They don’t let the dead talk. We’re too tired. They tell us to rest. To take in small breaths. They say, “Just breathe in thimblefuls of air. It’s all you need.” We don’t need the air, of course. Don’t need any of it, but they try to make things easier, not so hard.
I’m not sure if it took days or hours or minutes. I could smell them, each one of my children. Each separate but all together, too. Laundry powder and perfume and crushed mint, and under all that, skin powder and salty body odor.
They smelled like my life which sounds like a small thing. A sentimental thing. But you haven’t smelled your life yet, so you don’t know. You’ll see.
The closer I went to death, the further I went from life. Which is to say, I slipped back and back and back, losing my foothold in an easy way. I thought to myself, I had the actual thought, “This is fun.”
As I slipped away from life, it gathered in folds around me, like a queen’s pleated collar. So it happened that while I let go of life, I felt very alive. The now was fuzzy, like I was opening my eyes underwater and seeing the world in bobbing colors. Lenses clicked into place, and the past spun into focus sharp and bright, like breaking through the water’s skin up into a sunny day. You can’t believe how green the trees are, how blue the sky. You feel yourself prettier than you were under water, softer and brighter, and sun wipes its palms over your face and shoulders, drying your skin. You marvel for a few seconds. The white of the lifeguard stand poolside, snapping its fingers in clean lines. Ruffled swimsuits holding onto the bottoms of little girls, split peaches, their hair pulled into pigtails, dark and wet at the ends, tapered like paintbrushes. Colors so bright they wipe your eyeballs clean. That’s how dying is, how gathering up the past into a moment is.
Ice cream cones from the creamery, dripping down my arm and pooling in my elbow. The spot would still be tacky when I went to bed at night, and I’d suck it clean. The days were so hot then. Our bodies poured sweat, each of us a faucet set to on. Each of us lit up. Every day was church. Dandelions in shocking yellow. Running up grassy hills, lungs ready to burst like pomegranate seeds. The world was colored like handfuls of jewels. Grass bending into waxy hills under our feet.
When I was dying, I came to life in a burst, my life gathered into a moment.
I got to take my family with me as I slipped and it was a happiness, a real happiness, to take them with me to the creamery and to my boyhood bedroom, marbles rolling in the drawer of my nightstand.
They knew my mother knitting her wrinkled fingers into the afghans she never stopped making. They knew her with a metal teapot in her cobbled hand.
They didn’t know her with rollers all over her head, stirring oatmeal at the stove in the morning, an apron tied over her robe.
My mother’s face was soft, furred like a newborn animal with its eyes still shut. It always wore the rumpled, gentle look that we all wake up with. So soft it was a furry thing to see, and that’s not me speaking about her through the lens of death and memory. What I’m talking about here is her softness through life. All through her life and mine, too.
I got to take my kids with me, walking around in the shoeboxes of my life. I hadn’t ever gotten to put it all together, see, the way I did when I was dying. All at once, my children’s grownup smells and their laughter that, when they all laughed together, sounded like the pack of them turning in somersaults around the Christmas tree when they were kids. A cup of hot coffee perched on my knee. A hangover banging in my head. Hands pulling at the belt of my robe, at their mother’s fingers. Pushing strollers carrying plastic doll babies. Running fire engines across the hardwood floors.
Bands of light laid out on the wooden floors of my childhood home, golden as backlit honey jars on a sunny windowsill. Radiators rattling and pipes banging behind the walls. Teakettles. Snow falling outside the window over the sink.
God made snow so we’d believe in pretty things. As I died, I don’t know that I believed in God, but I’m sure I believed in pretty things. I don’t think the two things are so different.
The hard knot of my mother’s apron. Oatmeal sweet with swollen raisins and spoonfuls of brown sugar. Everything was blooming in quiet, tender blooms. I was in bloom. As I died, I went into full bloom, light passing over me and then lifting me away.
They cried. Their voices cracked. Their backs split apart bone plates when they bent into their laps, splitting at the seams. Like toy airplanes breaking up in the air, pieces falling away. I was okay, I wanted to tell them. And I was. I wished I could tell them. Keep their plastic airplanes afloat.
Death makes us gentle. I felt gentle like I was just out, walking around town. Loose as a puppet.
The kids, they were gentling, too. Growing more like their mother, long gone. She had a dark hollow at her throat where she could have set a nickel and held it in place. Her face was built from the finest net of bones. Too pretty to touch. I worried I’d knock the whole thing down, ruin it, if I wasn’t careful. She held my open hands on her face, holding them there when she was playful. When she wanted me to know she loved me. I loved her.
The children are pulling her up out of themselves, like it is they who are costumes, skins, and she the kernel, the seed inside.
They are finding a lighter way to speak to one another. It is a relief to them, to be kind and gentle with one another, but also, they are shy, like they are strangers meeting for the first time. They ask one another questions, small ones, about chicken stock or flu shots, and then they pause, eyes wide. Their eyes spin, earnest and wet with longing, and they offer the eyeballs to one another like cups of coffee or packages of donuts, wrapped up like hotdogs in buns.
