I remember my first counseling session ever. I was scared out of my mind and thought, “Well, I’m officially crazy.” as I sat and looked around the waiting room. My phone conversation to set up the appointment had gone well enough and I kept praying the woman at the other end of the line didn’t think I was too crazy. After asking me some questions, I got set up with a counselor that met the criteria I was hoping for: young, had a spark, female, and casual, not afraid of my potty mouth. Now, here I sat staring at the books and magazines laid out in the small waiting room. Her office was tucked in the corner of a church which was comforting at the time I scheduled it but annoying by the time I got there to wait for my appointment. I heard muffled chatting inside the office and thought it was strange that I could kind of hear some laughter. Don’t people cry or something at these things? I sat, hugging my purse for dear life, and the other woman finally left. Shortly after, a woman with short, curly blonde hair poked her friendly face out and flashed a smile. She invited me in and it was like I had no choice but to follow. I sat down on a couch opposite of her and twitched occasionally, unsure of how I was supposed to sit. She was comforting and told me I could sit however I want and that there weren’t restrictions on what I wanted to talk about. I tried to do the formal dance to come off as sane or whatever I thought she wanted, but soon, I had my feet curled under me comfortably, F bombs cushioning every other word, and I was lost in my own world of stories and trauma. I found myself trusting this woman so quickly and that room became a refuge. I cried, I laughed, I cursed, I was confused, I was lost and found in that room. Counseling wasn’t just for crazy people, it was for those who needed a little guidance and someone to simply listen. The world talks so often and so loud that it’s easy to get drowned out and soon, there’s no point in trying. I found my place to share my voice in the corner of that church.
Now, I feel like I should be sitting in another waiting room. This time, I’m not waiting to share my life story and be comfortable. This time, I’m angry. I don’t have my purse or anything besides myself. My knuckles nearly rip my skin open as my fingers clutch tightly onto the armrests on either side of me. My vision is clouded with white spots as I forget how to breathe. I hear shallow pants occasionally that escape my lips and my mind is flooded with rage, confusion, and fifty other emotions I can’t name. Tears occasionally slip from either eye but I continue to stare ahead, letting them pool underneath me. These jeans have to be washed anyway. I feel like I should be sitting in the waiting room, waiting for an appointment with Death. He’s not whisking me away to the other side, I just want to talk to him. Or yell at him. I don’t know what emotion is going to come bursting through when I see that smug face. I might put a fist through his expression and laugh and dare him to come take me to the other side. I’m terrified of losing this precious life but the rage can be all consuming. Naturally, I’d be the only person in the waiting room; Death doesn’t get many visitors, he’s not exactly Time’s person of the year. I glance around the room. The walls are blank, the chairs are bland, and the carpet looks like it was puked on several times and left that way. Finally, it’s my turn to go into the office. I see the door swing open and I lift myself from my seat, feeling slightly dizzy as the blood races to my feet, and compose myself enough to enter the room. To my surprise, Death is simply sitting, staring at what must’ve been an exasperated face, and has no smug expression. My fists relax a bit when I see him gesture to a seat next to him. I would’ve thought there’d be a desk between us but today, there’s not; it seems like we’re two friends sitting next to each other, catching up. Today, I feel like I’m back in the corner of that church in my safe place.
My lips struggle over each other as my brain struggles to find the right words to let escape. Options turn themselves over and over, my lips open and close again and again, yet I am silent.
“How could you -”
“I don’t understand -”
Death simply stares and sighs. I wonder how many appointments he’s had today like this one with a loved one who demanded an explanation. I look at Death, really look at Death, and the rage begins to drop and allows me to see him for what he really is. Death is just a man, in a suit. His black hair slicked back like a greaser makes him look like he’s in the wrong century. His pale skin, smooth all over, is broken by the dark eyes perfectly symmetrical on his skinny face. His pointed nose ends above his thin, tight lips. His body is lean, not of someone who works out but of someone who probably doesn’t eat enough, and he’s tall. He towers over me yet when he sits down, I see an exhausted man trying to do his job. He starts to explain the circle of life, how everything comes to an end, and I wonder how many times he’s had to give this explanation, to try and show people that he’s not maliciously plucking loved ones off the planet for fun, or rolling dice to decide who dies today, but simply doing a job he was assigned against his will. Death didn’t sign up to kill, he signed up to do what had to be done. I know that dying is horrifying and unthinkable to those who are alive, simply because we’ve never experienced it and those who have don’t have the chance to relay back what it’s like; Death is the ultimate mystery to which we will never have an answer until we get to the finish line. Where there’s fear, there is blame, and when there is no understanding, we create the villain in our head and he’s a man dressed in a suit trying to do his job. Taking someone from one place to the next in this degree has to be done with compassion and I see tiredness in his eyes. He hardly gets a thank you and a paycheck can be forgotten. Without thinking, I put my hand on his cold, pale one and I can feel each bone aching under the strain of a job that has been happening for eternity and will continue until the end of time. How often does Death blame himself for the pain he must think is his fault? Life, his partner, is revered and enjoying the spotlight, being loved, worshiped, cherished, and idolized while he sits back in his office alone with the occasional thanks from the loved one of someone who had been suffering so long death was the only relief. Life’s shelves are full of cards, flowers, and whatever garbage people find and Death just has stories. On each shelf are carefully labeled books with name after name. I can see that Death has a heart, he doesn’t forget each journey he makes with every individual that crosses his path. Their life stories, their end days, their thank yous to him for making the journey easy are all recorded in each book and I realize that that is all the thanks he needs to continue doing the job that nobody else can even fathom.
