WHERE SHE RESTS
THE END CROWNS ALL; AND THAT OLD COMMON ARBITRATOR, TIME, WILL ONE DAY END IT.
It didn’t start with a full house, but it ended with one. And it didn’t start with some heavenly indication, but a phone call. Simple words. Get to Nana and Poppa’s house. Why? She’s not gonna make it past the weekend. Are you sure? I thought she was getting better. Ma! This is all so fas- okay. Yes. Okay. We’re leaving.
And so we went.
My Nana got sick right after my Pop did. The cost of doing business with someone you are married to, I suppose. The difference between the two of them having the same bronchitis was that my Nana had been smoking cigarettes on the sly since she “quit” smoking twenty years before. My Pop had no idea.
My bolder cousins liked to join Nana on her countless trips to 7-11, where she would suck down two unfiltered Newports before they could finish one of their own. Upon returning home, Nan would point coolly to her passenger if a family member said they smelled smoke. My cousins didn’t mind taking the blame. There are many things to love about a mule-headed woman.
The doctors believed that she had been fighting congestive heart failure for a few months, maybe even a year or two, without telling anyone. The bronchitis worsened it, which quickly caused her kidneys to shut down. When they did, she declined being placed on dialysis. My Nan was not a messy woman.
But in the end, she finally agreed to give it a try. Probably because all of her terrified children were begging her to, and probably because she was scared as well. She signed herself over to a synthetic kidney, but she would not agree to lift her DNR. The letters on the sign tacked to her door were loud and red, and we all hated them.
In his excerpt, “The Loss of the Creature”, Walker Percy uses the Grand Canyon as a means to explain the idea of a preformed symbolic complex. If a tourist goes to the Grand Canyon, he is expecting to see a postcard. A geography textbook. A brochure. If the tourist sees the canyon not from an aerial view (highlighting the perfect blue skies above and spectacular shadows below), but from his own limited human perspective, he will have a hard time appreciating the sight. Not to mention, it could be overcast. The pictures won’t turn out like the postcards. Percy writes that the viewer, in his own context, will be unable to see the Grand Canyon directly, but will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be.
When a person is dying, all of your previous memories of them dissipate. As if their lives before that point were just a haze, just a cloudy scramble of recollections that you can’t seem to pin down. As my cousin and I raced back to Northern Virginia after my mother called me, I desperately sought to comfort myself in the past, to let holidays and visits and hugs and her perfume calm me and keep me grounded. My Nana and I were very close, and I had thousands of moments to fall into. Millions. But I just kept seeing a hospital bed.
Brother: “Where exactly do you buy waiting room furniture? Like… what manufacturer specializes in chairs and couches that actually make the healthy ones want to die?”
Father: “Hey Liam-”
F: “Shut up.”
The collection of family cars were entering and leaving the INOVA hospital parking lot multiple times a day. Each time, the drivers were being charged $5.00. In and out. My uncle suggested to my grandfather that every car should buy a pass.
Son: “The pass allows up to ten visits, Dad.”
Father: “Absolutely not.”
He knew why.
DEATH IS ONLY A WINDOW.
Dying follows no plot. It has no order, it is not glorious. Death disguises itself as a deeply understood tradition, as the final chapter of a long and organized life. But really, it is is chaos. It is a quitting lifespan, unholy and escaping. We cannot keep up.
When my Nana died, she died quickly and she died after living 84 long years. Death should not have been a new concept to any of her children, her grandchildren, or her spouse. And yet, there we were, huddling close to each other in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital in Virginia, hoping to God she would wake up and tell us exactly what we were supposed to do without her.
Someone came up the idea to wear purple for the funeral, as it was her favorite color. A few days later, when my family processed into the church, all 40+ of us, I laughed a little to myself. Purple versus solid black.
I felt her there.
My family asked me to write something for the funeral. Not necessarily to read, since the Episcopal faith leaves no room for eulogies, but maybe something to hand out or display. I said yes without realizing how hard it would be. I said yes because she was important: not only to me, but to my family and to her friends and to everyone she knew. I sat down and tried my best - a faithful retelling of all the classic “Nana” stories, quotes, and quirks. I wrote for hours. In the end, I had nothing.
I emailed my parents and told them to forget it. I could not do it. I did not want to do it.
But three days before the funeral, I wrote something else. Something honest and unplanned. It hurt. I sent it to my mom and dad.
THANK HEAVEN! THE CRISIS - THE DANGER, IS PAST, AND THE LINGERING ILLNESS, IS OVER AT LAST - AND THE FEVER CALLED "LIVING" IS CONQUERED AT LAST.
Edgar Allen Poe
Watching Nana die was much easier than watching my father watch his mom die. For the hospital-white days that she laid unconscious and sedated, he kept himself busy. Worked. Brought extra iPod and cell chargers to the waiting room. Played games on his phone. He spoke to the doctors and his siblings and his father logically: the will, her life, the plans, her pain. He listened with slow nods and scribbled notes. He shed silent tears in the back of the ICU, usually with one protective arm around a nearby family member. He never broke down in the room with his mother.
Only after she was pronounced dead by the doctor, when I stepped close to him and reached my arms around him, did I feel the heartbroken weight of a son without his mother, sobbing and afraid. I could barely hold him up.
In Tibet, a funerary practice called a ‘sky burial’ is a common rite for the deceased. The sky burial, also called a ritual dissection, calls for the body of the deceased person to be taken to a mountaintop, stripped of its clothing, and left to the elements and to the local birds of prey. Because most of Tibet’s people follow Buddhist beliefs, they believe that reincarnation will follow an earthly death. There is no need for the physical body. It is simply a vessel.
I KNOW WHY WE TRY TO KEEP THE DEAD ALIVE: WE TRY TO KEEP THEM ALIVE IN ORDER TO KEEP THEM WITH US. I ALSO KNOW THAT IF WE ARE TO LIVE OURSELVES THERE COMES A POINT AT WHICH WE MUST RELINQUISH THE DEAD, LET THEM GO, KEEP THEM DEAD.
Mary Jane Sargent, by Carlisle Sargent
To a grandchild, she is crossword puzzles. Scattagories. Bonanza and black coffee. She is open arms and family dinners and political buttons. Nutcrackers and basement movies and full bookshelves. She is huge Christmas stockings and math hotlines and birthday cards and twenty-dollar bills. Purple sweaters and sarcasm and the softest hands I’ve ever held. She is sandy beach towels and perfectly made beds. She is endless questions and polished silver, sidewalk chalk competitions and the 4th of July. She is the running water of the backyard creek, the sliding glass door to the screened-in porch. She is honest laughter, and she is sass in earnest. One beautiful half of the 60-year duo, one beautiful example of motherhood. Stubborn, inquisitive, brilliant. Enigmatic, charming, commanding. A woman of great dignity, of great love and great influence. She is a force. A presence. A treasure. Our beloved matriarch.
To a grandchild, she is only as far from us as we are from each other.
She is a lifetime of memories. She is a reason to celebrate. Thank you.
I have come to realize that the literacy of death is such that requires death itself to hold the pen, and death itself to write the story.
I miss you, Nana.