Remembering Anthony

Remembering Anthony

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We were bumping down a mountain road, bracing ourselves in the back seat of my aunt’s car as she and my uncle screamed at each other in English and Spanish. The day was overcast, the road was decrepit, and my stomach was rumbling, ready for the treat that awaited us. This was my husband’s first trip to Puerto Rico and his first time eating this particular island specialty. As we pulled down the main strip (such as it was) of Guavate, we began to spy whole roasted pigs in lechoneria windows.

A few minutes later the four of us sat at cement picnic tables, our Styrofoam plates piled high with lechon, morcilla (blood sausage), plantain, rice and avocado. I was thrilled. I had wanted to visit this place (the “lechon capital of Puerto Rico”) since I’d seen Anthony Bourdain visit it on his show “No Reservations.” Now I was there enjoying the food he talked about, sitting amongst the people he spoke warmly of…I was following in the footsteps of someone I respected, and finding the “good stuff” was a tiny dream come true for me.

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals of one’s life.”

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In the early-2000s, Mom came home from the library with a book-on-tape. She popped the first cassette into the tape player (yes, it was literally a book-on-tape) and listened to it while she single-handedly renovated our entire home like a one-woman army. One afternoon, as she was making dinner, I wandered into the kitchen and heard a New York accent issuing from the old, grey boom box that had once been mine.

“This is a great book!” Mom told me, “It’s about a chef who travels around the world in search of the perfect meal!” Intrigued, I perched on a step stool, soaking up “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal.” Some stories were exciting, some disgusting, some enthralling…but what struck me was the fervor with which this man wrote. I was in my mid-teens and came from a family that appreciated good food, that cultivated my adventurous palate. But I hadn’t heard anyone outside of my family speak with such palpable excitement about food…food and other places. Other cultures. The way Anthony spoke about Vietnam, the reverence, the love, the obsessive level at which he described eating phở for example, was totally fascinating and exciting to a teenager just about to embark on the great adventure of leaving home.

“The world is amazing,” he told me. “The great big world that you are about to step into— it is full of incredible foods, and people, and adventures. I demand that you enjoy it.”

“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

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When I moved to San Francisco, I listened to this book (again, on cassette) as I painted my new bedroom. His enthusiasm was infectious. I had never sampled much of what he rapturously spoke of. I’d never eaten Vietnamese food, never had a bowl of phở. I’d never eaten Indonesian food, and didn’t know what bun cha was. Until now, I hadn’t cared. I was planning to enroll in the local community college, complete two years of general ed and then transfer to U.C. Santa Cruz to study environmental science. My family members are currently laughing, I’m sure, but as an eighteen-year-old with zero self-awareness, that was what I thought I’d do. My first semester at City College was a disaster. I hated academia, and knew immediately that pursuing a four-year degree wasn’t for me. Eyes streaming, I stood on the steps of the science building, talking to Mom on my cell phone, explaining that I just couldn’t go on.

“Well what DO you want to do? You can’t do nothing,” she said, in a sympathetic tone. I gazed over to the cafeteria, to the buildings that housed the award-winning culinary arts department.

“I want to join the culinary program.”

“But I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill, should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.”

And so I embarked on my culinary journey which was life-changing, formative, and essential for the person I would become. Part of that transformative experience was formal education, but part of it was something happening in my personal life which I attribute to Anthony. After “A Cook’s Tour,” I received “Kitchen Confidential” as a birthday gift and devoured it. It was overblown and full of bravado, but I loved what he had to say about restaurants and I loved hearing the story of his life.

I kept returning to “A Cook’s Tour,” though. Again and again I returned to chapters Anthony wrote about finding “the good stuff.” Until then I had been intimidated by a lot of the good stuff. I hadn’t tasted dim sum, Vietnamese food, or Korean food (which I was convinced I’d hate). I had no memories of eating Indian food. I didn’t want to eat offal, I wasn’t attracted to stinky, sinewy or weird things. I didn’t like oysters, and I hated blue cheese. And I didn’t think any of this was a problem.

But Anthony, in his strident, sarcastic, and genuinely buoyant way admonished me. With my attitude, I’d be the schmuck eating McDonald’s in France. Ok, maybe not that bad, but almost. I was never a picky eater, my parents saw to that. But I wasn’t as adventurous as I’d thought, either, and I didn’t yet see a reason to be. I hadn’t yet fallen deeply in love with food, and Anthony was changing that. He was teaching me chapter by chapter what the good stuff was, where to find it, and why.

“Bad food is made without pride, by cooks who have no pride, and no love. Bad food is made by chefs who are indifferent, or who are trying to be everything to everybody, who are trying to please everyone… Bad food is fake food… food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people’s ability to discern or to make decisions about their lives.”

