by Sarah Berger
My husband came home with news that a co-worker’s spouse had died after a long illness. We considered the logistics of possibly going to the viewing. The hours would be 12-2pm and then again 4-6pm.
Why the two-hour break? we both wondered. It wasn’t lunch or dinner hour.
Maybe it’s so they can, you know, and our answers collided in midair.
Freshen the body, I said.
Re-do the corpse, he said.
We don’t know anything about funeral home stuff. We both want to donate our organs and then be burned or pine-boxed or body-farmed, anything but made up in embarrassing rouge, nestled in a pillowy ivory dreambox and displayed beneath the acoustic-tile ceiling of an upholstered parlor. I know about funeral home stuff only as far as being a classical singer has brought me to the funerals of people I never knew. Almost all the funerals and memorial services I sing are in churches, but occasionally I’m hired to sing in the deep hush of one of those parlors. Behind the imitation colonial brick facade on York Road (you pass it all the time -- the one next to the bank, just up from the Starbucks), there’s no street noise. There’s no sound at all. A sob, a baby jingling a set of keys, even the playing of the electronic piano in the corner and my own efforts to enliven five verses of “Amazing Grace” in relentless F Major, they all happen in sound-sucked pantomime. Acoustically, the word for such a space is “dead.” A dead room.
There are no edges in there, no shadows, none of the hard surfaces and rough textures of this life. Only yards and yards of drapes in a subdued floral, and the white polyester satin of eternity.
For weddings, or funerals, it’s versatile and hardworking. It’s Satin.
So maybe they have to freshen the body or -- if you’re less sugar-coaty, like my husband whose greencard reveals him to be an immigrant from one of the more no-nonsense countries of northern Europe -- re-do the corpse. Maybe when you die you get automatic membership in a union whose rules prohibit your embalmed corpse from being on display for more than two consecutive hours. Like orchestra players, or babies on a TV set. After two hours it’s break time so you can rest your bowing arm, or so they can bring out your identical twin, or so the body-freshening crew can get to work on you.
I always have questions when I sing a funeral. Why an open casket? Why “On Eagles’Wings,” that nasty yodelling thing? Why me? I went to music school, and many of my friends are musicians. I can’t quite imagine hiring a stranger to sing at my loved one’s funeral. But then, I hired a stranger to make a piece of jewelry for me because I didn’t go to art school.
So I’m the stranger. And when I am that stranger-singer, I remember the thing I forget in between gigs, which is that singing at a funeral or a memorial service is the most important thing I do. I don’t want to admit it, but most people are not going to performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and if they are, they’re so damn tired by the time the quaking moth-winged aria Aus Liebe comes around a couple of hours into it, they just want Jesus to be crucified already so they can stand up and stretch their legs. They’re too full to taste the sweetness.
But everyone will know loss, and most people will want to dissolve, for the duration of a song, in the plasma state of the soul that art makes possible. Ideally, acoustics will help me out. But even fighting the thick dead air and carpet and eternal satin, I will know when I have the room, when people who were distracted have come into the center, because the Vera Lynn tune “We’ll Meet Again,” which I did not predict would have worked, works. It’s a great little song,even unaccompanied per the son’s odd request. A few phrases into it I find my hook, my warmth. The folks come with me. It’s supposed to seem effortless, but singing in a dead room is tough, and they can tell I’m working hard, and there’s a beauty to that. They’ve been working hard too. They appreciate that I’ll carry the load for a few minutes so they can go slack and weepy.
In another room, another time, I sat with my grandfather as he died. He struggled, I calmed him. He pulled at the sheets covering his naked body, remembering something he could not communicate, remembering something beyond the bed he lay in. I covered him, please, please be still. He had seemed obsessed with taking off his pajamas and at some point the night nurse had just helped him out of them. Perhaps the approach to death was a lucid dream, in which you do the primal thing since you know it’s not real. My primal thing, in the few lucid dreams I’ve ever had, was to strip off my clothes. Or maybe it’s common, the urge to strip naked when you’re strung out on opiates.
