News flash: Death is sad

The thing about death is we always think it’s not going to happen, when in fact it happens to everyone. It really will happen to everyone, you know. Do you know anyone who’s 6,000 years old? I mean, mornings after I eat many potato chips, I look 6,000 years old, but that’s beside the point.

A friend died suddenly this weekend. He was Facebooking that morning, and then he was dead. I don’t know what happened and I don’t know why everyone’s first question is, “What happened?” other than I guess we want to hear that it was something that would never happen to us. Oh, he was in the middle of a jousting match. He had a severe allergy to Pledge. Mrs. Butterworth came to life and strangled him in her own sweet time.

The thing is, we’re all going to die, and so is everyone we love. But we all go around thinking it won’t happen, even if we’re the kind of people who go around obsessing about it happening the way I do.

I met Greg at a party in 1987. I don’t know how we got to talking but it turned out he owned a marketing agency, which is what we called them back then, and needed a part-time writer.

I remember everything I was wearing that night: Black velvet capris pants with pointy black velvet shoes, and a ridiculous mauve paisley jacket. Basically, he hired Prince, is what he did.

Greg invited me to his office, read my cumbersome dark-blue, three-ring notebook with my newspaper clippings and press releases (I still have it), and gave me little writing assignments, which I’d do at home. I’d get all sweaty and tense the way I still do when I work. I wanted so much to please him. Because we were both young and ridiculous, we’d also run into each other in my hometown’s bars. I recall lots of drunken late-night talks at parties, over loud music that would, at this point, drive me berserk. “Can we turn Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark DOWN, please?”

I can’t recall how I stopped doing that writing for him, but I do recall a year or so later, his business folded. He was very upset about it, and he’d told me he wanted to plant a tree in honor of this business. It had to do with the name of his business. You’re going to have to trust me that it was a lovely idea. Anyway, one drunken night I told him I’d like to go with him to plant that tree when he was ready.

And then? He called me one Sunday to go plant the tree. I was writing a paper for school and couldn’t go.

And now he’s dead.

I mean, we had 30 more years of friendship after that. He met a great woman, Ann, whom I adore, and they bought an 1800s-era house and refurbished it together. I even moved into a little apartment in said house for a few months in the early ’90s. That place had a living room with giant windows, a kitchen in a hallway that I never used for anything but making coffee, and a bedroom with a little bathroom off of it. I remember them complaining that they could hear all the loud sex I was having in my apartment.

Hi, mom.

But still, even though all those years have passed and we went to each other’s weddings and we had laughs about stupid old jokes and all that stuff, what I’m stuck with is the guilt that I didn’t help him plant that tree in 1988.

I always think of all the shitty things I did when people die.

My friend Melanie, who killed herself, IM’d me in the months before, asking if I knew if our old workplace was hiring. It had closed years ago and I knew she knew that. What I didn’t know was she had a problem with prescription drugs and wasn’t thinking clearly. I still have our IM where I sort of dismiss her. “That place closed years ago–you know that. Move here! It’s affordable!”

She never wrote back. And we never talked again.

Melanie is the one with the black pants and sleeveless shirt. I’m the idiot in the pink wig. But you knew that.

I think of the flippant way I said goodnight to my grandfather, who would die hours later.

I think of crappy things I did to my grandmother, who was my favorite person.

Gramma’s on the left

I remember my Uncle Jim waxing on about some horror film he liked. “Have you seen it?” he asked me. And I scoffed and said, “No.” I remember his downcast eyes after I said it, like I’d shamed him for liking a kind of movie I didn’t.

Stuff like that haunts me now. The stupid dismissive or downright inconsiderate shit I did to people, assuming I had forever to make it up to them. Assuming they wouldn’t die.

I’m not telling you all this because I have some sort of wisdom to wrap it all up. I’m telling you this because I feel horrific that I can’t call my Uncle Jim and say, “Hey, what was that movie, again? I’m gonna check it out.” I can’t go visit my friend Greg next time I’m in Saginaw. I just feel guilty and sad and I hate death, basically.

I suppose the lesson is to not be an asshole, but I never meant to be one any of those times, so how will I know not to be one in the future?

