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Snapshots of Death

To me, dying was a way somebody looked – a costume you put on.

My childhood was a magical place full of ruffles, feathers, tulle and lace. I adored dressing up – parading shamelessly around the house in burlap. An imagined Indian princess with lipstick war paint. I relished my time alone in the mornings, before my parents woke – the hour when my imagination ran wild.

I recall one morning. I scamper into the kitchen to make my Nesquik, peruse the morning cartoons, and pull out my chest of dresses.  First came the obligatory white Easter tights and matching socks with the turned down lace cuffs. I pick a snow-white taffeta gown with miles of tulle underskirt, the loose bodice gapping from my baby barrel chest. Clear plastic shoes with kitty heels. Pearl clip-ons. Ivory gloves. Aunt Cindy’s wedding veil. I powder my face. Lace my hands. Then I lay down on the coffee table to die.

I was somewhere between the age of picture books and PG movies. My experience with death was limited to sleeping princesses and witches spells hidden in the pages of those little golden books. To me, dying was a way somebody looked – a costume you put on.

When my mom found me lying there, pale and supine, she made the worst face I’ve ever seen. It was like she realized – for the first time – that our daughters and our sons can die.   It turned me to ice – my guilt unbearable. What was so scary about death? To this day, we’ve never talked about it.

We welcomed Zafer home.

Clouds covered the sun after Zafer’s memorial service. It started to sprinkle as the cars lined up for his funeral procession.

His little brother Arlo was driving the beat up faded little pickup truck that we call the “Pup.”  That truck was the apple of Zafer’s eye. Some questioned whether or not the Pup would be able to make the journey from town to our rural residence. Arlo drove slowly, with his brother’s body in a pine coffin in the Pup’s bed.

My husband Lyle was distraught. He was angry with the police escort. He wanted their blue lights to be flashing, ahead of us for a change. We waited in the rain.

They turned their lights on when the processional began, and we slowly followed them and the Pup. Hundreds of cars pulled out with their headlights on as we drove through Pittsboro, North Carolina. Non-funeral traffic stopped out of respect—which is a custom in the south. It felt like the town became still in our honor. Each intersection was closed with police standing guard. As we left town, the Pittsboro police turned away and Chatham County Sheriff deputies took over.

The processional continued slowly until we came to our driveway, and to the site of the newly created cemetery where Arlo, Lyle, and others had prepared a gravesite.

The sun came back out as we gathered to lower the coffin into the ground.  We welcomed Zafer home.

My grandmother’s orange hands

Unsure of myself, I enter the room. Deep inside this hive of murmuring well-wishers, my grandmother lies in an open casket. I freeze. No one told me grandma would be on display.

I’m what you’d call a death virgin. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of roadkill and war movies, but this is the woman who serves me soft-boiled eggs over toast in a cup. Everyone else seems to know what they’re doing; which face to wear, where to stand, what to say, and at what volume. Spying my mother, I beeline towards her. She’s standing in front of the coffin and I glimpse my grandma’s hands, except they’re a strange shade of orange. I quickly turn my head and anchor at my mother’s side. I try to smile. A wad of spit I cannot swallow has taken over my mouth. I can almost hear my grandmother’s comforting, “Oh, dear.”

The image of a dying deer pops into my head, its eye morphs into a cloudy, lifeless orb. “I’m a startled deer,” I think, “and my grandmother has orange hands and dead eyes.” I’m helpless to derail this morbid train of thought until my mother sidetracks me. She is tugging on my arm, trying to move me over. I realize people have lined up for the viewing and I am standing directly in their path. On some level I am protecting my grandmother from their eyes. Mortified, I move aside.

I can’t say.

I suppose it is something a lot of women do when they hear bad news. I began to house-clean. Chronically dirty square inches. Like the crevice filled with gray matted dust where the edge of the carpet meets the woodwork. I went all around the house on my knees with the nozzle end of the vacuum cleaner.

It wasn’t really bad news. Mom just called and said “Your Dad isn’t feeling well.” She wanted me to come and visit him the next day. That’s when I got in the cleaning frenzy. Why I didn’t just jump in the car and drive right up there that very night, I can’t say. Because I certainly knew something was wrong.

By the time I arrived, the ambulance had left carrying the person who meant the most to me in life to his hospital fate. Mom had left instructions to take the laundry out of the dryer and fold it before I came to the hospital. Why I didn’t just jump in the car and drive right over there, I can’t say. Because that was what I really wanted to do.

By the time I got to the hospital, he was already in surgery. I sat in the waiting area. The tears not falling, but arcing, landing closer to knee than lap.   There was nothing to clean there. Someone had already vacuumed and dusted and adjusted the lamp shade and lined up the magazines just so. Hours passed, my hands lying still in my lap.

Then the 24 hour bedside vigil in the ICU in a room so clean it took my breath away. And the nurses kept him so clean. They asked me to leave the room while they “suctioned” because it was messy. Out in the hall, I wondered why the hospital couldn’t give out buckets filled with hot soapy water and Lysol, to give me something to do.