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After reading the chapter on Vietnam in “A Cook’s Tour” about seven times, I ventured out into the city alone one evening, ending up in a Vietnamese noodle joint on Clement street where I had my first bowl of phở. It clicked. I got it, Anthony. You’re right. Chase the good stuff! The real stuff. It is always worth it. The stuff that grandmas make. The stuff that poor people feed you if you visit them in foreign lands, offered with a generosity of spirit that underscores the emptiness of corporate greed. The stuff that white Americans shy away from. The things you’ve never heard of. The good stuff! Make your life rich with it! Share it with others! Don’t settle for anything less.

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

This moment in a relatively dingy Vietnamese noodle shop on Clement street didn’t just change me, it changed my family. Case in point: every time my Dad would visit San Francisco, and I’m talking every single time since we moved to the Sierras in 1998, he’d make a lunch stop at a beloved burrito place. This ritual was iconically Dad. We teased him about it, his burrito obsession, feeling that we could all never eat another burrito again and die happy.

Anthony changed this. The next time Dad visited, I asked him if just maybe we could get Vietnamese noodles instead of a burrito? Dad was gracious. We drove to Clement. He had never had phở, and instantly adored it as much as I did. The next time my sister visited, we took her. She too fell in love. And just like that, the decade-long burrito ritual was usurped, wholly and completely, and Dad has seemingly never looked back. We developed a new ritual, a new tradition for the three of us that lasted for years…it continues to this day! It was Anthony who urged me to try the good stuff, and to share with bubbling, surging enthusiasm the joy of the good stuff with the ones I love.

There are many things I began to love because of Anthony, and many things I learned. I learned to love blue cheese, oysters, and Korean food. I learned to love the challenge of surprising or intimidating foods. Yes, kimchi smells like compost, but I learned to devour it. It was the good stuff. I learned the names of chefs, like Fergus Henderson, who had changed food culture. As I planned an imaginary trip to Wales, I penciled in a stop at St. John, Henderson’s London restaurant and the birthplace of nose-to-tail eating. I learned why nose-to-tail eating was significant, and that Henderson’s bone marrow and parsley salad revolutionized food. This summer, along with my sister and my husband, I will eat at St. John because of Anthony.

“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

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In 2006 I flew to Philadelphia for a trade show with Mom and our family friend, Abby. On the flight, I had the (somewhat breathtaking and intimidating) fortune of being seated next to a tall, blonde, very long-haired, astonishingly handsome man in his twenties. In her bubbly way, Abby introduced herself to him, shook his hand over my lap, asked what he did, and was delighted to discover he was a chef. “OH! Vanessa’s in culinary school! You should talk!” Heart aflutter, I acknowledged that I was indeed in culinary school. With some prompting from this kind and stunning man, I admitted that my current inspiration was Anthony Bourdain.

“Hah! Well, I like him. He’s interesting! He’s no chef, though. And that’s why I like him. He doesn’t claim to be.” My face fell. Talk about a backhanded compliment. It was instant disappointment. Gone was any flutter of intimidation. I wasn’t about to argue the point with someone clearly more experienced than me, so I said something like “Hah…yeah. He…doesn’t.” We went quiet for the remainder of the flight. I declined to exchange contact information.

A few days later I found myself, breathless once again, being seated with Mom and an old family friend named Ashok, at the Manhattan restaurant Les Halles, the restaurant Anthony Bourdain had headed as Chef de Cuisine for many years. Mom had orchestrated this surprise with Ashok knowing that I loved Anthony, and I was taken totally by surprise. By this time Anthony was no longer at the helm, having hit the big-time with a Food Network show four years prior. However, I thought there might be a chance that someday I would meet him, and if that came to pass I didn’t want to embarrass myself by having to admit that I ate at Les Halles and ordered a burger. How embarrassing! I scanned the menu for a dish to be proud of…and bingo, there it was. The tripe Les Halles. I’d never had tripe and Anthony himself said that he thought it tasted like “wet sheepdog,” but *this* was the good stuff! This was the kind of eating he encouraged!

It was sensational. I loved it. Five months later at Christmas, I opened a package to reveal a photo in a gold frame. It was a picture Mom took of me standing in front of Les Halles, the gold lettering shining on the window behind me, a moment of delight on a wonderful day. I still have that photo Mom kindly framed for me. I was so proud of that experience, and so grateful for it.

No relationship is perfect, and my relationship with Anthony (such as it was) waxed and waned. Around 2007 I dabbled with vegetarianism, venerating the example Mom had set for me with her two decades of vegetarianism. The strident, somewhat ignorant and utterly obnoxious opinions about vegetarianism Anthony was famous for spouting began to grate on me, and by 2010 I’d heard one too many of his hypocritical criticisms for vegans and vegetarians. A friend who was opening a restaurant in San Francisco called me offering two tickets to a talk Anthony was giving in the East Bay that evening. I refused them. Despite my gratitude for his significant influence on my life, I accepted that Anthony was just a human and that I was beginning to lose respect for him over this issue alone.