He was agitated; he wanted to say something. I did not ask him what he wanted to say. I hushed him. I said soothing nothings. I wanted him to lay his 84 years of heartbreaks and decisions and deeds down on a fluffed pillow. For a few more hours I sat, the last one awake, and waited and watched until the skin of his face went slack and yellow.
In still another room -- this the waiting room at a doctor's office -- I met a woman who had come to the US from England in 1947 as a war bride.
"A stupid war bride," she said. "You do a lot of things you regret when you're young.”
She had married the wrong guy, she admitted, plain as if she had installed the wrong kind of lightswitch. She had four children in six years. She looked wistfully at the knitting project in my lap and then at her hands, which were gnarled with arthritis.
"I used to knit dresses," she said.
I was a stupid granddaughter. I didn't know how to honor my grandfather. Honor felt like what I should be accomplishing. I was afraid of his incoherence, his smell, his ropy arms and legs and withered manhood. I've done so many interesting things since he died, one of which is to have two children. I’ve done the thing, maybe the only thing, that can join generation to generation, that allows those who don’t know yet to connect with those who can’t remember. Pinpricks of connection.
It was different for you than for me, being a parent. You were a dad in the 1950’s. I was a mom in the 2010’s. But we share the wound, the gashed side, the bleeding out of one life into another. My baby, dark-eyed and naked, entrusted me with himself, his entire elemental self. All he needed was comfort. All you needed was comfort.
In Harry Harlow’s famous psychological experiments with baby monkeys separated from their mothers, one version had the babies placed in a cage with two surrogate mothers, one made of wire and wood surrounding a milk bottle, and one made of terrycloth, a glorified oven mitt. The monkey would go to the wire mother, but would only stay as long as it took to feed, while spending all the rest of the time with the other surrogate mother, the one with no milk, made of terrycloth. The baby would cling to the useless terrycloth mother, cling to its softness. Comfort, Harlow came to understand, was not the same as food. It was something else: touch, connection. Without it, we withdraw. We die.
Never mind honor. Comfort was the thing. I don’t know if, as you writhed, I gave you comfort. I don’t know if you knew I was there. I was too shy, too afraid to touch you anywhere but your hand. I don’t know if I will ever be the person whose heart spills open at the right place at the right time for someone who frightens me and needs me. What is charity -- caritas -- but love on the roadside, love that pulled over?
You taught Sunday school for lots of years. I always tried to imagine you, gabardined and tie-clipped, swarmed by children as you sat on a miniature chair in a yellow-painted classroom in the basement of a Methodist church. When I had a bad case of sophomore-year feminist outrage, I challenged you, a scientist by training, on your belief in the divinity of Christ and the patriarchy springing therefrom. How could you believe? I asked. You answered that God is love. God is not necessarily Christ on the Cross, doesn’t have to be. Don’t worry about that, honey. God is love.
“Specifically,” he wrote in a letter, a real letter on paper, which I read on the mailroom steps in the slanted November sun, “God is my love for Janie.”
The night he died, my grandfather lay in bed in the house he and his wife Jane shared with their daughter, a divorced empty-nester. A few years previous, they had moved to their daughter’s city, pooled their money and all bought a house together, a place with a bedroom and a full bathroom on the ground floor. It was a beautiful house in an affluent neighborhood. Satisfaction was in the air. But leaning in a corner, behind the closet door, was Grief.
Maybe Grief was what my grandfather had spotted, what he wanted to get out of bed and visit with across the room. He would have had a little talk with Grief. Gentle, like when he used to lean close and tell Susie the Labrador about the food in the bowl he was about to set down on her mat. It was just kibble. They talked about it anyway.
