I remember the first moment that death was explained to me. I have no idea how old I might have been, maybe 4 or 5? That seems to be when the more complete memories begin to be accessible from my mind.
I remember exactly where I was, in the breakfast room at my maternal grandparents house in West Nanticoke, PA up on Tilbury Terrace. The room was a little add on between the kitchen and the garage and had an inset table with benches. I used to enjoy making Creepy Crawlers at that table. What a brilliant toy for small children... For those too young to have had the pleasure, you took bottles of what was likely highly toxic goop and poured the into metal molds shaped like bugs and then took a hook type thing that was flimsy kind of like a wire clothing hanger and locked that into this metal plate and then inserted the plastic into a burning hot mini toaster oven type thing. I loved the smell of the plastic cooking! Then when it was done you tried to grab this thing out of the oven without touching it, but you’re like 6 so of course you do and you also can’t wait to pick these little crawler things out of the hot metal pans to see how they came out. Oh, and ask me about Shrinky Dinks later.
Anyway, off the side of the room there was a door that led outside to the flagstone lined yard (so three doors in this small room). In this little entrance there was ridged green plastic awning that spanned from the house to the garage. Daddy (that’s what we called my grandfather) would sometimes start some plants out there because it created a nice warm spot with good humidity. It also cast a weird minty green hue over everything on that side. I recall there was also a little bench just inside the door where he would sit Mr. Rogers style and switch from his gardening shoes to slippers. The door to the garage is where we would generally enter the house and then this small breakfast nook was the path to get to the kitchen, a happy place with its blue tile floor and yellow accents on the backsplash.
We had driven up suddenly from New York and I was very confused because everyone was crying. I knew what crying was but I had never seen it before, or recognized it, in the face of an adult. I think I must have asked my mother what was going on and it was there that she explained death to me. I cannot really imagine what the conversation was exactly, but I remember her telling me that my Uncle Eddie had died. I remember hearing something I could not believe, that when someone died that meant that they do not exist anymore, they cease to breathe, and they cease to live. It was shocking to hear that it meant that I would not see the human I had grown to love so much. I was very concerned about this because Uncle Eddie smoked a lot of cigars and he would save the boxes for me. I always have loved boxes, and these were great places to store fun treasures. Did this mean my connection for boxes was gone? And I would not see him again?
But I did see him again. I was raised Roman Catholic and we have a viewing or wake with the body generally before burial. So I do remember that first time seeing a dead body and how pale and creepy the skin looked, how utterly still he was. How cold to the touch he was when I was told I could touch the hand that was folded so gently across his other hand on his chest. The smells of gaudy flowers there perhaps to mask the smell of formaldehyde. My first funeral. Before the burial there was a second chance to view the body to let it really sink in, and then the casket was closed. A mass, a procession to the burial site with its green astroturf attempting for a moment to shield the marred grass. Perhaps to ease your mind from dwelling on the fact that it takes a whole lot of digging to get six feet down. Our family generally didn’t do the throwing of the dirt thing at least I don’t really remember that part. There is something so strange about it all, and sadly I have been to a lot of burials. As my years wore on I went to more and more, I have a huge family, mostly on my mother’s side these funerals, due to proximity and other reasons not really necessary to go into just yet. Funerals became a way for my cousins and I to connect, for me to be with family, as sometimes life gets in the way of living, but death sometimes seems to be the only way to interrupt it.
I do not tell you this to depress you, but I tell you this because I have experience with death and with grief, and I suddenly had a realization last night that there are MANY people who do not. Yesterday, day who knows what of shelter in place, I was going through some stages. I was pondering how long this might take, and my husband in a good natured way was trying to tell me not to worry, not to listen to news. As the evening wore on I finally cried. For the first time since this all became real to me. A song called “Lift Thine Eyes” a hymn I used to sing really brought out the waterworks. I also got really angry with someone who was talking about the border wall and comparing that to shelter in place borders. My hackles were up, you see I am also half Mexican so… but I don’t want this to be political.
I just want people to understand that we are all grieving in some way. We grieve for our lost routine, job, way of life. We grieve the loss of lives and livelihoods. In the coming days, weeks, months we will all lose people close to us, and most of us are NEVER TAUGHT HOW DIE OR TO GRIEVE! Can you believe that? Something that is so innately human, and we are expected to figure it out ourselves. I wish I had more answers, but unfortunately despite all my experience I am no expert at grieving. I am sad to say that I lost my father Roman when I was 24. That was a little more than 24 years ago. And I have grieved him since. I am sorry to let you know but grief is unfortunately not something that happens to you and then goes away. It’s like the ocean, it ebbs and flows constantly. So it’s your job to tether yourself to something and ride the tides. It is ok to feel low, because the tide will rise again. The lows will come again too, but just get through this. Some tides get very low, I know, and I encourage you to get help if you need it.
In my opinion it is important to let yourself feel too, acknowledge your feelings because if you do not then sometimes the numbness can be prolonged. Do not worry if you feel wide swathes of emotion right now. Remember to be kind and loving and understand we are all processing these events in our own way. Some of us are in the denial phase still, some angry, others fearful or sad. Give yourself permission to feel these emotions and then try to find the light through the darkness. And please refrain from directing the grieving of others, but offer support.
I was with my father the moment he left us. He was intubated due to complications from leukemia. November 3, 1995. I remember how it felt watching him leave us in that hospital. I could never have such a moving and wonderful experience. It was a beautiful thing. His departure seemed to leave me empty for so long, but all this time, twenty-four years, I know he left me with something vital. Faith. I have faith that death is not an end, but it is a shift.
I have faith what we are experiencing right now this is not an ending, but a metamorphosis, how much it must hurt for a caterpillar to morph into a butterfly. The preparation, the weaving and building and intense energy it takes to find that perfect shelter. The solitude of the cocoon. The intense internal changes. Then the bursting forth into a place that looks very different from new lenses. Ultimately the exhilaration of realizing that you have wings.
Be well friends and please stay home.