My grandfather died when I was four. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I learned he was supposed to stay that way.
When I read the recent news story about the first natural death in over fifty years, I was skeptical too. Of course I was. This wasn’t the first story of it’s kind. It wasn’t even the first this year. Ever since the tragic 1968 pandemic, the world has latched on to any and every hope that maybe, just maybe the end is in sight – medications, genetic treatments, and, yes, stories like Amber Sawyer’s. And every year, we’ve been left disappointed.
The first such story that I could find in print is from 1973. Gloria Whitaker of Philadelphia claimed her thirty-year old sister, Dolores, passed away in her sleep. But unlike countless incidents of families – even entire apartment complexes and neighborhoods – devoured in their sleep during those first five years, Gloria awoke to a quiet house and her sister’s inanimate corpse still in bed. And according to the article, instead of running in terror, Gloria wept. But she wasn’t heartbroken about Dolores’ death, as they both had been with the passing and subsequent reanimation of their parents in ’71. No, she was overcome with joy at the thought that her sister might be the first of many to once more find rest after death.
Turns out, Dolores died from a ruptured aneurysm that mercifully damaged the part of the brain effected by Romero’s.
When Amber’s case started trending, I assumed the inevitable autopsy would show something similar. Perhaps a head or brain injury she decided to sleep off instead of seeking medical attention. Perhaps drugs or alcohol were involved. This was a nineteen-year old college student, after all. In a world where the dead simply don’t stay that way, it’s not hard to feel a little bit immortal at that age.
But then, nothing.
Far as we know or can tell, Amber Sawyer is the first person to be medically declared dead of natural causes for the first time since 1968. There was nothing in her system. No aneurysm or head trauma. No defect. Nothing but a dead girl with a bad heart who stayed that way.
My mother is getting on in years now. She’s called me up every night since Amber’s story made its way to her local newspaper, sharing stories of a world where Amber’s death wasn’t news, only a fact of life. And like many others, she’s afraid of what will become of her when what should be the end comes, but doesn’t. She doesn’t want my father to keep her around in chains, like how her mother had kept her father, my grandfather, all those years ago. Every night she asks me to tell her that Amber’s story isn’t yet another news story that will come and go like all the rest, and every night I’m left unsure what to say.
When she asked me again last night, I replied with a question of my own.
“Why did grandma keep grandpa around?” I asked her.
And to her credit, she finally shared with me what grandma had said all those years ago. “God took him, but left the rest behind for me.”
I want to tell my mother that the world is a different place. That when she’s gone, she’ll stay that way. But I can’t. Because I’m unsure. Because I still have my doubts. Because I worry Amber’s story will be no different than Dolores’ or my grandfather’s. Because a not-so small part of me is scared of a world without her in it. Because in a world where the dead don’t stay that way, it can be that much harder to let go.