The snow whirls thick snowflakes over the houses, and the bare trees resemble silver pins in a downy cushion. The icy gusts of wind that rattled the shuttered windows throughout the night, have since died down. It is late morning. The heavens touch the shingled rooftops, bloated and heavy. It is the week of the worst snowstorm the city has seen for years. The snow spills and spills on buildings and houses and streets and people and sheds and gardens. From inside the house, the entire world appears to be suspended in a snow globe: a white bubble of silence.
We’re all gathered together in my dad’s childhood home, the mud brick house with walls three feet thick and double windows. We are all together – my dad and his six siblings, their spouses, the children – all gathered around the open gleaming casket of my grandmother. She is oblivious to us, her eyes shut, her hands folded on the white silk of her blouse, the blouse she had commissioned from the seamstress for just this purpose: her death, her burial.
We are not alone. There are people everywhere, in this room, in the next, in the hallway. They have come to pay their respects. They come in their Sunday best, with polished shoes, and starched collars.
Manners aren’t forgotten in a time such as this, no matter the weather. They sit and stand and cry and say a word of kindness. They lightly kiss the offered hand of the women, with a quiet: “I kiss your hand madam.” They embrace the men, and kiss them on the cheek. Their voices are hushed, their eyes downcast.
They come with homemade bread and chicken soup and pork sausage. They clear the tiled front steps and shovel the pathway from the courtyard gate to the front door. They chop wood, stack it, and feed the orange mouth of the fireplace. The air is stale with their smell: with the smell of sweat and garlic and sausage.
Grandmother’s sons howl outside the door like little children. They slobber into each other’s necks. Why did their mother have to die? What will they do without her? Who will they run to with their problems – for a word of advice, acceptance, their favorite mutton stew?
In the beginning of it all, when the doctor gathered all six of them and their sister, in the cold blue and white tiled hospital hallway, when he told them to take their mother home, that there was nothing he could do, they seemed prepared. They had the front room cleaned out from top to bottom, dusted the heavy furniture, cleaned the emerald green brocade window drapes, beat the rugs. They ordered the most expensive coffin, packed the pantry with pickled green tomatoes and cucumbers, and called the minister to come and anoint her head for the transition.
They butchered a hog and threw a party, invited family from near and far. Grandmother said her goodbyes unhurried, in a civilized manner, amidst tears and smiles and cakes. Her children sat with her and waited, moistened her parched lips, held her trembling hand, fed her tiny spoonfuls of soup, and positioned her frail body.
But something must have happened to them when she crossed the threshold from the known to the unknown world. Because something in them is out of whack.
They walk in circles and press white-tipped fingers into their temples. They hold on to each other. Their eyes are wild. Their hair stands on end. They moan and rock on the balls of their feet. They are unashamed in their sorrow. They are not the fathers we remember. Their pain scares us. They scare us. They do not see us anymore. They do not see their wives or their friends. They only see each other. They only see their dear mother.
When the adults leave to relieve their cramped legs and bursting bladders, when their stomachs rumble for the world to hear, begging to be fed, the children sneak into the room. We make our way to the coffin, peer into our grandmother’s face. We dare each other to touch her, we move the lips to see if they really are held together by a pin, we imagine we see her eyelids quiver, we giggle nervously that we are so daring near the presence of Death. We run out into the hallway terrified when a loud knocking comes from where her feet should be, and collapse into tears of relief when one of our older cousins admits that he hid under the table to scare us. We get our ears pulled by one of the aunts for our lack of disrespect, get sent into the kitchen to wash the dishes and clear the tables.
Outside the window the falling snow blurs the edges of the acacias across the street. The crows and the ravens begin to croak. The room slowly empties. The fire in the tiled fireplace has died. The crying has stopped. The inevitable moment is here. The horse-drawn glass hearse has arrived. It is time to line up for the funeral march. The minister sends everyone out of the room. This is the uncles’ final moment alone with their mother. They shut the door after themselves. Shut everyone else out.
My sister and cousins and I glue our ears to the cold panel of the door. We hear muffled voices and then, much later, the tap-tapping of the lid being nailed down.