Don’t get me wrong. His vocal, often obnoxious ad hominem attacks on other food personalities never failed to delight me. Because you see, he had shaped my food values. He had taught me that good food takes time. That hard work and honesty make a good cook. That gimmicks, and corporate interest and phony people aren’t to be idolized. That chefs endorsing huge corporations can’t hold a candle to your grandmother’s cooking, and never will. And with his razor wit (or perhaps ham-handed wit) he eviscerated the likes of Paula Deen, Rachel Ray, and Guy Fieri, all soulless slaves to their Food Network corporate overlords. He refused to bow at the altar of Alice Waters, something I commend him for to this day (having myself worked for chefs who did time at Chez Panisse under Waters and confirmed his claims), wrote a blistering but accurate critique of her in “Medium Raw,” and hosted an astoundingly good documentary on the real talent behind the Chez Panisse phenomenon, Jeremiah Tower, which aired in a “Parts Unknown” time slot. He detested dishonesty, cults of personality, and undeserved accolades. He was quick to call out people he felt were phony, or who used anything other than authentic food or culture as their primary motivators. In this era of the “celebrity chef,” I applaud him for this. It didn’t make him a lot of friends, but it earned him a lot of respect.

As the years went on I, and millions of others, enjoyed his many international adventures on “No Reservations.” But his chief achievement, in my opinion, is the show that came after this: “Parts Unknown.” It is the single most beautifully produced television show of all time. Certainly the most sophisticated travel show of all time. With “Parts Unknown,” Anthony used cuisine less as a central theme and more as means through which the culture, spirit, and experience of people are made known. He is always gracious to his hosts. He is always generous with his deep, poignant commentary. He is always gentle with his questions, that in their simplicity seem to evoke answers painfully genuine, answers that could never be scripted.

Anthony made himself the go-to man for how to see, and what to see, and where to see it. Before any trip, real or imagined, his shows are the first thing consulted to ensure nothing essential is missed…to make sure the “good stuff,” the places where the locals go, is included.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

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But for me, Anthony’s spirit, enthusiasm, and values have transcended the page and the screen. They came to rest in my consciousness, speaking to me subtly in ways I didn’t even realize until today when I learned of his death. Often when cooking a beloved family recipe, I’ve caught myself thinking “If I got the chance to host Anthony for a meal, which family recipe would I make for him? Which meal best characterizes our family? Best showcases our heritage? Which would he enjoy the most?”  When enjoying a meal in a hole-in-the-wall, locals-only restaurant in the Caribbean, or eating the thing on the menu that sounds alarming at first glance, my husband and I will look at each other and say, smiling, “this is so Anthony Bourdain!” Recently I suggested we eat at Swan Oyster Depot soon, not because it’s a San Francisco institution but because “Anthony Bourdain said it’s one of his favorite places in the whole United States to eat!” When planning vacations, we shun resorts. Because of Anthony, we know that you don’t go where everyone goes…where the hoards of doughy tourists flock, drinking cocktails with mini umbrellas in them. We avoid those places. We seek out the real, the overlooked. The good stuff. That is our value, and it’s a value we hope to pass on to our children.

His New York accent and attitude, his liberal use of sarcasm, and his love of 70’s punk bands like The Ramones all contributed to making him feel like a relative of mine. Indeed, this death doesn’t feel like a typical celebrity death. It feels like a friend dying. He was a friend, he just didn’t know it. My sister put it succinctly today on Instagram: “Our family’s love language is food, and he helped us love each other even more.”

He did. Whether we were griping about his unfairness to vegans, admiring his stand against fast food (with the notable exception of In-N-Out!), or laughing at his colorful descriptions of snooty food personalities (“Pol Pot in a muumuu” comes to mind, again taking aim at Alice Waters), we were always talking about him. He cropped up all the time in conversation, underscoring the fact that no matter how we felt about him at any given moment, we cared about what he had to say. We often respected it. We wanted him to keep telling us where to go, what to see, and why. We turned to him to show us the way to the good stuff.

Part of the shock I felt this morning when I read the headlines and burst into confused tears, feeling like a train had just run me over, was that I had believed he would continue to be there. I believed that the arc of his life was success. That the ex-heroin addict, ex-cocaine addict with previous suicide attempts, extreme depression and insatiable workaholism…I believed that the story of this man’s life was that he had transcended that. I expected that he would continue to comment poignantly on the lives the less fortunate, to turn white America’s attention away from itself and break down xenophobia one bowl of noodles at a time. I wanted that. I wanted this sarcastic, brilliant writer, teacher, and friend to keep going. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t.

