I thought it was over.

My father, dead these twenty years, not buried but filed away in a niche like a folder, forgotten it turns out, not over and done with. I thought it was over, that time of shock / of loss / of surprise / of earthquake, after tornado. He died just six weeks after Mom did, no warning, just a heart attack, his heart gave out / his heart had died when she did. It took six weeks for him to realize it. Six weeks for his body to catch up with his spirit.

It isn’t “passed on”. It isn’t “transitioned”. It isn’t soft and gentle, these euphemisms we have for the end of life. It isn’t even “kick the bucket”, “bought the farm”, “pushing up daisies”. It is dead, plain and simple.

Dead, body shucked off like a used coat, abandoned, sent to Goodwill or the dump. Or perhaps not. Sometimes it shows back up, even though you’ve moved, even though you’ve outgrown it, that person, their shell, shows up like that coat, somehow back in your house.

To get to the niche required asking off from work, calling the funeral home, arranging with the funeral director, getting a notarized form from my aunt (for the other two), finding a map, cleaning out the car, a long drive, and then waiting in the reception room, the same where I waited all those years ago with my aunt, to put her Mom’s ashes next to his, the same where we waited for his father, the same place I sat three times before for death. There were cookies on the table, wrapped in plastic bags, to keep them fresh. They don’t get a lot of visitors there, but they like to be ready. A lady asked if we would like water, or a fresh cup of coffee. She didn’t mind, she said. No bother, she said.

He died maybe seven years before his mom did, at least twenty years too soon. I remember her, my grandmother, in shock that her son had died before her. Sitting in her room in that rambling house. He died just five feet away, in his old room, that dark room, that narrow room. No room for him, and he died there, alone.

I can’t find the Bible with her dates in it. I don’t know when she died, or when she was born. Each family has their own, it seems. It wasn’t important enough to keep in a safe place, it seems.

They sat together, all these years, in niche number 19, at the end of a series of halls, themselves filled with filing cabinets stuffed with folders and notes. They sat, filed away, together – this was the O’Shee clan, the last of the line. I’d changed my name at marriage, not even keeping it as a middle name. People could spell it or pronounce it, but not both, and not well either way. I was grateful to get an easy name, but not as easy or anonymous as Smith or Jones. There are worse names than one with an apostrophe.

Nobody went into that room at the end of the hall. The relatives, those who knew them, were dead and buried themselves, or long forgotten. It was a funeral home, not a columbarium. They had that room as a favor to another funeral home that went out of business. I’d never thought of it, but funeral homes do go out of business, but cemeteries don’t. (But sometimes they do). Sometimes your “Final resting place” isn’t so final, and isn’t such a rest.

Sometimes people get dug up, like Tutankhamen, or the Lindow man, or anonymous Indians. There’s a farm to be tilled or a skyscraper to be built. The markers were lost or never were. Sometimes strangers in masks and latex gloves carefully desecrate your body, your insides, in the name of science. I wonder if a kind person, a priest perhaps, asks forgiveness (if not permission) of the soul that wore that body like a costume, a shroud, for these unbelievers, these scientists, to excavate, exhume, ex everything. No more sacred slumber. No more resting in peace. More like pieces.

I thought it was over, that time of grief, of sadness. I thought he was “dead and buried”. But now he’s in my craft room, on the top of my shelving unit I bought with my own money and assembled with my own hands. The shelving unit that has books to teach me, to inspire me to make things along with the things needed to make those things. There’s my father, along with the rubber stamps, the beads, the canvases, the paint, the glue, the wire. There he is, another craft project or supply or inspiration.

Perhaps I should invite him into the book project I’m working on. Perhaps I should do it in his memory, in his honor, like the Jews do. When someone dies too soon, you finish their work for them, giving them credit. You do the work, but they inspire you. Your grief for them propels / compels you to work. It isn’t yours but not quite theirs, it is a collaboration, a sharing. Instead of being stunned and immobilized by your grief, you use it to do, to create, to make. It is a kind of martial arts, this thing, using the energy of a sad situation against itself, a sort of energy aikido, a trauma taekwondo.

