Tell all my mourners
To mourn in red —
Cause there ain't no sense
In my bein' dead
— Langston Huges, "Wake"
Last Saturday my friend Pat and I went to see Atul Gawande, the gifted surgeon and New Yorker writer, talk about the difficulty we have developed confronting the idea of death. Dr. Gawande's focus is the medical establishment, which is so consumed with prolonging life that it has forgotten how to deal with dying. His New Yorker article on the subject, "Letting Go," is filled with difficult truths all of us need to consider — click here to read it.
In the week since I heard him speak, my mind has been preoccupied with Dr. Gawande's insights, and I will write about what he said in the next few days. But today my thoughts have turned to more personal memories of death and dying.
When I was a little girl some families, including my family, believed young children were to be protected from news of death. And so it was that when my maternal grandmother died, no one told me about it. I was about four then, and it was summertime. We were at our beach house, and Granny McMeel was missing. My sister Terry and I were told she was visiting another of her four daughters, but when we returned to our winter home, she wasn't there either. This was the woman who had taught me to read by reading to me almost every night, usually from Peter Pan; now, like Peter and Wendy, she was gone. Out the window.
We moved to a new, bigger house later that year. One day I noticed Granny's cedar chest — that's what everyone called it, "Granny's cedar chest" — in our new basement. I began having bad dreams. Lying in my bed late at night when the house was dark and quiet, I was certain skeletons like the ones in old black-and-white cartoons were jumping up out of Granny's chest and running through the halls and up the stairs. I heard their bones playing like xylophones.
And then I was 11. My parents were vacationing in Florida and my sister Betsy, a newlywed expecting her first child, was looking after Terry and me. I was home from school with a cold, lying on the rug in our upstairs den in front of the old black & white Magnavox television, when Betsy walked in with her arms open and tears streaming down her face. She reached down for me and said, "Daddy died."
It was a terrible mess. On the day my father died, snow started falling. It was the March 1960 Nor'easter, said to be the worst storm since the blizzard of 1948. Most of the East Coast was quickly locked down. My father's body made it onto the last plane out of Fort Lauderdale, but my mother couldn't get a flight. I tried to imagine my father alone in a box in the cargo hold, but it made no sense. And then there was the matter of my mother. Would she make it to New York in time for the funeral? We worried and whispered and said how good it was that dad's sister and her husband were there in Florida with mom. Meanwhile, aunts and uncles who knew about such things made arrangements — choosing the funeral home and the coffin. I remember people thoughtfully and carefully selecting the clothing dad would wear in his coffin. He was always a dandy.
For this death I was allowed to go to the funeral home. My father was a popular man with seemingly hundreds of friends. The funeral parlor was so filled with flowers that I thought I would choke on their aroma. In my family's Irish Catholic tradition, the dead are placed in open coffins unless there's a compelling reason to keep the lid closed. It is said that viewing the body helps us accept death, making it clear that body and soul have gone their separate ways. And truly, there was no way to pretend that this body, with its face heavily powdered and lips stitched together, still housed the warm, loving man I called my father. Even in retrospect, confronting the cold reality of death really was better than being told nothing.
In the end my mother did make it home for the funeral. After the burial, a few dozen people — most of them family — came to our house for a typical Irish Catholic wake with lots of eating and drinking, storytelling and laughter. Later, after the mob had departed and the quiet settled on us, we began the lonely work of living our strange, empty new life.
The two old, simple problems ever intertwined,
Close home, elusive, present, baffled, grappled.
By each successive age insoluble, pass'd on,
To ours to-day — and we pass on the same.
~ Walt Whitman, "Life and Death"