Although I find the expression “passed away” a weak and distasteful euphemism for the term “died”, I admit that I myself have used it many times, when deep down I’d much rather have not. Hard to say whether I acquiesced for the comfort of my audience, or because on some level I’m a coward and lack the integrity to put my money where my mouth is.
This needs to stop.
I am so weary of the ways in which this current, first-world culture regards death. I am weary of the way in which we neglect the subject. I am weary of the trepidation with which most of us approach death. It drives me nuts. No, I take that back. It doesn’t just drive me nuts. You know what? It makes me angry. Seriously.
Here is the point at which I must express myself through a mild rant….
Do we not all understand how cemeteries pollute the air and waste people’s time with all that goddam lawn-mowing and weed-whacking? Do we not understand how embalming is horrible for the environment, and how it will not keep your loved one ‘as is’ unto eternity? And why do we just assume once a loved one is dead, that their body must be immediately whisked away from the premises, as if it was now a loathsome thing to be avoided?
You’d be surprised how many things around the experience of death are either taken for granted or are never even questioned in the first place.
Funny how you plan the shit out of everything in your life, yet when a family member dies, you’re all of a sudden thrust into the middle of an administrative vortex, making decisions with no prior information – and no bargaining power whatsoever. Death deserves as much planning as anything else. After all – this could well be one of the biggest ticket items of your life.
Depends on whether or not you’ve made some plans.
Once, while I was sick and confined to my bed for a few days, I set out on a little research project. I’d long had a list of unanswered questions which I could never justify carving out the time necessary to address. This was at the top of the list: Is it legal to be buried on your own property? There simply wasn’t enough online information at the time, so I found a couple of funeral directors and got them on the phone. I called different states, too. And I took notes. The consensus was “yes”.
When my boy was about eight years old, we’d had a conversation about death and where the bodies of dead people go. He’d accompanied me many times to the town cemetery on the hill, following along as I meandered through the headstones, matching up family members and imagining aloud the details of life back then. He’d understood that these were people just like the two of us, whose homes had been right here in Greenfield. He’d understood the concept of once-living people now lying in repose under the sod. And, as we’d seen a whole lot of dead animals at various levels of decomposition on the side of the road or even in our chicken run, none of this death talk was inherently unfamiliar to my son. In fact, I think it was precisely because he’d grown up like this – with a mom like me, and on a farm where creatures often die without warning – that he came to have his own feelings about death and what to do with a body once it was no longer living.
My young son told me that he himself wanted to be laid out in the woods. He told me that he should be put into a slight depression in the ground, and covered with leaf litter. I admired his thinking. We never wished to waste anything here; scraps always went to the chickens, paper and such went to the burn bin, and the resulting ashes were subsequently shoveled onto the garden or into the woods. (We called this method “going back to God”.) I told him how much I loved the idea, but that strangely, it was likely illegal. He protested adamantly, driven to the point of tears. He insisted it was the right way to put your body back into nature. He told me that it was the only way he wanted his body to end up. I calmed him by saying that I would do everything I could to make sure it would happen.
A dear friend of mine saw to his own burial in advance of his death. A craftsman and a farmer, he built his own casket and even dug the hole with his backhoe, right there on his property, not far from his house. In his mid-thirties he had been diagnosed with Leukemia, and after a couple of years it was clear that he wasn’t going to live much longer. While he still had enough physical strength left, he set about to make his final arrangements. My life at that time was in Chicago, and he was then living with his wife and three children in the hills of upstate New York, so sadly I wasn’t able to be there. I heard he hosted quite a party. And afterwards, he began his decline in earnest. Then he died, was put into the casket he had made for himself, and was buried in the grave he’d dug. His friends backfilled the hole. Can you imagine anything more perfect? Me, I cannot.
I hold this man’s ending as an impeccable model of closure.
It seems simply crazy to me that we in the first world are so forthright about every last goddam detail of our lives, broadcasting our dramas on public platforms and rushing to share our every insight and opinion, and yet when it comes to the only experience which we all have in common – aside from being born – we are virtually silent as a collective. Sure, there are groups – there are always groups – who come together to discuss death and its related concerns – but as a society on the whole we are not very comfortable with the subject.
I’ve hosted a handful of Death Cafes. Just the idea that there is an international group founded simply for the purpose of providing places for people to convene and talk about death is proof enough that the need for such a forum exists. And yet still, even among the most progressive populations, this is just not a well-discussed topic.
In future, I mean to change this if I can.
Many years ago, after my first job playing music for essentially forgotten and dying people in the most low-budget of nursing homes, it occurred to me that many of these people were the last of their clan, and they faced dying alone. I began a little inquiry, asking the workers when people usually died – what time of the day or night – and how they went. Was someone there with them? (There is such a thing as “active dying” and health care professionals can usually tell when a person is entering that phase.) Almost every one of these residents died alone, many in the wee hours of the night. Few were ever accompanied by another human. I asked if there was such a job as sitting with someone when they died.
They told me that there was not.
Well, as it turned out, there actually was such an occupation.And while I had experienced a short moment of elation in thinking that I’d just invented the new vocation of “death doula”, I soon learned that there were folks who’d already navigated this terrain. Turned out a “death doula” was actually a thing. But there was a punchline: it wasn’t a thing for just anyone. It was a service available only to a privileged population. There was no money to pay someone to sit with a dying person in a poorhouse of elder care.
This is such a heartbreaking reality, and it’s long had me wondering what I might possibly do to help improve the situation. As I see it, the best contribution I can make at present is to share my thoughts on death and the dying.
I do believe that one day things will be different. That one day our culture will place more value on frank and open end-of-life discussions. But personally, I think it’s going to take many decades. And it’s going to take folks like me who are ready to help start the conversation.
So friends, please consider this post to be the birth of a discussion on death.
In and of itself it’s not really anything out of the ordinary, however what brings some irony to the situation is that my friend once wrote a book about dying, and how to lose one’s fear of it. And she is not approaching her death as she herself has counseled so many others to do.
Back in a time when generous book advances were more common than today, she’d made a pretty penny from her work even before it had hit the presses. The book was written a few years after she had begun what was to become her most important gift to the world, the creation of a non-profit organization called ‘God’s Love We Deliver’, an operation which daily delivered fresh-cooked meals to sick and homebound people in metro NYC (in its beginning it delivered several hundred, today it’s upwards of seven thousand a day). Ganga had garnered some major street cred back then from ‘God’s Love’ which no doubt had something to do with the book advance. GL had also caught the eye of some well-known folks who had either chosen to sit on the board or give the gift of their time, money and visibility: comedienne Joan Rivers, socialite and philanthropist Blaine Trump (yes, that Trump family – by a former marriage – yet I personally believe her to be cut of a far different cloth), designers Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, among many others. When Ganga began to teach classes to men dying of AIDS on how to approach the end of life, it raised her profile in the culture of death awareness. She was a guru of sorts on the subject. Her teachings on acceptance of death were a perfect compliment to her mission to assist the victims of the AIDS epidemic with home-delivered, high-quality food, delivered with love. She advocated for both a loving approach to a person’s final days, as well as a practical approach to the death that was to follow. In fact, she encouraged people to lose their fear of death and accept it as a potentially wonderful experience.
She and I met late one night in line for the pharmacy at CVS some six years ago. It was her adorable Maltese dog named Bobby McGee who pulled me into her orbit, (she used to waitress at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan back in the day, where Janis Joplin was a customer of hers, hence her dog’s name) but it was the conversation about death which we stumbled upon so organically which called me to her friendship. I told her I had wished there was a book that addressed death in a simple, pragmatic way – and she told me that there was; she herself had written just such a book! I recognized in her a fellow human of similar energy and drive, so when she told me, I didn’t doubt her for a moment, and I eagerly awaited the story that was to follow. And so it was that she gave me the thumbnail of her life’s work. After hearing about her experiences, I knew that this was a woman I had to know better. How lucky was I that this special woman lived right here in my town?
