ulia had often wondered when this moment would come and how it would turn out to be. There had been plenty time to prepare herself and she could have arranged important matters for her loved ones, but she hadn’t. Like everyone else, she simply didn’t think about it as she got caught up in the drag of days that turned into months and into years. But now that the moment had come, it wasn’t that easy…
Death. The thing nobody spoke about. Back when she was little, Julia tried bringing it up at the dinner table by asking about her grand parents from father’s side who died in an accident before she was born. Mother and father then looked at each other, father gave a short reply and promptly asked her to pass the salt making it all to clear that the subject wasn’t open for discussion. Julia loved her father but he wasn’t an emotional type. He never said out loud that he loved her, which he did obviously but his love for her came through practical things and little moments of connection.
People seemed to keep quiet on the matter, appearing to swallow emotions as thinking about it would bring up old pain and trigger too much confusion. There wasn’t any time for that right? It would derail things. When it happened in a movie, her parents suddenly allowed themselves to cry about it. Emerged in the fictive story they forgot for a moment they were sitting safely on the couch in front of a screen. By the time the end titles set in, she noticed they always had these lost faces, which wasn’t just because of the half lit room they sat in.
Like with so many things, especially around the topic of death it seemed everyone carried around their own thoughts and emotions, which they tried to suppress and keep hidden. Julia fantasized everyone had a small box hidden under their beds in which they kept the emotions locked up. So much for a good night’s rest. She thought.
Tears were seen plenty at funerals. Close family members kept themselves strong with sometimes a sniff. Those who stood in front to say a speech, clearly struggled with their emotions as they stood there bending over the microphone, tightly holding onto a piece of paper with notes. With hazy eyes they stared at the audience but seemed not to see them. Julia saw how in their minds they replayed images of memories of the one that had passed. Well-chosen words were uttered with shaky voices.
On the last row a lady started to sob. “Drooping” mother called it, a description Julia found grose although it did seem those teardrops didn’t just come from the woman’s eyes. During most of the memorial Julia thought about the house that was left empty now that its owner died and she wondered how soon there would be a for sale sign in the garden. Such a strange idea that the new owners never even knew her neighbor who had spend his whole life there.
Julia also didn’t quite understand why during the funeral the crying lady was so upset as she and her neighbor weren’t even that close and normally she had never shown a sign of empathy. She wondered what it was that made her cry that much. The emotional music that would come after the speeches hadn’t even started yet. Maybe she was wrong to think like this but Julia wondered if maybe the drooping lady didn’t even cry for the loss of her neighbor but that possibly right there she was digesting a whole dose of her put-away emotions. But just as everyone did with their emotions, Julia kept those thoughts to herself.
In conversation people craftily avoided sensitive matters, hiding behind fake smiles and I’m-doing-great’s. Julia thought of how for some just one put-away box could never be enough once all those emotions piled up, they would need several big boxes. And to e able to keep it all under their bed a high sleeper bed seemed the smart solution. And couples sharing a king size, they could nicely share the space below…
After the neighbor from across the street passed away —which was just another way of saying he died— Julia’s Wednesday afternoons changed. From when she was six she would stay at his place every week when her parents were at work and they would play chess all afternoon. After he died she went to chess club but that wasn’t quite the same.
The only grandpa she still had was from mother’s side. But he lived on the other side of the country so she only saw him during the holidays and for his birthday. When he died mom and dad had a hard time dealing with it, while Julia was mainly concerned with the differences between being buried or cremated, as would happen with grandpa’s body. She once read in a magazine the exact temperature and time it would go in the oven so that only a clean skeleton would be left. A collection of bones with jewelry, a golden crown or even an artificial hip. The bone were then ground to fine grit and after an even hotter oven. The remaining ashes were put in a jar and given to the family who’d put it somewhere in the window sill or symbolically spread the contents out on a field if the deceased loved football or in the sea because he or she was fond of swimming.
Then there were the obituaries in the newspaper. A special page with ads through which people payed their respects. Julia would often check the page as it fascinated her to see what people wrote. There were messages like “We all saw it coming, but it took us by surprise.” or “We’ll always keep a spot reserved for ya.” Signed with Your drinking buddies. There was one that said; “I’ll never forget you… kiss from me and a lick from Kim.” Was one to assume that Kim was the dog?
These ads were usually about six by eight centimeters in size but sometimes that custom was completely ignored like the ad of a company where the deceased had been employed, which took over half of the page. As if they missed their colleague more than the newly widowed wife who’s ad was only a fifth of the size.
With her neighbor they had also seen it coming at the time. This was probably due to his high age and the four weeks he had been in the hospital after his stroke. So everyone knew it was time to say their goodbyes. As did his dog, Schubert.
Julia once saw in a comedy movie of how during a funeral the speakers were competing who had the most impressive and emotional speech at the ceremony, turning it into a strange sort of talent show.
