Wars, natural disasters, murder, old age, cancer. People die every day. Thousands of them. Every day. The difference today is that I was there.
It did not make a difference to Dave. He was not even aware that I was there. By the time I saw him he could not see me.
I have known Dave for at least 20 years. We were not close though I knew him well enough to know that he was a really good guy and a good man. We are not connected so much by work, though his death started in our office just feet from where I sit, but through other connections. A million years ago he dated a woman I worked with that was a friend. Later he married my close friend’s sister. I have known her since we were little kids. It is often strange the web of connections that binds two people.
It still feels like a dream or a sad movie. It can’t be real. He was just here. He just turned 50. Five years younger than me. On Sunday he watched his eldest child, a son, graduate from high school. Monday morning he went to his youngest child’s rehearsal for graduation from middle school. Because he had missed part of the morning he came to our office instead of the one at which he normally works. Our office is closer to his home than his real office 20 miles away. He walked in and waved to people he knew as he went to the guest office. He never made it in.
I heard the thud from my desk. I heard someone ask him if he was OK. I heard that question again a moment later and I ran out to see what was happening. Dave had fallen to his knees. A cubical wall kept him from falling forward. I saw his face.
The look on his faced is etched forever in my memory. Eyes wide open. Glassy stare. Lips apart. Still breathing but labored. Not responding to our voices. Nothingness.
Call 911! Get the Security people up here now! She called immediately. And again. Where were they?
Trying to figure out what to do. Someone slipped his briefcase off his shoulder. We got him lying down. He still was breathing but did not respond to our voices. His face was turning red. None of us knew what to do. I felt so helpless.
Fortunately people came who seemed to know what to do until the paramedics arrived. They gave CPR and used a defibrillator. Finally after what was probably only a few more minutes but seemed like a lifetime the paramedics arrived. They worked on him for 40 minutes or more. We were asked to stay back so I could not tell how he was doing. I alternated between not wanted to watch and needing to get a clue as to how he was doing. All of this nightmare would go away if he just came out of this OK. He had to. But he didn’t.
While waiting we looked at each other. Dave’s wife had been called. We agreed on who would follow the ambulance to the hospital. I would stay behind with the team. About 15 of my people were there when it was happening. Someone needed to tend to them as well.
They were still doing CPR when they took him away which I took as a bad sign. Over the next hours I only had hope because I had not heard otherwise. Then the call I did not want to answer came.
I did not and still do not know what to feel…or more accurately how I feel. I learned from my mom’s death that death is strange. It only is the end for the one who dies. The rest of us need to go on. Her death was the only other one I had witnessed but in her case she had been ill for quite some time and we knew it was coming.
So I am sad, numb and feeling very mortal. Sad for losing a guy I knew and liked. Sad for his wife who I have known and liked forever. Sad for his children. Sad for all who loved him and called him friend. Sad for Dave. He will not be here to witness all of the future events of his three children. Numb. I have started to cry at least a dozen times. Started but have not yet bawled. Why is that? Am I not sad enough? Am I not sensitive enough? Shouldn’t I be crying? Isn’t that what we are SUPPOSED TO DO when someone dies. Crazy the thoughts in your head at times like these. Crazier what people say.
First, you should know that I have a high tolerance for any and all reactions when people are sick or have died. No one knows how to act. There is no etiquette. We all grieve in our own way. There is no right or wrong. So the things I am about to share are not meant as a critique but just the craziness of dealing with tragedy.
Let’s start the “what stupid things people say in these times” with me. At some point while he was still on the ground with the paramedics I turned to the next guy and said something to the effect of “I could have gone my whole life without seeing something like this.” Wow. How selfish and thoughtless. Here he was fighting for his life and I was thinking about how it impacted me. As the saying goes, “It is not about you”, meaning me. Again the craziness of the moment. Because in some sense it was not about him. The dead need no sympathy. They no longer care what you think or say. It was however, about his wife, his children, his close extended family and a long list of people before it was about me.
But what can you say. As we were waiting for the news from the hospital many people asked me if I was OK. Of course I understand they are only trying to be empathetic and anyways what else could you ask. But am I OK? AM I OK? Hell no I am not OK. I am anything but OK. And yet I thank them for there concern and tell them I am fine because that is what you do.
One colleague came rushing in. He had been by before when the event was first unfolding and now it was between the time they took Dave to the hospital and THE CALL. He sincerely asked that I inform him when we know what happened…and then he reminded me that we will need to get together soon to discuss some client thing. Really. You had to throw that in. Now? But as I said I believe we should be tolerant of any reaction in these circumstances and I mean it.
How should we feel? What should we say? What should we do?
I gathered my work people together after they took him to the hospital and told them that however they need to deal with what happened they should. Most of my people did not know him well if at all but they had been there. I told them to work if staying busy helped or to take a moment, an hour or a day. Most people stayed. I stayed to watch over them.
So now I have shared on a miniscule scale what people in war, first responders and doctors in hospitals see every day. Death is not pretty. It is not what you see in movies and on TV. This was not made up, it was real life. Real Death.
I said I felt mortal. Dave had recently had an echo cardiogram. One of the more sophisticated tests to check your heart and arteries. He was told he was fine. I had one six months ago and was told I am fine. But the docs really don’t know do they? One paternal uncle died of a massive heart attack in his early 60s. I am about to be 55. Another uncle has survived 3 heart attacks. What me worry? (This part is all about me.)
Tomorrow we go on and sort out what this means. One of my bosses mentioned how this puts things in perspective. But what is that perspective? Do we do anything differently tomorrow? Do I? One person at work already resigned from her management role because she decided it was not worth the stress. I tend to be a one foot in front of the other kind of guy. I will go on. Do I change my life?
I have already been exercising more and trying to lose the extra pounds. I will continue though not because of today.
I will try to enjoy my life more and stress out less but change is hard. Maybe I take a year off and go climb a mountain. Maybe.
I am still working out what life means after watching a man die.