That night when I got home I ordered her book, and read it cover-to-cover shortly after it arrived. In the wake of my surprise divorce a few years earlier, and in an effort to preserve my sanity and understand how better to make sense of the experience, I had dived deep into the study of things philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and so the main idea which she posited of an existence beyond this physical world was not foreign to me or without serious merit and consideration. I liked what I read, and I was relieved to find someone for whom the topic was so easily discussed (and especially so as it was examined outside of any religious constructs).
Ever since we met, death has been an easy topic of conversation for the two of us to continue. In fact, there has never been a subject we two couldn’t discuss. We always enjoyed deeply candid conversations; it was the main reason we two felt so connected. (I wrote on my kitchen white board something she had said to me this past week: “Your conversation is nourishing”.) But now, whether it’s due to her severe lack of memory or her primal, instinctive fear of the finality, she has come to completely deny that her death is nearing. Actually, it’s not so much that she denies it, for the subject never even arises. She simply carries on as if it were life as usual. She behaves as if her life is now the same as it has ever been, when any other person in the room can plainly see that it is not. And for some reason which I cannot identify, but respect nonetheless, I am uncharacteristically unable to address the subject with her. It just doesn’t feel as if there would be any real benefit from the discussion, and so I leave it be.
Recently she broke her left hip (she’d managed to get somewhat better and at least ambulatory after she broke the right one plus a kneecap two years ago), but after this second surgery she has simply gone downhill. And at this point, all the signs are there; she weights a mere seventy-six pounds, and hasn’t the strength to move her legs or adjust her position in the bed. She can’t even put food on her own fork, and beyond that just getting the food to her mouth has become a challenge. And tonight as I was tucking her in and trying to get her comfortable (this is hard to do at this point as she’s so very skinny and pressure on her bones hurts), we both noticed how purple the tips of her fingers had turned, and how cold they were to the touch. She assured me that they didn’t feel cold. Another sign…
Yet somehow she can’t even see this for herself. The past few days she’s rationalized that her current condition is the exception to the norm; today she is unusually tired, or she ate enough at the previous meal, or maybe it’s that she’d rather enjoy my company that waste our visit by eating. A few days ago I brought a chopped liver sandwich (her father made chopped liver and she often waxes nostalgic about it) and she ate with enthusiasm and delight – but a mere three bites. That was all she could take. All the logic in the world couldn’t convince her that this was hardly enough caloric intake to maintain her health, let alone make up for the twenty-plus pounds she’d lost since she’d her surgery.
The hospice nurse and social worker (the latter is truly an absolute bitch, how or why she came to this career choice is beyond my comprehension) arrived while I was visiting a few days ago, and I was asked to please leave the room. I waited outside while they told my friend of the change in her care from rehab to hospice. It didn’t seem that my friend understood. When I was invited back in, something had changed. It seemed that Ganga had made the case for my being family of sorts; she wanted me there to hear the information. The women gave their spiel again. I interpreted it for my friend in the gentlest way I could. “Oh no, I don’t want hospice!” she said adamantly. I explained that if she gained weight, if she showed an increase in strength and if she made some overall progress, that her status as a hospice patient would be changed back to that of a rehab patient. This new change in care was just a measure of relief for her; she wouldn’t be made to adhere to a strict diet (she always complained about choices being made for her), and she wouldn’t be made to endure physical therapy (through which she screamed in fear and pain the whole time). She could enjoy the break she so often asked for. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. The word hospice is loaded, and as lacking as my friend may be in memory and physical abilities, this was not lost on her.
I realize that it’s not important that she be completely aware of her patient status. And anyway, having her truly understand the situation is not really possible; her lack of short term memory prevents any new information from sticking. And whether she knows that her death is coming before long or not – it doesn’t change a thing. What does matter is that I try, as her friend, to maintain a certain level of joy, satisfaction and physical comfort in her remaining experience here. I will continue to bring her her favorite foods, whether she takes one bite or not. I will play the chants of Muktananda from her days in the ashram in India, and I’ll hang his picture on her wall. I will bring her my favorite down pillow and comforter from home. I will do everything short of burn her favorite incense (I’ve already been spotted as a rule-breaker on the floor, no need to tempt complete banishment from the place) in order to keep her as content and happy as possible. We will simply have to live each moment to the best of our ability. From here on in I will do my best to keep her life worth living.
I too might have to employ this approach with respect to my own life these days. We’ve lost fourteen birds – some dearly beloved and deeply important to us – over the past six weeks. My mother is eighty-six now and her health and strength wain visibly as the months go by. My own body has continued to change in unpleasant ways that break my vain heart daily, and behind all of this is the knowledge that my son and only life companion will be leaving me forever in just a few months, sooner even, when one considers he will pass much of the summer with his dad. How I will manage, as a single person in the world with very few friends? This I do not yet know. I will simply have to continue to witness the joy and beauty in my life as it appears. I can do no more, and I realize that it won’t serve me to do any less.
I understand that everything is transitory. I have worked for years on getting this knowledge to live inside of me. Yeah, I get it – and yet I don’t. There is the intellectual aspect of me which is well-informed and trusting, but then there is the deeper, more animalistic feeling that I just can’t shake. Yes, I do believe it to be true, as my old family friend Martha always used to say, that ultimately “everything always works out”. My head believes it, but on some level my gut doesn’t quite trust it to be so. Elihu will often defend Ganga’s seemingly strange behavior these days by reminding me that we are physiologically wired to stay alive, and that that drive is strong. Primal. Instinct wins over intellect here, he tells me. Must be what’s going on in Ganga’s experience. She knows it’ll all work out. And yet she can’t quite bring herself to accept it. Understandable, because the next thing on her to-do list is to die. Easy to rationalize when it’s someone else’s experience I guess. I certainly can’t know for sure that I myself won’t behave in the very same way when my own death shows itself to be coming soon.
Ironically, the day that Ganga died I had successfully made my online reservation for a visit at the rehab facility, and even had the screen shot to prove it (the online system didn’t always print out the time I reserved, so this time I thought I’d beat the system). Elihu and I went to visit Grandma after school, and after that I was going to go make my visit (feeling certain it would be my last). As I was getting in the car to leave, I received a call from her sister. Ganga has died peacefully at 4 pm, less than an hour earlier.
In my mind I played back last night’s visit. A dear friend with whom she’d started God’s Love We Deliver and her husband had made the long drive from Maryland to hold Ganga’s hand and be there with her in the time that remained. I remember seeing all three of them there in the gentle light of the small table lamp, her friend reading poems to her, holding her hand… I remember thinking it would merely be selfish if I were to interrupt the vibe by wishing to hold Ganga’s hand once more, or to kiss her on the head… I had only ever kissed her once, a few days earlier. I had been so conflicted about doing so (it still felt awkward to offer such a tender gesture for a woman who, like me, spoke her mind and swore like a sailor), but I made myself do it, and for this I’m now very relieved. So as I took in the scene, and before I pulled closed the curtain between us, I simply said “I love you Ganga, I’ll see you tomorrow”.
I last saw Ganga on Tuesday night, the first of June. She died the following day at 4 p.m.
It is Friday night now, and tomorrow morning I will make the drive, early morning, to witness my friend’s cremation. Naturally, I had to take some action in order to learn where and when it was to happen. It still amazes me that our culture is just fine with the idea of a loved one’s body being whisked away in the night and returning a few weeks later in a small five pound box, no questions asked. Seriously, no one is sentimental? Curious? In need of closure? Sigh.