Well fortunately, it wasn’t like that when her father died. At his memorial the stories were intimate and most personal. He was loved by many and from everywhere people had come to attend the ceremony and the auditorium was too small for the crowd so in the back people even had to stand. The last speaker was father’s best friend who had known him since first grade. Speaking slowly he vividly described some dear memories from their friendship which he had carefully prepared. With feelable enthusiasm in his voice, he explained what was so special about their bond. Julia felt her eyes welling up with tears as he quoted several statements of father that perfectly captured him. The day before the man told her that family had always mattered most to her father, and now he looked at her. As she looked back into his eyes, she realized that he had become an old man and chances were that soon someone else would be sharing similar stories about him. At that moment her throat squeezed and she started to sweat. Her gaze was drawn to the huge amount of flowers on the podium that covered the coffin with in it her father’s body.
Five days before that, Julia had been ringing the doorbell of her parents’ house and although she knew father had to be home he did not open the door. Armed with their neighbor’s spare key, she barged in a moment later. She saw the television was on in the living room. And there he was, laying down in his armchair. He had a happy smile on his face and it looked like he was asleep. She walked up to him and laid her hand on his shoulder. That felt different then usual, quite hard. Impulsively, she shook him back and forth but there was no response. On the coffee table was a bowl of nuts half eaten and a half-glass of wine.
Dead, deceased… This time not a neighbor, grandpa or a distant relative but her own dearest father. Throughout the memorial Julia’s mom sat beside her and held her hand and squeezed it tightly. She hardly made any eye contact with anyone these days, clearly trying to stay strong. Sometimes she’d quickly look at Julia giving her a little smile. Like Julia she didn’t at all realise that father was “gone”. It felt as if he could just be walking in at any moment. But the reality was that the breakfast table wouldn’t be made anymore when mother got up in the morning. Julia feared mother would isolate herself as she was getting infirm. So she was determined to visit her every weekend. During the week she would surely get visits from neighbors or friends but she knew that the moments in between, she would sometimes inevitably feel lonely.
“There is an attic where children are playing, there's a tree where the doves go to die…” The song echoes through the auditorium. Julia chose it. A tear slipped down her cheek as she remembered sitting on father’s shoulders as a child and how they danced through the living room on the melody of Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen. How hard and strange it had been to go on without him. But she was also grateful for all the beautiful memories she had with him. Memories of wonderful, valuable moments through which she, when closing her eyes or when listening to music, could instantly be with him again.
After the moving words and music, outside in cemetery the coffin was lowered into the ground. Then in a long cue everyone walked up to Julia and her mother and gave her a handshake or a kiss. Some hugged her and squeezed her tight. They wished her strength or said condolences. To Julia that was such a strange word as it ware so rarely used, so formal. Anyway despite the strangeness of the whole situation, those sincere wishes felt supporting.
Like chess club, Julia eventually got used to her father not being there anymore, or more accurately; that he was no longer alive. Because through stories, pictures and many unconscious little things he was still with her nearly every day. But his chair in the living room was empty. As a kind of tribute, mother had left it untouched and whenever she spoke of father, she gave a smile to the chair.
Julia wondered what would be said on her own funeral. Would they say “You were still so young.” Or “You died way too early.” ? Contrary to what was said at father's funeral about his score of over eighty years... Like so many things in the society in which Julia lived, long and much were perceived as better than short or few. It made her think of going on holidays. When once she announced she planned to go on travel for a year, her colleagues had looked at her with a big eye and said “Gosh what an awesome plan,” and someone said, “That will open your eyes to what else is out the in the world.” When one would say that he was going to the alps for three weeks from the summer, the response was something like “Wonderful, to get away from everything for a bit, and recharge.”
Predictably enough, in the case of a weekend trip the response was, “Well nice, a bit of a break to get your mind off things right?” Especially that bit reminded one that the it was only two days. Julia saw these things quite differently. To her a weekend had two nights and two days that could mean two-thousand eight-hundred and eighty minutes of relaxing full of sea air and sleeping in a delightful bed of a beautiful apartment. She thought of people who would spend three weeks holidaying abroad but stayed inside or in front of their caravan while they, like at home continued watching their same TV shows, peeling the potatoes their brought with them from home and judging other tourists that passed by in front of their encampment. Julia loved to make such comparisons.
But in how much time could someone achieve the title succeeded life? Which where the requirements to get that certificate? How could that be measured? By how much money you have on your bank account? By how much you traveled? Whether you’re in a relationship for over a decade? If you have children and how many? How far you climb up on the carrier ladder, or by how many friends you have?
Think about this list Julia couldn’t get around the sense of joy one derives from any of this. That ought to be on top of the list right? But how could that be measured as it’s entirely subjective. It’s sometimes said that a child in all its innocence is able to enjoy each moment of its child-life to the fullest. Then what could an age number say about the quality of it? Julia was determined she never wanted to lock up her difficult emotions in a box like that so the monster in it would attack her at night in her sleep. If something bothered he she didn’t suck it up. Whenever she felt anger or tears coming up she’d play herself a song that matched the mood and get it all out of her system even if that meant occasionally breaking something in the house of working her way through a box of tissues. That would make her feel so relieved.
