Keep Your Mouth Shut, Or Just Say You’re Sorry

We’ve forgotten how to die. We’ve forgotten how to be dying, and how to comfort. How to be okay when things are definitely Not OK.

We’ve lost the ability to not be absolute shitheads to each other by accident or ignorance when something terrible happens.

In my adventures with dying, I’ve accumulated quite a wealth of pretty words and useful words on the subject of death, dying, and grief. I’ve always meant to catalog and share them. When a friend who’d lost their mother was told today that she’s going to hell because she refuses to just leave her grief up to God and put on a happy face, I kiiiiiinda lost my shit. And knew the time to publish this is NOW.

So here it is, A Grief Primer.

Dalton Chad Everett

I want to tell you about Chad. I wanted this to be a video update, but I don’t trust my face to stay screwed on properly and my mouth to make the right words, so I present him to you in written format. I hope that’s okay.

I began working at Stream in 1998. It was two months after I’d left my entire world and moved sight unseen to Portland. The prejudice against Californians turned out to be a real thing and not even Dairy Queen called me back, but a temp agency hired me at last, to work a call center doing tech support. It was $10.58 an hour, more than I’d ever earned before. I was excited. Excited to be employed, and to be among some of My People – Stream didn’t have a dress code, really, only that you hopefully didn’t wear offensive shirts and your clothes weren’t full of holes. Bathing seemed to be optional for some of them, but that is beside my point. Being allowed to wear what you wanted, to be who you were offline at work, too, provided you could pretend to be an adult on the phone? That attracts a lot of the Strange, and a lot of the Geeks. I met a lot of amazing people there, some very precious weirdos who I carried with me the rest of my life.

There was this one guy, though. I became peripherally aware of him at some point, always immaculately dressed in a crisply ironed button down shirt, hair perfectly slicked down in a ponytail, and thought to myself, ‘Wow, that dude is trying too hard. This is STREAM.’ I found out he was a manager. Figures.

And then he became MY manager, when I got sick of fixing paper jams and explaining to people why their laser printer was not printing the same color as what they had on their screens. I left laserjet land and moved to the BigTime Software contract where I supported a very popular photo editing program and ..spent my time explaining to people why the color on their prints was not the same as what the program showed on the screen. He was a pretty good manager, it turned out. I found out he was also fluent in Sarcasm, like me, and he had a sense of humor so dry that diaper companies used it to improve their product absorbency. He was that rare breed of manager that can pass down mandates from the Uppers and fully admit that it was complete horsecrap but we had to do it anyway so suck it up. Without pissing you off. He did what was in his limited power to make the job less miserable while still getting work done.

I learned to like him. I learned about his GINORMOUS cat, as he showed me a picture of the beast with his work badge alongside him for scale. I learned about his habit of ironing his shirts in the morning as a moment of peaceful zen before starting his day. I learned that the goofiest things would split his face into a ridiculous grin. And he smiled so easily. He gracefully accepted the teasing of his employees – seriously, when you get a bunch of creative misfits together, stick them on the phones repeating the same things over and over, and then give them all incredibly powerful photo and video editing tools, there is GOING to be mischief, and it is GOING to hit the management. He didn’t care. He thought it was funny. I learned he accepted his own mistakes with a grinning grace. He baffled and then charmed me with a habit of ending conversations with “…So there.” It’s a brilliant way to end conversations that don’t really have an end; you’re just sort of finished talking, and you don’t know quite how to end it so you can leave. Chad figured it out and taught me, and to this day I still end conversations that way, sometimes.

He wasn’t one of the people I took with me when I left Stream, and I couldn’t tell you why. I left him there and he became a memory of a manager. I am fortunate as hell that the Universe didn’t let that stay that way for long. It turned out that one of my dear friends, and someone I DID take with me, dated him on the sly, which I found out years later, and eventually they married. So I was going to keep him anyway, but the connection was made even more permanent as he moved on and became a manager at a company I later applied for (and didn’t get the job). A dear friend moved up here to Oregon and worked under him. The company was near my home, and when I got a job at Intel at last, I would occasionally see him getting dropped off for work, and I would stand around and chat with them for awhile. When he found out I worked for Intel, he was happy for me. “Well I could be working HERE,” I told him, “but you declined to hire me.”

He grinned and flipped me off and his wife laughed.

Every time I saw them, they were laughing and smiling. It automatically brightened my day when our commutes overlapped. Life continued, and I kept in touch through Facebook, and he wrote a book and I was impressed as hell, and vicariously enjoyed their company through their posts and their pictures, always smiling, always laughing. I made promises to myself over and over, I really MUST hang out with them some more, I adore these people.

When I was diagnosed with ALS, they both expressed words of support and offers of help, and I knew they were one of the small handful that actually MEANT it. Everyone meant well, but there were a select few that I knew I could actually rely on if required. Sure, you automatically say, “please call if you need anything”, but would you really be willing to come over twice a week and scoop my cat box when I can’t? They would. They totally would. If I needed to, I could have couch surfed until I was in hospice, they would have done anything to help me, and I was almost terrifyingly overwhelmed with it all. She always had words of empathy and support and love, and he always had a sarcastic joke to lift me up. And I adored them both and thought, we really ought to get together.