As I write this, my friend’s body still exists. Ganga still exists in corporeal form. But in a matter of hours, she won’t. And this doesn’t matter at all, really. I can hear her in my head saying “Oh Elizabeth it’s bullshit. Don’t think for a moment that the body means anything.” At least I think so. That’s been kinda eating at me the last two days. I used to think I knew exactly what she would have said. But now I start to doubt…
It’s now Saturday morning. In two hours’ time I will watch the smoke rise from the wide-bore metal smokestack, carrying with it a portion of Ganga’s body upward and into the ether. Then I will pray, I will chant, I will wish her a loving and peaceful transition. I will probably cry too. And then her form as I knew it, the form which made me smile with its familiarity, the form that once served her so well and which later let her down so deeply, that crazy mass of now-decrepit cells will be nothing but bones and ashes, and smoke in the air. That which was.
It’s still super early. I didn’t wake up in a good place in my sleep cycle, so now I’m desperately groggy and trying on many excuses to see if I can allow myself to sleep in and simply miss the whole affair. But how often does one get this sort of chance to witness the final departure of a dear friend? With a mixture of sorrow, anticipation and a tiny bit of dread, I’m going to pack my bag and head off now.
I arrived at Albany Rural Cemetery a bit before 8 am, (as I’d been told that Ganga would go in first thing in the morning) and the kind woman I’d spoken to on the phone was there in the office. They were a bit backed up; Ganga’s cremation had first been moved from Friday afternoon to early on Saturday, and now it seemed as if they wouldn’t get to her until noon or later. It was time to elicit some more information to see if I might not nudge things a bit in my favor; I did my ‘thing’ and expanded the conversation as much as I felt her to be comfortable with (ok, I probably went a bit beyond that). She told me the guy who was working the crematorium’s name was Damien. “You’ll know who he is. He’s got a lot of tattoos.”
I parked in the shade just past the chapel, crematorium and mausoleum, all of which were housed in the same terra cotta-colored stone building. I walked around the perimeter once, and noticed that there was a large hall on the lower level with a door that was unlocked. It was a mausoleum, its towering walls made of smooth marble squares, some occupied, some yet awaiting their tenants. There was a table with a vase of plastic flowers and a guest book on it by the doorway. I stopped to read the entries. They were all family members come to visit parents and grandparents. Not a one of the messages was terribly interesting, and they all seemed to be desperate with loss and sorrow. I looked for something more personal or unique, but nothing stood out. We miss you Grandma, we love you Papi… Does it all just end like this? Not a lot of hope for closure or transition on those pages.
I decided I would leave a message of my own for Ganga. I sat down on the cool stone stairs, held the book in my lap, thought for a few moments, and then filled in a page. I took a pic, then returned the book to the table and stood back for a moment to regard the setting. All at once a bald man in a gas mask came running down the stairs at top speed, stopping short at seeing me – I believe I remember him even putting a hand to his heart, because it was clear that I’d scared the shit out of him. We both paused for a moment and I saw that his head was covered in vividly-colored tattoos. “Hi, are you Damien?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, he just offered a muffled “Oh I’m sorry!” from behind the mask and made a sort of slight bow of apology, and then ran back up the flight of stairs. It seemed as if he couldn’t hear me with the headgear on. I remained in the hall for a few more minutes, noting the fact that, as Sarah had told me, that because they were so backed up, the place wasn’t presentable to the public at the moment. Cardboard body boxes were stacked up in the common area, and a very industrial-looking apparatus used for holding caskets was parked in an adjacent hallway. At the end of the day, it’s a physical world, and there are physical jobs that need to be done.
Within a minute or two the bald man came back down the staircase, this time sans gas mask. Again he apologized, and of course I did too. Why should he ever expect a stranger to be here at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? I saw that he was indeed heavily tattooed (plus he had a thrice-pierced lip). Oh what a kind man he was; I told him why I was there, that it was important for me to be here when my friend was cremated. He said Sarah was right, they were a bit backed up, and it would probably be around noon by the time he could get to her. That was ok, I answered. I’d tour the cemetery and bide my time ’til then. So Damien left to get back to his job. But then a few minutes later he came down the stairs again. “I can get your friend in at 9” he offered. “You shouldn’t have to hang around here for so long”. I thanked him, this time I was the one offering a slight bow of gratitude. “I’ll get things going.” Damien offered. “And I’ll have your friend in at 9”. “Um… so which stack will she be in?” I asked, referring to the pair of metal chimneys. Without hesitation he answered “The one on the left”. I nodded. “Ok, thanks”. He turned to leave. I felt a slight rise in my adrenaline. “Wait!” I called out, and he stopped. In my mind I considered the things I might do as a symbol of our connection in this final moment – perhaps he could retrieve a lock of her hair? Perhaps he could take the flowers in my hand and have them burned along with her? In a flash I realized all of the legal and logistical problems that even a tiny request might create, and quickly said “Never mind”. No, there was nothing left to be done. He nodded, smiled kindly, turned and left.
I found a spot under a deliciously-scented flowering mock orange bush just twenty feet outside of the furnace portion of the building. I pulled out my phone to check that I had the chant correct. Om Namah Shivaya. I pulled out Ganga’s book, and then her small bible. I had brought a cushion to sit on, and was wearing her red beaded necklace from India. I tried to imagine that now tiny body, that white-haired dynamo of a woman, lying just behind that vent, behind that brick wall. That body was in lousy shape when she left it, and certainly it was less than that now. But being the deeply sentimental person I am, I couldn’t help but try to picture her in my mind’s eye. I could imagine her laying there, a mere shell of the woman she once was, and with that image fixed in my head, I said my own quiet inner farewell to that familiar form.
A few minutes before nine I heard some machinery begin to operate, and I saw the wavy heat lines of burning fuel rising from the stack (for me it was the one on the right; I was on the opposite side of the wall from Damien). Ok, I thought, it has to get up to speed first… And then, a moment or two after nine, there was one initial blast of sound, and one puff of black smoke… The smoke didn’t last. Within a minute the black smoke returned to the invisible waves of heat, rising, which continued for another hour and forty minutes. (Later I surmised that this initial burst of smoke may have been the easily-burned parts of the package like her hair, her nightgown, the dry skin, the box… the rest of the material was wetter and denser and would just be a low and slow process.) The initial plume stunned me into tears, as I realized the transformation was underway. I reached for her bible, the one with her initials embossed on the cover and which had been given to her at her first communion in St. Louis another lifetime ago, and I turned to a page in which she had once inserted a laminated card with the Saint Francis of Assisi prayer that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hate, let me sow love…” I read it aloud, through tears. I took a moment to consider it more deeply, and I read it again. And then I set to chanting. I readily admit that I’m years out of any meditative practice, so the chanting went in spurts – as did my focus. I needed to relieve my joints too, so a few times I stood, I walked, I considered the vapors rising from the stack. I thought of my friend’s physical state by now, and how I was moving beyond my sentiment for it. I stood in the shadow of the wavy heat lines on the pavement, and noted how our forms were casting shadows together. Likely it was far more fuel than body, but still… It was us, together for one last moment here on earth.
My friend had wasted away to a mere seventy-plus pounds at the end of her life, so after about an hour and forty minutes I began to wonder if it wasn’t time. But how to know? Would there be some mystical sign? Did she plan on letting me know? And within seconds of my pondering this, I heard two short sirens go off, and then the engines let down and began to hum a little more quietly. Yeah, I was pretty sure that this had been the timer, and our dear Ganga was finally cooked. It made me laugh.
I got in my car and as I slowly pulled away I saw Damien, leaning against the arched entrance, smoking a cigarette. Passing more time while her remains cooled down before they could be processed. “Man, I bet a lot of this job is just waiting, huh?” I asked, elbow hanging out my open window. That began a ten minute conversation in which we covered a lot of ground; he’d taken the job as grounds keeper originally, as he liked being outdoors, but then the guy working the crematory needed a sub, and pretty soon what Damien had once thought an unthinkable task had now become his new full-time job. He said it was particularly hard seeing the kids and babies that came in. He shared with me that while he’d never seen a ghost, once he had been overwhelmed with the scent of vanilla while mowing the lawn, the summer air around him filled with nothing but dust and grass seed. I mean, it is a cemetery. Certain subjects come up. Ghosts and unexplainable events must be covered at some point I should think. And it’s always nice when you meet another soul who has shared similar experiences, and with whom censorship is not necessary. Natural candor is a beautiful thing. Hey, it’s what I had with Ganga.
