The night my father died, I sat at his bedside with my mom and sisters. My husband William was home watching our toddler. After Dad passed, I made a whispered call to him. It was finally over.
Later, over a glass of wine at the kitchen table, William and I spoke softly of death's practicalities—mortuary appointments, caterers, phone calls that needed to be made.
Our daughter Sarah appeared in the doorway. A good sleeper, she never woke up during the night. But yet here she stood, her long hair tangled, her eyes wide.
"What's wrong, sweetheart? Can't you sleep?"
She climbed into my lap. "Grandpa was here," she said.
My husband and I glanced at each other.
"Grandpa was in your room?
She nodded. We went with it, not wanting to scare or confuse her.
"Did you talk to him?
"Yes," she said.
"What did he say?"
"He said bye."
Sarah was 2 1/2 years old—too young to understand death even if she had overheard our conversation, which was impossible because her bedroom was too far from the kitchen.
My dad was crazy in love with his first grandchild. She was his honeybunch and little buddy. He saw her every day the last two years of his life. It was inconceivable he would leave without saying goodbye.
I believed her.
My dad hung around a lot those first few months after his death. While writing his eulogy, the lights in my office flickered on and off. I checked for loose bulbs, electrical plugs and wires. I found none. While driving, my car would suddenly fill with the smell of cigar smoke. Even with the windows open. This happened several times. And one day while pushing Sarah up the street in her stroller, I noticed a man out of the corner of my eye watching us in the distance. He had dark hair and a medium build. I turned for a better look knowing he would disappear. He did.
Nine months later, when my mom was dying of breast cancer, he came to her twice—once loitering in the doorway of her hospital room and once at home.
"I told him to leave me alone. I'm not ready yet," she said.
Grabbing a quick nap on her sofa a few hours before she died, she came to me, a disembodied head, and said, "I don't want to leave you kids."
It wasn't a dream.
After her death, she visited us. The room would fill with the scent of her perfume and the bed would creak when she sat with my sisters and me. Sometimes we'd feel the weight of her body stretch out across us, something she loved doing when she was alive and we messed around like teenagers.
I come from a large Italian family. I'm no stranger to death. We had a running joke—"Which is it this weekend? A wedding or a funeral?" But I managed to breeze through most of my life ignoring the reality of my own death. This is probably true for most of us yet still it took me by surprise.
I am going to die.
When I turned 60, I realized if I died at my mom's age I'd only have a few more years to live. Even though my annual mammogram was normal, I bullied my doctor for a diagnostic mammo and then an ultrasound. Free of breast cancer, my attention turned to periodontal disease—bleeding gums, infection and tooth loss—then to heart disease and cancer. I saw my organs being devoured—liver, bladder, kidneys and pancreas—ravaged and unworkable. I drove everyone crazy, including myself.
Then my best friend died.
Holly's breast cancer had been in remission for over 10 years. But when it came back it came back hard. She was dead in six months.
A week after her death, I was in the dentist's chair thinking of her when an obscure song by the group Love—from their "Forever Changes" album released in 1967—filled the room. The music of Love is dreamy and magical and my go to playlist when I feel stressed or overwhelmed. It was odd to hear this old song on a mainstream radio station but I chalked it off to coincidence.
A few days later while watering my vegetable garden, something Holly and I spent hours talking about—our gardens—I heard the song again. I listened, trying to figure out where it was coming from until I realized I'd never figure it out because it came from nowhere.
This is the time and life that I am living
And I'll face each day with a smile
For the time that I've been given's such a little while
And the things that I must do consist of more than style
There are places that I am going
This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that's all that lives is gonna die
And there'll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello, there will be good-bye
On my 40th birthday, two years after my parents died, I spent a sad day wishing they were alive and we could celebrate it together. Sometime in the late afternoon, the doorbell rang and a courier handed me a box of flowers. They were from Forest Lawn Cemetery. Odd because their florist only arranges flowers for the funerals held there. They don't deliver. Yet here was a box of yellow roses (one of my mom's favorites) on my doorstep with no card. It remains a mystery how those flowers made their way to me. But both my parents are buried at Forest Lawn.
On Valentine's Day, a year after my brother killed himself, my sister still suffered from his loss. That morning, she took a hot shower. The steam from her bathroom fogged up her bedroom windows. In the condensation, someone had drawn a heart and the letter "u"—LOVE U. There was no one in the house except her cat.
A few years later, Sarah, now eight, had a swimming lesson. At the end of her lane, a man watched. He had dark hair and a medium build. She sprinted to him but when she got there, he was gone.
How can I ever be afraid again?