At one point I slipped out to sit alone on the piano bench in the dining room and bite my fist and sob in perfect silence. We were deep into the vigil, exhausted and fragile. It had been a kind of torture to watch my grandmother watch her husband as he writhed, probably not in pain but we couldn’t really know. Certainly in defiance, even as his organs failed. The visiting nurse increased his morphine, telling us with compassion that seared me that it was the maximum she could give. My grandmother’s tendency toward confusion and forgetfulness had come on fast since the move to the new house, and she had spells of wild anxiety, asking many times of her daughter and granddaughters, "Why are you letting him do this!"
In spite of the morphine, he was agitated, legs slow-motion swimming under the sheets, fingers spidering the bedclothes, mouth gaping to speak. Before she left, the nurse said to us, the family, the women, "Sometimes a person needs to be given permission to let go. To let go of his dear ones."
My mother leaned in and said to him, “Daddy, we’ll take care of Janie.” His body calmed, but he struggled on. My mother, who had gone the longest without sleep, went to her own room to rest awhile. The others dozed in their chairs. I alone remained awake, watching my grandfather breathe until it was a long time between breaths, then longer,and then so long that another breath never came.
The skin of his face went waxy, thick as amber. The person he had been had clearly and cleanly departed. It seemed such a complicated place for a soul, such a specific complex matrix of cells, and yet. It was just cells. Just a covering. I was grateful to see that covering, that empty thing. I carried that gratitude as a talisman. No cross for me; no resurrection. Instead, an imaginary locket.
In one side of my little locket, the departure of my grandfather, the evidence I saw with my own doubting eyes that there is nothing to the envelope once the message inside is gone. We cannot know where the message, the person, the soul, has gone. But we can say with confidence that it has been neatly separated from the dust and ashes, the inanimate stuff. Anima: soul. The body, just a black hole of inanimate.
In the opposite side of the locket, the toothless sunrise on the face of that dark-eyed baby.We smile not in imitation -- blind babies smile at the same average age sighted babies do -- but because we need to be loved in order to survive. We send a message by reflex: if you find me on the tundra, or in a supermarket, please don’t hurt me. Be friends with me. Love me.
When I was the trembling parent of a newborn, when I was suddenly cracked raw runny devotion to a creature so helpless in a world so dangerous, I needed that locket around my neck. I needed to touch it with my fingers, touch it all the time. Humanity is ten thousand years of atrocities, but humanity is also a dopey private smile we have no control over. Our synapses will fire, our kidneys will filter, and our hearts will open to each other like flowers to the sun, over and over and over again. Love is our reflex.
There was a change in the room. I shook my sister awake, and we gently woke my grandmother and told her, "He's gone."
Janie sat up in her chair, smoothed her lap and relaxed her eyes to a point in the distance.She felt the change. She was often confused, but she had no confusion about this moment, the 60-year connection severed. For the rest of her life, she never once asked “Where’s John?” The tension left her face, and she began to sing.
"All of me," she sang. "Why not take all of me?"
Can’t you see
I’m no good without you?
Maybe that song was the Holy Spirit, or the goddess Dementia, or maybe it was Love, in the Afterlife. Because the Afterlife is for the living, not for the dead. Grief is afterlife, and eulogies too, and the hysterical lightness that is
the fluorescent lining of Grief’s coat or
Grief’s fantastic bedazzled sunglasses and teacup dog or
one part of your brain singing to another, singing Here, Love: here is Art.
It is Grief, and you are Love. Grief knows this about you. Grief knows everything about you. You thought that was the affectionate-older-sibling lobe of your brain singing to you, or the voice of the soprano you hired to move “When Peace Like a River” through the cosmic density of a funeral parlor. But no, that voice was Grief. I was Grief. Grief is a trick ending. Grief is inside you now, nestled in, headset on, recording, mixing, playing back, its coat wrapped around you for the rest of your life. The After of your life.
About the Author
Sarah Berger has a background in English literature, musicology, and vocal performance. She is a freelance musician, and she is currently writing a novel about classicism and romanticism, repression and freedom, pianists vs. organists (yes that’s a thing!), and art as a pathway toward self-acceptance. She lives in Baltimore.
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