I came to a red light, easing my car to a full stop. A flutter caught my attention to the right, and as I turned my focus caught in my mind as my breath caught in my throat. About thirty buzzards were hopping and snarling around a cracked carcass wasting on the side of the road. There were so many of them I couldn't even discern what the animal had been before the last breath was ripped from its lungs by hungry beaks. Hungry beaks. I chuckled a dark, humorless laugh. Suddenly they didn't seem too different from us, from me. I was on my way to feed my own hungry beak, I was on my way to my own family dinner where we would crowd around a dinner table and share a meal just like these thirty relatives scuttling on the side of the road over their rotting prize.
Then I began to ponder. Buzzards have been made into such base villains, such abhorrent scoundrels. Cloaked in inky black with hunched shoulders and fierce beady eyes, shuffling sideways on their talon toes. But truly they should be praised for the work they do. They bring meaning to otherwise meaningless death. Any time a deer or raccoon or squirrel meets his untimely end by a car they swoop in and turn the end into a new beginning. A death into a meal, a meal into another day, another day to live on in this relentless life. Death is such an absolute, so irreversible, so utterly final. It is hard to look past such a force and find a glimmer of anything hopeful. But they do. They have made a meal on the eviscerated silver underbelly of death's dark lining.
I wish it was that easy for us. My knuckles turned white on the steering wheel as my heart twisted with the now familiar ache, reduced to echoes of the first blow but still rippling through me with lashes of sorrow. We are not buzzards, it's not so cut and dry as death and dinners. When death falls this close to you everything small blurs and the only sounds are claps of thunder, the only colors are black and white, and the only substance that retains taste contains alcohol. Death for us is never easy, but at least it is usually understood. Usually.
When my grandpa got very sick at the end his death was welcomed and his funeral became a celebration. My grandpa was a great, adored, and honorable man. We remembered the best days of his life, and his gravestone was crowded by teary but smiling faces. His death was understood.
I see death every day in beloved family pets. I help it come to them. Even when a young animal reaches the point where they can no longer fight a cancer or disease and the end is not coming swiftly enough, we know we have done right by them by easing them into death. Their passing is attended by teary but relieved faces. Their death is understood.
Yet there is another kind of death we will never understand. And its end is never met with smiling or relieved faces. Just faces of twisted torment, confusion, and regret. It is the kind of death brought on by the hand of the one dying, and once in death they guard forever all of the answers the living crave but will never receive.
I have known this kind of death too many times over. My past teachers, my past mentors, my past friends, my past lovers. I have slept in the building where it has happened while it was happening, I have been promised he will return while he really lay dead in a field, I have listened to the voicemail, I have read the text. It haunts my open eyes and paints the back of my eyelids with relentless reminders. I have carved a memorial on my wrist that has since turned into tally marks. I have lived this death too many times over.
I felt my chest rise and rise with overly intentional breaths, quickening with a practiced panic that cued my eyes to blurring. I rattled my head to clear my decline and forced myself to settle. I was nearing my parents' street, the street that held the house I once called home. In a few minutes I would face them.
Suddenly my chest deflated with a leveling epiphany. In a few minutes I would face them. I would face them and they would hug me and we would smile and we would fill our hungry beaks but we would do it together. I would be reminded that I am never alone, I would be reminded of the love of family and the joy of being with them, I would be reminded I know my own form of silver underbelly.
So often in life this love is taken for granted, but with a shared tragedy love is revived and brought forth anew. It is given a fresh start where once it had gone stale, it is reborn stronger with the break of another that once held its sacred tie. Old grudges evaporate in an instant, past enemies become brothers, and conversations that were dropped over distance or time are lifted up again and continued as if never broken.
I could not make it to his memorial, I don't even know if I would have gone if I could. But I heard stories, and I saw pictures, and I talked late into the night with friends who were there. Dozens appeared with glimmering candles outside the house he once called home, taking turns holding each other and creating new ways to say "it's going to be ok." And then at the actual funeral more still appeared, there to honor his memory and the magic that was him. There was pink and unicorns and sparkles everywhere. His unique strangeness held true until well past his end. Travelers from across the state to across the country came making a pilgrimage of closure to respect the hold he had on us all, but every journey ended in the same place, and every one was welcomed.
I began to examine my own life and what it, what I was worth. It all felt so fragile again, as if the decades I spent putting distance between now and my delicate newborn beginning meant nothing. We grow to feel so safe, as if we have all the time in the world to do what we say we are going to do when really it could all end tomorrow. I began to see waste for what it was, I began to see how much more living I could be doing.
Suddenly my true friends revealed themselves in an early morning hug, a simple text, an unquestioning shoulder for me to cry on. I became overwhelmed with sorrow swirled about with pure loyalty from the ones who proved themselves keepers of pieces of my soul. And in this is the true horrid, shining, devastating silver underbelly of suicide.
It takes such an unanswered death to make us remember why we choose to be alive.
I choose life for the ones who choose me, and for the family members who don't choose me but love me absolutely anyway. I choose life for the beauty I see every day in the whispered oranges of sunset, for the passion I swoon to in the music I hear, for the animals I help be it beginning life or ending it. I choose life because the tears I shed for him are tears of a fighter and not a quitter, and I will live every day here on out despite the choice he made, and in honor of it. I choose life for the nights I spend filling my hungry beak with my family, and in hope of one day filling the beaks of my own tiny fledglings too.
I would give all the lessons learned and all the connections reforged to turn back time and give his life one more chance, but I know now more than ever we can never go back on what has already passed. So I take away the biggest lesson, spoken by his brother on the day of his funeral. Be sweet. Be sweet and don't say mean things and don't hate strangers and love everyone every day. He spent his life giving his whole heart away, never saying a bad word against anyone. Be sweet like him, and he will never die. He will live on forever in this way.
Finally I turn onto the street I know holds my parents' house at the end of the road. My heart has grown from edgy to eager, and I am reminded. Although my mind wanders distant I am blessed, so very blessed to have friends who hold the map of the way back. Although my eyes are hollow wells I am grateful, so very grateful to have family to fill them. And although my smile is the shadow of a ghost I believe, believe in myself to find the sun to scare away the darkness and beam again with corporeal truth.
I turned into the driveway and put the car into park. I wiped my eyes and expected to find tears but instead pulled away dry fingertips. I gathered my things and headed towards the door, very aware of how hungry my beak actually was. But my idle lips were smiling.