Ganga would’ve really liked this nice young tattooed man who reverently loaded her into the furnace of evermore. I’m sure it woulda made her smile. And I’m sure if she could’ve seen everything with the clarity of her former self, she would’ve been pretty happy with the way in which the last few weeks went down. (On some level I’m sure she knew well what was going on; she left after all was resolved.) Ganga had made peace with her long-estranged son, her son’s father, spent time with her daughter and her sister, and saw once again her beloved friend from the old days, who’d journeyed far just to hold her friend’s hand at the end. Ganga asked after Elihu at every one of our visits, and she was deeply satisfied to know where he was going to school, and that he himself was happy with the choice (she was adamantly against him attending an Ivy League for numerous reasons) and the last time Elihu visited with her, he had held her hand for a long time and had told her that he loved her. He sobbed the whole way home, a behavior very uncharacteristic of him. I told her about this the following day, and told her that for reasons he didn’t himself even understand, Elihu loved her so very deeply. “I feel the same way” she answered.
In the end, everything really did work out. And I know that Ganga is doing fine wherever she is now. I know it. I can just feel it in my bones.
My father’s ashes have resided on North Broadway in Saratoga Springs for nearly two years now. We pass the funeral home each morning as we drive to school. Some mornings we wave and say hello to grandpa, sometimes we call out to him, letting him know that we haven’t forgotten, and we’ll come to get him soon… but most days we do forget. In our minds, that historic mansion on North Broadway is just where dad lives now. Among the tony, gentile and wealthy folk he so often joked about. He had liked to speak in different accents, and would happily interject “I weesh to be reech” into conversations – he even said it again just a few days before he died, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Many were the times he would tell us how life would look for a gentleman of such means; he made mock instructions to his imagined staff, told us how he’d lunch with Marylou or take tea on the veranda. For as long as I can remember, he would make good fun of the money’d folk and their upscale habits, but deep down, I don’t think dad would have minded one bit if such fortune were to have befallen him. Had he the money to express himself fully in this world, I have no doubt he would have surrounded himself with the finest of everything (most notably wine and double-manual harpsichords.)
We’ve always liked knowing he was there, quietly resting on a shelf in the fine home. It feels familiar now, to know that dad “lives on North Broadway”. As I said to the funeral director on the phone today – when I finally felt it was time to see if dad hadn’t overstayed his welcome – that it had been dad’s pleasure to have lived across the street from the Riggis, he generously offered that it instead was the Riggis who were honored to have had him as their neighbor. The Riggi’s enormous home – one which they themselves like to call the ‘Palazzo Riggi’ – has become something of a tourist destination, especially on Halloween. Readers may recall that Elihu won a $100 bill from Mrs. Riggi herself last year for his unique costume. While I posed with the Riggis and my son for a quick selfie, I noticed the Burke Funeral home mansion just behind the camera, and in that second the clash of realities seemed surreal. I said a quiet hello to him as we left the decadent celebration, and once again I wondered how long it would take for me to face the idea that dad was now no more than a shoebox of dust. It still didn’t feel real. Telling ourselves that dad was there somehow offered me some comfort. But the idea of actually seeing – and holding – the small box of his remains felt too real. Last fall I still wasn’t ready. God bless those folks at the funeral home. They’d never once called to tell us to come and pick him up. In fact, the funeral director had even said, shortly after dad’s death, that there was no hurry. I’m not sure most funeral homes are so lax. Don’t know, but I’d like to believe that we’ve been given some good, old-fashioned small-town care here. Yeah, it’s felt nice to know dad was there, taken care of and safe. I feel silly saying that, but there it is.
And here we are. I think we Conants are ready. Tomorrow would have been mom and dad’s 56th wedding anniversary. They married on 10/10 in Manhattan’s upper East side on a fine fall day. After their service they celebrated at the Harvard Club (a Yale man at the Harvard Club? Shhh…) and as they entered the limousine to take them away into the night, they received a telegram of congratulations. Can you imagine? There’s a photo of them, somewhere, in the back seat of the car, leaning in to read the message. It was truly an entirely different era. I think it’s just as well my father’s no longer here with us in this modern world; he was an old-school gentleman and scholar. His was a world of typed correspondence and hand-written notes… it was a slower, gentler world; a world of telegrams, paper and ink.
Although my mother doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, I can sense she might be starting to wonder at how things will end for her. I’m sure she wonders how long she’s got. How can you be 80 and not have such thoughts? I know that I, at 52, have come to understand in a much more profound and real way just how limited our lives are. As comfortable as we humans may have become at ignoring our ultimate fate, there still comes a moment or two when the idea finally gets your attention. I tell ya, knowing that in the next couple of hours I’ll be putting a box with what’s left of my dad’s body into the back seat of my CRV is a little surreal. And it makes this whole idea of actually dying begin to feel very possible. ! Look, I know this is business as usual; all of us deal with death. And at some point in many people’s lives they’ll be faced with the receipt of a loved one in powdered form; in a box, a bag, or if the comedy of life insists, all over the kitchen floor. (I was greatly relieved when Danny told me that the cremains were inside a bag which was then inside a box. !) I shouldn’t be making this such a big deal. But when it’s your first time, when it’s your deal, it is big. I do feel I’m readier for it than I was a year ago, but to be honest, my heart begins to race at the thought of holding dad’s remains. This morning I was missing my father deeply. Maybe having what’s left of him back home again will help soften that. And then again, maybe not.
The experience of ‘picking dad up’ was made easier by the good-humored funeral director who welcomed us inside and never let up with amusing anecdotes and corny jokes. It wasn’t a show meant to distract – it was this fellow’s genuine personality. He recounted stories about terrifying nuns at Catholic school in his youth, and allowed Elihu his own boisterous expression as he bounded through the halls and jumped down half the staircase on our way out.
We then took dad out to lunch before heading back to mom’s. We hadn’t prepared her for his return, but in that I’d mentioned it recently, I suppose it wasn’t such a surprise. Mom doesn’t let on much of her inner feelings, and while she didn’t cry, I think I saw her eyes moisten just a bit. I’m glad that dad is home again, on this, the eve of their 56th wedding anniversary. Very likely he’s still somehow nearby, smiling and wishing his love upon us all, hoping that we can still feel his presence, and wishing very dearly that we should not be so sad… After all, this is a family of some deep-seated good humor, and we’re also pretty good about getting back to the simple things in life, which at the end of the day, are the reasons we’re all still hanging around.
A fine, rainy fall day as we head out.
Nostalgic for the way things used to be, I swing by Martha’s on the way to town. Still can’t believe she’s gone, too.
One year ago this week Saratoga’s Banjo Man, Cecil Myrie died. I see the Jamaican flag on Broadway and it reminds me… It was purely by coincidence that the Jamaican flag had been hung above Cecil’s makeshift memorial last year. Now it’s hanging at the other end of the strip. (We’ll be planting a memorial tree for him soon. Took a year to pull off!)
The Burke Funeral Home. One of the famous North Broadway mansions of Saratoga Springs.
Ok, this seems quite unexpected and unrelated… But our host insisted on showing us this very fancy, custom shower from the ’30s. Water came in at ya from all directions. Turns out mom and dad had one very much like it in their first NYC apartment on W 57th. And why shouldn’t it have had the finest appointments? “It was a very high class building” she reminded me, citing neighbors like Jose Ferrer, only a few doors down…
Elihu jokes around a bit with Nancy. She is, as my mother (also named Nancy) would say, “a good egg”.
