There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop, the mountain eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
The Try-Works, Chapter 96
I really do appear to give death significant portions of my daily thought, and I worry that it might be mistaken for a sort of fearlessness, but, truly, it is no such thing. I can’t even say it’s an acceptance that death is inevitable (though, yeah, I’m not going to argue that). Rather, it’s the knowledge that the one who dies has the out. You’re done. Exit stage left. No more lines to remember, no more mortal ties to tug the heartstrings. No more expectations at which to fail, no more aching to impress nor fear of rejection. No need, no want, not even an awareness of silence. Nothing. It’s the ultimate free zone. There is no space left for fear.
But I do fear death. More than anything else. I fear the deaths I will have to survive.
The fear is so incapacitating that I cannot even entertain the idea of death taking those I am not prepared to lose.
I want my mother to plan her funeral, just as I counted on her to plan all the road trips.
Don’t leave me here,
lost in the chasm of your absence,
exposed on the cliffs,
motherless. . .
and ask me to plan.
I want to fall to the floor and weep and excuse myself from having to appear to do anything the right way because, when you go,
when you leave,
I cannot be level headed
I realize this is weak. When my grandmother died, my father’s mother, at 97, after a five year battle with cancer which grew like an iceberg in her stomach until her tiny crooked body was a frail scrap of parchment caught on its ragged edges, when they told me—who told me—my mother?—when they told me she had died at last I slid to the floor and I wept. My mother said “Of course, you’ll be in no condition to drive, so Daddy and I will take you and the boys.”
I was the grown mother of two sons and they drove me cross country—the same road trip we used to make every summer. Three days from Texas to the woods of Upstate New York. My sons in their car seats fussed and slept on either side of me as I sat in the middle of the back seat trying to digest the idea of never touching my grandmother again. Never again we would we sit at her dining room table late into the night, my knees pulled up to my chin on a random century old chair as we made up stories or as she told me memories of her childhood in Brooklyn, Parsons School in the roaring 20s, of falling in love with my grandfather– the artists’ son from Harlem, –stories of prohibition, and of motherhood in the depression, her work as a “draftsman” for GE, or of an idea that had just captured her imagination as she read through her latest issue of Scientific American. Whenever I saw her she would light up and grasp my hands in both of hers, smile breaking to a laugh as she would reach up to touch my face. Delight.
In a sense,
I think it’s fair to say,
no one ever cherished me as my grandmother did.
Months after her death, my uncle called to tell me “We found an old picture of her when she was young, and we couldn’t believe it—we thought it was you, at first. She looked just like you.”
The family all said I should say something at the funeral. I couldn’t, forgive me Grandma, I could not speak. I could not describe and relay who this woman was. This is the time for ceremony and symbol. As they lowered her coffin into the ground, I went with the symbol of a fistful of dirt (cliché? Forgive me again). I knealt beside that deep dark hole and held the dirt tight until my body’s warmth had soaked it through. Then I slowly uncurled my fingers and watched in sift and drop down to her coffin. What does it say?
I know you are gone?
I know you cannot come back?
Take some of me with you?
Rest in peace? Yes, peace.
No, I don’t fear my own death so very much. But when I die I want there to be a safe place for people to mourn, to feel weak, to speak or not. To get drunk. To laugh. To be a little insane. To not have to be the grown-ups. To embrace symbol and ceremony to process that which cannot be sanely processed. To have a way to carry what remains with them in a way that does not damage them.
In 1989 my mother’s father was dying. Like my father’s mother, he too shaped me. My paternal grandmother, my maternal grandfather both hold keys to my identity. I came to see my grandfather one last time as he lay in intensive care, tubes in his nose, tubes running from his arms. This was the man who taught me how to shuck corn, and forage through a raspberry thicket, and wipe the chicken poop off my bare feet in the moss. He and I would wake at sunrise (with the rooster’s crow), eat our oatmeal and then run outside to tinker about. We’d come back in at eight for a plate of my grandmother’s raspberry pancakes and from there we rejoined the family. But those first few hours of an August morning belonged to the two of us, barefoot in the dew.
My mother told me before I went in “Look happy. Don’t upset him.”
I could not have been prepared.
I walked to his side and though he could not speak he reached up and took my hand. I wept. Openly, clearly and uncontrollably. I wept, aware that my mother disapproved, feeling her disappointment in my weakness, but I did not look at her, I looked in my grandfather’s startling blue eyes. He looked at me, very very intentionally and I knew he was thinking of our mornings barefoot together. Then, beyond my mother’s perception he squeezed my hand, he held it tight as if to give permission to my grief. He wanted to comfort me, in his last act for me, he wanted to allow me my grief and he understood it came from love well lived between the two of us.
In both of these Catskill eagles I saw something before they left me. Not resignation, but acceptance. They were ready, not because they were tired of fighting or had nothing left to live for, but because they were no longer of this world. They had become invisible in the sunny places and they suffered no more.