On March 5th, his wife Dawni posted: “To our friends and family, yesterday what we thought would be a routine doctor’s visit turned into a little more. … He will be fine, but he needs some extra love and care headed his way.” Those of us who knew Dawni knew damned well that if things truly would be fine, she would not be so vague and pointedly cheerful. “Don’t worry,” she wrote, and we knew to worry. A lot. And slowly the story came out. An emergency surgery had revealed Stage IV cancer. Inoperable. Weeks to live, maybe. And a fundraiser page was raised and everyone turned out in DROVES to help. All of us were stunned, shocked, helpless, angry that such an awful thing was happening to two amazing people. And I watched her, overwhelmed by the love and support, and I watched him smile and joke through it all, and I was granted perspective.

I saw my own situation from the outside. I saw what it was to have no idea what to do with terrible news and helplessly heap love instead. I saw someone ELSE completely overwhelmed with sudden love and support they didn’t know exist. I got to be a part of the uplift instead of the uplifted. I got to experience, too, the frustration of being willing and able to help someone who didn’t know how to ask for help. I came to know the singular frustration it is, to know someone needs things but is so fiercely unwilling to burden someone else with their troubles that they will never ask. And it taught me to let people help me, with better grace. I’m still not there. But I’m learning, and Chad and Dawni taught me.

Dawni threw him a Life Party, which I’ve posted about and STILL think is the best thing ever. Seriously. Do this. It was amazing to see them both, and be able to celebrate his life with him present, and see and hear all of these strangers telling stories about him in a way I never knew him. And because I DID know him a little, I gave him “I’m Dying” cards to play, and he loved them, even if others at the party thought them morbid. He and I thought them hilarious and that’s all that mattered. He and I spoke for awhile, but not long as he was the guest of honor, and he asked how I was doing, and I wanted to say, “Who cares? This is about YOU.” I offered what help I could, with some of the bureaucratic BS that comes with dying as I’d had a year’s head start on him, and we made plans to hang out. Soon. Chad and I vowed to outlive each other. And I left that party, enriched and uplifted and so grateful that both of these people had ever come into my reality and even more graced that they stayed.

When I saw him next, Danielle and I visited them at home. I was hoping to provide him with support as a fellow dying person even though our roads were vastly different. I was hoping Danielle could be support for Dawni as the practically-significant-other primary caretaker of a dying person. Nothing ever got that heavy, because it was Chad and Dawni. We ate dinner, we played card games, we talked about comics and cats, and we laughed a lot. Dawni apologized that the kitchen wasn’t clean, as I prepared us a dessert, and that frustration kinda reared up again – “woman, we are HERE, we are ABLE, LET US DO SOME DAMNED DISHES FOR YOU.” But I shut it down, for all of the hundred times someone has offered to help me and I wasn’t able to ask them, “Yes, can you take the garbage to the curb for me? It’s too heavy.” And I marveled at that mindset from the outside, and gained a new appreciation for how frustrating it can be for other people, and I became humble and shut my mouth. And made delicious syllabub. When we talked about the heavy things, it was with a defiant levity – gallows humor is strong in all four of us. I found that I didn’t have to explicitly offer support for him, and neither did he, for me. We both knew what the other faced, and in silence we shared it and in laughter we beat it down.

As Danielle and I left, Chad and I both promised each other another 30 birthdays. And we both knew we were lying.

Things progressed at a much faster pace for Chad than I, and in October, things became more urgent, and I made good on my promise to visit again. I was aware peripherally of the procedures and whatnot from Facebook, but I was able to get an unfettered view into things from the two of them in person. Call it the privilege of being in The Dying Club. I knew something about it all, so I was allowed to know more than others because I could understand it like no one else could. I use the word privilege sincerely here – I am truly glad I was trusted with information because I could handle it. Because I knew. It was a much quieter visit, with Chad drifting in and out of sleep, but the conversation was still full of laughter and comics and cats. He asked sincerely how I was doing, and again, I wanted to counter, “WHO CARES? THIS IS ABOUT YOU.” He never let it be about him. Even at his worst, he wanted to know how I was doing. And we talked frankly about timelines and outcomes, and when I left we bumped fists and swore another 30 birthdays. And we both knew we were lying.

In early November, Chad declined enough to need hospice visits at home, and on the 16th of November, they moved him into hospice care to wait the end. We all held our breaths, and shared stories on his facebook community page, and laughed and wept and waited. We talked fondly of him, continued to support his wife the best we could, and be grateful to the people who kept us informed, the outer circles to Chad’s center. We pushed support in, we encouraged dumping out, and we waited. We were told he had hours left. We offered love and support, and we waited.

He passed quietly the night of November 21st.

That night, the world lost a hell of a sense of humor, a wry wit, and an infectious grin. Dawni lost her best friend and her true love and her partner. Her parents lost a son. Many lost a friend. I lost a primal and important connection to my terminal disease. I lost another perspective from the other side, and a new perspective from the same side. I lost a touchstone, a sanity check, an explicit permission to think this is all as funny as I think it is, sometimes.

I lost a brother in darkness.

Chad’s struggle is done, now, and we’re all relieved. It was a hard fight, and impossible odds, and we miss him to pieces. We still rail against the universe for its unfairness – why him? Why her? Why wring the joy out of such an amazingly effervescent soul? Why make it so hard? There are no answers for him. There are none for me. It just is, and all I can do is be grateful I was allowed to know him for a while, and share his joy, and be contaminated by his refusal to stop smiling, ever. His big, dumb, goofy grin. Seriously, it was ridiculous.

He was amazing. And I thought you should know about him.

So there.