“Am I still alive?”
Those were my father’s last words. Pretty good, as last words go.
And pretty typical. Pop always asked tough questions.
He was a tough person. All his life, he did things his way. Not that he was selfish. It was just the way he worked. More than anyone else I’ve known, Pop had control over his life and his surroundings. He was a force. You couldn’t know him and ignore him.
He even died the way he wanted to.
It happened on Palm Sunday, on the last day of his last vacation in Florida with my mother. They had spent the morning in church and a quiet afternoon visiting friends at a campground. Around four, Pop and one of those friends went for a walk. When they reached their destination, Pop said to his friend, “Catch me. I’m falling,” and collapsed in the guy’s arms. Within moments, he died.
But not before that final question, dropped like a coin by the toll booth at the Bridge to Hereafter.
“Am I still alive?”
He was seventy. It was his fifth heart attack. Any of the other four could have finished him, but he wasn’t ready. There was too much left to do. He said so after his first one in 1966 and again after his fourth in 1974. He had to work. Travel. Move to North Carolina and build a home there. See my sister and I mature, get married, have kids, succeed in careers.
Pop sometimes spoke of the things he’d survived.
Like the time at age four, when his older sister Ethel talked him into substituting himself for a bag of sand in the first test run of the Cyclone, then the world’s meanest roller coaster and for sixty years after the main attraction at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. My grandfather, the master carpenter who built the Cyclone, gave Ethel a very memorable boot in the behind.
In the early depression, Pop worked on the docks, loading and unloading banana boats — boa constrictors, tarantulas and all. There were more men than jobs then. The boss rationed work by throwing chips, one for each available job, to the waiting crowd of dock workers. The men would fight and scramble to grab up chips that fell into pools of horse urine and slime on the cobblestone dockside street. Pop became more of a fighter then. And a connoisseur of bananas.
Later he worked closer to home, doing high steel construction on the George Washington Bridge. Pop remembered narrow escapes at the bridge, fun and danger in frightening combinations. Sometimes the men would take rides on the cable rigging car, normally a low-speed vehicle that ran along the fat twin suspension cables sagging in a giant smile between the two six hundred foot high support towers. They would let go at the top of one tower, accelerate down the slope to 100 miles an hour or so and coast up almost to the top of the other tower, then back again, until the car came to a rest at the bottom of the parabola. Men died doing stunts like that. Pop was always somewhere else at the time.
There was factory work, the ski patrol in New England, work in Alaska, where he met my mother. Among brushes with danger in the Great North, Pop once met a Kodiak Bear face to face while hunting something else.
He was 35 when he volunteered for the Army in World War Two. The enlistment officer gave him a choice. He could leave for the Pacific with an outfit right there, or he could go to Europe and stop off in New Jersey to visit his family on the way. Instincts sent him east off to Europe. The Seattle outfit shipped straight for Corregidor, where every man was killed.
His division in Europe found death in the Nazi concentration camps they helped liberate. After that, Pop hated dental work because the smell of drilling enamel reminded him of burning human bone.
After the war Pop returned, married Mom, settled into the insurance business and raised the stable suburban family in which I became the first child. He was 39 when I arrived.
I didn’t grow up thinking of Pop as the daredevil type, although I was always impressed by his friendly attitude toward danger. Little things would bother him as much as anybody else, but the heavy stuff he always approached with a Zen calm.
The reason was obvious. Pop understood things. He was on intimate terms with the principles that guide the machinery of existence. He knew there was no percentage in fear.
His understanding of how the world worked was expressed through invention. His mind roamed the conceptual landscape where the practical and the possible share common ground. So if somebody had a special task that required an uninvented device, Pop would retire to his garage workshop for a few minutes or a few days and custom-manufacture the right widget for the job. He usually volunteered such assistance without being asked.
I always believed that his skills at manipulating the gadgets of reality were paralleled by his mind’s work on the spiritual plane, not that he talked about it much. He had quit the Catholic Church as a teenager over some dispute with a priest, and he wasn’t much of a churchgoer until after he retired. He said he believed in God. Beyond that his beliefs were private and unexplained. But I knew he thought about it a lot, especially when he was fishing, which was much of the time.
I had premonitions of his death.
In December a close friend expressed an interest in meeting my parents sometime. I told her, though I don’t know why, that I somehow felt that Pop wouldn’t be around much longer, although his health was fine for an old man with four heart attacks under his belt. By coincidence she and her family showed up at my house on New Year’s day, when my parents paid their last visit before heading to Florida for their annual four-month vacation. When my parents left, I said to my friend, “I think that’s the last time I’ll see Pop alive.” I hoped saying so would jinx his death. It didn’t.