Dismissively,
June

56 thoughts on “News flash: Death is sad

  1. I wasn’t always able to be patient with Michael when he was dying. When he woke me up every hour I could get snippy when it was because he couldn’t find the remote control. I was so exhausted, it didn’t mean I didn’t love him. I wish I could have been the perfect Florence Nightingale but I am just plain old all to human me. I was there for a 27 hour vigil at the hospital when he was truly dying, with my amazing sister and never slept then. I had to stay home and sleep when he went to the ER by ambulance the night before in order to pull it off. I’d only slept two hours. It was the right decision. I refuse to second guess myself now. It was damn hard and I did the best I could. I should have let my sister come and help sooner. She wanted to. I thought there was more time. Death IS mysterious.

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    • I did sleep for one hour. Hospice was going to transfer him to a nursing home for five days of respite care (for me, the caregiver). I was going to have to get all of his meds and take them to the nursing home. My sister was going to get her son to drive me. I awoke, we were changing him to pjs, the private ambulance driver arrived. He passed away quietly there where he felt safe before they could move him. We were so relieved. It worked out perfectly.

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  2. Aw, June. Such a sweet, sad post. We’re human–we can only be ourselves. Those who love you, do so (did so) even if you said something that you now regret specifically because it was the last thing you happened to say before they died. You said whatever it was because it was a normal thing to say. It wouldn’t have felt bad if the person hadn’t happened to die after you said it. So, to that person, it was fine. If that makes sense.

    Your friend looks like a sweetheart.

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  3. How will you know not to be an asshole in the future?

    I guess the best thing is, one should treat people how one wants to be treated. Think twice before saying or doing. There’s nothing wrong with humor in dealing with things, but sometimes humor can get mean. I have a friend, since the 70’s, and she has always been sarcastic and bitey and dismissive. Always. It was funny in our teens and 20’s and 30’s and even 40’s. Now we are in our 60’s and she just comes across as an asshole. Sure, we say, “Oh…that’s just Joy being Joy”…but that shit just gets old.

    We are all human, and you are right, we are all gonna die, even though we don’t believe it.

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  4. this was beautiful. thank you for sharing this reminder for all of us about the importance of kindness and compassion.

    thank you too for this blog!

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  5. It’s true, we do think of every imperfect word or act of our own, conveniently forgetting all the sweet, kind, loving things we said/did. We’re foolish that way. As impossible as it may seem, and as impractical, it’s worth trying to treat each person we care about, right now, as if we might never see them again. Because we might not. We really might not. I say this to my husband often enough as he’s trying to get out the door and I’m waylaying him for a kiss and hug. “What if something happens while you’re gone? Do you want to remember that your last words to me were ‘Got things to do!’?” We forget what our priorities are until we’re slapped in the face with coulda/shoulda/woulda. Thanks for reminding me today.
    I like to imagine it from the “other side of the veil,” as if I’m the person who’s died and I’m looking back at you (my husband, say) and our time together. I wouldn’t be remembering that time you didn’t kiss me goodbye; I’d be remembering all the good times we had. I bet that’s what Greg is doing. He sounds like a lovely person, someone you’ll miss, someone you were lucky to know, someone who appreciated you and all your best qualities. It’s hard to lose friends, even those we rarely saw anymore. I’m sorry for your loss. -Kate

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  6. Most of js have regrets . Sorry for you and his friends and family who will miss him . I truly can’t comprehend how brief this life is .

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  7. Today is 24 years since my Papa died. So I am full of nostalgia and regret right now and i understand exactly how you are feeling. It’s so hard when those memories of “Oh God, I said the stupidest or the most thoughtless or selfish or whatever thing” come rearing back at you. Yes, we should all be just a little kinder and more considerate. Cut yourself some slack, you are a mostly really good person and that’s something we can all aspire to be.

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  8. Your words to Tee were so kind. Please be as kind to yourself. It’s hard…I know. I am so guilty of beating myself up over things that I wouldn’t think twice about comforting or encouraging others. (sigh)
    I’m really sorry about your friend.

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  9. I’m so sorry about your friend. Regret sucks. I remember one time when I was 12, I was being a sh*t and I smarted off to my grandma. She wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the day and I felt horrible about it because mostly I was not a smart ass at 12 years old (47 years old is whole ‘nother story). We had a wonderful relationship and I know she loved me fiercely, yet that day comes back to haunt me more than any other days I had with her.

