At the start of the pandemic, we’d go walking around the neighborhood in the evenings. When we got a dog that summer, we’d take him for walks through the streets, past houses with people we didn’t know. We’d take different paths on our walks, and one of the paths we took would carry us down a hill past a white home that sat on the right. I always thought the house was cute, and I always wondered who lived there. A few months later, I’d find out whose house it was.
Right before the pandemic, in fact the month before our “lockdown,” my daughter and I acted in a play at our local community theater. During the rehearsals we met John Preece, a local actor who starred as Teyve in the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, performing as Teyve over 1,700 times and performing in the play over 3,000 times. We had just moved to the region, and this was our first play at the theater, but Preece had been there his whole life, working with the theater since he stopped touring. He would offer advice and encouragement to the actors, specifically my daughter since it was her first real acting experience.
That was February 2020. In March, everything shut down because of the pandemic. We didn’t go back to the theater for a while, and even my daughter’s summer show got postponed. Come January 2021, tributes to Preece started showing up on my social media. He passed away two days shy of his 73rd birthday on January 19, 2021. He had contracted COVID and was in the hospital for a while. He was discharged, and he went home. A few days after he returned home, someone went to check on him and found him dead from COVID.
When the news broke, we discovered that Preece lived in the house we always walked past, the white one at the bottom of the hill. When I walked my dog by the house that January, he may have been there, dead, and I didn’t even know it. We had lived in our house for fifteen months, and we had no clue he lived around the corner. If we had known, we would have checked in on him, brought him stuff, made sure he was ok. But, we didn’t know, and that mere fact haunts me to this day because now, as I sit back in the house where I grew up as my mother lives out her final days I’m reminded of the importance of community during these moments.
I sit here and see my dad take care of the person he has loved for over fifty years, letting her know everything will be ok as family and friends come and go. I see him sit and hold her hand, and I think back to his parents and his father’s last stint in the hospital. My grandparents were married over fifty years, like my parents, and while I have many memories of them, one image remains etched in my mind. I recall sitting in the hospital room one day, my grandmother sitting on the bed with my grandfather. She sat there, cradling his head in her arms as she stroked his forehead. She kept saying, “I love you, baby.”
Today, my dad does the same thing, sitting with my mom, leaning over the bed that’s set up in the living room, rubbing her forehead or holding her hand saying, “I love you, baby.”
After he retired, my dad volunteered with hospice, visiting patients and sitting with them as they confronted death. As we sat in the living room, with my mom’s brother, as the oxygen machine steadily droned out a consistent rhythm, he told us about a couple that he visited when he volunteered. The woman was at home in hospice, and the husband took care of her. No one came to see them. The husband didn’t know how to balance a checkbook. Didn’t know how to pay bills. Didn’t know how to cook. Didn’t clean the house. His focus was on his wife.
My dad talked about sitting with the man, helping him pay bills and balance the checkbook. He talked about helping the man dig up a shrub in his backyard. He talked about being there for the man because no one else was there with him or his wife at that moment. His wife wasn’t alone, as John Preece was, but they were alone, without anyone to lean on for support and encouragement. They faced death alone, and I don’t know when it came, but I imagine that it came with him there by her side, probably holding her hand as she passed on.
I think about these moments, the moments we encounter when we come face to face with death, the death that we know is imminent, the death we sit around and wait for, hoping it will stay away for just a little while longer. I think about being alone at the end, not having my wife or kids or friends by my side or me being by their sides. The scary feeling of knowing it’s coming and knowing that no one will be there when it appears.
I think about all of this, and I think, as well, that death is love. My grandparents showed me that death is love. I don’t know if they knew that I saw this moment. I don’t know if they even cared. What they cared about was each other, and what my grandmother cared about was being there for someone she loved deeply, someone she had spent more that fifty years of her life with, someone she could not live without.
At this moment, I think about the same thing with my dad. He knows people are here, and he is thankful for every bit of help that he has. His focus, though, is on my mom, helping her to feel comfortable as she transitions. He is like my grandmother, wrestling with the knowledge that the woman he has spent over fifty years of his life with will soon be gone, physically. He holds her hand and tells her he loves her, not knowing how many more times she will hear him.
When I reflect on these moments, I can’t help but think that death, in these moments, is love. It’s the epitomization of selfless and unconditional love, seeking to serve someone else and help them feel as comfortable as possible. Everyone deserves such a culmination to their life, to experience the love of a life well lived, a life that connected and impacted others. Death is love.