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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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