About two weeks before Pop died, I dreamed about saying the eulogy at his funeral. That eulogy was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and one of the easiest. Everybody was surprised when I volunteered. Preachers usually handle the eulogy, although they rarely know the deceased as well as kin do. Fear pulsed with my blood up to the moment when the preacher gave me the signal to come up to the pulpit.
I went calm. I knew what to say, though I hadn’t rehearsed a thing. My mental anchor was an observation that popped into my head the night before. In the oyster of my mind, this observation was the speck of sand around which the pearl of eulogy grew.
It was this: “Wherever Pop was, you always knew he was there.” It wasn’t exactly praise, but it was true. Pop was a force, and his presence could flood the senses.
He was there, at the funeral. And he wasn’t the body in the box. I knew it, and the congregation knew it. I said it and people nodded. Who needed proof? He was there. I recalled what St. Paul said about faith: “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”
When Pop died, Mom thought he addressed his last question to more than those present at the departure. Perhaps, she thought, he saw something on the other side as he lingered at the threshold.
Perhaps, in the spirit of St. Paul, he had evidence.
“Am I still alive?” he said.
It sure feels like it.
Within moments, he died. But not before that final question, dropped like a coin by the toll booth at the Bridge to Hereafter. “Am I still alive?”
He cost me $6.25. At 25 cents a shot it took me 26 times to put that ballooned excuse for a basketball through the Mid-South Fair’s rip off hoop. But, I was determined to win that little purple chicken.
I think it was the purple that did it. He was the only lavender puff in a box full of reds, greens, and yellows.
I was eight and worried that the little purple chick would get trampled like some of his biddy buddies. I counted 17 in the wire cage that were dead from the August Memphis heat.
But I got him. Swish, on the 26th shot that biddy of purple was mine!
I cupped him home, all the way from the fairgrounds to 2946 Garden Lane. It was a long three-mile journey as big-boy baseball games, the Memphis Belle, and the Chickasaw Garden lake all had their distracting magic. But I kept crossed eyes on my chicken.
I put him in my backyard. He caught and ate fast bugs. His feet grew feathers, his wings turned white, but his head stayed purple with a red comb, an iris in the snow named “Purple Head.”
He followed me everywhere, which made perfect sense to me. The older people in the neighborhood laughed at us. I didn’t understand why. But they laughed and laughed and laughed and said, “Here comes Jeff and Purple Head.”
They gave me crackers. Purple Head was indignant. East Memphians in 1950 didn’t serve fast bugs, especially to uppity purple headed chickens.
I always left full, Purple Head still indignant. I could hear Purple Head cluck fast bug success stories as we sauntered home, satiated.
Two loyal years later, Purple Head died. I buried him next to my English bulldog’s grave. I remember my last look at Purple Head. His eyes matched his head; his feet were yellow razors. His comb was a Gulf coast boiled shrimp and his beak a perfect candy corn.
I put him down. But not forever.
My father’s death at 57, from cancer, was little surprise to me — it seemed rather the logical conclusion to a life that had been disappearing, sheen by sheen, for so long. Still, when I examine it, I am amazed by my complicity. I urged him, at the very end, to let go of his body, this set of circumstances. But more than that, I did little to hold him in my life all those years. Somehow I expected the power of the father to come back and animate the relationship; I had little trust in my own ability to instill life into that dissolving wisp of a thing.
I don’t know when his death began. Long before he admitted the pain he bore, he knew he had gone beyond some point of no return and had tipped the balance irrevocably toward leaving this life. On a visit a year before his death I could almost smell the fear that he couldn’t keep under wraps. He fidgeted in his arm chair long before he went off to the hospital and had his fear confirmed.
Or maybe it began the day he told me, leaning over his bulging suitcases, that he was leaving, that he and Mom couldn’t work it out, and “did I understand?” I did understand about them. There was no way I could comprehend what was happening to him and me. We children were like the baggage, it seemed. Steve and Frannie and I went where we were told, and this time we stayed. It was easier all around. At 17, it was easy to let him disappear. He wasn’t the only man anymore. He remarried and she was rather strange and infantile and they never quite got on their feet.