So this is it. Sheesh. No pomp or ceremony. Tom just finds our box in the pile of other folks waiting to go home too.
I take a quick pic of the Palazzo Riggi from the second floor window.
Elihu’s like a ghost as he runs to the door, while I and my host (whose hand is in the far right) are making a much more measured and middle-aged descent down the carpeted staircase.
Finally, here we are. They even gave me a carryout bag. ! Oy. Bob in a bag. ! I do like the way it matches the mums, I suppose. !?!
Now this is the life to which my father could have grown accustomed with little effort. This fine Saratoga home belongs to the Wait family, the matriarch of which was once a board member for dad’s Festival of Baroque Music.
We’re at the Olde Bryan Inn. It’s a cozy place, perfect for a rainy afternoon lunch with dad.
Hmm, do ya think anyone suspects dear old dad is sitting right beside me??
Ah well, here’s to you, dad. Miss you.
We didn’t give mom much warning, but she seems ok. As she gives dads remains a heft, she says that she misses Annie (her cat who died two weeks ago today) a lot too – letting on that she must also be missing her husband. She never says so, that’s not her way. But she’s gotta be missing him, and especially today, on the eve of their anniversary.
She assesses the box, and the accompanying note of verification. (Dad’s correct date of death was December 27th, but as we couldn’t get anyone to formally pronounce him dead until the 28th – he died shortly before midnight – it will forever be legally recognized, albeit incorrectly, as the day he was legally pronounced dead. Oh well. We know.)
Within moments, it’s life as usual. The box sits in and among all the other day-to-day crap and clutter. Mom goes back to unpacking her groceries, and Elihu’s got his nose in a book on amphibians.
A closer look at the newly discovered book given to him by grandma.
And shortly thereafter, a live specimen in hand.
You’re a good-looking creature, little one. Please hunker down safely before winter, won’t you? You are one of the simple joys that keeps us going here on this sad, funny, ridiculous, heartbreaking and incredibly challenging planet. Good night frog, good night to all. And welcome back, dad. I know it’s not really you there in that box, but still.
Every time I hear someone refer to the ‘circle of life’ I cringe. Because I don’t think of life a a circle at all. Seasons, migratory and mating patterns might be cyclical in nature, but our tiny private lives are not. To my thinking the circle idea is just plain wrong. If this were a circle we were in, we’d end up at the place where we started, and we’d do it all over again. (For the sake of this conversation, let’s not concern ourselves with the afterlife – I’m just talkin worldly stuff here.) People are fond of explaining away the death of a pet to their little ones by saying that ‘it’s all part of the circle of life’. I think it might be better to tell the child that every living thing in the world dies. Life always comes to an end. Yes, it can be sad, but it happens to all of us. When I hear someone say ‘circle’, I kind of expect things to start all over again. And in a way they do – only the subsequent rounds are played with a new cast in brand-new situations. There may be similarities in old and new events – but still, that doesn’t make the whole play a circle. It’s still just a trajectory of actions moving into the future. The way I see my life here on this mortal coil – it’s a line. You start at the beginning, and you proceed through all sorts of events until you reach the end. And if you’re successful, you make it to old age. Then you die. You travel from point A to point B, making a line. Not a circle.
The eighth graders are doing the Lion King for their class play, and I’m playing piano. One of the most popular songs from the play is, of course, the ‘Circle of Life’. I’ve become a bit more immune to the expression due to the number of times I’ve now heard it, but as I listen I can’t help but reflect more deeply on the transient nature of our brief lives here on the planet. Yesterday Elihu and I attended the funeral of one of Greenfield’s old-timers, and today we’ll go to a birthday party of two wee ones. Life and death side by side like this make me more keenly aware of this finite timeline we’re all living, and how important it is to live with intention and gratitude as we go along. Our sense of time may slow or speed up depending on our age and our circumstances, but at the end of the day, when it’s time to say goodbye forever, it always seems as if life wasn’t quite long enough – even when it was. I’m sure that Olga, at 94, felt it had been long enough. And I never worry about those who’ve died. All those prayers for the dead strike me as just plain useless and beside the point. I’m not worried about them; it’s those of us left behind who need the prayers. Those of us who are left behind to bear the heartache and loss have a much harder job by far than the ones who are dead and gone. Those of us whose lines are still being drawn, those whose ending points are still somewhere over the distant horizon…
Elihu had never been to a funeral before, so I thought it would be a good life experience for him to have. We didn’t know Olga well, but she was our neighbor and it felt good to know she was always there. Her passing truly marks the end of an era here in Greenfield.
As soon as we walked in we saw the Carrico clan… they live across the big field, and a couple houses over from Olga.
Elihu loves little kids, and we’re so glad to have these wonderful girls as neighbors.
Stephanie’s belly is more like a circle than a line for sure! She’s coming along with mystery baby number four!
Inside, Elihu marvels over the changes that happen in a long lifetime.
Olga, young and old.
It’s nice to see smiles on such a say day.
The funeral procession makes a long line up Lake Ave.
After Catholic Mass at the local church, the family brings Olga to her final resting place in the town cemetery. Elihu had also never been to a church service like this – while it was in reality about forty-five minutes, he could’ve sworn it was three hours. ! Talk about experiencing time differently! (I so get it though.)
It was a lovely day, a lovely service, a lovely goodbye.
The line between the cemetery and the field seems to stretch on forever….
Today my dad will be cremated. Not something we haven’t talked about, not a word we’ve never uttered before, still it feels bizarre. To know that your father’s body will be put into an extremely hot oven and burned to ashes. On one level it seems out-of-body strange, yet on another it seems as practical and down-to-earth as it gets. Certainly (at least in my heart) it honors the body so much more than filling it up with chemicals, inserting plastic filler or wires to hold things just so… And yet, it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around. It’s just not something most folks have to deal with more than a few times during the entire course of their lives – and even if we do have to make these end of life decisions, it’s not dinner table conversation. But maybe it should be. Maybe it would be a little easier territory if we made it less mysterious.
As I’ve gone through the past two days, doing errands and catching up on life, I’ve been constantly, ever-so-subtly aware that my father still exists. That his body, just as I saw it last, still lies in Saratoga, his white hair just so, so too his beard, those certain spots on his forehead, and those marvelous hands. They all still exist, I tell myself over and over as if clinging to this fact to make things better. As I drove to the grocery store I took the long way around, passing the funeral home and pondering my dad, still there, somewhere within that enormous Victorian mansion, lying there, hands on his chest in his navy blue flannel pajamas. It’s a refrigerated room, of course. Can you imagine how cold he is? I think. But he’s just a body, I remind myself. Just plain old organic matter that would become a stinking mess if you left it out. I go around and around, considering both sides of this idea to no fruitful conclusion. There is none to be made.
I had to pull over and park. I sat, studying the house, looking into the upstairs bedrooms-turned-offices and just wondered at this unknown world. In the end, it’s just a business for these guys. My father is just another body and I am just another client. But in what limited experience I’ve had with professionals in the death industry, I can say that they are by no means cold and jaded. While it may be business as usual for them, the folks I’ve met so far have been extraordinarily compassionate and kind. This funeral home is on North Broadway, a street lined with ancient trees and opulent mansions from the grand years of Saratoga Springs. Just across the street is the new-moneyed, Disneyesque Riggi mansion, all bedecked for the holidays in thousands of tiny white lights. A few houses to the north is the grand white house of Charlie Wait, the president of the local bank. I remember my dad getting a business loan on a mere handshake with Charlie’s father years ago. I remember the lobby’s vaulted ceiling and the huge oil paintings on the wall. I remember how they chatted like old friends…. I laugh to myself at dad’s final address. He was forever making jokes about wanting to be rich, forever positing funny scenarios of himself in that good life – instructing the staff, taking his lunch on the patio, making important calls… So now here he is, residing on tony North Broadway. It makes me smile. I snap a picture of the funeral home, and now starting to cry, I drive home through the rain.
