Today I made the bed that my mother will likely die in. It feels uncomfortable and shocking to write that—to anticipate someone’s death and to speak of it bluntly. Much like sex, money and politics, death is one of those topics that we don’t talk a lot about in our culture, at least not freely and without euphemism; generally, we don’t like death and grief to be too messy or too visible.
A few days ago, my friend reminded me of Six Feet Under’s pilot. The show begins with the death of the Fisher family patriarch, who also happened to run a funeral home from his basement. During the traditional and stuffy funeral, as the eldest son Nate struggles with whether or not to enter into the family business with his brother David, he describes witnessing a Sicilian funeral: “Those Sicilian women just went apeshit. Screaming, throwing themselves on [the casket], beating their chests, tearing at their hair, making animal noises. Just so…so real. I’d been around funerals all my life, but I’d never seen such grief. And at the time it gave me the creeps, but now I think it’s probably so much more healthy than…this.” Later, at the burial, as Nate deviates from conventional funerary rites, he tells his brother that he “refuses to sanitize” death—particularly his father’s death—anymore. The Fisher family’s job, of course, is to reassemble and re-figure those mangled and decaying bodies into images of wholeness for their loved ones. Lying in their caskets, the corpses appear to be beautifully peaceful versions of their living selves. What the unblemished exterior conceals are the staples and stitches, the plugs and the padding—those things that smother the signs and stench of death.
After discovering that my mother’s condition was far worse than we originally thought—that the cancer had spread extensively to her brain—I didn’t know how to feel or how to grieve. I sat, that morning, in the car with my son whose new obsession is to play “drive the car.” As he prodded me, in normal toddler fashion, to participate and as he insisted on my undivided attention, I was suddenly overwhelmed and gave in briefly to a few minutes of ugly and unrestrained weeping. He sat quietly and watched, uncertain and nervous. When I was done, he covered his face with his hands and imitated my weeping. When he peeked through his hands to take in my reaction, I talked a little bit about what it means to be sad and explained that I was sad because my mom is dying. I’m sure he understood very little, but it’s such a fascinating thing to watch this new stage of socio-emotional development in him. I realized, that while most of us are fairly well-versed (to varying degrees, of course) in things like love, anger, happiness, etc., we don’t have an extensive emotional vocabulary for grief. In our society, we commend composure and calm. We remark on an individual’s ability to “hold it together” during difficult times. The keening, the wailing, the rawness of grief and loss—it gives us the “creeps”; it unsettles us and plucks at the thin shroud draped across the fragile threads of our mortality.
Apparently, I’m no exception. I’ve busied myself preparing for the living. We’ve painted the room and cleared it out, making space for my parents and my family in our home and in our lives. Ordinarily, our house feels too big for the three of us, but now it has begun to feel far too small for that which comes our way. So I made the bed, tugging at the corners of the duvet, pulling it an inch to the right and an inch to the left, trying to make it even, trying to make it perfect. I smoothed my hand over the wrinkles that just wouldn’t lie flat and laughed, realizing why people iron their sheets. But standing there, I was painfully aware of the fact that as I made space for them to live, I was simultaneously carving out space for death and loss. It feels unimaginable and unreal, and I’m so far from ready for what this journey will bring. But it comes anyway. That’s life, right? It crashes around us, sneaks quietly by us, beckons to us, and rises up to meet us. But it never stops. It never slows down. It doesn’t wait for us to catch up. It rushes ahead of us, always a little out of sight, a little out of grasp so that even when we think we’ve finally got it in our line of vision, we never really know where it ends.