Our mothers seize our arms and pull us away. They bundle us in layers of wool and feathers and send us outside.
Helping fingers point us to where we should go.
Our breaths are smoke in the frozen air, our noses and lips turned to marble. We touch them with gloved hands from time to time, to make sure they are still there. The snow settling on our eyelashes prompts us to imagine ourselves as old people.
We hunch our backs and lean on imaginary canes. We get a fit of giggles and feel guilty for them. So we imagine ourselves old and dying, dead already, and we are serious again.
Family, friends, neighbors, and what seems to be the entire city, are packed on the narrow cobblestoned street, shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to accompany grandmother’s soulless body to its hole in the frozen ground.
“It took all night to dig the hole.” The whisper passes through the crowd. The whisper tickles our ears but makes no sense. We haven’t met Death before. We don’t know he likes to take the bodies with him into the ground.
After the coffin is secured inside the hearse, after the uncles remember to take their places next to their wives, after the wives account for the children, after a moment of silence, we march through the icy streets, led by a brass band.
A good woman will be laid to rest at midday. A loving mother, an attentive wife and a caring friend. I am saddened at this unnecessary death. I wonder what drove her out into the cold, wet, Pacific Northwest woods, dressed only in a housecoat, flip flops on her feet. I wonder at the despair she must have felt. At the terror she had attempted to flee. I wonder if there’s someway, anyway, anyone could have intervened.
Speculations abound. But I don’t like the words that are said just for the sake of feeding that vicious, hungry rumor mouth. Words about mental illness. And the other ones, that she had wanted to end her life. I don’t like how her memory is sullied with each one. I don’t want these ugly, unfounded accusations to be the last thing her children remember of her. I want these words and the people saying them to stop.
I’m thinking of her children. Of how unmoored and uprooted they must feel. How lost. How alone. There’s a tightness in my chest. A lump in my throat I can’t seem to swallow past. My heart wants to wrap itself around theirs and not let go. I pray that they will always remember her love. Her smile. Her words of wisdom. Her recipes. The songs she sang to them, and the prayers she whispered over their sleeping heads. I pray that they’ll remember her courage. Her kindness. Her faith.
If you have a moment, dear friends, whisper a prayer for the children, and think of them in the days ahead.
I have a friend who lost her daughter to cancer six months ago. I saw her today for the second time since then, and I am amazed at her ability to go on, to get up and get dressed, put on make-up, go to work, take care of the rest of her family. Her daughter, her firstborn, was just eighteen, so beautiful, so full of energy, so full of life when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She lived for almost a half year longer, giving her family time to prepare themselves with her death. But how can a parent prepare for something so horrendous? I do not know. I know there was a lot of screaming and praying and silent tears and sleepless nights. And I know there was depression, and there still is, a vacant look in the eye, a smile that is forced, the desire to lie down and wake up on the other side.
And how does a child prepare?
I wrote this following piece when I found out the news. My feeble attempt to understand what my sweet friend’s daughter had been going through, while knowing that I never could.
Imagine yourself at eighteen. Maybe you’re a senior in high school. Maybe a freshman at a community college. Maybe you’re taking a year off to rest and decide what to do with the rest of your life. You are intelligent. You are beautiful. And you have all the time in the world, because you are just eighteen. You have a mom and a dad who love you, adore you, really, because you are the baby. And while they want you out of the house so they could downsize and start traveling the world, they also can’t imagine you leaving them. Or maybe you are the eldest, and intertwined with that love is that anxiety parents experience when their firstborn leaves, moves out to try life on her/his own.
Now imagine a visit to your doctor. Your pediatrician. The man or the woman who has seen you every year from the time you were born. This is really the last visit before you move on. You have a bad cough that just isn’t going away, or a bruise that isn’t fading, or a mole on your back that looks a bit strange since the last time you went tanning and fell asleep in the tanning booth, or maybe a headache that just won’t go away.
She examines you, making little noises at the back of her throat. Same noises she’s made while examining your broken nose in second grade when a big ball came out of nowhere while you were walking around the track with your three best friends; or the time you stepped on a rusty nail and had to get a tetanus shot. It sounds like she’s humming, or chirping. In any case, it’s a comforting sound, so you close your eyes and wait for it to be done so you can get dressed and go. You have plans tonight.
