not a bad cut."

Broken glass and blood were in every direction--on the kitchen, hallway and bathroom floors.

"You go in there, and I'll clean it up," I said.

I found a mop but hadn't used it yet when Daddy walked back toward the kitchen to warm his coffee in the microwave.

Mama then walked into the kitchen. She, too, was barefoot, but didn't seem surprised by the blood and glass.

Daddy reached for his coffee in the microwave. He dropped the cup, and the coffee mixed in with the blood.

I told Mama and Daddy to please go to the other room and let me clean the kitchen. "You need to put some shoes on with all this glass," I said.

But to them, I was the child daring to tell them what to do. Mama was 87. Daddy was weeks shy of his 90th birthday, a couple years shy of death.

Daddy warmed up another cup of coffee. I held it so it wouldn't spill. He then went to the living room and sat down. By now Mama had put on shoes and had taken Daddy a bowl of cornflakes.

"Bring me a banana," he said.

I called my sister and asked her to take Daddy to the doctor while I cleaned the floors. Mama washed the blood off his head. No longer did it look so scary.

Soon, the floors were clean and glass-free, as best I could tell.

Daddy headed back to the kitchen, and I feared he would slip on the wet floor. He wouldn't listen and kept walking.

"You're going to fall, break your hip and end up in a nursing home. I know you don't want that," I said.

I didn't either. I'm still haunted by my grandmother's pleas for me to get her out of the nursing home, to pull her out of the ice bath intended to lower her fever in the hours before her death.

Daddy mumbled something I couldn't understand. About that time, my sister arrived, and they left together.

I sat down and visited with Mama.

I'm afraid, Mama said. I'm afraid he's going to have a wreck and hurt someone. I'm afraid he's going to burn up the house when he's trying to cook.

When he got home that evening, he went to bed and slept through the night.

I called him the next morning. He was far more lucid. "Are you at home?" I asked.

"No, but I'm headed there," he said.

I closed my eyes. I'd hoped for a different answer.

That afternoon, I went to check on him and Mama. Daddy was his usual self, griping about President Trump and reading parts of the daily newspaper aloud.

I walked into the kitchen and glanced at the stove. A copper pot was on a front burner that hadn't been turned off. The pot was dry except for a layer of black ashes. I turned the stove off and threw the ruined pot away.

Daddy said he'd been making coffee in it. I suggested he use their coffeemaker.

"It doesn't get the coffee hot enough," he mumbled.

I visited a bit longer. As I left, I said, "Stay away from the stove for a few days." He and Mama both laughed.

I closed my eyes to life, death and the memories in between.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 03/15/2020

Print Headline: Blurring the edges between life and death

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