Then there we were, he and I, in that tiny hospital room together, pretending interest in a crazy Gene Wilder movie. The very roots of my tongue were straining, bound up in thirty years’ worth of questions and observations and desire to know. He knew that I knew about the cancer, something he had tried to hide, something I had known all along. I think he was ashamed of dying, as if he were running out on us again, certainly leaving against his will. I was told he felt badly because he left us nothing tangible. How could he not have known by then that it made no difference, that we expected nothing more or less of him than his life, his being, his presence? How, at the end, could all the truths not be apparent?
We reached a silent crescendo of discomfort in that hospital room before I finally managed to ask him if he was afraid. I knew he was, but I wanted him to talk about it, to let go of some of that terrible consuming force. He didn’t look me in the eyes when he said that he was terrified. I spoke as gently as I could then. I wanted him to understand that I knew nothing about dying, that there was no part of my being that could even begin to comprehend the loneliness of his pain, the nearly unbearable desperation that flickered in his eyes. I said, anyway, that I was certain that it didn’t all end, that some vital spark survived and lived on, that he would live on. “I trust that with all my heart,” I told him. And even then, his pain, like an armor, reflected my words back at me. And they stung. I would not try again to be “comforting” beyond the range of my fingertips, beyond rubbing his legs or sponging water between his lips when he could no longer drink. I watched, with all the others, the erosion beneath the shell.
On his last day as John, I sat on the bed with him, holding his hand, talking to him about our very best times together — playing basketball for him when he coached, the way he taught me to throw a baseball right “even if I was a girl.” Even then he never responded verbally or squeezed my hand or anything of that nature. His spirit was far off, I think, battling it out with his will, and that took all his attention and concentration. At least the awful pain was held at arm’s length now by a strong potion of Demerol and other drugs. We all kept whispering to him to let go — all of us: me, my brother, Dad’s wife, my sister. I couldn’t find him anywhere, though, and that disconcerted me — I wanted to address my thoughts to him and I knew he wasn’t in his body any longer. He had pretty much laid that aside. It clung to life like a cicada husk clings to a tree in summer by nearly invisible toenails. My mind ranged about, looking for him, trying to connect with something. And then, just for a second, I felt it: a sense of lightness, of happiness in the air, localized in one spot. It was like a disembodied sense of humor hanging there, and then it was gone. His breathing stopped soon afterward.
At the funeral home, people came up to me and said things like: “In all the years I knew your father, I never heard him raise his voice,” or “Your father was a good man, a gentle man. He never got angry.” I had ambivalent feelings about all those pronouncements, for I had spent years feeling the storms batter that veneer of gentleness. I thought of the Alexandria Quartet the whole time I was in the funeral home; how we each catch only facets of an experience in our flimsy sensory nets and that is what we call our own.
On a sudden burst of inspiration, my brother (who seemed to take Dad’s death the hardest) went out and bought a football and we all signed it and placed it in the foot of his casket. We all felt better, I think, as if we had finally found the wavelength on which to communicate with him.
Having experienced that sense of humor in his room just before he died, I knew that if I was to find Dad again at the funeral ceremony, it would be through an identity like that. Toward the end of the ceremony, just to the right and above the head of the priest, something grabbed my attention, and I felt it again, that sense of humor I had known was there. It was now just one foot of something akin to a rainbow, a rainbow made of progressively more and more sublime and exquisite humor, and it arched on forever. I felt less sad then than I ever have for my father, or anyone, for that matter.
I can still find some guilt and some grief for my father’s evaporation from my life, even knowing that he picked me for a daughter as surely as I picked him for a father this time around. I look at my lack of self-knowledge, my lack of trust in my own power to know if I should have interfered, should have forced some sort of confrontation that would have opened the way for a difference. But my inheritance from my father, beyond the great gift he made of allowing me to share in the tremendous energy of his passing, is a gentleness, sometimes a reticence. It is now a gentleness that looks me straight in the eyes.
Dee Dee Small Hooker
When I worked in a mortuary, I saw the bodies, drove the cars full of people feeling sorry for themselves in their personal loss; I never saw any death.
I had a friend once, a person with a pessimistic view of life, a sardonic, humorous outlook. He had life and joy, enthusiasm and “cool,” and more knowledge than three crosseyed scholars. We got in each other’s way, had this and that crazy scheme together, enjoyed each other greatly. He went off to the army; we wrote once in a while. Then a letter came back with “no forwarding address possible” marked on it.
I remember once he called. I answered his hello with some apprehension, feeling the tensions of some of our last times together. I heard him feel taken aback at the needless hurt I had slipped in beneath his friendly hello. I never heard from him again.