Last night I called my mom. Didn’t stop by, as I’d been too busy trying to find Christmas gifts for Elihu and shopping for the produce that I’ve gone without the past week or more. To be honest, while I’d thought also of her throughout the day, I’d quickly turned my attention to something else, as I was afraid to consider how she was really doing. I have a full life and much to do to keep my mind off of dad’s passing, but mom, she lived virtually in service to him. Truly, her life was in her home; her cats, my brother, my dad. And all my life mom has always cooked exceptional food for us. In dad’s final days, while things did become radically different, she took no less care in feeding him. Rather than spending her days researching recipes, she was now more concerned with quantity of food ingested, the times of the feedings and their caloric content. And she did it well. She stayed on top of things. She’s always stayed on top of things. But now there’s no pressing matter to stay on top of anymore. We talked about it, she herself realizes that she’s got some thinking to do. What will she live for now? How will she define herself? These are questions we all have to face – certainly I myself have some personal experience with those particular questions! But I have a child, and for the time being, no matter what happens to me, I am primarily defined by that role. But to be partnerless, childless, occupationless…. that is something different. Yeah, mom has a challenge ahead of her. And while it may be a transitory challenge, the one most immediately before her – and me too – today, is that of saying the final goodbye to dad as we knew him.
I’ve asked the funeral home to please call us when dad’s on his way – and the crematory, which is a good forty-five minute ride across the border into Vermont, will call us when dad’s ‘going in’. Or whatever terminology they use. The funeral guy himself wasn’t too specific in his language – I still find there’s a lot of dancing around the truth here. While he was enthusiastically supportive about our wanting to know exactly when it was that dad was being cremated – his language was surprisingly euphemistic. Hm. Probably how they need to speak for the comfort of most people. For me, his vague, cryptic language was not so reassuring. But I guess most folks probably appreciate it. Again, I wish this was all easier to talk about. I’ve also been wishing I knew what we could do to mark this final passing of dad’s body… Mom and I had talked about raising a glass of wine to him as he went up to the skies, but is that fair to Andrew? Then, last night, I got it. We’ll light a candle. And then, when dad is gone, we’ll blow it out. Up will waft that thin trail of smoke, and up will waft dad, out and over the snowy Vermont countryside. From that vantage point in the sky I’m sure one can see Greenfield… Then the ashes will come home. Some will be dispersed in the lake where dad spent his boyhood summers, some will go to the veteran’s cemetery, and just a tiny bit will remain here with us.
It’s funny how sentimental we are as humans. Even though I may believe that dad is in a much better place, and even though I know full well that his soul is no longer attached in any way to that old man’s body lying in the funeral home, it still means so much to know that we’ll have something left of dad, even if it’s just a box of ashes.
Post Script: Dad’s obituary is now up on the funeral home’s site at www.burkefuneralhome.com and folks may make remembrances there if they choose… I’ve heard many stories and anecdotes about dad recounted in the past two days – some I’d even forgotten – so I encourage people to share any one of them publicly on the funeral home’s site… thanks again for all the love and support.
Btw – dad passed at 11:51 p.m. on the 27th, but as he wasn’t officially pronounced dead by a ‘professional’ until the following morning, the date of death will legally be considered to be the 28th. Sheesh.
It’s been just about four hours since my father died. I have already experienced a strange variety of feelings… they fade in and out, they linger, they twist and change, and then depart, leaving me unsettled and unsure of anything. One minute I think I have a handle on things, yes, I get it, it’s ok, I feel invigorated even; dad is free and he knew we all loved him, all is as it should be… and then seconds later I feel a dark sort of terror sucking me in, telling me that this is but the beginning of unending, lifelong heartache that will never conclude. The sort of horrifying truth that leaves your chest empty of air and has you crumpling to the floor in profound despair…
And on top of this, there’s now another new and strange brew of bad feelings beginning to emerge, and I don’t like it. Why and I feeling like this? Where is this coming from? Everything about my father’s death was exactly as it should have been! It was all and more than we could ever have hoped for! And yet here they are, sneaking their way into my psyche in spite of my knowing better: guiltandregret. My gut begins to feel sick, truly nauseous, and there is a low rumbling of dread building by the second. So many things I had wanted to talk with him about – but I stop myself. I couldn’t; being a single mom of a kid allergic to cats made it difficult, plus mom was always there. (It was nearly impossible to speak only to him without constant interjections from mom when she was within earshot.) Then I remember those years when she was away at work and I had NO job and I still never went to him, recorder in hand…. Ich. I want to throw up. But I remind myself that I did what I felt comfortable with. Given the same stretch of history to do over again, I’d probably do the same again. My father and I, while we clearly shared a very deep love for each other, we did not have the greatest success simply talking. I did ask him questions, and I do have some stories, and some answers. And they will have to be enough. I counsel myself away from the path of guilt and regret, and I’m able to feel a little better. But still, they lurk. My stomach reminds me.
Just a couple of hours before I’d felt surprisingly ok as mom and Andrew and I moved about the kitchen, chatting and even laughing together as dad lay, dead and gradually losing warmth, in the other room. We’d made it through together. We’d done it. For a few minutes everything seemed clear-cut and simple. We’d each had our sobbing breakdown, but we’d pulled out of it before long. And now we were in the kitchen, almost as if nothing had happened. Wait, wait, hold on a second – what just happened here? Wait, where’sdad? Whoah – oh no, oh shit, he’s over there. And he’s not breathing anymore. Really?? Oh my God. Is this real? Yes, it is. And it’s ok. It’s all as it should be. Hm. But wait, we’re laughing. Should we be laughing here? Yeah, that’s ok too. But the sorrow is so acute, the laughter so short on its heels. Strange.
Even after doping up on an entire sleeping pill – something that would usually knock me right out – I find that after a mere hour’s nap I am up, alert, my mind churning over and over again the micro-events of the past eight hours. It seems a blur, and my memory is already becoming fuzzy on some of the details, so I try to get a handle on the timeline. I’m concerned that I’m already forgetting how everything occurred. To begin with, I got out my date book and stared at the past week, trying recall how it was we got here from there, and so soon. I remember once holding the strong impression that dad wouldn’t go til ‘sometime in the new year’, thinking that to be yet months off… Even at Thanksgiving (all four of us were together and actually had a pleasant time, an amazing gift I realize now) if anyone had told me that my dad would die just around Christmas, I still woulda thought they were way off. Guess it was my way of stalling. No matter how much you know it’s coming, it aint the same as the real thing. No way.
After I make a little map of the last two weeks’ events I relax a bit. I have a better picture now of how quickly things happened. From mobile man sitting at the table eating toast and eggs less than two weeks ago (ok, so mom will tell you half of the breakfast ended up on the floor, a sign things had deteriorated even more from the previous day) to couch-bound dad, which would have been fine had he been able to get up and use the bathroom, but here is where he began to require the kind of care no one likes to think about. Here, a big corner was turned. And within two days of moving to his new home on the couch, the big hospice bed arrived. So he gets moved to the bed. Comfy, continuously moving air mattress to prevent bed sores and keep up circulation. Nice. Funny, you know he’s not leaving that new bed alive, but even then it’s not real. You’re just going with the flow. So dad’s in a bid hospital bed now. In your mind, you adjust your thinking til it feels ok. Normal. After all, he is still recognizable. His spirit is there – you can’t imagine anything else, can you? Likely he will live in this bed forever now. His friends will have to come to him, but that’s ok – at least he’s comfortable.