“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying… If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”

The irony is that the person who could provide the most poignant commentary on his passing…was him. That’s not true of everyone who commits suicide. He was able to cut through the bullshit and speak to the deep, dark pain always lurking in shadowed recesses of the human heart. I imagine what he would say now. There would be self-deprecation. There would be joking sarcasm. There would be commentary that makes you sit, silent for a long time after the credits start rolling. Would there be regret? It is maddening that we will never know. He has passed into parts unknown, where we cannot follow.

It’s very easy to react to victims of suicide with anger. Indeed, this cruel and misplaced response is often the reaction we turn to to protect ourselves from just feeling our actual pain..but in allowing ourselves to feel our actual pain, we remember the beauty this man brought to our lives more fully. We’ll never understand why it had to end this way, it wasn’t supposed to end this way! But it did. And I’m extremely grateful for the way Anthony shaped me, and the values he instilled in me.

“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

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*all photo credit to NPR and CNN.

One Year Later

One Year Later

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It has been a year since I last saw your face, felt your arms around me. It might as well be at once a moment and a decade. A lifetime. The person you last hugged goodbye, twice, is gone. That person hadn’t experienced the loss of you.

It was a strange year, putting aside the wound that was your absence. The effects of grief are unexpected, unpredictable, sometimes unfathomable. My sense of time was completely altered. I experienced strange lags in my perception of time passing. In May I kept thinking we were still in March, and that only a week or two had passed, just to be jolted into the present abruptly each time I needed to know what the date was. In August my mind was still hovering around late May. In October, I was discussing something that I had experienced a few weeks prior with Husband, only to realize that six months had passed since that event. I was constantly caught off guard by time’s passing. I lived in a bubble, life happening around me. It wasn’t until November came, and with it the anchor of the holidays that my subconscious began to live in the present.

I’ve been taking comfort in the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay—

“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!

I miss him in the weeping of the rain;

I want him at the shrinking of the tide;

The old snows melt from every mountain-side,

And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;

But last year’s bitter loving must remain

Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.

There are a hundred places where I fear

To go,—so with his memory they brim.

And entering with relief some quiet place

Where never fell his foot or shone his face

I say, ‘There is no memory of him here!’

And so stand stricken, so remembering him.”

Sometimes only poems will suffice. I am often prone to dramatics, but I stand by this sentiment. Time doesn’t bring relief. It has brought me the strength to expand my capacity for pain. It has brought me the ability to think about it less, think about you less. The pain stays the same.

I wept in the bath last night, a place that’s now a refuge when I want to cry but don’t want to disturb Husband…not even for his sake, but for mine. I often want to cry without the added burden of telling him that I’m ok, of thanking him for his generous comfort, of engaging at all with someone else when I honestly just want to be privately miserable for a while. I laid in the hot water, a little too hot, and savored that particularly sharp sensation around my heart, an awl being run through my ribs, and I reflected that when you first died it was like getting an anvil dropped on me. I imagined Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, the anvil smashing me comically so that I am flattened like a piece of India rubber.

At first, the anvil was way too heavy to move. Impossible. I just assessed my injuries and screamed for help—no help could fix the problem, but some help did provide a lot of comfort. Such loving words from family and friends and their support in my darkest hours I never expected and cannot express adequate gratitude for. I have the most wonderful friends. I have the most wonderful family. I have the most wonderful spouse.

And after a while, I got used to the anvil—I got strong enough to carry it through my day. It didn’t get lighter. I got stronger.

And life does go on. My days are full of laughter, often. They are full of trivial problems, and mindless minutiae that is both important and utterly meaningless. I enjoy what life brings me—good food, good friends, perfectly ordinary days with ordinary happiness. Most of the time I’m really well, and I am content in my heart with everything that has come to pass. How could I not be? Your death wasn’t unfair. It was a picture of justice—that we will all, each one of us regardless of merit, be consigned to the earth once more. Or, from another perspective, that some good and loving people get to live long, long lives with relative health and much happiness. What could be more just? But there is a hole in the world that you once filled. I will (and do) remember you with joy, but…

The transformative process called grief isn’t done with me yet. I wouldn’t feel half so bad if it had only taken you from me, but when you passed it also robbed me of all the spiritual certainty I had cultivated specifically for times like this. The rug was pulled from under me, and suddenly everything I was so sure of—everything I shared with Husband—was gone. Ideas and beliefs long held flickered out, having once been so comforting, now only filling me with bleak horror. Unable to hold them, another pain emerged…that of spiritual separation from Husband as I realized that I’m no longer certain of anything at all. I’m certain of the existence of God, and that Christ is his Son. Beyond that, I am going through motions with blind faith, hoping beyond hope that God approves. At first, this fall from grace was almost as agonizing as the pain of your absence, but now…

