One of my husband’s co-workers died today. I didn’t know much about Stan other than what Larry has told me. But his passing left me as rattled as if he’d been a member of my own family.
I was on the way back from town when Larry called me, his voice shaking, to tell me he'd been performing CPR on Stan for the last 20 minutes. The paramedics had finally arrived, and as my husband poured out what had happened, I could hear shouts of "Clear!" in the background.
Larry said when Stan arrived for work, they had spoken briefly about their respective weekends. Then Larry had walked away. When he looked back a little later and didn't see Stan, he walked over and found him lying on his back, his eyes wide open. At first he thought it some sort of prank, but when Larry knelt and found Stan wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse, he knew it wasn't a joke.
Larry was trying to be optimistic as we talked. The paramedics told him he'd done everything right; they praised him for performing CPR so diligently. They said if he pulled through that would have made the difference. But despite everyone's best efforts, Stan wouldn't be revived.
The ambulances were just sitting there when I pulled up. No flashing lights, no activity. The stretcher sat idle in the back of one and Stan still lay under a sheet where he’d fallen, the toes of his tan work boots poking out at the end. His left arm, with a silver watch on the wrist, stuck out at the side. Larry was talking to a deputy, giving him what information he could. The deputy said he’d personally go and deliver the bad news to Stan’s wife.
I knew about as much about Stan’s wife as I knew about Stan. I knew she was a younger woman, a mail-order bride from the Philippines. I knew he was proud of her. Larry said he talked about her all the time. She'd just learned to drive and he was pleased about that. They had two little children.
I turned away and walked over to the group of paramedics. I yelled at my dad’s border collie, Reuben, who had gone over to nudge Stan’s hand. As Reuben slunk away, the paramedics agreed they should go ahead and bag the body, even though they couldn't move until it the coroner gave the O.K.
Stan didn’t look dead when they pulled the sheet off. He looked like a neglected patient. An intubation tube was still in his mouth, electrodes were still stuck to his chest. He wore khaki pants, a checkered shirt and a white T-shirt pushed up to his neck.
Having just gotten to work, Stan hadn’t had time to get dirty. His clothes were still clean and I imagined his wife washing that outfit a day or two before, carefully putting it away, so he could select it to wear this very morning. Neither of them knew as they touched those clothes that they’d be the last thing he’d ever put on.
It’s the seeming randomness of death of it that unnerves me so. Some people get advance notice. Others are just plucked from mortal existence. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re laying dead. Just like that.
On the way back to the car, Larry turned and hugged me - hard. I returned the hug, and while we didn’t say anything, we were thinking the same things. First, “Poor Stan, poor family” and second, that it could have just as easily been him in that body bag. Or me. It could have been our ordinary day interrupted by a county deputy come to give us the news that our loved one was lost forever.
I confided in a dear friend this morning how quickly death can upend one’s comfort zone. For some reason, I can’t stop thinking about Stan’s clothes. Donning them was part of a routine he had no idea was about to end. It made me acutely aware of my ordinary routines, and now I find myself eyeing my coffee cup with a certain unease; will this be my last morning coffee? Outside my window the rooster crows. Will I hear it again tomorrow?I have no way of knowing. I’m as clueless as Stan was this morning when he put on his checkered shirt.
But for now, I’m still alive. For now. And the death of a man I barely knew has thrown my life into sharper focus, making feel silly when I consider how I sometimes fritter portions of it away on petty distractions.
“I’ll do it tomorrow” is something I need to stop saying, because tomorrow might not come. I shouldn’t put off living and loving more deeply - and that includes finding in my heart a way to love people I don’t even like or hardly even know. For we all impact each other - we all teach - whether it’s by through word, gesture or - in the case of Stan - our last dying breath.
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