Then he will begin to move slowly in the bed, frail and without the muscle to simply turn on his side (a right-side sleeper like me, I can sympathize and so brought from home all my extra down pillows to help him achieve some variety in positions) and he will look half asleep, his eyes having that faraway look, not quite connected. But you hold his hand, you engage him, and he shows you a sign. ‘Yes! Robert’s totally still with us!’ you think, still under some crazy illusion that this is just some aberration and that in a day or two things will start to right themselves again.
And then there is that first day of the deep sleeping, and that heavy, open-mouthed breathing from which you cannot bring your beloved father back. And to be honest, he hasn’t got the strength to communicate a thing, so you can only guess how present or not he is at this point. His mouth looks so very dry, oh my God, how must that feel? While just yesterday you’d have offered him a water-soaked sponge on a stick to relieve the dryness, now that tiny trickle of water might cause him to choke. Ok, so you want him to die, but not like that! So at this point you just wait. The breathing continues, and every few hours its pattern and sound changes. You look up from your book, you glance at your mother who’s heard it too, then you softly agree with each other that we’ve reached ‘something new’, and then after perhaps leaning in to touch your father’s hand or kiss his brow, you whisper something encouraging to him and return to your reading. What else can you do? You are now in the thick of the vigil. And as a friend said to me just yesterday, “the vigil is awful’. Yes, it’s hard. And who knew it could go on so long?
Mom and I sat by dad’s bedside yesterday from two in the afternoon until he died, shortly before midnight. Now I am writing from the morning after, I’m sitting on the couch from which I can see dad in his bed just like the days before. It’s comforting that his body is still here. That just shouldn’t be; I understand he’s not present in his body anymore, I had felt it a few moments after his last breath. No magic, spiritual moment occurred for any of us really, but when a minute had passed since his last whisper of a breath we had to conclude he was gone. I looked at his face, and it seemed different. Yes, yes, he was finally dead (and as if to confirm it, a cat had meowed from his office twice at that moment). But oh how strong is sentiment, and oh how strong the pull of the familiar. I have seen wailing women in far-off countries throwing themselves upon their husband’s and father’s bodies and can remember thinking ‘dead bodies aren’t worth fussing over like that’. Furthermore, isn’t that a little, well, gross? But now it’s my daddy. And I am not for one moment put off by the fact that his body is dead. My possessive, primitive heart tells me in a panic that this is all I have left of him, and so I linger, touching him, kissing him, examining his fingers in a way I’d wanted to all of my life. Pouring over him, noticing his hair, his arms, his freckles… Please don’t forget these things, I beg my unreliable memory. The funeral home will be here to pick him up shortly. First a nurse from hospice will come and help get him into some pajamas (another thing one doesn’t think much about until the situation is upon them: what will dad wear as his body departs this plane? Are the cotton/poly blend pajamas from Walmart ok?). It doesn’t sound very dignified, but what would be dignified about wrestling his now-stiffening body into a suit? Sheesh. So many little things pop up when you’re finally here.
The men from the funeral home finally arrived. They looked much as one would have expected, in fact it seemed a little too cliché. Funny even. In hindsight I even think the older man looked a little like Peter Sellers. I didn’t notice it then, but it’s just as well. I think humor may have its limits. Certainly there was nothing funny about this moment. There were two men, in black wool overcoats and ties rolling in a gurney upon which they would take my father out. They were wonderful; not grim at all, but respectful – and they had an attentive, gentle manner which helped us bear the action at hand. Just as they began to unfold the layers of body bag and drape, I called out for them to stop – I wanted to put on some of dad’s music first. It just felt right, I hadn’t planned it, but the air was so thin, lacking of something…. I found the cd and pushed play. Not too many years ago dad had recorded this beautiful live performance of him playing Couperin; I had recently learned from friend Ken Slowik that the piece been written – fittingly for our needs now – as a memorial tribute to a deceased colleague. Gorgeously and deeply melancholic, it gave the room an air of dignity and beauty that was entirely befitting dad’s final moments in his home.
Perhaps it was going too far – but I was desperate not to forget this scene – and so I took a short video. But I stopped it after a few seconds to be present. I watched as they wrapped dad, as they lifted him, as they zipped him up to his neck. And then I saw my mother lean over to kiss dad’s forehead at the very same time that the final passage in the music played. The timing was so uncannily perfect. Again, things had lined up in the best possible way. They then wheeled the gurney towards the door. We joked a bit about dad and mom having moved so many harpsichords in and out of the house, this process was in many ways similar. Earlier we’d shown the two gentlemen some photographs of dad and his instruments, so they understood what we meant and shared in our amusement. Shortly we were outside in the gray, snowy day, at their vehicle which sat, like so many before, open and ready to receive its cargo. Dad was lifted in, feet first, his white-haired head still visible. He was one good-looking dead man, I have to say. The hospice gal who’d last come (and helped us get him in his final outfit) remarked that his skin looked wonderful, that his coloring was beautiful. And I’d have to agree; while he began to turn a little yellowish at the end, he never looked bad. In fact, as I took one last look at him in the hearse, I thought to myself what a handsome man, and what dignity he possessed, even in death.
But we, being the Conants, had to avail ourselves of the opportunity to note the humor and irony in this final step. Through the years we’ve taken hundreds of photos of our guests departing down the long driveway. We all raise an arm to wave farewell as we watch them reach the middle, and by the time the cars are at the road, mom will make a comment about the direction in which they choose to head out. We have done this for thirty-some years, why stop now? I had the younger funeral attendant take a pic of Andrew, mom and me waving at the hearse, and as they drove away I took one last picture of Andrew and mom, arms raised to wave goodbye to dad… “Well, Daddy, guess you won’t be goin down Braim Road again” mom remarked as the big black vehicle took a left.
It’s now the day after the first day, and as I go over my earlier writing for edits and corrections I still feel stunned. I alternate between acceptance and panic, really. One moment I’m listing for myself all the perfect things about the past two weeks – the past two months or two years, even – and I note how everything resolved itself as well as it could. So many things to grateful for, not the least of which is that dad died at home, with each one of us touching him, and knowing he was loved. But sorrow is not something you can negotiate with or rationalize; the very next moment it washes over me and I find myself weeping with a freshly-broken heart. I know that this will go on for a long time. I also know that it will lessen, and that life will surround me, distract me, fill me and satisfy me again. I hope. Cuz right now I feel that queer, wide-open sort of sad that sees no resolution, that doesn’t expect to feel entirely good and right ever again.
Elihu comes home on New Year’s Eve day, which is also my brother’s birthday. My son’s homecoming will in of itself be a gift for Andrew. That man could use a little light in his life. I’m going to suggest he come along with me to the train when I pick Elihu up. We’ll see Fareed then too, as he’s on his way to the city, and then on to London to visit with his daughter. It’ll be a brief, on-the-platform hello and goodbye, but even seeing Fareed for a quick greeting might also help my brother. Don’t know. Worth finding out. And then, we will know the greatest peace our hearts can know at this time – when Elihu is with us again. Throughout this process of my father dying I have been thankful that my son wasn’t here for this – I couldn’t have expected him to sit through a ten hour vigil. So things have indeed all worked out as well as they could have. And soon I will know the tender relief of holding my child in my arms again. I can hardly wait.
Finally, I’m done with this intense part of the process. And I can say that I’m proud of myself for it too; I’m proud of all of us who’ve lost a parent, for truly it is an initiation of sorts into full adulthood. We who live through a loved one’s death – no matter who it is who dies – are brave people. This process of being human, as I’ve noted before, is not for wimps.
