Numbers are literal and limiting. Forget them. I have now moved on to asterisks. In a time of great transition, I still can’t write transitions. But I can punctuate.
* * * * *
When I was young, the thought of looking at a dead body nauseated and scared me. Over the years, I changed. Somehow, now, seeing a body seems to be part of death, a final reckoning that life has fled elsewhere.
So, I saw my father’s body this morning. His unlined, waxen face. He lay, covered up, except for his face, in a House of Death blanket. My 24-year-old son went with me and stayed in the room. He was a little uncomfortable himself, but all right, he kept reassuring me.
I stared at my father’s face. Yesterday, we had retrieved photos of him for the memorial service — a childhood portrait with his twin sister, a dashing picture of him and my mother when they were young and beautiful and newly married, photos of him with my children, my sister and me. All those years, those familiar faces captured in just an instant — and now this, the final glimpse.
When you are reared to be religious, as I was, elements of those beliefs never leave you — most especially the power of the words and the music. So I continued to hum, “He Lives!” and the phrases “dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” linger in my mind. I can’t tell you what it all means, because I have no idea. I can only tell you there’s a haunting majesty to the end of a life. It isn’t all sadness; there’s also a certain awe to it, a total sense of humility to witness something so far beyond your own comprehension that all you can do is stare and shake your head ever so slightly. It’s over — and you don’t even know what “it” was.
* * * * *
I now realize I’ve underestimated the impact of a parent’s death. I like to think I’m just great at empathy, but now I see how short I’ve fallen. How many friends have I made perfunctory comments to about the death of a parent, without fully understanding what they were going through? I’m so sorry. I’m sadder and smarter now, and I regret my past idiocy.
* * * * *
It’s odd to hear, from a few people, what a “relief” this must be after my father’s long illness. I feel no relief; I only feel bad. I think relief is one of those emotions that comes, if it ever does, in time. To the next person who expresses the relief angle a little too enthusiastically, I may or may not say, “You know, that’s a real crock of shit” — but I will certainly be thinking it.
* * * * *
We parted ways with our original House of Death liaison, who managed to misspell my father’s first name, send us back to the notary twice, then finally, fail to send in the obituary to the newspaper. My life isn’t long on rules, but here’s one I adhere to passionately: You don’t fuck up someone’s obituary.
“I refuse to work with that moron again,” I told the House of Death. They said he happened to be out of the office, anyway.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read about whether it really matters that it was the day after Father’s Day
Ruth, Thank you for sharing your journey. I am outraged about the incompetence you encountered. Sending you good thoughts as you continue down the pathway through all of this.
Ruth, so much of what you wrote impacted me in so many ways. The majesty of death. The awe of it. The fact that one can be young and dashing in one fleeting moment, and then not. The raw openness and compassions that comes. The power of ritual and music.
And screwing up the obituary. They did that for my grandfather’s as well. How hard a job could that be — publishing an obituary? It is so critical, more critical and personal than any news story, and somehow, seems like it would be a routine job that they would have down pat. I’m sorry about that.
Keep writing. We are here, listening and feeling and loving, and sharing though our connectiveness in life.
Yesterday I was replacing some old books in a bookcase and I opened on to find bookmarks my mother had left few years before she died. There was a short grocery list and a note about a continuing education class she was taking. A moment in a life. That person no longer exists. It was a stab for me, four years after her death.
But I treasure those little remembrances. It’s better to remember, even though there is some pain with the memory.
I love your blog. I’ve related to so many of your comments previously, but this blog truly hit me personally. I lost my mom when I was 2. I lost my dad when I was 16. Last year I lost my sister (she was 49-yrs-old).
You DO eventually begin to feel relief, if the years leading up to someone’s death were hard ones. My sister suffered for years. And although I hate losing her, I have learned to find relief both in my own pain, and in hers.
When they brought in the huge spray to cover her casket prior to the viewing, me and my other 2 sisters grasped. RED carnations? Are you kidding me? We had ordered white. They corrected the mistake within a half hour, but, as you said, just like the obituary, these things MATTER. Death is final. So is every decision you make that accompanies it. It has to be perfect or the regrets will live forever.
You have my sincere sympathy for what you are, and will, go through.
Go ahead. Arrange your thoughts among asterisks (stars) rather than delineating those thoughts with ordinal numbers. Avoid silly discussions with yourself, such as, “do I mean this thought to be read as third in prominence, or do I really mean it as maybe fifth?” Cast your collected thoughts out among the stars allowing each person to make his or her own unique sense out of your collection. After all, isn’t post-impressionism what The Starry Night is being all about?
The last two family members who died were cremated, and I never saw the bodies. I believe in cremation, and prefer it for myself. But there was a loss of the finality, the ability to say goodbye that last time. In both cases, viewing the body was not really an option. That makes it a bit easier.
When I have seen bodies of those I have loved, it is their hands which strike me. All that those hands have done in their lifetime. Caring for children, gardening, painting, writing, cooking, heavy labor. Then they are still. It is heartbreaking to me.
I have that same feeling about hands. Thank you for putting it into words.
Ruth, I am so sorry for the death of your father.
Don’t be so hard on yourself on the empathy issue. We all try, and sometimes plod through. It is not until we can experience these life altering moments that we glimpse into someone else’s pain. I think…
This was lovely and sad.