I remember him from time to time. I have not found a friend to talk with openly from my heart and mind since, these many long years. Perhaps I will meet him again. Probably not — not this side of physical death.
I remember seeing him as the wizard who held us all from dark forces we could barely know, could never learn to grapple with successfully. Since he’s gone, I have become the wizard. I must now meet and successfully ignore those terrible, non-existent dark forces myself.
Perhaps this is like the death of a loved one. Certainly I loved him. I don’t know if I will enjoy his company again. It hurts; somehow it’s all right, almost. The only photograph I had of him has somehow disappeared. The images of him in my heart and mind are complex and many sided, growing more beautiful with the passage of time.
Nine months had passed and the stage was set for the entrance of our first baby. It had been exhilarating to experience pregnancy for the first time.
We decided to have a home delivery, which in our community met with all sorts of criticism and pessimistic predictions. We had to take a very hard line position. Yes, we were taking the necessary precautions, we had competent assistants and a doctor telling me I was in excellent physical condition. We were prepared to deal with any situation and to accept the possibility that things could go wrong. Over and over, these things were repeated to concerned folks.
Birth was more than the mechanical experience of baby coming into world; it was a truly spiritual miracle. My duty was to be ready for this event so it could unfold as the Great Spirit deemed it would. If there were any signs of a problem I would modify the plan accordingly. I knew my husband and I would accept the chances of death and deal with them if such should present themselves. But this was a time of rejoicing which should carry zeal and celebration with it, not morbidity and doom.
The day finally arrived; our baby began knocking on a July morning. Hello, little person, so you are going to come out and greet us, at last? Our midwife just happened to be taking her morning walk our way; she woke up with the feeling that it was a special morning.
I labored on my deck, centering and drawing strength from one of the huge hickory trees nearby. The canopy of green allowed magical myriads of light to filter down on my vibrating body. The spring beside our house sang to me with its most cheerful words of encouragement. Lots of loving hands massaged a tight or tired muscle, supported me in times of repose. Love was so thick around us, it was intoxicating.
Labor was just as it should be, opening me up and helping me push my baby out; and yes, it was a son, large with dark eyes opening as his head emerged. Hello, Pilgrim, so glad to have you arrive! Vital signs good, color good, very quiet sort, no loud cries. Celebration! Our son had arrived, we all were well, and all was right with the world.
After feasting and congratulations, everyone went home and we began our first night together as a family. Thank you, Great Spirit, thank you Mother Nature, thank you God, Earth, Sun, and all the dear friends who assisted.
But wait — Pilgrim has mucous in his throat; no problem, where is the bulb syringe; but he is not getting his breath! No, he’s not breathing! We did an hour of mouth to mouth and heart compression. He’s gone . . . empty space. . . .
Have I been dreaming perhaps? Maybe I’m still pregnant and just need to wake up. No, our baby has left us as quickly as he came. Eight hours was all the time he gave to this life. Now the business of taking things from here.
My husband went to speak with our doctor, midwife, and the rest. I stayed, still not rested from labor and weak from shock, my precious little gift wrapped by my side, awaiting his bed of oak to be built.
We buried him near our house the next day and held a wake afterwards. Before the service I had not cried; so many people were crying around me, especially seeing my husband weep, I felt I must show strength, that I must let people know that I was accepting my fate with dignity. I felt like I had a spring coiled deep within me, and it was winding tighter with every hour, minute, and second that passed. Then as the first shovel of earth was thrown on the coffin, it snapped. The realization of my loss hit hard, and I collapsed in tears, finally letting myself mourn; mourning, medicine which begins the healing after such a loss. Empty womb, empty arms, breasts full of milk, all these things to remind me of the events just transpired. Yet one carries on, to bear more children, to have compassion for others that lose loved ones, and to carry the perspective of life and death.
Bell Buckle, Tennessee
My father’s uncle died the day after Christmas. No one, except for his wife, had any use for him. He was a cadaverous hillbilly who thought that working in a Gastonia mill was the height of human accomplishment. During the Depression, he advised my father that he should give up the ridiculous idea of going to college and get a job in the mill instead. He babbled constantly in a whining, nasal voice that had all the charm of radio static. Most of his opinions seemed to be derived from an uncorrectable ignorance, combined with a basic misunderstanding of both sex and religion. My mother actually started laughing when she found that he was dead. When she told the rest of us, we burst into guffaws.
