My mother died two years ago on October 30, Hallowe’en Eve. Because of the physical and emotional abuse she caused during the early years of my life, my reaction to her death is best summarized by this Mad magazine cartoon drawn by Sergio Aragones:
Just before I left work today, I turned the page on the calendar pad on my desk. Besides November 2, the pre-printed page for tomorrow said Day of the Dead (M), with the M standing for Mexico. I think about mortality often, so it’s gratifying to see there’s a day set aside for reflection and remembrance of the dead.
I don’t think much about immortality and whether there is life after death. My thoughts about afterlife are rather proto-Judaic. There may be an afterlife, there may not be. However, there is much to do in this life, so you don’t have the luxury, time, or energy to spare speculating about what may come in the next.
When did I first become aware there was such a thing as death? It was pre-kindergarten, when we lived in a small rented house on Third St. in Marietta. I remember a summer early evening when I went out to the side yard and quite a few people, ranging in age from my age (which would have been about four) to teenage, all gathered in a semicircle around a tree. I wondered what was so fascinating about the tree, until I saw there was a blue jay perched on one of its more slender branches. It wasn’t flying, it wasn’t flapping its wings, it was barely moving. I was able to understand that it was sick. One or two of the kids made tentative moves to touch it, to take it down from the limb, but drew back when older friends and/or siblings cautioned them not to touch it because “it has lives [lice].”
I went in for dinner and didn’t come out again that night, but the next day there was no blue jay on the branch, but I did see something that wasn’t there before. Our neighbors had a stack of bricks flush against the back wall of their garage, but one brick stood apart from the others. Laboriously printed with Magic Marker on the brick, all in capital letters, was an epitaph. I cannot recall the text (nothing like HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN
SOLDIER BLUE JAY KNOWN BUT TO GOD), but it said something about “blue jay died” and the date. All I could glean from that was that the blue jay was under that brick, and he wasn’t going to be flying, or pulling worms from the ground, or singing, anymore.
That fall, I learned that the same thing happened to people. Our landlord lived with her husband, children, and widowed mother in a large brick house that fronted Third St., while our house was a small five-room house behind theirs. One night, my dad was getting me ready for bed when the youngest child, a girl who about 13 at the time, knocked on the door and said that “Grandma was really sick.” My mother left right away to go over to render whatever aid she could, and Dad continued to help me get ready for bed, giving me my usual snack of animal crackers and milk, helping me get into my pajamas, reading me a bedtime story, etc. I kept noticing that Dad often made trips to our front window to look out into the night, to see what was going on at our landlord’s house. I looked outside, expecting to see that something was different, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary for an autumn night in Marietta.
I overheard conversation the next day at breakfast. The grandmother (who was 79) had died. In fact, by the time my mother had gotten over there, she was already dead, collapsing on the front hall stairs. When my mother had arrived, the priest from St. Mary’s Church (which was only a block away) was already there administering the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, and emergency personnel were already there to take the body to the hospital. My mother immediately went to the kitchen to make coffee for everyone and stayed for about an hour afterwards.
The solidifying event was a spring afternoon when I was in kindergarten. One of my dad’s female students was babysitting me, and we were walking from the Marietta College campus to our new house on Sixth St. She suggested we make a side journey into Mound Cemetery, which was on the way. (It would, in 2000, be where my dad would be buried.) “Let’s go in and see the people,” she said.
I had no idea what she meant. I had been past Mound Cemetery before, and we had driven by Oak Grove Cemetery as well. I had heard of rock gardens before, and I thought that cemeteries were just big gardens set aside with big stones for decorations. That was when the sitter explained to me that when people died, they were buried in the ground, and the stones and statuary I saw marked where they lay. From that day on, cemeteries became places of refuge for me. I could easily spend hours at Mound Cemetery, visiting the graves of different Revolutionary War heroes, or climbing the steps to the top of the Conus mound in the center (said to be the final resting place of a Mound Builder chieftain). I never cared much for the parades, ceremonies, and rifle volleys that happened on Memorial Day at Oak Grove Cemetery, but Memorial Day was the one day its mausoleum was open, so I could behold the unique experience of seeing where people were buried in the wall.
Susie learned about death when my dad died in January 2000. He lay in an open casket in the viewing room of Hadley Funeral Home in Marietta, a block from Mound Cemetery, and Susie, who was two at the time, wondered why people were standing around and talking. “Shhh!” she kept cautioning, her finger to her lips. “Grandpa’s sleeping!” Steph took the time to explain that no, he was not sleeping, he was dead. I explained to her later on that it happened to everybody. The funeral director had a copy of a Sesame Street book called I’ll Miss You, Mr. Hooper, showing the story that aired soon after Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, died. The writers sensibly decided that Mr. Hooper would die as well, and I read the book to Susie.
(Compare this to my experience. I never saw a dead person until I was in high school. That was only because I had a funeral home on my newspaper route. It makes me think of the opening line of the movie Stand by Me: “I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being…”)
I try not to be this morbid, but it seems to be appropriate for tonight and tomorrow. I won’t have a trip to the polls to report tomorrow, since I’ve already voted.