When death is no longer an abstract

My Dad, top row at right, at Harvard on a Neiman Fellowship in 1955, before the responsibility of caring for six children derailed his exceptionally promising journalism career. Rather than working late at the office and climbing the career ladder, he would come home to cook dinner for us.

Is there any obsession greater than death? No matter how hard we try to hide it, isn’t the popularity of crime fiction an indication that we humans remain, as we have for thousands of years, obsessed with the idea of no longer being here?  We are driven to wonder…. Where do we go? Where do our loved ones go? Do we linger, somehow, in this world? And if it is true that readers of crime fiction are, perhaps, more obsessed with death than most people — what does that say about the writers of crime fiction? Surely, we are the most fascinated by death of all? We spend our days thinking and writing about nothing else.

But the truth is that death is benign when you are writing about it. All those words, the plot, the puzzles, the mysteries surrounding it are artificial buffers that protect both the writer and the reader from truly experiencing the ultimate power of death. These buffers allow us to dance around it, poke at it and flirt with its finality without actually feeling the incredible pain it can bring into our hearts. Reading and writing crime fiction is a talisman of sorts — maybe if we steep in it enough as entertainment, it will pass by our door in real life?   This is impossible, of course, and when you feel an all-too-real threat of death that hits close to home, it looks and feels very different.

I have been lucky in my life. Even at my age, I have experienced relatively few losses. Yes, I have lost a friend who died far too young. I have even lost a sister, which was like losing a part of myself. She had always been there in my life and then she was gone forever. But her conduct in the face of impending death was one of such bravery and fierceness that her death was less a passing and more of a battle that left me filled with awe at her spirit. I have lost a parent as well, when my mother passed away almost five years ago. But she had suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade and when her body finally gave up its burden, we had long since come to terms with having lost her.

Now, though, death has become so much more than an abstract. My father, frail in health at age 86, survived a night two years ago that no one, most especially the doctors, thought he would make it through. Four times that night the doctors came to us to confirm that we had a “Do Not Resuscitate Order” on him and four times we confirmed it. He did survive that night, though, fueling my belief that, somehow, my family had cut a deal with death to pass us by. Since then, my father has been living with his heart working at 25% capacity, no small feat for a man who towers at over six feet tall. As it turns out, as we had always suspected, he really does have the heart of a lion. It has been steadily beating over the past two years and this tenderhearted, uncharacteristically sweet man has been with us for far longer than we expected. His life has become more limited, of course. He is confined largely to his bed at his nursing home. But in that time, it is as if his essential nature has distilled and burned even brighter, endearing him to staff even as it has made it more inconceivable to his children that we might lose him one day. This is no ordinary father, mind you. He did the heavy lifting when we were children, taking care of us in addition to working full time. When you have six children, this is an accomplishment that borders on the heroic.

A few days ago, the bones in one of his legs — brittle and weak from disuse — broke for unknown reasons. Yesterday, he underwent surgery to have a titanium rod put into his leg, a procedure necessary if only to stop the excruciating pain his broken bones caused him. It was high-risk surgery because of his heart problems, but once again he survived his brush with death with flying colors. He has amazing fortitude. But no one in our family has the luxury any longer of pretending that death is going to pass by our door forever. As a reminder, while I was visiting him in the hospital yesterday and the nurse was checking his respiration, he simply stopped breathing. He became completely inert and his chest stopped in mid-breath. Five seconds ticked by, then ten as the nurse and I waited for him to begin again. Thirty seconds passed before the nurse thumped his chest and shook his shoulder, startling him into breathing once again. But it was a reminder that not even a larger-than-life man is immune. Those who love him are all too acutely aware that every health crisis he endures, and every day that passes, is a gift that will not last much longer. For now, we are grateful that he is still with us but we are also all too aware that the inevitable day draws near.

For someone who writes about death from the comfortable distance of fictional characters and with the ability to stage the emotions surrounding each death, the inevitability of real death coming to someone I love so dearly is truly a game changer. It is forcing me to reevaluate every word I write in my book-in-progress, and it has surely caused me to care more about the reality behind my fictional insistence that, when we die, part of us remains with those we love. It has become harder to write my current Dead Detective book knowing that the central theme of it is no longer an abstract. You see, I am now attempting to convince myself that my unwavering belief that the dead stay with us will be rewarded. But, in the end, I think it will be good for this book. If we crime writers are to serve our readers well, death must be more than a plot point. It must be more than an abstract. We must feel it in our hearts. Having less of a buffer between me and death will surely make my book better — and I know that honoring my commitment to writing the best book I possibly can will make my writer father proud, wherever he is, when the book comes out a year from now.

18 thoughts on “When death is no longer an abstract”

  1. There is such a special bond between father and daughter. My dad was my biggest fan, gave me mysteries to read (he introduced me to PD James, not a bad thing at all), and in his quiet way was so proud. I miss him so much. Your dad must be so proud of you, Katy. Do you have any his book reviews from his early years? Love to read some.
    Hoping for good days for your dad. xo


    1. I shall have to see if I can find his reviews — i seem to recall his policy was to primarily review the good books and let the bad ones fade into obscurity. And he had a special fondness for NC writers. I still have people come up to me at readings and tell me that dad was their mentor at the N&O (the newspaper where he worked for 40 years) or helped them with their writing careers. I’m know he is proud of me, he’s been so good about telling me that, though probably not as proud of me as I am of him!