But tradition and custom being what they were, my brother, my father, and I attended the funeral. It was preceded, of course, by a gathering of the family, and gorging on huge amounts of fried chicken, turkey, ham, coconut cake, pecan pie, and the other usual Southern holiday-wedding-funeral-football game-stock car race type foods. Heavy, rich.
My brother and I still had a difficult time controlling our laughter. I noticed that a number of my kinfolk had the same problem. Hilarity was in the air. Jokes were told. Thighs were slapped. Men passed a bottle on the back porch.
Suddenly my aunt was before me. She looked up at me, tears in her eyes, and asked me what the world was going to do without her husband, dear old Perry. Before I could frame the proper response, I blurted out, “Well, that’s the way it goes.” Exactly as if I were announcing a baseball game.
She looked at me as if I had slapped her, then wandered away mumbling about old Perry. Fortunately, my brother was the only member of the funeral party who witnessed this unfortunate lapse of decency. I later found out that she asked everyone in the room the same question, and not a few responses were like mine.
Eventually, we drove to an absolutely hideous Baptist Church, which was located across the street from a cotton mill. There we were supposed to hear the memorial service, and old Perry’s mortal remains were to be taken by hearse to be buried close to his family’s mountain homestead. The funeral procession arrived at the red brick church at the same time as the shift change at the mill. Needless to say, it was automotive chaos.
We sat in the overheated church and listened to an enormously fat minister bellow non sequiturs about life, death, the hereafter, and the goodness of old Perry. Just the kind of send-off anybody would want to have. Then his coffin was hauled back to the hearse.
As we stepped outside, I noticed a familiar figure leaning against the hearse. It was a boy I had gone to high school with, named Ace. Ace wore one of those very tall flat-top haircuts, combed into wings on the sides. Bad acne. Smoked Pall Malls and quit school the day he turned sixteen. I walked over to Ace and asked what he was doing there. He laughed and said he was hauling a stiff to the mountains, that he worked for the mortuary and liked it. Then he lighted another Pall Mall, got in the hearse, and started the engine. Pointing to the neck of a whiskey bottle protruding from beneath the seat, he said, “Don’t worry, stud, I’ll have plenty of company.”
Then he was off, smiling like the happiest man that ever drove a hearse.
Bobby Carl Odell
Chapel Hill, N.C.
I felt it again . . . that sense of humor I had known was there. It was now just one foot of something akin to a rainbow . . . made of progressively more and more sublime and exquisite humor, and it arched on forever.
I have a theory I’ll see him again one day on the street or at a party so if you see me scrutinizing a man in a bookstore or anywhere else it’s just my denial of the facts, facts being he’s dead and buried. Sometimes I see him decaying in his uniform and I imagine his hair as long as he never got to grow it, only that’s late at night when I can’t sleep and in the light of day I’m back looking. Sometimes I see his nose; yesterday his mouth appeared on a student downtown and that sign gave me hope because even as I stared past the obvious I knew somewhere he’s laughing, too, or walking across a bridge. I cannot accept death. Tired of envisioning a diseased corpse I fabricate a new dimension where people who stopped breathing once can try again. Can’t molecules play tricks? I hope. But I am left here and it is the dead who leave me thinking of the pain of isolation.
Sometimes I dream he is dying and I am his consolation though it was our parents there to hold his hand in the Veterans Hospital when he was still young, younger than I am now, and I was the second child. That is guilt. I did not know my brother. What communication we had was never spoken. I remember leaving his room one time. His face was swollen and only one eye looked into my two but through that one eye I could see all that had never been said. I was so young then. A few months later I cut all my hair off and I wanted to show him. He wasn’t there. Now my hair is long again and my mother thinks I was looking for a brother because I married a boy with black hair and glasses. That’s not true. I was looking for a child and a lover, to an extent, but what I was truly wanting was a man to replace my lost cat Gandolph who abandoned me two months before my brother’s death.
Still sometimes when we’re all together I can’t help wondering what my other brothers think of this dark-haired bearded Jew who makes us four again. Last month we sat together eating a pizza and despite the minor gaps in the conversation I was happy to see my brothers, men now, talking with my husband, and me, the only girl, being treated like the proverbial sister.
Before he was eighteen John Henry treated me like an apparition best left in her pink bedroom. Then one time he came home on leave and as he was about to go out with friends he turned to me, still dressed for church, and said, “You want to come?’’ I went with him, blue stockings and all, to pick up his friends for pizza and a movie. We had to wait a long time in a mobbed lobby for the film to begin and I was there, next to him, next to his friends, two pairs of brothers and sisters, all equal. Another time I was invited again but it was awkward and he took me home. I was young enough to feel left out but by then sister enough to realize he was terminally ill and needed time alone with his friends.