I’ve settled into an almost-apathy, a patience that comes from believing God will show me the way in his own time. I’ve learned that this too is part of the process, that I am still in the MIDDLE of this, not the end. C.S. Lewis, in his brilliance, puts it so succinctly:

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

I’ve come to almost envy the certainty of atheism, and the irony therein—that they often accuse people of faith for believing because it is comforting at the hour of death. If only they knew! I have found exactly zero comfort in the complexity of the afterlife, the many possibilities of where you could be now, where your consciousness has gone. The complete and total silence from you does nothing to make me feel you’re “watching over me.” Eastern thoughts once held have crumbled into ash, because I cannot fathom the cruelty of having to do this more than once, or that you’ve reemerged somewhere to be recycled ad nauseum. The consolation of the familiar in Catholicism is a meager but distinct comfort…even if, as I said, I’ve been marooned on the island of “I don’t know.” My heart, my intuition, has shut down. I am fumbling through the wreckage of my spirituality blind, led by logic (which is a poor guide in matters of faith, but better than none when all others have abandoned you). And logic brings me to Aquinas (or perhaps Aquinas, in his Aristotelian logic, leads me to his own theology) , but it doesn’t ignite my soul. My heart is not moved, for it is broken. How lucky I was at one time to ever have had my soul ignited by spiritual certainty, and what I wouldn’t give for that now. I hold on, knowing only that God is guiding me and that I must trust in Him.

So, this is where I am a year later. I am no longer stunned. I am moving around, I am searching for joy. I’m attempting to redefine who I am without you to fill one half of me, my darling soul-twin. I am making plans for the future—happy plans! I am experiencing happy things. And I’m dragging the anvil of your absence behind me, uphill and over dale, without the map of spirituality I had crafted for myself, that loved ones had helped me to create. I am moving, I am gaining ground. And I though I am lost, I shall be found. That is my one prayer these days—“Lord, help me to know what you want for me.” He is as silent as you. He works in mysterious ways.

I love you. I am thinking of you always. I hope one day we shall see each other again, my best of friends. I used to believe that we could. Now all that I know is that creation is vast and unknowable, and that you are somewhere in it. May I find you again, so I can tell you how much you have been missed.

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Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes

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Hey guys! This post contains descriptions of a dead body. It’s not gory, and isn’t over-the-top, but it’s real. Just letting you know, in case that kind of thing isn’t for you. 

For the last few months, I’ve been meditating on and wrestling with what we do with bodies after people die. With what happens to them, and how we feel about them. I’ve wanted to discuss my experience with your body for a long time, but I keep avoiding writing this, because its painful and real, and I don’t know where to begin. I wanted it done in October, though, and as October is almost over I’ve run out of time to continue putting this off.

You died on March 13th.

I drove the two hours to your assisted living center in shock, sometimes weeping quietly, sometimes tearlessly resigned. Mom and Uncle were with you, we talked on the phone. They needed to go out, so they timed returning with my arrival.

Uncle was sitting on the love seat, crying quietly. Mom gave me a hug, kissed me, also crying. I turned the corner and saw you, in your bed.

You had your cream sweater over your nightgown, but you were under the covers. You had been sleeping, after all. As I approached you, I was shocked at how little you looked. So little! I couldn’t comprehend that your body had become this…this little thing. The second thought hit me like a train, and has stayed with me ever since. I remember almost laughing as I thought it— “This isn’t you!”

This isn’t you. I almost scoffed. Looking down at you, your skin was so yellow (we would eventually conclude that your liver must have been shutting down at least a day before you left), your hair was almost blueish, and of course, you were so small. This isn’t you. It came home to me so intensely. You, the woman I loved, the woman who loved me, who occupied this body…isn’t this body. It was the first mysterious, inexplicable comfort of that difficult afternoon.

I sat in a chair next to you, leaning on the hospital rail of your bed. I touched your hand, grasping it, clinging to it. I clutched your forearm, forcing myself to remember how the bones in your forearm felt…running my hand up your arm over your sweater, remembering the outlines of this body that would soon go away from me, these arms that had wrapped around me so many times. Your skin was cool, but not cold. In the movies, they always say corpses are cold, so you imagine a coldness like ice. You didn’t feel that way. Even when I kissed your cheek, it wasn’t cold. It was just cool.

Under the thin blanket, I could see the outline of your legs, your feet. The exact way your toes pointed in a little, always, as they did in life. I wanted to crawl into bed with you, cling to you. I would have except the railing was in the way. So I leaned over the rail, and held your hand. We stayed that way for a while, not as long as I wished we could have in retrospect, but as long as I really could stand it in the moment. Mom and Uncle didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. None of us knew what was going to happen now, what life was going to look like. None of us could have prepared our hearts to make this less painful.