“It’s not your fault.”
I find words escaping my lips involuntarily. Death stops his rehearsed speeches and apologizes and looks so human for the first time in ages. Or at least he was seen that way, probably for the first time in a millennium. He didn’t have to say the words out loud for me to see the confusion in his face.
“It’s not your fault,” I repeat again. I slowly begin to realize that this corner of the church that I found safety in has suddenly become that place for Death. The roles have reversed and it’s my turn to listen to a tired man that everybody has hated for centuries. He’s the monster driven out of the village before the people took the time to see that he has a name, dreams, and that he is simply one of them. The torches and pitchforks clouded their vision and Death has lived in this tiny office alone, believing each word thrown his way. Despite the hatred and fear casted his way, the stories on each shelf extend infinitely and I see it for what it really is: compassion and love. He takes the time to record each story and sees how precious each one is. He does it all without a thank you or so much as a smile. Only a man beyond all measure can do something like that.
I had blamed God, Death, and whatever else was in front of my condemning finger for the death of each person I can think of. I can scan Death’s books and see those stories, Kody, Claire, John, Rhani, Hank, Paul, Erin, and now Tyler. He knows the pain of those around when their journies took place and I can see the tears well up in his eyes too as he remembers each one with me. I can see his heart break when he thinks of the ones who took their own life and he had had to come be there for them in the aftermath of their own death. I can feel the aching pain of those who died too soon and without reason in car accidents or shootings or at the hands of someone crazy. He was the one that got to explain what had happened and helped the dead cope with the reality. I can hear the sobs as he thinks of those who died of disease whether it be cancer or addiction. I remember, I was there too but I didn’t have to deal with the aftermath, I hadn’t been the one to take the journey from life to death or be the comforting one as someone realizes their life is gone and it’s time to move on. My mind doesn’t have the ability to even begin to think about what it’s like for Death or what happens when they take that journey, but I can see the tired man before me with a broken heart and I can rest knowing we’re all in good hands, even if they’re pale and skinny.
Three days ago, Addiction had come crashing through, high beyond belief, and wrecking havoc everywhere, destroying everything it touched. Addiction kicks the wounded, smashes the hurt, and laughs as it leaves behind a trail of bodies on its way to finding new victims. I had been lucky when Addiction kicked me a year and a half ago. I was one of the lucky ones that opened their eyes to the world and was able to find refuge with other survivors, out of the way of chaos. It’s painful to watch friends and loved ones leave the refuge to go play with Addiction or be kidnapped by it. The pain in my heart is matched by the man that has to go behind Addiction and pick up the souls that had been broken. Three days ago, one of us got taken by Addiction and was chewed up and spit out. He didn’t get to open his eyes to the world again and instead, came face to face with a tired man in a suit who had to do everything in his power to choke the tears back and do his job. He was the one that got to help make the journey to the other side as easy as possible. Addiction, you devil, is the one to be angry at. Death has taken the blame for the pain for so long I forget to look to see who the real culprit is. People are taken by Addiction every day and I’m lucky I get to see the full reality of Addiction and know how to stay out of its way so I don’t have to meet Death early.
Sitting here now in the bland chair with a heartbroken man across from me, I understand. Any rage in me has melted away with the tears that have streaked down my cheeks. My hand stays on Death’s hand and I can give him a squeeze.
“It’s not your fault. Thank you for being there for my friends and family, each time they’ve needed you. And thank you for picking up my dear friend, Tyler, three days ago when Addiction got to him. Thank you for recording his life and remembering the good.”
I thought I’d have a long monologue to give Death, but those four sentences capture it all. I see the new story on Death’s endless shelf and smile at the memories captured. I can see him with his daughter having a good time, I can see him staying up all night to talk to me when I had finally worked up the courage to leave a man who had hurt me, I can see him sitting in the easy chair in my room talking to me at 6:30 am until I fell asleep two hours later, I can see him helping me around after I got knee surgery, I can see him volunteering to serve the day that I met him, and I can see the gentle smile that he had. He carried the strength of someone that had been hurt and got back up, ready to help those around him. He had shared that strength with me, wounded to wounded, and he had been a friend. I thank Death for capturing the good and remembering him for the person he was, not the person Addiction twisted him to be.
It’s the end of my appointment with Death and I don’t need any explanations, I don’t need to put a fist through anything, I don’t feel the rage. I feel the pain and ache of a loss but I have the hope that he is in a better place and that someone kind had met him on the other side. I know time will help heal and the tears will help cleanse, and I know that the pain will subside. Soon, the memories won’t haunt me but I know he’ll never be forgotten. His story sits at the end of an endless shelf, his good captured, and I know that that’s how he’ll be remembered, even if it’s just by a tired man in a suit. I won’t know what dying is like until I get there and that’s okay. Life is beautiful and when we continue to live like life’s precious, we carry on the memories and honor those who have gone until we one day join them. For now, I can stand up off the bland chair, shake hands with this man in pain, and say thank you. Thank you for being there for Tyler, for making the journey easier, and for doing the unfathomable. Thank you for taking the time to capture his good.
RIP Tyler Barnhart 6/30/2017