I started this year on a beach in Maui where I watched a man die. I’ve never seen someone die. It was early in the morning and the beach was mostly empty save for the hotel staff setting up umbrellas and chairs and pulling out stand up paddle boards and kayaks. I had finished my run and sat drinking coffee, listening to the waves. He walked out of the water, wearing scuba gear, leaning on a woman who walked next to him. He paused every few steps as if catching his breath. He was tall and thin with a full head of white hair – handsome. I looked out to the water behind him and saw a group of 7 or 8 people watching him make his way to the beach. They too were in scuba gear. The hotel took people on shallow dives around the reef. I couldn’t tell if they were beginning their dive or ending.
When the man and the woman made it to the sand things began to happen quickly. The woman called for a chair. Someone carried it down. She stood in front of him as he lowered his head to his knees. She rubbed her hand up and down his back I could hear her telling him to breathe. And then he sat up suddenly and just as suddenly lay back and I couldn’t see him any more and there was yelling and people crowding around the chair. I stood and looked up and down the beach, hoping a doctor would appear, some kind of medical personnel, anyone. One of the young men who worked on the beach sprinted towards the hotel. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone run as fast. It seemed hours before the paramedics arrived, all the while the paddle board instructor performed CPR and the man’s son called, pleaded, “Breathe, Dad, just breathe.”
Daughter 2.0 said to me two days ago that up until this year she only knew one person who had died, her great grandmother, Mama Nona. And now it’s only April and and she knows 5 people, close and not so close, who have died this year. It made me think of that man on the beach and how near death has felt. Our friend from my Husband’s law school years, the one we haven’t kept in good touch with, but the one who, along with his wife, became for me and my Husband family in Chicago. He had a heart attack in February while on a business trip. He was 50. My Husband’s Aunt’s longtime partner later in February, as well as the father-in-law of my friend, grandfather of my girls’ friends from swim and gymnastics classes, whom we all called Grandpa Bruce. He was 80 years old. In March my Husband’s cousin’s wife who quietly lived for years with cancer and who was so incredibly full of light and life. She was 32. And just Saturday, Daughter 1.0’s classmate since 4th grade, a challenging, outspoken, larger than life girl. She was two days away from her 18th birthday.
How do you talk to your children about death? I had such a phobia growing up sometimes I couldn’t sleep. The thought of nothing but nothing, of no longer existing, was so huge I could feel it crushing my chest, turning my insides to liquid and making my head so hot I just wanted to run. I don’t know how my daughters feel about death. I don’t know if it scares them. Maybe I’m still afraid to talk about it, to consider it too closely. With this last death they have talked about how weird it is, the thought that their classmate is no longer here, will never be here again. It doesn’t seem real.
Much has been said and written about how we as a culture keep death at arm’s length. In other cultures death is as much a part of people’s experience as birth. People die in their own homes and regular people deal with dead bodies. We don’t see bodies except after they have been cleaned and dressed and made up to look like they are sleeping. When my Grandpa died someone said to my Grandma that he looked good, peaceful, lying there in his coffin. She turned to the person and said “He looks dead!” And he did. He was.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this. I just know it’s weighing on me, all the death. And it’s been weighing on my empathic Daughter 2.0. I suppose what we learn is to embrace the moments we do have when we see how easily the wrong step or mutated cell can change everything. We remember, for a time, and then we go back to forgetting, to rushing, to taking for granted. And aren’t we all so very lucky, to be able to take it for granted? Just breathe.
We needed comfort food last night. The winter here in San Francisco was incredibly warm, spring not so much. It was a cold and dreary 4/20. I made us brown rice jambalaya. I’d never tried it with brown rice before, but it worked great. In fact, I think I prefer it to white rice.
Brown Rice Jambalaya
3 small yellow onions peeled and chopped
2 red bell peppers seeded and chopped
1/2 cup canola oil
1 pound andouille sausage (the smoked, fully cooked kind) sliced on an angle
1 1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into chunks
3 cups short grain brown rice
3 bay leaves
6 cups water
Chopped green onion
Heat the canola oil in a heavy dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and peppers and about 1 teaspoon each of salt and cayenne pepper. Allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until well caramelized. Scrape the brown bits from the side and bottom of the pan while cooking. This should take about 10 – 15 minutes. Add the sausage and continue to cook for 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Season the chicken with about a teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the cayenne pepper and add to the pot, again stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked, about 10 minutes. Add the rice and the bay leaves and stir until well combined, then add the water and cover the pot. Cook for 45 minutes covered. Check the pot and if there is still liquid (there was in my pot) leave the cover off and turn the heat up until the liquid has boiled away. Do not stir! My Husband’s favorite part if the blackened bits of rice at the bottom of the pan. Turn off the heat and stir in the green onions and serve with your favorite hot sauce.