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.

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.