Ok, one big life lesson down, I suppose it’s time to move things along. My process isn’t over yet…
Mom and I both said it at the same time. This evening had turned out to be – with no prior intention – a wake. The impromptu party of old friends, with tales re-told, pictures snapped and the general volume of the room increasing as the night progressed, had truly become a living wake. Had there ever been such a thing? mom and I wondered aloud to each other. How fantastic a gathering it had been, and how important for all of us. Likely there would be no such gathering after dad’s death; so this had been it. We had gathered around dad’s bed, telling stories and laughing, then gradually made our way to the living room filling in all the available seats. We all stayed much longer than I think any of us had planned. And while my father opened his eyes only once or twice in the four hours we visited, we all agreed that he had been present for the party. Stories were recounted, old photos were passed around, and there was laughter just like in the old days. (Our house had always had humor if nothing else!) And somehow, although she had not planned for it, mom rose to the occasion as ever she did in the days of yore, pulling cheese, crackers and wine out of almost-empty cabinets to continue her long-standing role as queen hostess.
Back in the days of my father’s early music festival he’d always had an assistant to help him during the summer. The duties of said intern were wide-ranging and went far beyond simply picking musicians up at the airport and manning the box office. These various and sundry jobs were the subject of hilarious tales re-told tonight, none of which had to be elaborated upon to be entertaining. And what made this all the more precious a night was that two of dad’s long-standing assistants were here: the two Jims. They are more than former employees, they are family. I’ve known them both far longer than I’ve known just about anyone, and while I don’t fancy myself an old person, the way the tales were flying tonight I think that my generation now qualifies for that category. One of the Jim’s son was also there along with his girlfriend, and I found myself suddenly very aware of how old we all sounded. As a child I can remember my own parents talking of things that happened long before I was born, and thinking them irrelevant and, well, ancient. I looked at my own father and realized in some new dawning awareness that one day I too would not only be old, but very old. Sometimes it’s more than hard to believe; it’s scary. But it’s the crazy and unpredictable stuff that happens in the middle that makes the trip worth it I guess.
If I’d wondered how my brother would fare in the face of our father’s imminent death, I had my answer tonight. Andrew wobbled in during the party absolutely stinking drunk. Thankfully everyone (save perhaps that poor young girl) knew the deal. More than that, they responded with love and compassion. One of the Jims even let my poor brother collapse in his arms as he succumbed to his grief. I’m grateful to him for understanding. This is a tricky situation for anyone, and much more so for someone who doesn’t have it together emotionally. My mother was also able to get teary, although I haven’t seen her out and out cry yet. But it’s coming, I’m sure. I found it strange, but as we were wrapping up the evening and making our goodbyes she began to cry a bit, and I didn’t. In fact, I felt almost cried out. It almost feels as if this waiting is just too much. Like I’m done already. Only thing is, I know I’m not. And I’m still so very scared.
It’s late now. And it’s Christmas Eve, too. I’m so tired. Mom must be tired too, but it’s not over yet. We’realmostthere, mom I think to myself. I also think to myself that dad must have – on some level – appreciated the company tonight. He shifted positions nearly the whole evening seemingly in search of a comfortable spot, yet I’ve heard this is simply a phenomenon that happens near the end of life. And although he seemed mostly gone from the room, he was able to nod a time or two in response to a question, and had us roaring with laughter at his agreement. Yeah, I think dad knew what was going on. He’s just pooped is all. Just too tired preparing for his transition, too tired fighting this defeated body to speak, to engage. After all he’s been engaging, performing, teaching and living for eighty-five years. I can understand.
My ex used to say that I spent more of my life’s energy looking backwards than I did looking forwards. In part, I would tend to agree. Ever since I can remember – at around the age of eleven or so – I’ve always felt a low-grade, persistent sense of melancholia around me. (Maybe it started with my Grandma’s death, I don’t know. But an awareness of things becoming irreconcilably gone seems to have become part of my thinking around that time.) In writing this down I’m struck by the irony of it; I’m a fairly humorous gal and never shy about being vocal. I keep things light, and I always try my best to make a connection of some sort with every person I come into contact with. And yet… and yet I do a lot of things in life on my own, solo. I did as a kid too. Of course I’d play with children as a kid, and of course I interact with folks easily as an adult. But beyond the cursory and cheerfully polite interactions throughout my rather average, ‘small’ days, I don’t spend much time with friends. And this I suppose, is mostly by choice. Mostly, I enjoy being alone. I have a handful of friends in my life whom I love dearly yet only see them infrequently (that’s mostly logistics!). And that’s fine for me. But what is not so fine – what has me waxing melancholic at times – is the absence of some folks who have simply disappeared from the landscape of my life altogether. Having moved a thousand miles away from the town my heart still feels is home, I understand well how life changes, how it comes to pass that you may never again see some people who were once virtual fixtures in your life, but it’s still sad to know you’ve lost some forever. However, this is a connected, info-drenched world in which we live, and it’s that which gives me hope. In the back of my mind, I am comforted to know that if I try, I stand a pretty good chance of getting back in touch with the folks I miss.
This past week a Chicago-based bass player died. He’d been one of a handful of folks I’d tried to locate after losing touch, so hearing of his death just floored me. This man had a great sense of humor and he always had a twinkle in his eye. His passing has shocked a lot of friends who also hadn’t seen him around for a while. He’d just about dropped out of the music scene over the past couple of years as he’d had his hands full battling some personal demons. He was a relatively young guy too – but no matter, in the end he couldn’t get ahead of em. Seeing the Facebook posts popping up all day yesterday, I could feel the community’s need to share their sadness with each other. And precisely because so many of us live in far-flung places now, there can be no wake – no one gathering of friends to say goodbye to provide a healthy sense of closure we’d all probably like. And as I understand it, his family does not want to hold a memorial service either. I guess I can understand. It might be far too painful for them. I don’t know. But I do know that his death has got me missing my old friends, longing for those long-gone idealistic years as a young musician in Chicago, and feeling the added sorrow of living in a world where old friends don’t necessarily live in the same physical communities any more. It’s at a time like this when I lament having left my heart-home. But then I think of the dozens of dear friends who themselves have since moved on, away, some of them even living on the other side of the globe…
And it starts up again. Rob’s dying reminds me of other friends who’d also died too soon. And I realize I’ve lost a lot of friends. And I think of my parents – how must it feel to routinely hear of the deaths of their contemporaries? Just what is that place in one’s life like? To know that very few who remain are older than you, that most are in fact much, much younger, and that you are one of the few remaining of your age to still be here? Man, just how does that feel? If one goes into the experience, is it frightening as hell? Or does one just accept it, with a gradual dimming of the senses, a dulling of the heart in order to protect itself from such deep sorrow or fear? Or, perhaps (as is definitely not the case with many of my agnostic friends) does one take a certain relief in knowing that those who have left us have themselves gone to a much easier, happier place where we too will one day see them again? Either way it doesn’t change the fact that your friend is not here anymore. So our sorrow for their departure is honestly just about us. Our being sad is our being selfish. Which I think, from time to time, is actually a necessary thing. Crying it out is healthy and right.
But to live with a constant, low-grade sense of the sorrows of this world, to have this mist of melancholia float around you while you go through your day, that’s probably not terribly healthy. Yet I find myself haunted, as if by the merest vapor of a thought, throughout my days, by the faintest tugging… a vague, undefinable sensation of things not being as they should – and thereby not being quite as happy as they might otherwise. I can’t say that I’m sad, per se, but I can say that I do not always live in a heightened state of happy alert. Having said that, I readily admit to being a person who’s quick to find the humor or irony in a situation; I’m quick to turn a mishap into something useful. A lemonade from lemons sort of approach. But still. I suppose you might say that I’m a cheerful person – who knows better.
And I know better than to think Rob – or any of my friends who’ve passed on – would want me to mope around in a tearful funk over them for very long. Sure, I’d kinda expect my friends to cry at my own death, but by all means I want them to move things along when they’re done… Shake themselves back to life with a little Richard Pryor or Monty Python or Louis CK. Something, anything. Keep going. Cuz it’s gonna be alright. Somehow, it will be. But we just all gotta keep moving. After we say our goodbyes, and dry our eyes, it’s time to wake up and get back to it.