Death softens our voices. It draws words from our mouths like narrow canoes swaying on easy water, soft under the warm sun. The kids lay out their words in the lengths of the boats, each boat held by one of them. Time is so finite, but expendable, too. It goes on forever, and forever is like the smell of your life. The kids are each walking with canoes on their hands, carrying one another’s words and their sighs and the silent whimpers they drop when they lose words. The kids steer past one another, guiding their own quiet, listening to the same thing. Water smacking the sides of the boats with the tiniest hands imaginable. Baby hands.
I had the prettiest cat when I was a boy. Gray stripes.
Strengths and foibles. Aches and shames. Maybe build a story like Olive, where father is Olive and children are making small messes, emblematic of bigger ones. Complex relationships between kids.
On the day I died, on a day which was really still very early morning, just as the birds wake up but before they start singing (sing themselves awake?), the world nearly turned on its side. Wind kept people awake all night, whistling and blowing, and the sky was a metal gray in the morning, but the sun was out, pinning the clouds and painting them shades of white. Roads were strewn with debris. Power outages everywhere. It would be easy to say that my death was big and profound, and the world was coughing its indignance at my passing. But that would be a lie. I was not big or profound. My life was small and busy with things like naps and grilled cheese and cups of tea and my garden, rose petals under my trembling hands. I shook the world in very, very small ways. So there was no indignation, no grand gestures when I left. The wind was just there all night, in the same way that in the morning I was just not there any longer.
babies…didn’t love them at first. fed them because they needed to eat. because big people feed small people. walked them so they’d stop crying. then walked them past the crying, through to the other side, and then i just felt like i liked them tucked up against me like a flower bud thinking about unfolding but not ready yet, waiting for the sun to warm just a little more. knowing their mother lie in bed across the hall, a furry animal curled into her nest, the blankets pulpy. her face pulpy. her hairline damp. her smell turning to the sour side. the moon. the stars. the fan turning. the hairs on her legs growing. her hairless thighs. her haunches rising into a slope under the white sheet.
They had a hard time in the days after I died. The world was too sharp. The colors too bright. They couldn’t make sense of the world. It alternately careened around them, and they couldn’t bring themselves to care much, and dragged and dragged. In the space of a minute, they walked the distance between a giddiness light with love and gratitude and assurance that I had left only after a life well lived to paralyzing sadness, tears gripping them and panic running up the steps in their throats like the house was on fire and they had to get out. I can’t tell you that I sat beside them while they slept or visited them in their dreams. Those things are lies. The world was different for them, without me there. I knew how this was because I knew the world after my mother died, after their mother died. Time doesn’t ease pain or make things better. That, too, is a lie. What is it that happens. The world rearranges itself. The blocks fall down and then they reassemble in a bit of a different way. And things aren’t as pretty. But you get to be okay at telling yourself stories. You teach yourself the words and after some time, the stories become old stories and the words roll over your tongue like a balm. And you have the world in a different way and it’s not any better but it’s not so much worse that you can’t find a way to bear it. We bear things. We bear them because we don’t have a choice not to.
At first, when I first died, and they pictured me in heaven, with their mother or St. Peter, they were sometimes angry at me. Very angry, with tight, hot fists beating their chests from the inside and sharp words and slamming doors. They’d find a plastic cup of fruit in the fridge or a thing of tapioca and they would stand there, hand light on the door’s handle, cool as a cucumber on the outside, while they raged inside. Raged. That I could leave them. That I could just go. Before I finished the tapioca. That someone could go before the pudding went bad. Before they were done kissing my freckled forehead. They wanted to know where my hair would go. What would happen to it. Where would my hair go. Why would I ever leave them when I still had hair to smooth.
The colors were too bright. The world was in technicolor and their eyes were dusty with ash, marked with red and yellow cobwebs. No one is ever ready to let anyone go. It is not enough to say that a life full of love is a life well lived. It’s true, but it is not enough. They made me beautiful in my life, they made my life beautiful. And so I will stay in their lives, keeping their own beauty company, like a tree blows in the wind because the wind is there. I don’t have any songs to sing them when they can’t sleep at night, and I can’t visit them in their dreams and hold their hands, hands I knew before they knew themselves to be hands, when they are scared, but these aren’t things I did in life. It’s not how we were. So if we did not do these things in life but they knew, nonetheless, that I loved them, then they will know that I love them now, in death. Love is the most complicated thing in the world. It is the easiest, the simplest thing. It is a yawn or a sneeze, something the body does, kind of because it has to but mostly because it just does. It’s what a body does.
How did they know I loved them then, in life? How could they be sure? They knew I loved them because I loved them. So how they will know now, how they will know I love them now? How can they be sure? They will know I love them because I love them.