Uncle left, and Mom and I got lunch. I’d had a letter you wrote me in my purse that I hadn’t opened yet, and I read it at the table. I smiled, not tearing up at all. Mom asked how I could read it without crying. I just could. I was just in shock. It wouldn’t hit me for weeks.

Mom had arranged for your body to be picked up while we were having lunch, but we forgot a piece of paperwork in your room, so I told her I would get it. She told me that when Poppie died, her father, she had seen them remove his body from the house and it was very upsetting to her, so she didn’t want to see you removed. I understood. Besides, they should have come already.

I entered your room, but I heard movement around the corner from your entryway. I tiptoed around, without being noticed. You were on a gurney, and you were wrapped in thick, white plastic. It came up over your head, and a man in slacks, dress shirt, tie and gloves was pulling straps over you, to keep you secure.

It was an odd moment— I knew you were dead. I understood that you weren’t occupying your body any longer. But there is a frightening and unique pain at seeing someone you love wrapped like meat, and an odd non-sensical aversion to seeing a body wrapped so as not to breathe. I knew you weren’t breathing, but it’s disconcerting just the same.

I whimpered and backed away. “Excuse me,” I said. The man turned around. “Oh!” he said. “I’m her— her granddaughter.” “Oh! I’m so sorry.” He came up to me, folding his hands behind his back and leaning in with a slight bow in greeting. He stood in front of me, I could tell, with the kind intention of shielding me from what was happening with your body. He had a kind face, and offered his condolences. I asked him about the paperwork, and he gave me my answer. I’ll never forget how subtle his movements and posture were, and how they were clearly intended to protect me, to help me. I was struck by his professionalism, and I was grateful. I went downstairs, got in the car with Mom. The truck he was going to drive you away in was parked at the back entrance, the one Sister and I used every time we’d visit. We sat for a long time, talking. As we drove away, I saw that van pull out of the parking lot behind us, and I couldn’t comprehend that you were in there, and that I would never see your body again.

Three months later I was opening a box in Mom and Dad’s basement. They had received it a few days before. Next to a bundle of paperwork was a heavy urn rolled in bubble wrap. I cut through the wrappings and slid the urn into my lap. It was surprisingly heavy. It looked like something you would have chosen— a beautiful cream color with a dark brass lid— though I don’t think you did. I unscrewed the top. Inside was a plastic bag, sealed with thick wire, filled with the fine, white, gravelly sand I remembered from when we scattered Poppie’s ashes in the Bay. The bag had a sticker on the front that said your name, date of death, date of cremation (eleven days after your death), and the crematorium that handled it. Wired around the top was a metal tag that I later learned was a tag that had been attached to your body during the cremation process. It contains unique numbers that identify the crematorium and your body, so if ashes are forgotten about, they can be identified. It means those ashes are really you.

I dug my hands down into the urn, on the outside of the plastic bag, to feel the weight of the remains in my hands. I remember thinking— “This contains your forearm that I clutched, your hand, your arms that held me. How strange it is, that I hold in my hands, the hands that bathed me, that fed me, that rubbed my back, that loved me up to today.” How unbelievably strange death is. I have come to terms with it, but I will never understand it. Never.

About a month ago, I discovered a YouTube channel hosted by Caitlin Doughty, a woman who runs a funeral home in Los Angeles who does outreach and education about death, because she feels our culture is really death-phobic, and would benefit from being more educated about it. I agree. I watched her video about cremation a few times. She explained what the process is, and what happens to a body during the cremation process. I started the video a little nervously, but facing the reality of precisely what happened to your body— your beautiful body that I loved so much— was actually incredibly healing for me. It was honest and real, and I found I could accept it with peace.

It isn’t easy to picture the remains of your loved one going through that process. And I have many, many times. But there is comfort in shining light into dark spaces. As Caitlin says, being present with your dead (emotionally and physically) can be painful, but the reality of what happens when a person dies is nothing compared to the nightmares and macabre fantasies the human mind can think up when they don’t quite know what happens…when they hide from reality in fear.

Looking back, I wish we had had much more time with your body. If we had it to do over again, we might have asked your friends if they wanted to say goodbye to you. We might have let you stay in your room for a day or two. We might have just stayed longer. I have been in the presence of two corpses in my life, yours and Poppie’s, and both times I felt enriched for it.

Your urn sits in our living room, atop our bookshelf near the ceiling. We’ve decided we will inter it in March, around the anniversary of your death. In the meantime, I asked to have it. I want to be near those bones that held me tight. Sometimes I take it down and open the lid to read the label, to pick up the bag and feel the weight, to look at the tag that ensures this was you…to be with my dead, because it helps.

