Letter from My 48th Year (Jan 11)
A late night at the office tonight—to host a Twitter chat—so I didn’t reunite with the blue couch till round 8. Ritz crackers and cheddar cheese for dinner: comfort food. I suspect that if I had to pick a last meal, it would be water crackers and cheddar cheese or bread and cheese. And maybe some ice cream.
I found myself recently thinking about last meals before executions. Where did the idea come from? Can you really stomach a meal knowing you’re going to be executed? What’s the point?
In other morbid matters, I recently found myself standing in the atrium of our building with a colleague discussing if it’s better to remember a dead loved one as they were or as they looked at the moment of death. Her mother died suddenly of a stroke and the scene was quite messy. My father died at home, surrounded by most of his children, his wife, and two of his brothers. I found the act of watching him transition from living to not living over nearly 24 hours profoundly beautiful and moving. It was also messy: some strange, light-colored viscuous substance frothing out of his nose as he counted down the last exhales, his body releasing everything left in his colon even as his heart stopped and his lungs deflated,
My brother took a photo of my father’s face seconds after he died. My father’s face had slackened, his face puddling into an elongated oval. I remember thinking, “They get it wrong on TV. ” His face looked like the faces of martyrs in certain Old Master paintings. I have it saved in a special folder on my computer. I don’t know why or when to look at it, but sometimes I do.
It’s occurring to me now what a liar the mortician is. Why bother pretending the spirit hasn’t fled its body, flung out with the last exhale? I told my colleague that I think death has become too sanitized. That ideally when I died, I’d want my family to wash and clean my body, not the staff at the funeral home. (Don’t worry, Debbie, I won’t insist on this.) I imagine there’s a more profound type of good-bye that can begin to happen skin to skin. I tried to kiss my father after he died but my stepmother wouldn’t move out of the way. I don’t remember now if I kissed him at the funeral, but by then it would’ve been too late anyhow.
I do not consider myself a morbid person but I do find myself fascinated by the rituals of death. I’m probably misremembering it somewhat, but isn’t there a scene in A Brave New World that’s meant to show how disconnected the future of the population has become from death? Something to do with children visiting a row of corpses? And doesn’t that have something to do with a loss of humanity due to that relentless distancing from anything painful or uncomfortable?
I prefer my grandmother’s interment in the small graveyard of the Trinidad village in which she’d been born: a small red dirt cemetery muddy from sporadic rain; the boys who’d dug the grave wearing tank tops, shorts, and rubber boots, perched on the surrounding tombstones, covered in mud and smiles; my mother’s cousins pointing out we were standing on the grave of someone recently buried, the bodies buried almost flank to flank. When I returned to the U.S. the heels of my shoes were still crusted with that holy dirt.
(My father’s funeral was, on the other hand, a shit show. More on that at some other time, but I will say I’m grateful to my Singh cousins for sneaking booze into the repast. Sometimes we all need some artificial grace.)
My colleague and I came to no conclusions. And there isn’t one. Each death is different as is each person left behind to grieve. The night my father died, I watched the undertakers wrap his body in the bedsheets and then bundle his body into an open-top type of duffle, and carry him out of his house, the bag hanging from reinforced straps at the level of their ankles. My sister closed her eyes and threw her arms around me when I burst into tears. My father’s wife screamed for hours. All of us were right about grief and how to grieve in some way.