Few things have the ability to jolt us from our terribly important daily routines like the news of a birth or a death. When this happens, we scramble. Whom should we call? Where should we go? Where should we send flowers?
Like many people, I witnessed the dramatic impact of these two major life events long before I reached adulthood and well before I first read Jacques’ “seven ages” speech in As You Like It. Death’s dark garments and birth’s pastel hues, the various rituals and superstitions associated with each, and the license to emote: none went unnoticed by me as a child.
Home for me, in the sense of “roots,” is a small town in North Carolina, though I’m the only one in my family who was not born in the South–born in Madison, WI, my cousins would tease me, often incidentally at family gatherings spurred by someone’s death, about being a Yankee. I had no idea then what this insult meant, if it really applied to me even, and my cousins may not have either; all I came to know in time was that it contributed to my sense of alienation from and dread for returning to my “roots.” A litany of funerals and the occasional taunt will do that, I guess.
Subsequently, I spent my teens and early 20’s turning my nose up to all things southern and shying like a knowing coward from all things macabre. I associated the South not with charm, hospitality and tradition, but with high fat food, old sick people that drive annoyingly slow, and cemetaries. It took my sister’s 5 year illness and death a year ago to shake me of these sedimented ways, to force me to confront the fallacies and fears I had long clung to. And this is both because she embodied the positive attributes associated with the South–which seemed to intensify, ironically, the sicker she became–and because she faced death so bravely, gracefully, even graciously–her relatively brief life had been full and her physical pain would end.
To say Ginger’s death itself was dramatic or that her death has dramatically affected me doesn’t begin to do justice to what it was like to bear witness to her illness and death or to now live through another round of holidays without her.
When my sister was first diagnosed with end stage colon cancer, I was in graduate school and reading “AsYou Like It” for the first time. I had been studying (meta)drama for years at that point, but had never felt so deeply and personally the resonance of any theatrical metphor for life as I did Jacques’. And now I can not stop it from informing how I experience life.
I recently returned to Salisbury, NC for, yes, another funeral, this time for a dear family friend. Geraldine was someone who rarely raised her voice. She was southern sangfroid–the anithesis of my frenetic family. Perhaps the balance of temperaments helped to sustain the friendship. And for three decades, this woman never missed my birthday. Geraldine had lived through loss–her only brother’s suicide some 30 years ago, her husband’s death from cancer some 20 years ago, her father’s death, my sister’s and I’m sure others.
I observed Geraldine’s daughter and 91 year old mother mourn over her body in what played out before me like a series of tableaux: a touch of her cheek, a kiss on her forehead, a grievers’ hug, the irony and perversity of an ederly mother barely able to hold herself up hovering over the body of her grown child she has managed to outlive. Only, their gestures, expressions, and sounds pierced through me with greater intensity than any stage rendering of this timeless and universal event.
Standing before her open casket myself, I was flooded by parallel memories from my sister’s funeral along with flashbacks to my childhood when I played pinball in Geraldine’s basement or explored her bathroom cabinets, trying on her lipsticks and surveying her assortment of products, metal hair picks, aquanet, hair rollers, and way back in the day, a plastic ashtray. Where had all the years and the younger versions of ourselves gone?
When you stand before the deceased body of someone you love, you feel not only the loss of the person but also the loss of part of yourself: it is John Donne’s line about ‘not asking for whom the bell tolls because it tolls for thee’ coming to pass.