(James H.)– Death is so much tidier on TV. Grandma dies. Eldest sons punch walls, estranged daughters scream into pillows, toddlers naively ask why granny won’t wake up. Cut to: funeral scene, clever but poignant eulogy, painful but cathartic reception, the occasional drunken fistfight, and maybe a tear-filled reconciliation. If you’re lucky, Detectives Benson and Stabler will show up to arrest your shady uncle Randall for planning the whole thing in order to cover up his child pornography racket. Executive Producer Dick Wolf.
The problem is, the logistics of an actual death could never fit neatly into forty-four minutes plus commercials. You might see a son identify a body, or a daughter decide on cremation, but these are only snippets, mere stolen glances at the tidal wave of logistics that crashes down following your mom’s death.
When it happens – and it will happen – you’ll be forced over and over again to make painful decisions that you never could have anticipated. And every time you decide – what font to put on the tombstone, what saint to put on the funeral programs, what snacks to serve at the reception – you’ll be confirming to yourself again and again that yes, she’s really gone.
You’ll deactivate Gmail accounts and suspend Netflix subscriptions and put three hundred dollar J. Crew sweaters in big black trash bags. No, you wont be renewing Better Homes and Gardens this year. Yes, she was completely satisfied with her Target Credit Card, that’s not the issue here, “Team Member Since 2009” Jennifer W.
For me, this was the immediate parallel pain to the raw grief of losing my mom. I’d lost my closest friend in the world, but I had no time to sit alone and burn incense and look meaningfully out windows while listening to the Indigo Girls. Instead, the month following her death was a marathon of decisions that completely drained my emotional energy.
In returning to Amherst, I felt like I was finally alone with my sealed emotions, at last able to tease apart the things I’d locked away while I was too busy picking gravesite flower arrangements. I wanted to decide my emotions. I even tried writing about it, and it helped. I naively thought that maybe I’d reached the “every day is a little bit better” stage of grief. The logistics were settled.
It was only in returning home two weeks ago that I realized the truth: when someone close to you dies, the logistics will never be settled. Your mom, your dad, your brother, or your best friend – they will always be in the perpetual process of dying. And by this I mean, there will always be some physical remnant of their existence, something yet to be stored or thrown away or cancelled. There will always be someone who still doesn’t know. There will always be Tiffany, the dental receptionist who wants to know why Maggie is still so overdue for her yearly cleaning.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my mom, in her final act of Smith ’80 – Amherst ’15 liberal arts solidarity, left me alone her library of nearly five thousand books and twenty boxes of family memorabilia. It was all sitting in the garage waiting for me when I got home, and so I’ve spent the last week going piece by piece through an entire lifetime, everything from a saved second grade spelling test to a Summa Cum Laude B.A. in French Literature. And in this days-long process of sorting, saving, and destroying the last physical traces of my mom, I’ve tried so hard to reach a conclusion about what we owe the dead, or at least, what we owe our parents in the end. Really, what do you do with old love letters written by freshman boys whose names she never mentioned? Or Easter Cards just signed “Deborah”? What do you do when the only person linking signifier and signified is gone? So much of a life just becomes meaningless papers in the end, and I still don’t have an answer.
The best I can manage is to once again seal these big question marks away, to time capsule them in some public storage unit, hoping someday Rick the Freshman or “Deborah” will show up and help me sort things out. I know it’s not going to happen, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that to throw away these tangible fragments of a life, left to me alone so pristine and so entirely without instruction, would be a betrayal.
It’s been six months now, and maybe every morning is a little better, but I’m still waiting for the day when her Sephora coupons stop coming in the mail.