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  10. This lovely post has me thinking about regrets…not just specific things I have said, but also things I haven’t done. An old coworker was in town last May and arranged a get-together with the few of us still in town. One of the friends there was someone I really enjoyed for the 8 years I worked with him, 82-90. We had breaks together every workday. We exchanged cell numbers and said let’s do coffee sometime. I never texted him because, well, I’ve gained 50 pounds and gotten old in the intervening years, and I told myself, go on a diet and THEN call him, which I never have. I’m going to text him. Even if I’m old and fat.
    Thanks for writing, June. You are such a gifted writer, to speak to so many.

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    • Linda, I’ll bet he will be thrilled to hear from you and he won’t care that you’ve gained weight! He’ll just be so touched that you called him – that’s all that matters.

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  11. I ran into a high school friend at work a few years ago. It had been many years since I’d seen her and she mentioned getting together sometime and gave me her number. I didn’t think we had much in common anymore and thought she might be fishing for a business contact. I never called her. Later that year, she committed suicide. Of course, I knew that not calling her had nothing to do with her death. I don’t think dinner with an old friend would have saved her, but I still feel terrible that I didn’t call her.

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  12. Unfortunately, I think pretty much every single one of us can relate to what you’re feeling. I’m sorry you’re beating yourself up though.

    I hope you can realize what others have already said. These people in your life were not focusing on these things that you are regretting. They were remembering the good times way more than these small moments in the grand scheme of your relationship with them.

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  13. I worry like you do. So much in fact that I went to therapy. Here’s what I learned about the dumb things I said to people that haunted me: they don’t think about me or our conversations nearly as much as I think they do. And when they do think of me, it’s in more of a whole picture way which is about how we feel about each other. Not only did I hear this from my therapist, I decided to test drive his theory and I found out that when I tried to discuss the dumb thing I said to someone they each, EACH one, wondered what the hell I was talking about, couldn’t believe I would worry about it, and then told me when they did think about me, it was about the big picture me, who, it turns out, they liked, felt kindly toward, and knew at my core I was kind. I know your post is more to do about your regrets and I understand it’s a different thing, but I hope it helps to know that you did them no harm and their memories of you are of much more than one event, or comment.

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  14. My dad died in a freak accident 20 years ago on a Thursday. By some miracle of grace, I had been to see my parents the weekend before, so the last thing I said to Daddy actually was “I love you, and yes, I’ll be careful driving back.” I am ETERNALLY grateful for that, and for many years, I was very mindful about how I ended conversations with people who were important to me.

    But that wears off, unfortunately, and I also beat myself up over the missed opportunities – with the college professor I so loved, or the boss I so admired and adored I named my son after him, … so many times.

    I think it’s like our appearance, though: WE see and focus on all the times we think we fucked up. The other people involved likely don’t remember those or consider them as fuckups. Conversely, we are rarely, if ever, aware of the times we bring joy or grace or hope to someone, because whatever we did seems so inconsequential to us. To the recipient, however, it was huge.

    In the end, I think all we can feasibly do is consistently try to not be an asshole. We will fuck it up sometimes, of course, but actively choosing to not be a jerk is still a pretty good achievement at the end of the day.

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  15. Maybe this spring you can plant a beautiful mimosa tree in your yard for him. I’m sorry for the loss of your good friend.

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  16. This was beautiful, June! You know that I know what you are feeling – it is so hard to not want to wish you had done more. But stop and forgive yourself and let it go. Always move forward in life and treasure the moment you are in. We are not in control and everything is just as it should be. Find Joy in each day and give it away…. love you! Sorry about Greg.

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  17. This post was hard to read; I have so many of the same thoughts/memories over stupid things I did/said to people who later died. Like I didn’t appreciate the fully decorated cake my Grandma made for my 12th birthday and she didn’t pass until I was around 45 years old, but I’m sure that still hurt her. Ugh. Crap like that…I’m glad it’s not just me, but it sucks to feel so crummy on top of being sad when someone dies. I’m really sorry for your loss.

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  18. It is hard to lose someone and we always remember when we feel like we slighted them. I do that with my father who has been dead over 20 years now. It makes me try harder with my mom who has been alone all these years. I’m sure Greg remembered all the nice things you did with him. He was way too young to die.