Then she sits you down. Takes off her glasses, rubs her eyes, looks at you over her clipboard. And says that you’ll need to go to the lab for some tests. You ask if it could wait until Monday, after all it is three o’clock on Friday and you need to go places. To see people. And there is that shirt, or dress, or shoes that you absolutely need to have for this party you’re attending tonight.
She looks at you and smiles and nods her head, but a sigh escapes. First thing Monday morning, she reminds you. Then she gives you a hug that’s a bit too tight and a bit too long. And your childhood ends. Because you know that something is going on. There’s a war inside your body. Something you have no control over. And all cheer until you find out what it is, is false cheer.
So you call your mom. She’s frantic. She hangs up too quickly, then calls you back. She tells you to wait for her right there, she’s on her way. And you wait because what else can you do? Meanwhile thoughts race through your head: you’re just eighteen; whatever it is, it isn’t fair; there are never any decent magazines in the doctor’s office; maybe you’ll be done quickly at the lab; you hope you make it to the mall; you’re just eighteen…
And the weekend passes in a blur. Your doctor calls on Monday. You need more tests. You go in. You get hooked up to things. Blood flows out of your veins and into countless vials. You hear your mom crying herself to sleep at night. Your dad, so strong, so tough, is breaking apart. So you try to be brave for your parents and for your siblings who watch you with big, fearful eyes. Or maybe you break down and cry with them. You hope. You despair. You pray. You pray for a miracle. After all you are just eighteen. And your whole life should be ahead of you.
If you find it in your heart, please say a prayer for my friend. That peace and joy return to her. Thank you, my dear and lovely readers.
I was about thirteen, the first time I had ever attended a bridal shower, when one of the women there announced to those gathered around the room that nothing made her happy. Not even sex with her husband. She said it so loudly that everyone stopped what they were doing, their plastic forks lifted halfway to their open mouths, clearly wanting to hear more, yet not knowing how to solicit the conversation. On the one hand, sex was a taboo subject. On the other, the woman was a loose cannon. Who knew what she would say? Moreover, there was too much propriety amongst them all, and no one wanted to be seen as lacking good manners.
So mouths were quickly stuffed with food, furtive glances sent her way, and everyone got back to their own conversations. A few months later, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Of course back then I didn’t understand. That her outburst had been a cry for help, I only understood in college. I had never heard of depression, nor had I seen it. We were all an emotional bunch, even my mom cried from time to time, but it was short lived and our smiles were so much more brighter.
The church was the most unkind. Calling all that their small minds couldn’t comprehend as the work of the devil, they shunned her and instilled fear in the women, preaching from the pulpit submission onto their husbands as onto Christ, so that such a fate would not befall any of them.
I spoke with a friend battling cancer, earlier last week. And with another one who has a teeny, tiny newborn. And another one who has lost her job after 20 years. Stress in their lives, hormonal changes going on, left and right. Dejected, listless, angry. Yet despite it all, reluctant to admit that they are suffering from something. Reluctant to grasp the outstretched hand. Do they fear shunning? Or perhaps lost friendships? Why is there such a stigma still attached to depression? Why can’t we discuss it? Woman to woman. Friend to friend. Can we give our support without judgement?
When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and I was going through miscarriages, very few friends asked how I was holding up. Only the love of my husband and family kept me going. I was an emotional mess. Many pulled away as though my sadness was contagious. Perhaps it was. Yet a kind word would have been so welcome.
Can we be that ear, that shoulder, that word, to another one of us who is suffering?
They were cuddling on the couch watching the 11 o’clock news. The house was silent, except for the TV, kids tucked in hours ago.
“There’s that woman.” She said straightening up. ”Her husband shot her three times in the head and she played dead. For seven hours she just lay there.”
“What did she do to deserve it?” He asked.
I watched her telling me these things, wondering if today would be the day she would spill her secrets. The morning was bright, the sun streaming in across the table of the breakfast joint we’ve frequented every first Saturday of the month for 12 years now. She slides her cell phone across the table, a brave smile trembling on her lips.
“He’s keeping track of me. Wherever I go, he knows.”
I glance at the text she had received from her carrier, a text telling her that another number is keeping track of her phone’s location. Her eyes glisten and she wiggles her nose to keep the tears away.
“I just want you to know. Just in case. I know you write about these things.”
I know better than to ask what he does. There are things she cannot bring herself to say, even to me, one of her closest friends. And I know better than to ask why she stays. I know the church she is part of. Her family’s reputation within it. The fact that no matter what, she would be found at fault and not he. And then of course, there are the children. It goes without saying.
I had an inkling that things weren’t what they seemed. A certain wince she’d quickly mask with a smile whenever I’d hug too tight. A sad look in her eyes when the subject of husbands came up.
The things that happen behind closed doors. Who can tell? Sometimes the children wake up with nightmares of things real (and imagined, to be sure), in their pretty princess and cowboy bedrooms, their little hearts heavy, their spirits dragging. Wondering if it was something they did. Feigning sleep, and praying for it all to stop. And you go driving down the street of beautiful homes, manicured lawns, luxury cars in the garage, and think how perfect it is, and how you wished you lived right there, in that particular home with the silk Bergere chairs framed by the leaded window, and Savonnerie rugs throughout the house. The lamp left on in the downstairs hall has such a welcoming warm glow. But you don’t know. You have no idea at the horror the pretty things are masking.
When my paternal grandmother died, her daughter and daughters-in-law prepared her body for burial. For three days they kept her open casket in the middle of the front room while neighbors and the church community stopped in to pay their respects. Every single evening her seven loving children held a vigil in their childhood home, the room and hallway filled with people. I was eight years old at the time. I sang a song one night that to this day makes me cry. It was a song about a mother and her love for her offspring. As old as time itself, it was my daddy’s favorite song, because his mother always sang it to him. I could barely finish singing it, as everyone in the room was crying, myself included.
I cried for my daddy who lost his mommy. I couldn’t imagine a worse fate. What is a mother, but the sun, the moon, the stars, buttered bread, warm milk, down pillows, storytimes, golden apples, silvered pears, castles in the sky, dragons, princesses, tears, laughter, hugs, kisses, and forevermore love. As a mother myself now, there is only one thing worse. And I cannot fathom it.
Death had come and took with it a dear friend’s mother today, another sweet friend’s grandmother days ago, and still insatiable, it lingers in the darkened corners of another sweet friend’s family. I have nothing to offer, no words of comfort to erase the pain or lighten the heartache, just a reminder that LOVE will remain. Death has no power over that. I am thinking of you three. I can’t stop thinking of you. I love you.
On the outskirts of my Tanti Marie’s village there was a proper little cemetery where the village met the wild forests, with marble cross tombstones alongside wooden ones enclosed by a wrought iron fence. Very beautiful, but quite scary to a little girl of seven. The village madwoman spent all her days and nights in there, sleeping on what she thought was her lover’s tomb. He had gone to the war and left her pregnant and when word got to her that he was dead she tried to drown the baby in the courtyard well and drank a glass of poison to kill herself. Her family took the baby away and gave it to a wealthy couple in the city, no doubt lining their pockets with lots of gold pieces and crisp banknotes. Her, they turned out of the house, spitting and cursing after her departing figure. At least they spared her the institution.
As children we were afraid of her and her eerie wailing, and stayed well away. It was a good thing the village was long and narrow. The grown-ups accustomed to grief and having known her since her childhood, yet also highly superstitious, made the sign of the cross whenever they saw her but did not neglect to bring her bread and a woolen shawl when the nights got chilly.
I don’t know where she slept the winter months, when the entire village was under a blanket of snow. Her family home, abandoned since the death of her mother, she had set unsuccessful fire to. My Tanti Marie claimed that the madwoman was actually a witch who turned herself into the black cat that was forever scratching at villagers’ doors to be let in on those long winter nights. Before dusk darkened the sky and lengthened the shadows, the village women would set a bowl of milk and a chunk of black bread out. If they were consumed, I do not remember.
But, I have been thinking about her lately. About how little was known back then and in that country about mental illness. About how the mentally ill were institutionalized and even killed because of the fear they instilled in others. About those whispers I remember amongst the village women of her promiscuity, when all along she most likely had been raped. And about how fear finds a way to feed on fear until it leaves one gasping in its wake.
And I am ashamed and embarrassed at my own reaction even nowadays. Flinching when I see a mentally unstable homeless man or woman. So starkly uncomfortable with those I see mumbling to themselves. Once on a crowded train there was a man shaking a fried chicken leg and yelling profanities, and I fled in terror, preferring to wait another fifteen minutes in the cold station than risk his attention. Why? I’m well aware my fears aren’t realistic. I’ve studied mental health. I’ve worked in mental health. I know that these people are probably far more afraid of me than I am of them.
And yet… Although I may not be literally making the sign of the cross, I still am praying up a storm.
Did I say that I am ashamed and embarrassed? Mired down by superstitious fear? When I really ought to know better? Yes, I did. But I am working on it. Because it is fear that hides the beauty within and keeps me from living. And I really want to live.
For me the year 2009 has been one of the saddest years yet. People I have loved have died- and I am not talking about Michael Jackson and the handful of celebrities that happened to share the earth at the same time as I. I am talking about men, women and children I have met, I have hugged, I have cried with, and I have laughed with. Relatives and friends that have made an impact on my life more profound than a song or book or discovery. Real people that struggled with stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, brain tumors. People that have struggled with real fears not imaginary, who have been loving to the very end, who have placed their families and loved friends above their imminent death, who have been unselfish, who have refused to live with a “poor little me, let’s everyone be sad for me” mentality.
I shall forever miss them all. Daughters barely out of high school, newly wed husbands, mothers, fathers, grandparents. Their laughter, the spark in their eyes, their sense of humor, the profound, unshakeable faith in the love of their God. And I pray that peace descend upon their families. Peace for the parents, peace for the siblings, peace for the offspring. May 2010 bring them joy. Deep and pure and real.
When older people get together there is something unflappable about them; you can see they’ve tasted all the heavy, bitter, spicy food of life, extracted it’s poisons, and will now spend 10 or 15 years in a state of perfect equilibrium and enviable morality. Irene Nemirovsky, Fire in the Blood
I have a few friends who are well into their eighties; women who have lived their lives thoroughly and enjoyed the amassed daily moments to their fullest extent. I love these women for what they are. There is wisdom in their advice, a sense of humor in their actions. They’ve come to terms with the destruction life has in store. Physical health and beauty deteriorating, husbands and friends lost to death or alzheimers, children and dear ones far away, their bodies betraying them daily. But their kindness, their compassion, their love survived every treachery and evolved into a beauty transcending the physical.
I know they have fears. Whenever I see them upset at their lack of control over their bodies, they fear for their dignity. For their self-respect and the respect, or lack of, others have for them. I like to remind them that their self-esteem need not suffer because their bodies fail. They are more than that. More than fragile bones and decrepit muscles. They are the light in the eyes, the smile on the lips, the love they exude.
Some have come to terms with death encroaching, others have not. But, I don’t believe it is death they fear, or maybe not as much; what they fear is their disappearance; the disappearance of their voices, their laughter, their memory. The fear of becoming a dusty one-dimensional photo. The cessation of their story.
And then the fear of eternity. Who is immune to that? So vast and unfathomable. Like grains of sand or stars in the night sky, or the seconds in a grandfather clock ticking away. And all that had been left undone and unsaid. All the mundane and not so mundane choices made daily that may or may not have purified the soul. Or whether their faith will pay off and they will be in the presence of God and their loved departed ones, or rotting away, first their flesh and then their bones.
And yes, for some the fear of death as well. Of what happens at that moment when this earthly life ends and the other begins. That transition from the mortal to the immortal. The termination of one and the beginning of another. How will it be? What will they feel? Where will their soul go and how will it get there?
Yet, despite all these thoughts in their minds and in mine, I marvel at their depth, at the lives they’ve created, at their multi-dimensional facets, the little glimpses into the girls they were and the women they’ve become. So graceful, caring, resilient. And I look forward to my old age, not in despair but in hope; the hope that I’ll become like one of them, enduring and persevering.