One day Julia walked through the graveyard after she had trimmed the tree on her father’s grave and she looked at the inscriptions on the stones as she passed by them. She read the names, wishes and sweet greetings of husbands, wives, children and even parents. Numbers above the names told that the persons lying there got to live seventy, eighty-eight and even ninety-seven years. She wondered how it would be if her name would be written there. And, what if the numbers gave away that she had died on that very day? She had never thought about these things before, but then again how could one know when their time would come?
Julia’s eye got caught by a bird flying high up in the blue sky above her. There wasn’t a single cloud in sight. It was one of the first summer days of the year. A day when children immediately threw off their jackets while playing outside. It was Friday afternoon and Julia was free from work early. She wished everyone in the office a good weekend and took a little detour home to pass by the shop. Not suspecting a thing she crossed the corner and greeted someone she knew. Everyone in the streets walked around having the same smile on their face. She felt the sun glowing nicely warm in her back and she stopped for a moment to take off her coat and hung it over her shoulder.
She coughs and feels a strange goo in her mouth and immediately recognises the taste of blood. She groans as an unbearable pain shoots through the back of her head. She tries to turn look around, but somehow she can’t turn her head. She’s lying on her back and all she sees is the blue sky. She blinks against the light. Black, blue, black, blue…
The ground beneath her is hard. She wonders how she got there and given the headache she knows that something isn’t right. Suddenly she remembers the sunny Friday afternoon and how she had put her jacket over her shoulder. Again all turns dark and there’s again that intense headache.
Filled by the summer feeling she had walked out onto the street and without paying any attention she had left walked between parked cars and bluntly crossed the street towards the flower shop on the other side. After a few steps, she heard a voice calling her name. She stood still and turned her face to where it came from. But there was nobody looking at her in particular, only a mother with a stroller, a girl with large pink headphones and a couple of businessmen who looked like they were on their way to get a drink. Strange she thought and so shrugged her shoulders and continued her way to the flower stall. As she turned around there was a loud sound of a car horn. In a flash Julia looked up and saw the bumper of a big car coming straight at her. With a huge blow the car launched her several meters across the street. Then it was as if time stopped. Everyone around had heard the squeaking brakes and sound of the impact.
It turned out quite different then she imagined. When her time would come Julia had hoped that it would be a peaceful moment and that she would be holding the hand of her loved one sitting by her side. Then she would have looked across the room at the faces of her family and close friends and tell them how grateful she was for the life she had.
But she didn’t feel that warm hand and there was no family. She wasn’t lying in a nice bed but in the middle of the street in a puddle of blood. All she could see was the sky. Fortunately, by then the awful headache was gone and she didn’t feel any pain. She blinked her eyes again and a black shadow approached. It was hard to focus the image but then she saw it was a boy bending over her. He had a determined look on his face and sparkles his eyes. She couldn’t feel her body anymore, which strangely enough felt very light. Although she knew that it was no use, Julia admired the young man’s attempt to help her. He was busy talking on his phone, probably calling the emergency number. They did’t even know each other’s name but he seemed to care so much about her. It meant a great deal to see so much humanity at this moment. When the boy briefly looked at her head his face turned serious. He tried hiding it from her but Julia knew it didn’t look pretty up there. She heard the sound of her own breathing and when looked aside she could now see the asphalt she was lying on and feet that walked by and some stood still. In between the legs she spotted a little girl in the distance. She must have been about three years old and rode a little blue bike with white basket and shiny training wheels to keep her from falling. Not aware of any trouble, the tip of her tongue was sticking out of her mouth and focussed she clung to her steering wheel. It seemed to be the first time the girl was riding by herself. It took a lot some effort but then she managed to kick the pedals around. Slowly the bicycle moved and the girl’s face started to shine all over.
Julia had difficulty to open her eyes again and immediately they filled up with tears. She remembered reading once about a culture where things went very different if somebody had died. All residents would put on their most colorful clothes and they would parade through the street. To them death meant the completion of life and it was celebrated. The villagers carried the body of the deceased one on their shoulders while singing and dancing through the streets.
The faces of the people she loved flashed through her mind. Pictures of beautiful moments she shared with them. The tears rolled over her cheek. Again she saw the bird high up in the sky. Inaudibly it circled at great altitude across the blue sky. She realised how special it was to be alive. All the things she had seen and felt, and the people who had come on her path. Incredible how everything worked out. And as she lay there on the ground, with the sun in her face she got filled with a sense of joy and gratitude she had never felt before, and was fully aware that every day had been a gift. With the little girl still on her mind she stared at the blue sky and felt relieved. The sun shined in the corner of her eye and the bird disappeared in the rays of light. Julia got a big smile on her face, she was ready to let go and breathed in and out.