There was a time when I called no death tragic but instead accepted this transaction as a natural progression from earth on towards the heavens. For the entire semester before that one day my brother died I walked around staring at trees and after I’d stared at them long enough I could see in them the flesh of ages past risen from the grave. I had fantasies of my own self rotting and the thought of losing my useless organs enabled me to find a peace in dying. I was confused. When my brother died all I could see were the clouds against the sky and I felt him there relieved of all pain and in complete dissociation from this planet, a soul released from human bondage. Yet I had to accept my own death before I could anticipate my brother’s so I wallowed in romantic notions. My perspective was limited to the physical realm and I neglected consideration of spirit for the easily accessible problem of the discarded body. You should understand that. It is difficult to accept the grave when you know for the rest of your life any pilgrimages will find you standing above ground when below concealed is the commercially preserved body of a loved one, may he rest in peace. You can dig him up and talk to him. He has not aged a day.
I know someone who worked in a funeral parlor the summer my brother died and was sent there after the prescribed autopsy. I met him on the bus one morning as I was on my way to work at the public library. He was on his way to work at Talbert-Shives wearing a black suit. I wanted to be conversational and say that was where my brother had been sent; however, I had an idea he’d feel awkward so I didn’t say anything, just wondered if he had shared any posthumous intimacy with the earthly remains of my kin. In a way I was jealous. I had not helped deliver the Navy uniform, I had not helped pick out a coffin. The stylized ritual was offensive to me and no amount of familial concern could have enticed me to share what I considered a useless task. Afterwards on the bus, though, I felt a voyeuristic curiosity as I sat next to a man, a stranger, who had clothed the anonymous dead. I wonder what he thought when they brought in a body wasted by nature gone awry. I know what I thought when I kneeled by the flag-draped closed coffin. I thought of my parents bent in prayer for their first-born son.
Losing any child is painful, especially since a voice from the subconscious inevitably questions the perverse logic behind the death. We think of life as a progression: a man takes a wife and she bears him children, children who in turn care for their parents in old age and of necessity bury them. A month after my brother died my grandmother passed on in her sleep, leaving her nursing-home bed for the heavenly solace she had been promised in the church. She had raised twelve children and lived a full life. She was ready for death. I found no reason to cry for her but for my parents I shed the tears of a child confronting the intricate consequences of adulthood, which is to say I was impotent. I felt in myself their probable anguish at the death of my brother John Henry but my emotions were well-contained and I did not speak of the dead.
I have been married two years now and away from home even longer. Within my marriage I’ve conceived and lost my womb’s own version of the child. No doctor will tell me exactly why my body rejected its eleven-week-old embryo so I regard the loss as a sign to wait, if not a year, forever. For a lonesome interval after the miscarriage, however, I mourned the loss of a creature I had come to know within me, and even more, I was frustrated at the lack of any tangible sign that my pregnancy had ever existed: no little tombstone, not even a name. I remember getting out of bed to save my husband from further bloodshed and there in our dirty purple bathroom, a relic of another student’s acid days, I lost what we had looked forward to as our child. With a coathanger in hand I bent by the toilet bowl anxious to retrieve that gelatinous form but my husband flushed it away and called a cab to take me to the hospital. Now when I run across photographs of actual human development I study carefully the features of a three-month-old fetus, and my husband changes the subject when I start talking about tiny hands and human forms. I guess I’m searching for some image of my child. Sometimes I wonder into which pipes it flowed. But I never doubt it is gone.
I know, too, my parents never expect to walk into a room and find my brother there. They followed his every footstep from the cradle to the grave and it is the overwhelming absence of him that constitutes their own personal sadness. A parent’s bereavement is unique. A sister can do nothing more than miss the presence of another child. My aborted attempt at motherhood taught me this. Yet though I never consider the embryonic soul I know the body’s gone.
My brother’s body is not gone. It rests fully clothed beneath magnolia trees and spanish moss. I am his sister. I cannot believe he is dead. Nor do I want to make a trip to the cemetery solely to unearth the coffin and disprove my mad delusions. Surely I know that man will never walk again. Had I, however, seen him release his last breath I would not go on expecting him. That’s why I look for him on the street. Perhaps I will never find more than some traits reincarnate but the assurance that these few vestiges of his life will continue to taunt me enables me to sleep at night, whereas some cruel evenings I cannot get the image of him lying there in a vaulted coffin out of my head.