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  19. Today on this occasion, how many trees do you think people will plant in Greg’s honor.
    We had a friend who passed, there was a tree planting done in his name at a later time. We had the honor of digging the hole and helped to get the tree to the assigned place. I had brought flower bulbs and passed them out so everyone could take part in the planting after the tree roots were almost covered , every person came up and placed the flower bulbs in and said a few words. The bulbs were covered and bloomed the next season. We drove by looked at the flowers and the tree and thought about him.
    Send some bulbs to his wife and have her plant them in his honor.
    I do really understand the post and having the regrets.
    We all need a reminder , thank you, to treat people the way we would like to be treated.
    Hey June, thank you for your writing , wit, humor and smiles you give to all who read you.

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  20. I think these things remind us to try to do better, but also if a person really loves you they accept whereever you are at the time. Would you have been mad and unforgiving if the tree planting tables were turned? I think not. I hope you’re able to remember the wonderful aspects of your friend and cherish the fact that you had a relationship.

    I just had a spell like this over the weekend around my brother’s death in 2016. It’s so heavy when you start dwelling on it. I’m grateful for the love and grace my husband used to soothe me. I’m not sure there is a perfect answer to this. You really can’t stop living your life and live in constant fear of doing/saying the wrong things because death might be around the corner.

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  21. Those are beautiful photos of beautiful people . What a lovely tribute to them as loved ones and to you as their loved one. Peace and blessings.

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  22. You a gave us all a gift today, a reminder that death is a heartbeat away. We need to seize the moments and not let harmful words escape our mouths. Hard to do when we live in this fast paced world.
    I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. Maybe you could visit his tree the next time you’re home.

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  23. I am really sorry for the loss of your friend.

    I don’t have any compelling story to share, but I do have a lot of jumbled up shit rattling around in my anxious brain this morning. Your post is helping me to remember what’s important in life, and to let go of everything else.

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  24. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.

    Your post struck a chord with me (hit me in the feels, as the youth say). This weekend I was thinking about my sister-in-law who died 19 years ago, and I remembered some stupid things I said to her. She didn’t die suddenly, so I would have had time to apologize to her, except I didn’t realize till years after she died how insensitive I’d been. I don’t know what to do with that…except realize that I’m probably offending people right and left now without knowing it. Being a decent human should be easier than it is.

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    • This blog has made me a worse friend. Sometimes I get so many messages, especially during bad times, that I don’t answer any of them, including messages from friends in real life. I just saw a message Ann, Greg’s wife, sent me back in 2015 when I moved out of the house I shared with Ned. I never answered it. It was probably the 14th message I’d gotten that day and I either told myself I’d answer later or I just couldn’t talk about it to one more person. In any event, I never answered. At least she’s still alive so I can apologize to her, although she doesn’t give one shit about it right now.

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  25. I am so sorry about your friend Greg. This post is a gift to all of us. It makes me think of so many things I regret doing or not doing, and also those many times I got it right. My goal is to get it right more often, but as you wrote, there will be times that I won’t know…until later. When it’s too late. Often we can go back and fix things, but all too often we can’t. Those are the instances which spur us on to be better people.

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  26. Well said. Death does seem to bring out your best writing.

    You can’t fix the past. The future is unknown. Live for the present.

    The death of a friend always reminds me to try & do that.

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  27. This won’t make you feel any better. I wish I could think of something that would. But remember those people loved you. They didn’t think of you as an asshole in those moments. They thought you were busy and they’d catch up with you next time or something like that.

    They loved you after that moment so they already forgave it. It’s ok to forgive yourself as well.

    Also, I feel tremendous gratitude when I read the words “beside the point.” Because I know multiple people who say “besides the point” and it makes me hyperventilate.

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

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  28. People don’t often remember a specific incident but more how you made them feel over a lifetime. Moments like those are so hard. I have many and still, when I get melancholy, I will weep over them. The kid I yelled at for parking in my way, the receptionist I called a cow one day. Yelling at the nurse because a gown didn’t fit. I vow to change my ways, to not be an asshole.

    Last week I met with a real estate agent who put me on a newsletter subscription after I specifically asked him not to. My mom was in the car with me and I said, “today I get the opportunity to not be an a-hole to this guy.” I wanted to say something but ultimately didn’t and still remember that as a highlight. That’s terrible.

    I am looking at it now as paying it forward. Maybe I can leave someone with a high note and never know it because I took an opportunity to not be an a-hole.

    All of this is just my ruminating because you struck a chord in me. Thank you for this reflection this morning. I’m sorry about your friend and that you can’t immediately see the joy you brought to him. He got to gossip about all your loud sex! Who doesn’t want a little of that in their life?