This is the time of year that we remember our beloved dead. Thursday we hold the requiem mass, in honor of everyone who has died this past year. I will be there, clutching you in my heart. Remembering your warm embrace, the feel of your cheek on my lips, the smell of your hair, the color of your lipstick, the way you drank your coffee. I will be there, and your body will not. And I’m beginning to feel ok with that. I’m beginning to feel ok.

Funeral Blues

Funeral Blues

dambw

Grief is a specter that follows you, tied to you like a shadow. Depending on the day, you might not notice it at all, or you might be cast beneath its gloom to gaze at everything as through murky water– an altered reality, painful and horrible in its ugliness and its vast mystery.

Yesterday was a bad day. It has been five months and nine days since I last saw her, hugged her (twice), kissed her, heard her “I love you.”

I used to wail. I used to shriek. There were weeks when all I did was stumble through the door before collapsing onto the sofa or the bed, to weep for hours, often gasping and moaning more than crying, the strange sensation of the vagus nerve– the nerve that runs up near the heart– strummed expertly by grief, creating a horrible heartbreak in my chest. The pain, physical pain…if I wasn’t mourning a monumental loss, I would have thought nothing but a heart attack could create such pain. There were nights that I clutched her pink sweater (still smelling of her soap and hairspray), plucked from the hook on her bathroom door the day I kissed a cool, still cheek that didn’t know me anymore, tears streaming into it until I awoke the next morning, puffy-eyed, not knowing when I slipped into sleep.

Sometimes I am Hoover Dam, holding back an ocean for the sake of those who love me. Because you can’t really live with a sobbing person. Not for months on end. But Husband is good and kind, and does all he can to help. And I don’t sob that much anymore.

But yesterday was a bad day. A day in a span of weeks that feels like a regression. Lots of things caused it, but they don’t matter. I couldn’t hold back the dam. For the first time in months, I cried myself to sleep.

Sometimes you just have to acknowledge the bad days.

Amid the quiet tears that streamed down my cheeks, settling into my ears while I laid on my back in the darkness, my favorite poem about loss found its way to the forefront of my mind. I’m sharing it with you, in the hopes that when you need it, you will have it to provide the meagre comfort of knowing that someone else too, felt like this.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with the juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and, with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin. Let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message: “He is dead!”
Put crepe bows around the white necks of the public doves.
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my north, my south, my east and west,
My working week and Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can come to any good.

W. H. Auden

 

Pool of Grief

Pool of Grief

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I’ve always thought of grief as a pool. Not a swimming pool, but a large body of water, dark and cold and full things mysterious, lake-like. Each of us will someday drink from the pool that is grief— interact with this mysterious, uncomfortable, yet inevitable entity that laps at our heels our whole life long.

When you think about it, you can observe the different ways that people do this, and the circumstances unique to each individual that make their time at the pool their own. Some people stand in the shallows for a while, confusedly, finding their way out with little struggle. Some people wade into deep water, tragically, and begin to drown. Some people sit on the shore, sipping grief as from a chalice, little bits, its bitterness measured carefully by a benevolent hand. Some wade into the pool of grief and never come out.

When she died, a very specific image came into my mind in my most emotionally exhausted moments that I yearned for, almost physically. I imagined, as I lay in the stillness that came after hours of tears, my face red and swollen, refusing to believe that my waking reality was indeed real…I reflected that I wanted to fall into a deep pool of cold water and sink to the bottom.

This image came to me many times. Enough that I shared it with a supportive friend. To be specific, I didn’t want to die— it wasn’t manifested thoughts of suicide. It was, strangely enough, an image that described what I already felt was happening to me interiorly. I already felt that I was in this deep, still, cold pool, sinking with closed eyes to rest on the bottom for a while. Perhaps for a hibernation? I’m still not sure. I always knew I would come up for air eventually…but not right away. The image appeared again and again, as I lay motionless, tear-tracks streaked from eyes to ears, staring at my popcorn ceiling.

I imagined my time at the pool would be so different before her death. It’s so easy to try to prepare oneself, to develop expectations for one’s experience. None of the things I believed I would feel, things I expected and even took for granted, came to be. I wrestled with the shock of that dissonance for months— the grating of expectations on reality. Eventually I realized I was less in control of my experience at the pool than I planned, and I learned to accept it.

I had planed something beautiful. Sad, yes. But not so sad as to lack faith, to lack all the things I knew and believed to be true about the afterlife. My pool originally contained floatation devices. It wasn’t deep, it was shallow. Something I would wade into and splash around in, in safety, until it was time to get out.

