Marsha Owens :: As Though We Had Choices ::

Creative Non-FictionEssays

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born in Richmond, VA, I’ve made it my forever home. My paternal grandpa was a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay, and to this day, I’m a seafood snob. I married an ex-Amishman to whom all things Southern must be carefully explained. He doesn’t hold chairs for ladies or scurry to open doors. But he is a fine gentleman nevertheless. I’m most proud to say that I survived teaching middle school English for eighteen years.

As Though We Had Choices

My friend died last night. 

No one told me how hard this would be, but my psyche should’ve warned me. 

When I was six, my mother died suddenly, and I’d like to say that now, after decades have passed, I better understand  the finality of death—but that wouldn’t be true. I’ve spent a lifetime processing the mystery of it all, yet it seems I’ve learned nothing, still find myself struggling again and again with death’s unkind tendency to arrive unannounced. I learned too soon what death looked like, smelled like, felt its unconcerned presence wrap itself around my thin shoulders as I stood on tiptoe to see my Mother lying in the casket, not knowing she would never tie my shoes again or play in the sand with me at the river, but I wondered  if, when I die, would I see the tears of friends and family, my own body in a casket wearing a blue dress? Would I hear organ music playing How Great Thou Art and birds singing outside? I hoped somebody would read Mary Oliver’s poem, The Uses of Sorrow.

I walked outside this morning and thoughts of my childhood friend were intense, suggesting that I be like my ancestors, the English, and keep “a stiff upper lip.” Not possible today, I say to no one, still I wonder what it must be like to be dead—you know, to NOT be standing or walking, to not feel the chill of winter swirl around, and without permission, my heart seems to have run off today with my friend of almost seventy years. 

So it’s the memories that step up now. Years ago, in her summer yard, she and I played pretend, ‘Miss America,’ made paper crowns, and in our make-believe pageant, no one had to choose because we were both ‘Miss America.’ It seemed a short distance from that summer day of make-believe to our junior year in high school when our friend, Fred, driving too fast, flew out the window of his car. And even though my Mother’s death came suddenly when I was only six years old, it was Fred’s funeral that taught me what I couldn’t comprehend decades before from my Mother’s funeral—the  finality of the casket. 

And I wonder will my cat grieve my absence?  I think not. She will be content in the not knowing and suspect I’ve only gone to get her more food. 

Sometimes now  I sit alone in the evening, remembering my friend’s call  that night as I was driving at dusk, and I said,  just hold on ‘til I pull over. We talked for a few minutes, made plans for me to come see her over the weekend, asked each other how are you, the kids/grandkids, more chit chat, nothing very memorable, and I think I asked again, how was your day? Her response, Not so bad. I’m in the living room now. It’s comfortable. 

About two hours later that evening, I got the phone call from her husband to tell me that after we spoke on the phone, connecting and remembering and looking forward to another day, she passed away, ‘peacefully,’ he said. And as I reflect now on our last conversation, somehow, I think she may have known. . .she was always smarter than I.