The Dead: Big Pink Elephants Not in the Room
The Dead: Big Pink Elephants Not in the Room
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: death is dramatic.
I never imagined I would find Molly Ringwald’s name on a NYT byline, but it seems the death of John Hughes, the director whose films helped her rise to stardom, has allowed her another career debut, this time as an Op- or rather Obit-Ed contributor. Her essay is part tribute, part personal reflection, part recap of a recent talk with John Michael Hall. Next to the link to her piece on the NYT opinion page online sits an advertisment for the searchable obituary archive on newspapersearch.com. It seems everywhere I look these days Death is there. We daily awaken to hear of another celebrity death, soldier death, mass shooting, fatal plane crash or car accident, and more. When my sister Ginger was dying of colon cancer and my friend Laura’s mom was dying of breast cancer, I would joke with her about our lives being dark comedies because, well, they really were, and they continue to be. To categorize people as living or dead no longer seems suitable: undead, almost dead, and plain old dead now seem far more appropriate.
When I was a little girl, I heard a preacher give a sermon one morning about how we are all dying from the day we are born, and it bothered me for years. It felt like a sick joke that’s only funny if you are already dead. While I acknowledge the truth of it, I’ve always preferred to delay thinking on it, that is, until I was so barraged with its reality that I stopped trying to buffer myself from it and instead started staring it straight in the face.
I clipped a NYT article several months ago about how U.S. cultural practices regarding treatment of the dead, funeral services, and burial have changed over the centuries. I was particularly intrigued by one of the primary functions of parlors in homes: to display the deceased so that families could mourn them. Talk about giving literal meaning to the notion of ‘living with the dead.’ The article also touched on the recent trend to celebrate the life of the deceased, rather than to focus on the loss and the pain. I just wonder if something is not lost in this new way of coping. No need for tears because they won’t bring your loved one back, right? Would your loved one want you to mope around and be blue because of her? These are the questions we ask ourselves and one another, and the answer we encourage (delude ourselves with) is “NO.” I am just not so certain it is the right one. Sure everyone loves a party, but it’s entirely possible that you can get so caught up in the planning and festivity that you forget to stop and feel the real gravity of the loss.
While I realize that everyone grieves differently (or so people in my life continue to try and convince me), I am personally struggling to accept one particular form that I have encountered: Grieving as the seeming absence of grieving.
Since my sister’s death last October, the only person in our world who has grieved in a truly conventional sense is my mother, who, to this day, continues to fall into spontaneous fits of weeping. More significant than this, she actually dares to mention Ginger’s name. This summer my family and I spent almost two weeks at my brother’s beach house, a place my sister loved to visit every July, yet I heard her name uttered no more than 3 or 4 times the entire trip, and at least 2 of those times were by friends, not family members. Countless times I found myself thinking of her but stopping myself from mentioning her as some sort of a bizarre experiment to see if anyone else ever would. Sadly, no one really did, certainly not at length.
How can we honor the departed and keep their memory alive if we don’t confront their ‘deadness,’ out loud, regularly, and communally?
This summer my dead sister was the giant pink elephant not in the room, not at the beach in New Jersey, not at our parents’ home in Maryland, nor at our great aunt’s in North Carolina.
Perhaps, everyone felt if they didn’t talk about her they wouldn’t feel pain and they wouldn’t stir pain in others. For me personally, the silence only heightened my own sadness. Ginger was a gregarious gal and a loyal listener: she deserves to be a topic of conversations at all family gatherings as long as our family exists.
Yesterday, I visited Geraldine, a dear family friend, who is in very poor health. I remember with fondness staying at her house when I was a child, chasing her cats around, scavenging through the makeup in her bathroom cabinets, exploring all the trinkets that populated her walls, shelves, counters, and fridge, and twirling in circles on her bar chairs. I also remember with less fondness being covered in cat hair and smelling like smoke when I left there. She smoked almost her entire adult life. She now lives with oxygen tubes in her nose, and an ironic and forboding sign that reads “No Smoking: Oxygen in Use” now hangs in a window at her home’s entrance. When I saw it, I felt my heart drop to my stomach and nearly 30 years collapse into a moment of macabre finality.
It was the first time I had seen Geraldine since Ginger died.
Isn’t it interesting all the different ways that we measure time? By days, weeks, months, years, births, and, also deaths. That struck me as I laid eyes on Geraldine. The last time I saw her Ginger was alive and with me. I can think of so many instances in my life in which I have asked an older family member to clarify the date of a past event or the age of a relative, and he or she has responded with, “Well, your grandpa died the year you were born, so that means….” or “Well, let’s see, your grandmother’s been dead ‘x’ years, and so-and-so was ‘x’ then, so that would make her ‘x’ now.” And now I find myself doing this with my sister; her death has now become the marker by which I date and measure what’s currently going on in my life. I think this is partly because her death has been a watershed moment for me as a writer. I spent the five years she battled cancer with my nose buried in books, compulsively driven to earn my doctorate, and I have spent the months since her death filling pages with my own words.
When I said goodbye to Geraldine yesterday, I hugged her and she clenched me back as if she was conveying to me a final time the depth of her love. She also whispered in my ear that Ginger would never be dead as long as I’m alive. Tears instantly welled up in both of our eyes. For me it was because I know she is right. When I speak sometimes, I hear my sister, our voices melded into one. When I write, whether she is my subject or not, I am driven by the memory of how she guided me and so many others to draft and edit, labor and toil to find just the right words, even if it meant depriving ourselves of sleep and consuming large amounts of caffeine, Breyer’s ice cream, or cream horns, to arrive at something satisfactory. But, most importantly, I am motivated more than ever to live as she did when she was undead, courageously letting all the life in her out, expending it, sharing it.