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  29. Isn’t that just the way of life? We all try to live well, treat each other kindly and be a good friend. I have no doubt in my mind that you do/did these things. There is also no doubt in my mind that the people who are your friends and loved ones think highly of you and don’t remember things the same way you do.
    I still regret not going to the rehab facility the night my mom died. I had been there that afternoon, called my sisters to say she was bad and it was going to be soon. I stayed home that evening and went to bed early because I knew my sister was stopping by that evening. I tell myself being there wouldn’t have changed anything but I don’t believe it.

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  30. Such wisdom in the comments. We all have regrets. I regret I didn’t see my Mom the day she died, but she knew I wasn’t coming that day, I was exhausted, I had been there the previous 38 days in a row, she encouraged me to stay home that day and rest. If I had gone that day I would have found her dead on the floor, I am so thankful I did not find her. I am so sorry about the loss of your friend. I hope you can focus on treasured memories and not the regrets.
    Tee

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    • I honestly think some people want to be left alone to die. It could be that your mom was relieved you weren’t there that day. Three of my grandparents died when no one was there.

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      • My dad lay dying in the hospital for three weeks after a brain surgery gone wrong. One of us was with him every minute. It was exhausting. The first time he was left alone in six weeks, he died. We were devastated that he was alone when it happened. His nurse told us “he was waiting for you all to leave so he could go. It happens all the time.”

        Death is not only sad. It’s also rather mysterious.

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        • In his first marriage, my husband had an infant daughter, born prematurely, lived for six weeks then died. They were, of course, there day and night for every minute of those six weeks. One evening, the nurses in the NICU encouraged them both to leave – go home and shower, go out for dinner, sleep in your own bed. The baby died overnight. My husband finally made peace with it years later when he came to believe that she waited for them to leave.

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  31. I, too, am saddened by the sudden passing of this creative, engaging and funny man. Like you, Karen, I did freelance writing for Greg’s agency. He was demanding but fair. And he was kind and encouraging. Greg was such an avid supporter of our hometown and his vision and insights will be deeply missed. He was simply a very good man. We’re on our way to FL now, and I’m bummed I won’t be able to attend his funeral. Anne

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  32. I will think about this line a lot today, “I suppose the lesson is to not be an asshole, but I never meant to be one any of those times, so how will I know not to be one in the future?” Thank you.

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  33. We are all human and have things we wish had been done differently, but we continue to persevere and learn as we go. My mother was in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s and that last week before she died, I was having a hard time dealing with it and went the whole week without seeing her until Friday after work. She went into the hospital that Saturday and passed away in pallative care on Sunday. I feel quilty as hell over it. However, I try to remind myself that one day when I see her again in Heaven this will all be of no consequence. We should however try to do the best for everyone in our paths here on earth. Like another reader said, easier said than done.

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  34. I can so relate to this, I get caught up in the regret world. My mom died 13 years ago and the weekend before she died was Mother Day. We spent the entire day together, got our nails done, dinner, a movie but she was hanging out at my house and I rushed her out as a man I was seeing was supposed to be coming over. And that man never showed and was never worth my time….

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  35. I’m sorry your friend died. I can tell he was a lovely person.
    When something similar happened to me, my wise mom said that, individually, we humans tend to give ourselves more importance than we deserve. She meant that we often overestimate the impact we have in other’s lives. They don’t hang on our every word. They don’t even recall most of the little things we wish we hadn’t said. All of that is to say that Greg was probably just fine planting the tree without you and would never want you to feel guilty about that.
    My friend’s husband died last year and she said someone send her a card with the Dr. Seuss quote “Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened.” At the TIME she thought it was incredibly shallow and rude, but she’s thought of it often and has really tried to set aside her regrets and focus on the good parts. She keeps that card on her desk so she sees it every day.

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  36. So sorry for your loss. This was a nice tribute to the people you have loved and lost. The thing to remember is the love and not the loss. Easier said than done, I know.

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  37. Oh, June. I’m so sorry about your friend. But you’re not an asshole. I’d be willing to bet he remembered you for all the boozy late night talks and loud sex and never gave that tree another thought. But I know what you mean… I still remember that my grandpa called me and asked if I was coming to see him at the nursing home on my birthday. But instead I was at his funeral on his birthday. What I feel bad about is that he had to call me at all. Did 12 year old me have so many better things to do that I couldn’t go see the person who loved me best?

    Death is indeed sad.

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