Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me…over and over in my head the last week, the over-used Emily Dickinson couplet like an annoying nag, a childhood haunting-- because I never loved that poem… and the image of the threesome in the carriage… Death, the deceased, and immortality-- well, three's a crowd and they seem somehow incompatible. Death is neither kind nor proud, as John Donne pointed out over three centuries ago… and how many generations of Donnes have stopped for Death-- have thought about these things, have struggled with acceptance or resistance, embraced God in strength or desperation?
Despite the fact that the only absolute certainty of life is its demise, we are universally unprepared when death touches us-- when we are diagnosed or when we lose a loved one. Some of us obsess and read obituaries daily, commemorate daily passings on our Facebook pages, indulge in private rituals and personal prayers. Are we thinking of the departed or of our own selves, trying to rehearse the moment, to cope, somehow, with the ultimate thing we dread? Some cultures celebrate death; my own foray into Goth-dom explored the macabre and dark; it was appealing and brave-- confronting the monster head-on, wearing fear on our clothing, tattooing its image on our skin like a boldfaced dare.
It's ironic that my last post was a sort of Eulogy… just days later my beloved mother died and the farewell was neither noble nor poetic. I have had altogether too much intimacy with Death this year-- family, mentors… my friend with whom I sat, whose witness and unwilling end-of-life nurse I became because she was unable to accept her fate and fought until the very end. It was something I wish I'd not experienced, although I am told I did a humane and sympathetic thing. There was no closure; the end was hideous, painful, sad and desperate. The posthumous silence was heavy and haunted; it all felt terribly wrong and as though I'd been let into a private room no human should see.
My Mom-- the version I knew-- had been fading into some emotional and physical place of distance. I could seldom reach her, although she occasionally came back into the present and looked at me with such deep poignant recognition and love; I craved those brief moments, and was not ready to lose her. Personal grief is like a wave-- like a tidal undertow that knocks you off your feet and takes your breath away. It is the end of possibility, the absolute curtain on something that feels like your true love. It is undeniable and difficult.
Burial feels like a primitive ritual. For me the concept of burial associates with hiding something-- covering something up which will eventually be uncovered. Maybe that was the point of the ritual; I haven't researched this… but have read plenty of Edgar Allen Poe, and have noticed the enormous popularity of zombie and vampire films in recent years. Still, as far as I know, no one has actually yet come back and described the experience. Seeing my mother's coffin in a hole in a graveyard surrounded by strangers made me feel a little more desperate. Leaving her there felt wrong; I sensed in my broken heart a calling-- don't go… stay with me, I wanted to scream-- to tear my hair and rub dirt on my face, to lie on top of her and sing to her… but I had to behave, to place my small shovel of dirt with a single white rose and wait for the gravediggers to follow later on with their little dedicated steamshovels.
The gravestone is a symbol, for most of us… but we still visit-- we leave flowers and stones; my friend brings his trucker Dad a coffee light and sweet with a glazed doughnut. I've even seen a pack of cigarettes in a cemetery… a ball and glove, a Yankee hat. Does this help? It is so literal. Death is literal; the afterlife is vague and unexplained. We speak to the dead, we pray, we cry-- we write songs and poetry… we find things on the street, we look for signs. Who knows? Que sera, sera, my mother used to sing to me, but she didn't really believe that. She even told me she wanted to be cremated because she feared suffocating. Her wishes were not honored by my sister who always seems to manage the last word in my little family. My brand of sympathy is discredited, my rock and roll existence is like a stain on the stiff white-washed facade of her artifice. She has invented her version of dignity, of shame-hiding and cover-up. Yes, burials of all types are familiar to her. She speaks in cemetery tongues.
My Mom's interment took place on the day of the solar eclipse. This offered some comfort for me, in the cosmic confluence of the heavens and the transition of my Mom who despite her old-fashioned ideas and obsolete code of ethics was rather pure of heart. It forced us to look upward, to the sky-- a sort of directive to symmetry, and to the place she, in her funny naiveté, along with so many of us, imagined. She also loved me, truly and deeply, while often objecting to my lifestyle and regretting what to her seemed my shameful and unnecessary oath of poverty and allegiance to a difficult and vague life-plan including single motherhood. But I never complained, and everyone else did.
As things so often come in threes, I feel almost released this season, although I realize the acceleration of life at my age will bring the next round altogether too soon. The Houston floods have brought the specter of mass grief and loss into everyone's horizon, and this tempers our selfish personal sorrows, or inspires in us that much more sympathy. For me the musician-- timing is everything. My sleepless nights now are spent watching endless footage of rising waters like tears-- of rescue and sacrifice and devastation. We are so reminded of our helplessness in the larger 'picture' of the world; for those who have laid loved ones to 'rest' in graveyards and cemeteries… the ravages of nature have as little regard for the dead as the living. It is tragic and will leave an enormous scar. And yet, one day, the sun will come out, as it did here all week while the southern coast was pounded, and the universe does not feel shame or grieve for its acts of cruelty. We sad humans must mourn, and save, and help, and love, and try to come to some understanding with Death, because he is surely not kind and will not pass us by, not a single one-- not so far.