This linear concept of the grief experience influenced my shock, when my time at the pool actually came. There’s so much more dipping in and out than I thought there would be— wonderful moments all the time where the ache doesn’t find me, then at the recollection of just one memory, one song, one idiom, one image, I am pushed roughly as from a great hight into deep water to wrestle my way out, gasping from the pain and shock that the pool is even still there! Still so cold, and still so huge, and still present in my life. The time will come, I know, when I will have wandered away from it…far enough away that maybe only intentional journeys through memories will find me standing at its shore. In the meantime, I am learning to swim. I am learning to navigate its waves. I am becoming comfortable that I am not alone in this place, but that every one of us turns up here eventually, and I’m blessed with many lifelines to pull me back if I forget.

Teeth and the Journey of Grief

Teeth and the Journey of Grief

“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” C.S. Lewis

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Through good genes, much fastidious parenting, and a healthy dose of good luck, I managed to carry out the first 24 years of my life without a single cavity. I was told that my great-great-grandmother, Nonnie, (who had immigrated from Tuscany in the early 20th century) lived her entire life without a single cavity, though this claim is impossible to substantiate. Nevertheless, knowing this tidbit of my dental genealogical history always made me feel smug. So smug that I actually stopped going to the dentist. While I continued to brush and floss (often carelessly, as I had always done with no apparent consequence), I simply felt that visiting the dentist was both a waste of time and energy for someone who clearly had genes that would enable her to live a lifetime without cavities. Six years later, sitting in my sympathetic dentist’s chair and experiencing for the first time the exquisitely distressing experience of having six teeth drilled and filled, I concluded that forgoing the dentist for so long wasn’t the most prudent thing I had ever done.

My teeth ached for months afterwards. My dentist, a profoundly gentle and supremely over-qualified woman of national dental renown (that is a thing, really!), regrettably informed me that some people’s teeth just hurt for a really, really long time after fillings. Even after the edges of the fillings are smoothed, and carefully reshaped again and again to perfect the bite. Even after desensitizing varnish is applied, and Sensodyne toothpaste employed. While all of my co-workers remarked that they never felt a bit of pain after a tooth was properly filled, I ached. For weeks I couldn’t bite down on anything more solid than cooked pasta, and it took months to crunch a firm vegetable. Eventually the nerves in my teeth settled down some from their trauma and I’ve been able to eat more normally, favoring my right side that has fewer molars filled, and always feeling twinges of discomfort with my meals.

The most surprising realization during this strange and new experience, was the realization that I had known my teeth for 30 years. For 30 years, I had run my tongue over their grooves, their ridges. I knew what they felt like, I knew who they were, and what they were capable of. But now, after their time under the drill, I realized that these old friends will never be the same teeth again. I can never get the old ones back. Now they are covered in strange, smooth porcelain that interferes with my ability to really chew (too smooth in some places), and they shock me with their on-again-off-again fussiness— sensitive today, perfectly unbothered by anything the next. My teeth are healed, mind you, but my life with them is different. It’s uncomfortable, and it will always be lesser than when I had my original, uncavitied pearly whites.

About a month after I sat in my dentist’s chair and received six unwelcome, surprise fillings, my grandmother died. She was ninety-four years old. It’s no tragedy when a woman of ninety-four dies in God’s time, and without undue or prolonged suffering. But she and I shared what can only be described as a very special bond. She was perhaps my dearest friend, certainly my greatest champion in all things whether I deserved it or not, and perhaps a true soulmate.

garden path

It has been almost four months to the day since she passed. I had experienced death before, with acquaintances, friends, and family. I believed I was as prepared for this grief as I could be— indeed, I was as prepared as I ever could have been. But entering into my grief for her was a totally and completely unexpected journey that I could never have anticipated. It has challenged everything I thought I knew and expected about death, about my faith, and about God. Many aspects of this experience have been profoundly painful, and some have been beset with graces I can hardly deserve.

I quickly realized, though, that I’m on a journey of healing, this road called grief, and that when I emerge on the other side I’ll probably feel a lot like my teeth did. New and unfamiliar, never again to be as I was, perhaps even (morbidly) still in pain, never functioning as well as I did before her death. It is too soon to tell. I hope to be able to share some of my thoughts about grief, healing, and my life with this blog as a way of helping myself move forward. I don’t intend this blog to be morbid, depressing, or solely focused on the death of my grandma, but to be a place where I can share thoughts, memories, and many other tidbits from my life, with the understanding that this profound experience will inform much of what I share. I appreciate your reading any of what I have to say, and all of the thoughts you care to share.

Incidentally, my next dentist appointment is penciled in for next month. A cleaning. Every six months feels too soon, but I know everyone will agree it’s a vast improvement to every six years. It’ll be better this time, I know it. Despite all the twinges, they really do feel so much better these days.