I thought it was over.

I didn’t have the tools to deal with his death when it happened. I just did it, as best I could figure out. There is no training for the hardest time of your life. How do you suddenly take on the responsibility of cremation certificates and funeral plots and closing out bank accounts and estate taxes and probate in the middle of grief? The person you’d ask for advice is the very person who is gone.

It has been twenty years, and my father is still with me, not just in spirit but in form, in shape, taking up space in my craft room, watching everything I do. I suspect he’s still a little sad. He was always sad. He never got to do what he wanted – always what his parents wanted. “Poor Pat” is what his Mom said to him. All he heard was how sad it was to be him. So he grew into that prophecy. It is sad that they didn’t want him to be him – even his name wasn’t his own. He was a junior. How is that for messing with your child? A child named like this isn’t his own. They are expected from birth to take on your task and live it out, rather than their own.

So here he is, in my craft room, in my house.

When I was born, he made a point of going into the house before Mom did and putting Beethoven on the turntable. Beethoven’s music was playing as I was brought home. This time, I wasn’t paying attention, and my husband wasn’t thinking, so when he was brought into the house, this time, this (hopefully) final time, there was no music, there was no notice. His ashes were brought in along with his parents, without ceremony and without ritual. Brought in just like the luggage.

I don’t even know if I have any Beethoven music to play here for him. It always makes me sad, how he didn’t get to be a music conductor, how he didn’t let himself be one. I need to listen to it, and be sad, and let that feeling happen, that loss, that sadness, let the tears fall heavy like glue, sticking together the past and the present into one big mess.

If I don’t have a CD, I’m sure I can download some on my phone. Where to start? What was his favorite? Why don’t I know?

We are now planning an early trip to the mountains. I feel that opening his urn on the bridge overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains is what I want to do. Open it up and let them fly on a windy day, so his ashes cover those mountains. When I see them, I’ll think of him. No marker, no cemetery. Mountains, miles and miles of them, a sea of blue waves in the distance, fading fading fading away. Hopefully it will be windy. We’ll have to do this after the tourists have gone, after the rangers have checked on us. We always have permission to be there after hours, but I’m going on the “don’t ask don’t tell” for the ashes. Just like how I did with Mom’s. There was a little bit of covert action then too.

No roadside memorial. No press-on decal on the back of the car. No tattoos. All the myriad ways of memorializing, and I’m going on a roadtrip, with three people and coming back with two. One will be left in the mountains, on the mountains, part of the mountains. His ashes – ground up bones, really, not ashes like in a campfire – will be eaten by insects, worn by birds in their feathers, sunk down to the bottom of small pools of rainwater, used in rabbit’s burrows.

We’d not planned on going until May, but then this happened, this urn, this death, reappeared in my life. Like a pregnancy unplanned, an extra family member is suddenly in my house, my home. Am I dumping him at a shelter, leaving him on a church doorstep, an orphanage by doing this early and not waiting until we would usually go? Am I properly dealing with this unexpected appearance, reappearance, of my father in my life?

Or by planning a trip, am I making sure that I use this time well, to talk with/to/at him, to invite him in, to process this grief, this loss I couldn’t hold, couldn’t handle twenty years ago?

Is there a right way to grieve? Is there a wrong way? Perhaps simply, the way is the way.

The picture is of him as a different kind of conductor. He spent one summer driving the electric trolley at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. One childhood dream come true. The smile is tiny, but there. His smile was often an afterthought, an accident, a surprise.

Dad at the Choo Choo

He spent way too much of his life making other people happy. Not selfish, certainly, and that is commendable, but no balance either. Such loss. Such pain. I wish he was here now so I could teach him what I know, to help him deprogram and discover who he really is. Perhaps that is what I am doing in his memory. Perhaps I am using his (bad / sad ) example of how not to live, and learning how.

He never wrote that book on Beethoven. He never traveled to England. He never did a lot of things he wanted to do. Never retired. And I see this, and remember – never take a day for granted. Never assume there is tomorrow.

