Corner

She sat there, alone, in the corner, until she cried it all out. Nobody had told her how to grieve. All she knew were two things – the rocking chair was where you sat to be soothed by your parents, and the corner was where you stood to reflect upon your sins. So she put the two ideas together. Her parents were no longer here to soothe her by rocking her back to sleep after a nightmare or to read her picture book filled with bunnies or bears.
The corner was where you stood facing inward, away from other people, a cheap form of solitary confinement. Bereft of company, you were stuck with your own thoughts. It was a foretaste of hell for those who feel guilty, felt wrong, felt broken. Never in her life had she voluntarily put herself there. This time was different. Everything was different now.
They died, both of them, not quite together, but a bit like dominoes anyway. People couldn’t quite grasp it, and assumed there’d been an accident. It wasn’t sudden. The signs were there all along. It was tragic only so much as it was preventable. It was sad that they’d squandered their lives, dissolved into nothingness, and for so long.
So now, not knowing what else to do, she sat, in the corner, in the chair. No need to face into the corner – nobody was there. Not just in the room, but the whole house. It was so quiet it was deafening. So here she sat, in the space of consoling isolation, to visit with the ghosts of her parents. They’d never left. Sure, their bodies were gone, buried in the cemetery on the other side of the city. Cemeteries and city dumps were always near each other, always in the low-rent part of town. The industrial waste recycling center was in the same block along the section 8 houses. It wasn’t an accident.
She noted she was getting distracted. Grief was like this, this veering away, then closer, like a moth to the flame at times. Dangerous to get too close. So usually we stay away. It hurts too much to look at it directly.
But after a while the phantom pains don’t fade. The anxiety stays long enough to pay rent. They both don’t have nameable causes, so when she finally notices her spirit is off-balance, she knows it is time to stop and face it.
How did she learn this, this inner healing? They certainly didn’t teach her. Death wasn’t something you talked about, just like politics or religion. It wasn’t nice to talk about in polite company. They acted like it was something that happened other people, less fortunate people, people who deserved it. They weren’t even in the same state when their own parents died. They skipped the funerals and cashed the inheritance checks. They wore black for about a month and told friends of their loss, but otherwise didn’t grieve. Maybe that is what killed them so young. If grief doesn’t get out by tears or wailing, it gets bottled up inside and starts eating you up from the inside out.
She was determined not to join them. So here she sat, in the corner, healing herself from the inside out.

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The cemetery at St. Meinrad’s Archabbey

November first is an appropriate day to share these pictures. Today is All Saint’s Day, where all the famous Christians who have died are remembered. These are notable people who have led the way and been examples of being the Body of Christ – of making love visible in the world. November 2nd is All Soul’s Day, where everyone else – family members and friends, for instance, who have lived honorable lives are remembered.

These pictures were taken in late September at St. Meinrad’s Archabbey (Benedictine monastery) in St. Meinrad, Indiana. This is the cemetery for the monks. The cemetery is slightly downhill from the seminary, and the headstones are made of the same local rock that the Abbey itself is built out of. They are very stout.

sign

8

The 5 former abbots are buried in the walkway. The first abbot was buried elsewhere and then relocated here.
6

5

A newer grave, showing the same color of rock as the Abbey. The older ones have weathered to a grey.
4

Even though they do not decorate graves, someone has practiced the Jewish custom of leaving a stone atop the headstone as a way of marking that they have visited it.
3

Quite atmospheric in the late Autumn sun.
2
1

There was a new grave – for Brother Benedict Barthel, born 1919, died September 15th, 2015. His birth name was Carl Frank.

The graveyard is walled, so it is limited as to how many more brothers can be buried here. There are only 42 spaces left. There are 252 monks already buried here. There are seven rows deep on two sides, with 21 columns.

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.

Ritual to honor a deceased parent

This uses something called “Hell” money. Chinese people use this fake money to show respect and honor to their deceased relatives. It is a way of keeping their memory alive. The Chinese have no “hell” or “heaven” – it is simply the afterlife. It is closer to “purgatory” or a “holding” area. It isn’t a place of punishment – it just simply isn’t a corporal existence here with us. Western missionaries translated the idea as “hell” because they did not understand it. You can obtain Hell money online (I used ArteCrafts on Etsy) or if you are fortunate enough to have a Chinatown section in your town, you can get them there.

If Western culture had a way of showing honor to deceased parents, I’d include it. They don’t. They don’t have a way of respecting and releasing grief. The Mexican Day of the Dead ceremony is very healing – you welcome back your dead ancestors for the day so they are still with you. In Western culture, you visit the grave (maybe) and pretend everything is fine. I’m all for adopting other culture’s ideas if they are healing. This represents my own twist on the idea.

These are the ingredients:
A candle.
Lighter.
Water to put out the fire if necessary.
Tray to hold the ingredients.
An incense stick for each person being honored.
A bell.
Regular and gold-orange Hell money.

You need a safe place to burn things – we used a fire pit. This should preferably be done outside, but could be done inside with a fireplace. There should be a way for the smoke to go up and outside.

To begin –
Cover your head – a hat or a handkerchief will do. This is for safety and for reverence. Avoid a ball cap.

Light the candle and put it at the top center of the burning area. This is not in the middle. Consider if the area is a clock. The center where you will burn the items is in the middle, where the clock arms are. You put the candle at the 12 o’clock position.

Light the incense sticks – one for each person you are remembering. Stick them in the burn area at the edge – at the 9 or 3 o’clock position. Angle them in towards the center, but not sharply. Say the name of each person, saying “I welcome (name) into this moment. I honor, love, and miss you.” (or other words that feel appropriate for you and your relationship)

Ring the bell once, calmly and reverently. This marks the beginning of silence.

Then burn the hell money one at a time, taking turns for each person who is participating in the ceremony. Have several different kinds of hell money. Some include representations of clothing or household goods. The idea is that you are “sending” these items to your relatives to make their stay in the otherworld easier.

If it feels right, burn one together in honor of your shared grief for the other’s parent.

Then burn the golden-orange hell money last. Only burn one of each.

Then ring the bell to signal the end of the ceremony.

Leave the incense burning. You can waft over you to bring some of its healing to you.

Regular Hell money looks like this
hell money2

Gold-orange money looks like this –
hell money1

Poem – Guilt and expected death

There’s a guilty feeling the caregiver has
when their loved one dies.
Be it spouse, parent, child,
you’ve taken care of them
for a long time
and they have finally
passed on.

Nobody talks about this.
They talk about how hard it is
to take care of
someone you love
for a long time,
someone who is terminally ill.
Someone who isn’t going
to get better,
and the only cure
is the grave.

Your life is finally back
to being yours.
Your time is yours.

You should feel bad if you
didn’t
give your time
to help them
– but you did, and now it is over.

There shouldn’t be guilt
about surviving,
guilt about feeling relieved
that it is over,
guilt about being glad
your duty is done.
But there is.

You are glad for them
that they are no longer suffering,
but also glad for yourself
that you can do
what you want to do
again.

You aren’t so crass as to say
you’re glad
they are dead,
but you are.

It is a weird feeling,
made weirder
by the mixture of grief,
the exhaustion of being
an unpaid,
untrained nurse,
there 24/7.