We Forget Our Own Deaths All the Time
I don’t want to write about Kobe Bryant. I don’t want to write about Gianna Bryant. I don’t want to write about John, Keri, or Alyssa Altobelli. Not Sarah and Payton Chester. Not Christina Mauser. And not Ara Zobayan either. On Sunday morning, I was sitting on the couch and saw the first alert on my phone. I delivered the news out loud to my husband. I kept thinking, but I didn’t know this 90 seconds ago; I want to go back there. These moments take us up to an edge — a choose-your-adventure pause where you realize a line has just been drawn. And collectively a nation, a planet is going to sit still and bow their heads.
I have a picture of myself at about three years old sitting in a helicopter. My dad flew them in the Marines and had taken a job in Atlanta flying for a traffic reporter. He took me and my mom up for an afternoon ride. What an absurd thing to do. What a miracle that it was a safe flight. But was it any more absurd than handing me pretzels to snack on? Any more absurd than being born to begin with? There a million things we do every day that are ludicrous and incongruent with our lives actually continuing. Get in a car, walk across the street, swim in a pool. Sometimes when I’m home by myself I think, I could choke and die alone. But we have to toss these risks aside to get through each hour of every day. We forget our own deaths all the time.
The day before my son was born, he died in my body at some point in the middle of a Friday night. For a while, I was fixated on the exact moment. Having a murky range of hours felt too imprecise, absolutely unacceptable for my overacting brain that was trying to solve a mystery. If I could focus on the evidence, if I could excavate the metaphorical black box, I would be able to what… bring him back? No. But please don’t make me let go of this assignment. Because what will I have then but this gaping and consuming loss.
But this isn’t right, they’re not asking the right questions, I thought to myself.
I think it’s one of the great tricks we play on ourselves in grief — it’s happening right now in the news and on social media — talking about evidence, investigations. Media professionals are talking about statistics and legacy. In those first 48 hours, I furiously refreshed everything — Twitter, my podcast feed, Instagram. But this isn’t right, they’re not asking the right questions, I thought to myself. By Tuesday, big, important people were saying things like “I’ve finally had time to process and here are my thoughts and feelings…” I thought, “finally?” Maybe we get to say “finally” in a year, or in at least six months. But Tuesday? That’s a handful of breaths away from tragedy. Mostly I was just thinking about these family members left behind — are they eating, sleeping, showering, and drinking some water?
Shea Serrano started to chip away at it. Elle Duncan put her finger on the pulse of something — Kobe as a “girl dad.” You can be Kobe effing Bryant and four girls still aren’t enough. I know this because my husband and I have two living daughters. My husband, in particular, gets asked often if he wants to try for another one — the implication being — don’t you want a boy? Sometimes, when I’m lost in a blue fog, even I ask him because I need to be propped up. I need to be reminded too. “We have a boy. We had a son and he died,” he says. Vanessa Bryant has three living daughters and a daughter she lost in 2020. That’s what she’ll say in 2030, 2036, 2045. What ridiculous years to type. It exhausts me to imagine all the days she has between now and then. For her, they will contain multitudes of marathons.
Our 10-year-old daughter sat in the living room with us on Sunday morning trying to process the news, frantically asking questions we didn’t have the answers to. I found myself in my therapist’s office 24 hours later doing the same thing to her through tears. My brain spinning and spinning again. Doing its best to gather information, to try to imagine the final moments. Again, I was fixated on one point and that is — did they know? Did they have any warning? Could they grab each other’s hands, clutching each others’ faces and sear that love into each others’ eyes?
I don’t have a relationship with my father and from what I can gather, Kobe experienced ups and downs with his. Yet I contemplate our deaths, his or mine — this thought simmers on some back burner in my mind. What would I do if he dies? What would he do if I did? I know Kobe Bryant is a complicated figure, I know there are sins left unaccounted for. The same for my dad, for you, and for me to varying degrees. Think about all the different ways we are known to people. Every person on that helicopter had people who loved them, adored them, were irritated by them, felt apathetic toward them, or who were friendly with them. And yes, for at least one of the adults, there are people who loathed him and were hurt by him. I don’t know how to parse through all the pieces but I know it’s incredibly complex. I know that I’m tired and I can’t be in the business of mitigating grief or anger right now.
We forget our own deaths all the time.
About four weeks after our son died, the Sandy Hook shootings happened. I was impatiently waiting for his ashes to come home and when I absorbed that news, I felt so lucky. I had a dead baby and I knew where he was and how he died. I didn’t have to fill in the violent details. Is there anything in life that isn’t relative? There’s no LeBron without Kobe and there’s no Kobe without Michael and there are thousands of other people that died on January 26, 2020. It’s just that many of us don’t know about them. And there’s an even smaller group of people who perhaps aren’t feeling the loss of Kobe Bryant as acutely. How could you when you are the family and friends of the Altobellis, the Chesters, the Mausers, the Zobayans? They are orphaned and widowed and what happens to you when these monumental losses are folded into the death of an international celebrity athlete? Relativity is an ouroboros that keeps me spiraling.
When I get into bed at night I’m exhausted from the rigmarole of bathing, brushing, vitamins, reading, bed. I’ve spent the last part of the evening fantasizing about my alone time and what I will fill these hours with as I fight off sleep. But then it’s quiet and I find myself longing for the very same children I was just snapping at. So I scroll through my photos and videos and within minutes, I am helplessly longing for them again. But these last few nights I’ve been watching videos that have come out from Vanessa Bryant’s social media accounts. I kept texting them to my husband, wanting someone to share in the intimacy of witnessing them. Last night he finally said, “I can’t get through them right now. It’s too much.” They are ordinary and touching and earth-shattering in the way the videos of your own children are banal and astounding.
There’s a text I received right after our son died that has stuck with me all these years later. Our neighbor is a graphic designer and spends her days in an iMac desktop where you can command-z and undo your last move. When she heard about Paul’s death she said she just kept staring at her phone thinking “command-z, command-z, command-z.” Undo — instantaneously. I’ve had that thought myself several times over the years and I felt it so strongly on Sunday. No, no, no, just undo. Just 6o seconds, that’s all we need back. They were just eating breakfast, putting on uniforms, grabbing their bags. We forget our own deaths all the time.
I don’t know how or when it started, but I have this ongoing bit with my four-year-old daughter where I grab her face and say, “let me smell your breath so I can make sure it’s you.” She smiles and plays along, opens her mouth so I can inhale and say “that’s her. That’s a Diana.” It is simple and stupid and I would happily take it as one of the last moments of my life. I saw a report today that it’s suspected the helicopter plummeted for one minute. I suppose in some way this answers my question. They did know. I hope that minute grew wings and expanded into a lifetime. I hope the laws of physics and time and space looked the other way for just a second so they could beam down to the rest of their families. They could grab each other’s hands, smell each other’s breaths, swallow each other whole.