But now, I’m learning, he’s teaching me, never assume the past is past either.

Death books

Books on death, dying, and funeral customs. Face your fear. These are in no particular order. I’ve read most of them. Some look interesting and I’ll get to. There is enough information here for you to get them from Inter-Library Loan (ILL) if your local library does not have them.

CALL # 611 R6282s.
AUTHOR Roach, Mary.
TITLE Stiff : the curious lives of human cadavers
ISBN/ISSN 0393050939 (hc : alk. paper)
ISBN/ISSN 0393324826 (pbk.)

CALL # 393.9 P9772f.
AUTHOR Puckle, Bertram S.
TITLE Funeral customs : their origin and development
ISBN/ISSN 1558887504 :

CALL # 393 M6475f.
AUTHOR Miller, Clarence W.
TITLE The funeral book
ISBN/ISSN 1885003021 (pbk.) :

CALL # 155.937 C69h.
AUTHOR Colgrove, Melba.
TITLE How to survive the loss of a love
ISBN/ISSN 0553077600 (pbk.) :

CALL # 152.4 J279g 2009.
AUTHOR James, John W.
TITLE The grief recovery handbook : the action program for moving
beyond death, divorce, and other losses including health
career, and faith
ISBN/ISSN 0061686077 (pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 9780061686078 (pbk.)

CALL # 362.14 S92m.
AUTHOR Strong, Maggie.
TITLE Mainstay : for the well spouse of the chronically ill
ISBN/ISSN 0316819239 :

CALL # YA 306.903 M6138t.
AUTHOR Meyers, Karen, 1948-
TITLE The truth about death and dying
ISBN/ISSN 9780816076314 (hardcover : alk. paper)
ISBN/ISSN 0816076316 (hardcover : alk. paper)

CALL # 393.9 M9841m.
AUTHOR Murray, Sarah (Sarah Elizabeth)
TITLE Making an exit : from the magnificent to the macabre-how we
dignify the dead
ISBN/ISSN 9780312533021.
ISBN/ISSN 0312533020.

CALL # 362.1756 H4342.
TITLE A healing touch : true stories of life, death, and hospice
ISBN/ISSN 9780892727513 (hardcover : alk. paper)
ISBN/ISSN 0892727519 (hardcover : alk. paper)

CALL # 616.078 N969h.
AUTHOR Nuland, Sherwin B.
TITLE How we die : reflections on life’s final chapter
ISBN/ISSN 0679414614.

CALL # 155.937 L8499f.
AUTHOR Longaker, Christine.
TITLE Facing death and finding hope : a guide to the emotional and
spiritual care of the dying
ISBN/ISSN 0385483325 (pbk.) :

CALL # 155.937 K95od.
AUTHOR Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, 1926-2004.
TITLE On death and dying : what the dying have to teach doctors,
nurses, clergy, and their families
ISBN/ISSN 9780684839387 (trade pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 0684839385 (trade pbk.)

CALL # 344.7304 U78L.
AUTHOR Urofsky, Melvin I.
TITLE Letting go : death, dying, and the law
ISBN/ISSN 0806126353 (pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 0684193442.

CALL # 155.937 B398i.
AUTHOR Becvar, Dorothy Stroh.
TITLE In the presence of grief : helping family members resolve death,
dying, and bereavement issues
ISBN/ISSN 1572306971 (pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 1572309377.

CALL # 393 E845.
TITLE Ethnic variations in dying, death, and grief : diversity in
universality
ISBN/ISSN 1560322780 (pbk.)

Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth by Suzanne Kelly

When We Die: The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death by Cedric Mims

Saying Goodbye Your Way: Planning or Buying a Funeral or Cremation for Yourself or Someone You Love by John F. Llewellyn

Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris

The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Dealing Creatively with Death: A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial by Ernest Morgan

When Death Occurs: A Practical Consumer’s Guide Funerals, Memorials, Burial, Cremation, Body Donation by John Reigle

The Funeral Book: An Insider Reveals How to Save Money and Reduce Stress While Planning a Funeral by William Miller

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan