This is a photograph of a child’s grave that I took at Mt. Auburn cemetery.
Hello everyone – as a few of you already noticed, I’m back. I lurked around for a bit but now am back to posting. This post is a little long which I usually try to avoid because I don’t like it when other people post long rambling passages either. I could have split it into two installments but, frankly, I want to be done with this topic. I am loath to dedicate two days strung together to death. So here is the last of it – it’s just a section of the journal I kept while I was gone. It’s nice to be back, even on a rainy day. Oh, and lest there be any confusion, we all called Lyla “Lee.”
July 22, 2004
Day one of death rituals. Today is Thursday. Lee died on Sunday. We bury her tomorrow.
I spent the night in Maine before picking up my dad’s wife, Cindy, and flying to D.C. After an evening of drinking, smoking and crying with my mom and stepfather I woke up messy, but I was ready to go in half an hour. Go go go. Don’t think about where or why, just get to the airport. Go go go. Then wait. Our flight was late. No planes could land in the soup of fog that passed for our atmosphere this morning.
Eventually we landed at Dulles. Horrible airport. We had to walk through three enormous buildings to get to a taxi stand. Our cab driver was a special needs cab driver. He couldn’t find the National Cathedral which is visible from every square inch of this city. Unfortunately Cindy and I were special needs passengers. We couldn’t find our street on a map. Cindy was feeling nauseous from peeping at the map in a moving car (the short cab) and my teeth felt like they were being ground down to nubs. When the meter hit $40 I called my dad. He spoke to the driver who slowed to 3 mph as he spoke much too loudly into my itty bitty Zoolander phone, the face of which was barely visible peeking out from his meaty hand. We were still creeping around the neighborhood at the pace of a pig roast when my dad appeared on a corner and flagged us down.
So we got here. And here we are. The house has my grandmother’s good smell. A half-empty bottle of Chanel No. 5 sits on her dressing table. I looked through some of her drawers and found a quick, impromptu love letter from her husband, Ed, that somehow incorporates the word “discombobulated.” I had to have my dad decipher the letter – the handwriting looks like Sanskrit and is very similar to his. There is no date on it, but it is likely quite old as Ed died when I was only a child.
We picked up Lee’s ashes at the funeral home this afternoon. The first line of their brochure reads, “When someone you love has died, regardless of how much time you’ve had to prepare for the death, it will be upsetting and shocking.” I am inclined to agree. The pink wallpaper, the Monet print, the friendly young woman who was both kind and professional, the soft green velvet chair that I sat in – none of it was quite enough to distract from the grandmother-in-a-box on her desk.
I just couldn’t fold this information into my mind. Her naturally strawberry-blonde hair, the thin, tissue-paper skin over the delicate bones in her hands, her tiny perfect triangle of a nose, her painted fingernails, her small, hesitant legs, her Michelle Pfeifer lips are all in this box.
The way she clasped the locket around her neck when she was at a loss for words, the way she maneuvered each forkful of food to her mouth without losing a crumb, the way she began her answers to questions with the word “well” in an upward inflection, the way she gracefully deflected any praise by pointing out something wonderful about the person offering it, the way she laughed, oh that funny, high laugh, and tried to talk through her laughter, making us all laugh more, the way she ran her finger back and forth over her chin as she spoke, the way she touched the corners of her mouth after taking a sip of Chardonnay, the way she kept her husband’s love letter in a drawer in the vanity that she sat at every day for decades, are all in this box.
Lee, the anchor of our family, the proud matriarch of our clan, is in this box.
This is her death. This is the reason that I am here. And all that is in that box is carbon. Grandmother to earth and ether. Granddaughter to grass and roots. I could just lie here, watch the sky go by. Wait for the lawn to swallow me up.
Day two of death rituals – the memorial service
Actually it’s day three at the moment. In two hours about 50 or so people are going to show up here to pay their respects. They won’t come all at once, of course. They’ll trickle in and out. There will be food and drink. There will be hugs and tears and wine and remembrances and cards and flowers and eggs. Maria Theresa – the woman who has cared for my grandmother for months – is making something with eggs at the moment. The whole house smells like a salt marsh.
We’ve made a little shrine to Lee on a long, thin table in the living room. Two bouquets of orange and purple flowers, photographs from all different stages of Lee’s life, the folded flag from her army service and a sandalwood candle. Many of the guests will be foreign service people who will recognize the young Lee in her photographs, though it’s clear in the pictures that throughout the progression of her life, she never lost the joy or the serenity that she seems to have been born with.
There were only ten of us at the graveside service yesterday, plus the minister. He didn’t know Lee. She hadn’t been a regular church-goer for some time. But he somehow made the service seem very personal and particularly framed around her life. Dr. Bauman was a kind man who seemed to carry his own serenity and inner light. He smiled throughout the service, yet it seemed entirely appropriate. He celebrated the joy of her life and the belief that the family shared in the joy of her afterlife. I was glad for his presence.
It is often difficult for me, as a non-believer, to find meaning in services such as weddings or funerals that are religious in nature. I grieve for my grandmother in a way, I think, that is different from the rest of the family. I don’t begrudge anyone their beliefs, but when Dr. Bauman spoke about the glory and love of God, about the teachings of Jesus, and about the triumph of the spirit in the afterlife, I found myself drawing away and needing in those moments to quietly speak to myself my own inner truth. She is gone. I miss her. I will never see her again. I miss her. I wish I could kiss her cheek. I wish I could get her back. She is gone. She is gone. She is gone.
I wanted not to cry but I was crying before we even got there. Sitting in the chair next to Ed’s grave I found myself scrutinizing the bouquet in an effort to hold myself together. That big yellow flower looks like the thing in that deep sea documentary I saw a while back, I was thinking. And that other flower looks like carpaccio. Yuck. Those big red flowers look like blood stains on thick paper. Blood. Lee died of blood in her brain. Lee died. She is gone. All gone forever. I don’t want to be sitting here. I want to lying face-down in the cool grass. The flower scrutiny plan was a failure.
Everyone spoke or read something at the service except for me. I thought I might feel guilty about that but I didn’t. It just wasn’t something I could do. There was a quote by Edith Wharton, a passage from Anne Lamott, a tidbit from the Bible and other things. I was glad it was just the few of us. I was glad to be able to say goodbye to her with only the closest of the family – crying together, feeling thankful together, loving her and missing her and wanting her back and releasing her together. There was an elegance to all of it, even to our grief, that seemed fitting to Lee’s elegant life.
After placing the roses and sprinkling the dried petals, we held a family circle around the grave. This is a long-held tradition in our family. In the moments before we take leave of each other we stand in a circle and hold hands. We pray or feel thankful or think good thoughts until we feel that we are ready to say goodbye. Then we squeeze the hands we’re holding and everyone squeezes and it’s time to go. We do this because in this family it’s always been very difficult to say goodbye, even when everyone’s still alive. During this particular family circle, I kept imagining the sound of Lee’s laughter. It was something I did reflexively when her daughter died as well. It is bizarre, let me tell you, to feel tears sliding down your cheeks even as laughter rings through your head.
I don’t feel well. Throat like sandpaper. Tomorrow we will have to decide which objects will go to which people. It’s a strange necessity and there is some dread nibbling at me, just as we seem to be nibbling away at her home. Wanting her bureau makes me feel like a loathsome troll. A troll with granite in my throat. Right now I am alone. Alone again, again, always alone. I don’t know how to get a toe-hold on a life that people keep slipping out of. I don’t know how to be ok. I miss her.
I’ll leave it here. It’s good to be back. There’s nothing like a speech from Senator Obama to cheer a girl up. I think the DNC is just the right medicine for a sad Sloth.