I cannot accept death. Tired of envisioning a diseased corpse I fabricate a new dimension where people who stopped breathing once can try again. Can’t molecules play tricks?
The Master said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” So I should not even dabble with the question of a deceased loved one lest I be found as a dead one. Let’s deal not with death but life. But though I’m personally ready to face death, some are still struggling, not having seen and learned that the kingdom of God is at hand.
The kids were assigned a short piece of boardwork dealing with their own view of death. Since the Good Book says that no man ever yet hated his own flesh it is thus fair to say that everyone has himself as his first and foremost “loved one.” So how do they view the death of their “loved one”? Well, Liz wrote:
I would enjoy being dead. I would be out of pain and hatred and hunger. I would like to go to heaven if I can.
You’ll make it Liz, keep pressin’ on. Terry wrote:
I want to die. My brother burnt to death in a truck. I felt crappy. Nothing much.
I love you Terry. Life is sad and don’t let anybody fool you, especially the born-again Christians. (But God is good of course.) Nick wrote:
I would like to die because life is boring. I would like to die right now by my heart stopping.
Nick occasionally spouts forth some theology, letting me know he’s had at least some kind of religious education back the road a piece. Western Christianity is impoverished big. Life is boring because all you have to do is believe in Jesus, so the party line goes. Now that you believe in Jesus go out and do what you want. Jesus is crying Nick, for Mrs. Robinson and everybody else, especially a lot of the Christians. Jesus, save us. Renna had a more normal writing I suppose:
If I got shot it would hurt. I don’t want to die young. I would like to be 55 years old when I die. Right now I want to have fun. I wish that nobody ever would die, because that makes me cry.
Keep that Renna, even now while you’re having your fun. Because you and I both know that you ain’t havin’ all that much fun behind your laughter. As I write this it is Ash Wednesday. That circle of ash on the forehead represents human knowledge and understanding (the forehead) coming to terms with death (the ashes). There is a spiritual teaching in the Bible so radical that I fear sharing it but let me take courage believing that some honest hearts may consider it:
But we do see . . . Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for every one. Hebrews 2:9
Kids, this one tasted your death. Your ashes were on His forehead. He was perfected “through sufferings.” (Heb. 2:10.) A foolish man named Isaiah wrote 2700 years ago:
He was despised . . . A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief . . . Surely our griefs He Himself bore And our sorrows He carried . . . He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities . . . All of us like sheep have gone astray Each of us has turned to his own way But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.
Elk Grove, Illinois
Small, noisy, selfish, Mama and Papa would always obey your cry. You had your own room. Your crib was against one wall. A long jagged crack was your room’s only decor. The window looked down on black pavement and tall gray houses. A few ragged trees struggling to live dotted the sides of the street.
I was jealous of the attention which you demanded. That is why I stole your bottle before you were finished and sucked it myself. “Look Mama, I need you too!” Did I hate you sometimes? If I did I could not allow myself to remember it now. I know that I also loved you above all. Your small strong fingers grabbed mine through the crib bars. You were always moving. My little brother, only eight months alive. Like still images remembered from a deep dream, I recall those memories of you.
I was two and a half years old, but I remember. You were breathing funny. Sitting with you and Mama in a gray, small, quiet room, waiting. A big man in a long white coat took you. Two days later he took me too. I have the flu, they explained. I was alone in a white room, with white nurses. I felt so bad. I was so glad to finally come home, but where were you? Your room was empty and quiet. I screamed. Where did you go? They said that God loved you and wanted another little angel so He took you to live with Him. No! I want you! I love you. God can’t have you. You are my brother. I hate you God!
Twenty-three years have passed since you left me. Others I have known and loved have also left. Each leaving adds new sorrow to my life and awakens old ones of which yours is the first and closest. I still fear the unknown nature of the leaving, but I have learned that it is not God’s desire for new angels which takes my loved ones away. Death is a part of life, a gift of God which brings relief to pain and weariness. After Adam ate the fruit which brought him sin, God chased him from the garden lest he also eat the fruit of life and live in pain forever. It is an end and a beginning. I still ask, “Can you hear me?” I still wonder how long it will be till I join you.
