ESSAY- Missing person: Wrangling with the mystery of death

At night, the two of them would lie back in the hot tub on their deck and look up at the stars. As they settled into the steaming water, the question was, Who would be the first to find the constellation Gemini Gary, or Patty?

These were brief moments in a long marriage. Patty is my sister, and Gary is the husband she had until a few weeks ago, when he stopped breathing.

Now, I'm a grownup– I know that people die. And I know that I'm supposed to accept this fact and not talk about how I wonder where these people actually end up after they leave us.

Having spent my share of Sundays parked in a pew, I'm familiar with the religious theory about where we go when we pass away. And I know that atheists believe that once you're dead, that's it; there's no soul, and there are no further experiences. The End.

Nevertheless, I still don't get it. Two weeks ago, when my brother-in-law died, the fact that he'd been contending with lymphoma for 17 years didn't help at all to minimize the shock.

The image I cannot shake the one that follows me around, waiting for those moments when my mind is not otherwise occupied is my sister, after nightfall on the day Gary died, standing on her deck, looking up at the stars.

That night, Patty was alone in her stargazing. All she could think about was that just one day before, Gary was himself. He spoke to her in that resonant voice, with the Canadian accent we all loved to make fun of. (He once said to my husband, "Those Jaquith girls they're a lot of fun, eh?")

But the opportunistic infection flooded through him, and a day and a half after his admission to the hospital, Gary stopped breathing. Patty and her daughter stayed with him in the hospital room until the body was cold and it was obvious that Gary was no longer in there.

Back at home, Patty slipped outside to the deck to have yet another cigarette. She lit up, took a grateful drag, and tilted her head back as she exhaled into the darkness. The smoke dissipated and the stars came into view. Over there, near Orion, she spotted Gemini the twins.
Not knowing exactly where to look, she glanced around, and in a ragged whisper said, "Gary, where are you? Where did you go?"

We have all heard stories of near-death experiences, of someone's consciousness hovering in a corner of the ceiling, looking down at his body, watching the people in surgical scrubs work their magic to bring him back to life.

And maybe if that had ever happened to me, I'd understand the whole process. I'd know for sure where these people we love– the ones we count on to always be there have disappeared to.

But I've never had the experience of leaving my body, and I don't get it. I don't understand.

When I saw my brother-in-law's lifeless form at the wake, it seemed as though Gary had totally disappeared– that someone had left a changeling in his coffin. No way was this Gary Dineen.

As time passes following a death, the sharp edges of incomprehension blur, and we integrate the experience into our life's narrative. Mercifully, we have other thoughts, other projects to distract us. It's just what happened. He's gone and that's that.

But the essence of it all, the rock-bottom truth of losing someone to death, is what Patty cried out to the emptiness on her first night alone: Where are you? Where did you go?