He died in the room with a polished terrazzo floor.

Death can be funny. It’s alright to laugh.

Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes laughing is better than the alternative. My mother called me one day – out of the blue – and said “Grandpa is going to kill himself and you can’t let me forget about the Smart Balance Butter in the freezer.” You can be damn sure I laughed at that. I threw my head back.  I cackled. I whooped. I howled mercilessly at the silence on the other end of the line. I laughed so hard that my ribs ached and my voiced cracked. When I finally finished, mom let out an equally exhausting sob. It’s safe to say that she was displeased.

As it turns out, this was the first time she had ever thought about her 75 year old father dying, let alone offing himself. Now, my Grandpa is a practical man. He eats the same bland breakfast, walks the same wooded trail, and watches the same two channels of MSNBC every day. I can’t imagine him going any other way than on his own terms. I’d known this for years.  Mom didn’t have the slightest notion – so when he told her his plan to one day kill himself and leave our inheritance in gold coins stashed away in a Smart Balance Butter container in the freezer where my junkie uncle couldn’t find it… It floored her. Instead of taking a moment to digest this news, she called me, afraid she’d forget about the bounty in the butter packed away behind the ice tray.  Death can be funny.  It’s alright to laugh.

My father was giving me everything he had.

When my sisters told me he had made up his mind to end his life and that he was going to do it the following night, I wondered if my father would call me to say good bye. But at 6:30 PM the night of his suicide, he did. You can imagine the poignancy of a last conversation like that. I told him how he had hurt me, how much I had admired him and craved his attention, how he never seemed to get me, and how grateful I was for the help he had given me  in my adult years and that I did know that in his own way he did love me deeply. He confirmed that he did and throughout my portion of the conversation I was constantly crying. He was dry-eyed throughout, but listened patiently,  acknowledged what I had said and gave me his own perspectives. When we hung up, I knew that I finally had been heard by my father and that  a scar had disappeared from my heart.  It was one of the most awesome and liberating feelings of my life.

But here’s what I really want to share about it. In retrospect, there was nothing really different about that last conversation than earlier ones. It was just that I was willing to accept that my father was giving me everything he had.  Which means we can heal ourselves because all we have to do is realize that everyone that hurts us is always giving what they can.

Until we meet again.

I remember the day you made the decision. The day you acknowledged that the ravenous bear in your body would not be appeased. The day you surrendered your sword and shield, your vigilant guard. The day you agreed to hospice. The last day.

Two years earlier, the oncologist gave you six months to live. The bear they discovered denned in your pancreas was devouring its way through your thorax, past the forest of your ribcage, the softly gurgling stream of your digestive tract. They named the bear invasive carcinoma, a Latinate phrase no less threatening than ursus arctos. This was a bear that could not be hunted and removed from the landscape, no tranquilizers would halt its quick movement along the hidden lymphatic trails of the wilderness within.

But oh how you fought. Countless rounds of chemical attacks, those trusted and some experimental. You battled until your internal allies abandoned you, one by one – appetite, then body mass, then renal system—and still the bear devoured territory after territory, powerful enough to shed the name of its birthplace and earn the totalitarian honorific metastatic. Too weak to survive another round of chemo warfare, the dialysis curative denied you, you returned home, a wasted warrior, to await the pain.

It came in the night, and in the bright flashes of red and blue, the panic, the rush to settle you, comfort you, alleviate your suffering. The next morning, you agreed, and relief slackened the furrows in the brows at your bedside.

But I arrive too late. The doors sweep open and I follow the white tiled path to your room where you lay, eyes open but unseeing, the tubes pumping oxygen you no longer breathe. I sing you on to where I know you now sit, at the feast table of your God. My hand sweeps over your eyelids. I remove the tubes from your nose. Dona nobis pacem, pater. Until we meet again.

The stunning photos are taken by Adrian Moreno – we are so blessed to work with him.  Many thanks to our amazing authors: Camille Armantrout, Mary Barnard, Hannah Eck, Lyle Estill, Jennifer Hansen, Trip Overholt, and Tami Schwerin.  Your stories are raw and courageous.

Save the Date:

November 3 – 4 …. Two-Day Elder Making Workshop with Stephen Jenkinson @ Sparkroot Farm

November 4 ……… Sparkroot Farm evening Launch Party

Novemeber 5 ……. Abundance NC’s 2nd Annual Death Faire featuring keynote Stephen Jenkinson

At Abundance we bring people together to cultivate and celebrate community resilience in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Learn more about us and what we do.

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“…We have barely disembarked into life…we’ve only just now been born, let’s not fill our mouths with so many uncertain names, with so many sad labels, with so many pompous letters, with so much yours and mine, with so much signing of papers. I intend to confuse things, to unite them, make them new-born intermingle them, undress them, until the light of the world has the unity of the ocean, a generous wholeness, a fragrance alive and crackling.”
― Pablo Neruda

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