Thoughts on the Afterlife (and Weight Watchers), After the Death of a Friend

One of the first things my friend Sheri said to me after she was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer was that she was going to die.

In an unsuccessful attempt to cheer her up, I pointed out the obvious: “Everyone’s going to die.” But she wasn’t in the mood for unwarranted optimism, and we dropped the subject.

In the early days after her diagnosis, death was an easy subject to avoid. Back then, it was far enough into the future to be, if not a mirage, at least an abstract concept. It was only after one and then another therapy began to fail that we talked more about it.

Usually we talked about how it would affect her teenage son and daughter. As befitting my Pollyanna role, I always tried to find something positive.

“At least you can prepare them for a day when you’re no longer going to be around,” I said, and she agreed, listening to my suggestions that she write her children letters that they could open at various milestones in their lives – college graduation, first job, first love, first breakup, marriage, parenthood. I suggested she tell them about her childhood – what she liked, what she didn’t like, stories she remembered.

Basically I gave her a list of all the communications and answers I’ve wished, over the years, to have had from my dad, who died, suddenly and unexpectedly, when I was thirteen. His passing triggered something of an avalanche of death in our family: in the ten years after he died, all four aunts on my mother’s side were widowed, as was my grandmother (for the second time). Two cousins died: one by drowning, one after being hit by a car. A junior high classmate was killed a month before we started ninth grade.

I spent my teenage years attending funerals. In tenth grade I attended my first wake, for the father of a friend. I prided myself on being comfortable with death. But until Sheri, I’d never watched a friend die. I’d never had the opportunity to talk about dying with someone who was actually doing it. And that, I realized, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.

I was, however, extremely curious. I believe strongly that there is life after death. Maybe it’s because my father died when I was so young and unprepared: when a tie is severed so abruptly, it’s natural to want to restore it. For years after Dad’s funeral, I took comfort in talking to him, convinced and hoping that he was listening.

The idea of life after death was a critical element in my survival toolbox. I have no other logical explanation for my belief. I don’t believe there is anything logical about life after death. The intellectual side of me, such as it is, believes that the idea is hooey and hogwash.

But still – I want to believe. I want to believe so badly that when I read Alice Sebold’s novel, “The Lovely Bones,” I had to remind myself that it was only a novel, that Alice’s concept of heaven was no more valid than mine (further evidence of my ambivalence, given that her concept was pretty much identical to mine).

I want to believe so badly that there is a part of me that views the movie “Ghost,” not so much as Hollywood entertainment, but as a documentary about communicating with loved ones in the Great Beyond. (Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration: the lovey-dovey pottery-making scene does not belong in any kind of documentary I’d want to watch, nor do the scenes with the crazy, bug-eyed dead guy fighting with Patrick Swayze’s ghost on the subway. But the parts where Patrick is trying to communicate with his beloved Demi – those I want to be real.)

And so it was that when Sheri and I began talking about her death, it occurred to me that I might, at last, have a chance to discover if there really is life after death. I made a proposition to her. I couched it as a joke, because I felt embarrassed even thinking it, much less saying it out loud to someone who was so grounded in reality. But Sheri was also one of those rare people who, despite having very strong opinions, never judged. Or at least, she never judged me.

When I said to her, “After you die, will you send me some kind of sign – you know, to let me know you’re out there,” she didn’t laugh.

“Like what?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “A butterfly? A bird?”

I hadn’t thought it out: I had never expected to have such a conversation. I think the reason the nature theme was the first one to pop into my head is that back when I was in graduate school, sobbing on a friend’s shoulder outside the university bookstore, I noticed a squirrel staring intently at me. It looked concerned, or as concerned as a potentially rabid rodent can look. In my anguish, I convinced myself that the squirrel was my father, trying to comfort me. I didn’t tell anyone, though: I was mortified that such a thought had even entered my head. My father? A squirrel? Really?

Over the next year and a half, as Sheri tried different chemotherapies, I suggested the sign idea a few more times, but we generally dropped the topic almost as soon I raised it. It never occurred to me to suggest that she send a sign to her children. That seemed even more ridiculous than her sending a sign to me.

As Sheri grew sicker, I stopped joking about signs. But then, not long after she began undergoing palliative care, I asked her, point blank, “Do you believe in an afterlife?” And she said, “I’d like to believe there’s something, that I’m not just going to die and that’s it.”

Not long before, Sheri had asked me to write her eulogy. I told her I’d write it as soon as possible, because that way she could see it before she died. She was a bit of a control freak, and I figured, rightly, that she’d want a look.

Among the many bonds Sheri and I shared was that we were both lifetime members of Weight Watchers. People were always shocked to hear that Sheri went to WW: she was so tiny, not the least bit overweight. Somehow it failed to occur to people that that’s why she was a lifetime member; because she’d succeeded, and she kept at it. (No one ever questioned my membership.)

Anyway, in an early draft of the eulogy, I mentioned the WW connection, and how Sheri used to cajole me into going to meetings. She was very gracious about those gentle prods. She’d always say, “If you don’t want me to nag you, I won’t.” It occurred to me that an ideal way for Sheri to communicate with me from the other side would be something to do with WW. I didn’t leave that in the eulogy, but it was in one of those early drafts that I read to her in the month before she died.

I joined WW on line about a year ago and stuck to it faithfully until last June, when my husband and I went to Europe and I didn’t want to count points. I haven’t gotten back on track since, but I didn’t get around to dropping my membership until recently.

Two weeks after I quit, Sheri died. A few hours after her husband called to tell me, I received an email from Weight Watchers: Join For Free! Get a great deal on a 3 or 6-month plan when you COME BACK to Weight Watchers!

It’s a coincidence. I’m sure it’s a coincidence. WW is always offering deals and freebies. But maybe it’s not a coincidence. After all, it is winter now, in Alberta. There are very few birds. There are no butterflies.

No Sheri, either. And I miss her. Which, I’m sure, is why I see signs, everywhere.

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2 Responses

  1. Awww, Debby. That’s beautiful. And I’m as sure Sheri was reaching out to you as I am about Julie doing the same for me, and Cousin Jerry. Remind me to tell you that story next time we talk. (Did she get to see the finished eulogy?)

    • She did not see the finished eulogy — at least, not while she was on this earth. I told her I couldn’t finish it while she was alive, because she was alive. I did not want to finish it until she was finished, as it were.

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