Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Experiencing Death VI: Alone with the Dead

This is the sixth installment in a monthly thread, where I am looking back at the early experiences I had with death and reflecting on how those moments shaped my views and fears of it. In order to change my relationship with the concept of death, I have to understand what shaped it to begin with. Our ideas and philosophies are meant to evolve and change, to grow as our own experiences do.

My Grandma Donna died on Mother’s Day of 2001. I was getting ready to leave for my hometown to see her when my dad called, even though he knew we were on our way. He wanted to make sure we were leaving soon. He didn’t think there was much time left. My Grandma took a sharp turn suddenly, after her battle with cancer. I had fooled myself into believing she would be all right. I was in denial. We all were. We were all sure that my Grandma, made of laughter and strength and no-bullshit, would survive. But death is seldom fair.
            In the car, I could feel a thread in the air, pulling at my chest, connected to that hospital room miles away. I was breathing into that thread, willing the hope to remain tangible. The moment I couldn’t feel it anymore was like a tethered kite string snapping. In the car I started to cry.
When I got home my dad was standing in the driveway, waiting for me, and I knew I was too late. My Grandma’s death was my first experience with telling family a loved one we both cared about was dead. It was my first experience going to the funeral home, of watching the people whose mundane day involves the practical ins and outs of death while we filled out the obituary. It was my first time picking out a casket and learning about the vault we also had to buy to seal the casket in; we chose oak for Donna.
All the while, I felt cold inside. One moment my Grandma was alive and the next she was gone. It didn’t make sense in my brain and my grief was muddier. Part of me understood that people die. She’d been sick for a long time. Cancer kills. And now she was gone and our lives carry on. Everyone dies some time. But… I wasn’t ready. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I could still remember the last time I hugged her. If I closed my eyes I could hear her laughter, her infectious, deep, giggling laughter. How can a thing so emotionally tangible be gone?
I was filled with a need to see her body. To touch the dead flesh and know, truly know in my heart, that she was gone. It seemed strange and irrational. I mean, she was gone. That was a fact. But it wasn’t real yet, and I could think of no other salve for my grief. So I went to the funeral home between viewings, when the room was closed. I told them I was family and that I didn’t get to say goodbye. They left me alone in the chilled room with her body, saying if there was anything they could do
It took me minutes to approach the thing that looked like her but did not feel like her. A part of me was sure it was simply a poor wax figure of Donna. That wasn’t her. It couldn’t be. It felt like one of my senses had been cut off and I couldn’t translate what I was seeing into a proper context. Whatever spirit it was that infused her limbs while alive, in death it was absent, at rest elsewhere. Still, before me was the body I knew, the arms that had held me all my life. The body is the temple and deserves the respect we show our churches, whatever that means to us.
When I touched her, for the first time I understood the dimensions of the difference between the words skin and flesh. I touched her flesh. Skin is a thing alive and yet when I touched her it was nothing but timber and molecules that built a structure. There was nothing of her there for me. She was wearing a suit the likes of which I had never seen her in and makeup that would never have crossed her face. The body before me was a respectful attempt at the Grandma I knew, transcribed by a stranger. I let the intention of sincere respect present in the display hold weight in my heart.
I still ache for the goodness of the person she was, for the times I would see her eyes narrow and knew she could see something about the room with the wisdom her years gave her that I couldn’t see yet. I ache for the time lost to us we could have had with her. I don’t think that’s unusual and it won’t be the last time I hold that feeling. She was a cornerstone of my childhood and a firm foundation in my life. The loss of her won’t be forgotten, but I have learned that the ache will lessen over time, as it already has, until there is nothing left but the smiles prompted by remembering time we shared together.

For Donna, 2001
In the highlands where blue and smoky mountain peaks meet,
a great white owl shared space with me
along a streambed of wild thyme and mimosa.
A rush of wind with unblinking dandelion-colored eyes,
she appeared as clouds crept the silent streets at twilight.

I held my breath against the fragrant green surrounding me,
far removed from the crumbling factory town of my childhood,
a small house along the Erie Canal offering little to children,
waiting for day trips to the field of golden-yellow blossoms
across from my grandma’s house.

Can spirits visit
they die?

In the split-ranch with Arizona white walls
a braided macramé owl,
orange bead beak,
met us at the door,
perched on a stick of stripped wood,
guarding the home
where chicken pox found me
in her bathtub, heavy
with the scent of baking soda,
her hands spooning cool water over my skin.

It didn’t matter she was not blood,
the only of three grandmothers to laugh with us,
pass time with us.
She stole kisses, holding
squirming and giggling grandchildren
against soft summer skin.

“you would not have wanted to see her
this way,” mom says, “sick and fading,” she says
to ease a wounded heart,
“i told her how much you loved her.”

but when
did i last
say those words?

we always think
there will be more

Her skin.
Bleached in the parlor-
driftwood too long in the light,
remnant of a living thing-
Cold like plaster-
plastered owl bookends
crafted by thirteen year-old hands
stood guardian on the mantle,
white spirits.
White skin.

The powder she wore lingers
above the colorful lacquer mask
my grandmother
of southwest fire and sunshine
would never wear.

I want to scrape rouge from her cheeks,
scrub gloss from her lips,
I want to scream
at her defacement
so I can pretend she
is only waiting,
suppressing an impish giggle.

That she is only playing at death,
until I arrive.

I am pulled back to the grass,
the thin air of that north Carolina peak where
the white owl stares, cold.
She blinks, gone in a great gust,
white ghost soaring above my face,
dissipating into ether while
 mountain clouds turn grey
and my heart softens in the magic.

Relevant Posts:
Experiencing Death: The Unborn Baby (published May 16, 2012)
Experiencing Death II: My Father’s Father (published June 13, 2012)
Experiencing Death III: Squirrel in the Road (published July 11, 2012)
Experiencing Death IV: The Body at Daggett Lake (published August 15, 2012)
Experiencing Death V: Suicide (published September 9, 2012)

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