Helga E. Tetzlaff
First there were operations: brain, then lung. (A brain tumor had been diagnosed as an inner ear infection months before by a doctor.) In the intensive care unit waiting rooms, stricken families huddled together and drank coffee, praying for good news. My amazing mother survived, lived to learn to walk, talk, type again. She returned to work until her retirement, all the while bravely undergoing chemotherapy, which nauseates and causes hair to fall out. In February, 1980, there was a stroke (we think), and loss of recognition of time, place, children. When she died in October in a nursing home, I saw her death as a blessing for her. And I am blessed with this life she has given me, and with the struggle to learn to live with this enormous well of grief which threatens to overflow whenever I am reminded of her.
Ram Dass, attempting to comfort the parents of a young girl who had been killed, used the image of walking through a room full of grief. I have felt as though I have walked down the sad streets of a city full of grief.
At times I have fallen into self-pity. Distinguishing the difference between feeling sorry for oneself and the gut-level wrenching of loss and loneliness is a foggy process but is a method of directing oneself away from massive despair and toward the more easily accessible, more poignant feelings of sadness and grief. Learning to find the edge where self-pity ends and grief begins is an invaluable lesson.
Memories may stab or strengthen. Christmas was a particularly piercing time, heralding in a flurry of memories, cold as well as warm. Twinkling lights and sparkling tinsel illuminate a glaring lack of the family togetherness which is supposedly, traditionally cherished at this time.
Resolving the conflicting feelings one has had toward a deeply loved person is another of death’s lessons. My mother was of a sweet and humble spirit, lovely, unpretentious, and an artist of untuned potential. She could also be unpredictable, and capable of expressing unadmitted rage in subtle, double-binding ways. I must see that though there may be a clash of feelings, if I ignore and hold prisoner inside myself the ones I don’t like, they will fester there, and make me sick. So I search for the most constructive ways to let all of them go — anger, tenderness, sorrow.
We are all full of love. The love that I learn to nurture within myself will carry me through the city of grief to the other side, which looks from here to be a place of open air and sunlight. As one whose death we all mourn sang it, “All you need is love, love is all you need.”
Chapel Hill, N.C.
I knew something was wrong. I could see it in her eyes as she walked towards me across the lawn.
Abbie said it was quick. That he was killed instantly. I wonder what that instant was like for him. How long does it take to have the tire of a big truck crush your body?
She held me as I cried, crying softly herself. Mourning is so selfish. He’s happy now. At peace. But I must mourn. Ten years together. Watching him strut around with those short little legs and crooked tail, taking charge of every neighborhood he visited as only the Little General could. The fights. He never learned. He died with fresh scars. Ten years old, going deaf, his quickness gone but still taking on dogs three times his size. I used to scold him. Punish him. But we always forgave each other. Healing each other’s wounds, me with peroxide and salve, he with a head in my lap, somehow always knowing when I was feeling sad or lonely. The longest and most loyal relationship I’ve ever had.
Sally doesn’t quite understand. She still looks for him each morning and evening as we drive up the road to our home. Who’s going to play your favorite games with you now, Sally? Well, we’ll do alright. We’ve got each other.
Some great memories. No need to spoil what we have by wishing for more. But, you know, I am going to miss that little black dog. I love you Mr. Bear.
In 1970, when I was 18, my father died of leukemia at the age of 42. The basement ceiling had two rows of insulated tile yet to be hung. The tools remained as he left them on his workbench. They had told us he had six months to a year to live, but then he went back in the hospital for more drug therapy. Two weeks later he was dead.
It was two months before the day he died that he was diagnosed. Faking knowledge of the word “leukemia” I buried my head in my arms and cried. Asking around at school I learned how deadly it was. My reaction was anger. How could he die and leave mother and me? He was the one who kept her defused, kept her in control, loved her, listened to her. Now I would have to do it. How could he? Then guilt for the feelings and wishing we’d known each other better. After all I’d just gotten to where I could tell him his colors didn’t match. We almost joked together a few times, almost were adults together. Anger again at being deprived of this blossoming friendship, a real relationship.
Mom called and told me to bring Maureen and pick up Nanny, that daddy was dying. At Nanny’s house we sat for half an hour waiting for my boyfriend who never showed up. Leaving them at the hospital I turned back to look for Tim and missed the death. As I came into the room Grandpa said, “He’s gone.” Nanny said, “Kiss him one last time.” So I walked over to the hospital bed and kissed his cold cheek. But I was altered, a walking mannequin, and I was watching him somewhere else, watching him dancing and singing in absurd delight. So I didn’t cry, I held my face still though I wanted to smile, to shout, “He’s dancing, I can see him dancing.” They would have thought I was nuts.