      Yes, there really is a special bond between father and daughter. I remember your father’s service at Arlington well — so dignified and moving. I knew we would always be friends that day, too, because I realized we had two important things in common: a sense of humor and (I suspect) we were both daddy’s girls growing up. 🙂


  2. Katy, it’s always such a pleasure to read your astute and beautifully written posts, though this one has me in tears. You have indeed suffered terrible losses, though you’ve downplayed them here. I love how grappling with your Dad’s mortality is influencing the writing of your wonderful and very human dead detective. That’s why your books so rich, my friend. Love you dearly.


  3. This is so lovely and poignant, Katy. And I agree with you. I think fear of death is one of the reasons people read mysteries. It allows them to explore death and its consequences in a fictional, less-threatening, manner. I feel for you as your father ages towards the inevitable. I am one of the few people I know near my age whose parents are both still with us, but I know the inevitable will happen before long. And our questions and uncertainties about what happens to the “soul” after death make the process even more difficult.


  4. Lovely and moving words on your dad. I believe death discontinued to be an abstraction for me when my brother, 61, unexpectedly died five years ago. Where is he now? I wonder. I can’t accept he is no more. But we all think about the end time more than we admit. Until then, we should cherish our life, and appreciate those we know and love. Thank you for reminding us about the beauty of life and about those special people, like your dad, whose grace has touched our lives, all for the better.


  5. As your dad’s occupational therapist many years ago after his first stroke, I witnessed first hand his grand Southern resilience — equal parts sly humor, “what’s it take to get out of here courage,” and that ornery cussedness I so admire. When people are in dire straits, their true selves show through, and in every way he managed the indignities of that event as a gentleman. Will never forget how he sat in an afternoon’s slanted light holding court with distinguished visitors, then dismissed them with honeyed regrets to take his “constitutional,” his term for our motor control therapy sessions. And if I may say, will never forget the morning ADL sessions either. Guy has lived, and will live on in your heart (and giant Munger head) when his leonine heart beats its last.


    1. Tony, you are a diplomat indeed. We both know how my father can be such a pain in the ass when potential physical pain is involved. I thought of you in the days following his operation when the nurses were trying to move his leg position that for better healing. Oh, the fuss he made! I had to laugh because I was envisioning you trying to cajole him into doing things for himself. Tilting at windmills for sure, but I love you for trying.

      He’s doing well physically now, by the way. Mentally, it can be touch and go. But he is still as happy as can be, at least so long as you bring him his butter cookies and chocolate frosting.


  6. Katy, this is just so stunning. My father, too, had the heart of a lion, and I thank you for reminding us that we should cherish those we love.


  7. Katy,
    When returning home during the college years, I’d always stop by their house – dragging along whoever I happened to be with. I went for two reasons. Mainly to get that over the top, glad to see you, come stay a while greeting, from your Dad. And to impress that I was an insider with these terribly cool people. We’d all sit and have a very adult visit, which makes me laugh now. Mr Munger….I hope everyone whose life has been so sweetly touched by him will also hold him in their hearts.


    1. you are so sweet, Donna – thank you for reminding me of those days. I think in many ways my father looks on them as his glory days. He so loved watching us grow up while getting a chance to know and talk to our friends. When I went to see him about a week ago, I reminded him that I had a 14-year-old daughter and he asked me,” do you get to hang out with her and enjoy it?” I assured him I most certainly did.


  8. Little known Guy Munger fact: Years ago when Time/Life books issued a series on WWII there was a photo of the farthest stationed Allied soldier in Asia. It was a photo of a younger, thinner, Guy Munger in the weather forecasting shack at the end of the runway of an emergency landing airfield on the Tibetan border, the Himalayas rising like a wall behind him. C-47 pilots flying “The Hump” to bring supplies could make emergency landings there if their heavy cargoes and or bad weather left them running short of fuel. When I worked for Guy at the News & Observer he told me a bit of trivia only a war time meteorologist would know. “Stalin turned the tide of war in the Far East when he gave permission for the Russian weather service to release their observation data to the Western Allies. Without it, we had no way of knowing when strong storms would move in from Siberia across China, Manchuria, Korea or Japan. Bombing missions, invasion plans, all were dependent on accurate weather forecasting.”


    1. Joel — I am very much remiss in thanking you for posting this. If you can believe it, I had never heard that story before and I loved hearing it. I am going to mount a search for that photo. I remember his stories from those days, most notably the one about the time he was using an outhouse and heard a furious string of Chinese from the darkness below him only to discover that some poor man was trying to clean it at the very time he was using it. And, of course, he held a lifelong appreciation for the beauty of Chinese women from those days. Thanks for reminding me about that time in his life. It is hard to believe it was so long ago.


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