They don’t let the dead talk. We’re too tired. They tell us to rest. To take small breaths. They say, “Just thimblefuls of air. It’s all you need.” They try to make things easy, not so hard.
The things I thought of before I died, with my family around me. I’m not sure if it was days or hours or minutes. I could smell them. Each of them separate but all together, too. Laundry and perfume and mint, and under that, body odor and the dry scent of of skin.
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, and as I slipped away, life gathered in folds around me. So it happened that while I was letting go of life, I felt very alive. The now was fuzzy, like opening my eyes underwater and seeing the world in bobbing colors, and the past spun into focus sharp and bright, like breaking through the water’s skin up into sunny day. You can’t believe how green the trees are, how blue the skies. You feel yourself prettier than you did under water, softer and brighter, and you have the chance to marvel for a few seconds. The white of the lifeguard stand poolside, snapping its fingers in clean lines. The ruffled swimsuits of the little girls, the 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. It would still be tacky when you went to bed that night, and you’d suck the spot clean. The days were so hot. It doesn’t get like that anymore. Our bodies poured sweat, each of us a faucet set to on. Each of us lit up, brighter then the sun’s light even. It was like every day was church. Black and white twists. Grass bent under my feet. Pulling a metal button through the hook on my overalls.
When I was dying, I came to life in a burst, all my life gathered into a moment. It was magic.
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 dinner plate of food cut into cubes no bigger than peas.
They didn’t know her, not really. They didn’t know my mother 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 always soft, furred like a newborn bunny or a peach on the windowsill. It always wore that rumpled, gentle look that we all wake up with. Most of us lose it in the first minutes we’re awake. She kept it all day. So soft it was furry to look at, 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 my robe, at their mother’s fingers. Pushing strollers carrying plastic dollbabies and hook and ladders.
Bands of light laid out on the wooden floors of my childhood home, golden as backlit honey jars. 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 know I believed in pretty things. And then I wonder how different the two are. Probably they’re not.
The hard knot of my mother’s apron. Oatmeal sweet with raisins and spoonfuls of brown sugar. Everything was blooming, quiet, tender blooms, in the air around me. I was blooming. As I died, I went into full bloom, light passing over me and then lifting me away.
They cried, their voices cracking. 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. Balls of air, spun from white threads, spun at my elbows and knees and ankles. Loose as a puppet.
The kids, they were gentling, too. Growing furrier, 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 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 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 growing into her. They’re pulling her up out of themselves, like it is they who are the costumes, the 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 and they offer them to one another like they are cups of coffee or packages of donuts, wrapped up like hotdogs in buns.
Death softens our voices. It draws our words out like narrow canoes swaying on easy water, soft under the warm sun, and the kids lay out their words into the lengths of the boats, each boat held by one of them. Time is so finite, but expendable. 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 words and their 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, painting the clouds shades of white. Roads were strewn with debris. Power outtages everywhere. It would be easy to say that my death was big and profound, and the world was coughing out 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 aquiver 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, as simply as I was just not there any longer.