How a family member’s death helped me see the beauty in life

How a family member’s death helped me see the beauty in life

By: Katie Wielgos

There’s a sense of irony when someone dies and another person is celebrating their birthday. Although this happens every day, this very obvious circumstance is often overlooked. But for me, this juxtaposition of life versus death recently greeted me with what felt like a blow to the chest, a feeling I couldn’t ignore.

It was about 9 p.m. on Nov. 8, a Thursday night, and I was out to dinner celebrating a friend’s 21st birthday. But for some reason, early in the day I had an intuitive feeling that my dad would be calling me with bad news. While waiting for my food, I looked down at my phone resting on the table, and then it buzzed while the screen lit up saying “Dad mobile.” I knew this was a phone call I had to take even if I didn’t want to hear the words he was about to say.

Nancy Wielgos, or Nana as I called her, was 80 when she died. Due to past surgeries and radiation therapy, she suffered from infections, which she fought for a year, but in the end she couldn’t fight anymore. For most of the year, Nana was unable to eat. At last Thanksgiving’s dinner she was a trooper and sat at the table with us, munching on her ice chips. Toward the end, doctors told her she could eat and drink liquids besides water, but she lost taste for things she loved the most. A classic red wine drinker, she wasn’t even able to enjoy the drink I will always associate her with.

When someone dear to you passes away, it eliminates all other concerns you have. It was difficult to focus on day-to-day tasks because I couldn’t fathom that my grandma was really gone. A teacher recently told me that it is impossible to imagine our own deaths because all we know is we exist, so how can we not be? But he went on to say, “The horror is trying to accept the death of someone close to us, someone we love… suddenly nothing seems to make sense. All is chaos and absurdity.”

Although I had time to process that Nana wouldn’t be here much longer, it was still difficult because I never knew what day would be her last. It was both comforting and heartbreaking to talk to her, never knowing if that would be our last conversation. However, it did make each moment more special because I knew that this could be the last time we speak, so I made sure to let her know I loved her and to “hang in there,” as I always said before hanging up the phone.

A few months before my grandma’s fulfilling and beautiful life ended, she told her only son, “I’m not afraid to die. I just want to live longer.” I think about this quote every day and it reminds me that we never know when our time on Earth is up. Nana had an impact on everyone she met, and although she’s gone, I cherish the memories I’ve had with her. Her death helped me realize that life is precious and we need to take the time to let the people we care about most know that we love them. And we need to not be afraid of death, but afraid of a life where we don’t feel fulfilled.

That same teacher quoted an episode of Six Feet Under where a character asked, “Why do people die?” The answer was: “to make life important.”