NOTE: Some of these details may have become foggy over the years although the feeling of profound has not. If I’ve erred in my memory, it is not meant with any disrespect, but depicted to the best of my personal recollection.
Death is a religion with a universal name. It wears shrouds, platitudes, religion, and tradition to ease the minds of the living. It is a great Truth. It is indiscriminate and unavoidable. We create rituals to bring order to what we have no control or power to stop. Although we have first-hand knowledge of the results of physical death, we are ignorant of what we witness because before the body has even grown cold, something happens that we don’t understand. It’s not a journey any have taken that lived to tell the tale of what happens after we die.
When I was in Junior High at Iroquois Middle School, Aimee Mann, a pretty girl in my math class died from complications of diabetes. I’d experienced death before with goldfish, kittens, and even my Great Grandmother when I was four, but Aimee was the first time I realized there was an absence.
I wasn’t her best friend. I wasn’t a close friend. I just knew her and had spoken to her a couple of times after class about mundane things. I didn’t know she was struggling with a disease. I just thought she was nice. The day after she died, I heard about it all over school like an infection spreading rumors at an epidemic rate. One said that she died because she wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom. Another said she died because she hit her head. Some were so far-fetched that even in my ignorance I knew they weren’t true.
When I got home from school, I told my mom about Aimee and asked to go to the services. I wanted to see for myself what death looked like up close since I had no point of reference that I remembered solidly. We checked the obituaries, found out when and where, and I dressed to attend the solemn wake.
The funeral home was near where I’d lived as a young girl. It was a plain white and brick single story building with an ample parking lot in the back. There was a lot of people of every age and color lining up to go inside. Their outfits ranged from black and solemn to bright Skittle colored dresses with wild hats. I felt intimidated and awkward in my clothing choice of a plain black skirt and a white blouse. I wasn’t sure what to do. My mom got out of the car and walked with me. I remember dragging my feet. I wasn’t sure how to act. I was even more afraid to discover what death looked like up close.
I entered the vestibule where a nearly full white guest book rested on a podium with a feathered pen locked into the holster with a ball chain. My mom picked up the pen and signed her name. I followed her example and did the same. The hallway smelled like slightly rotting flowers and armpits. It made me wrinkle my nose. My mom put her hand on my shoulder and guided me to the room where my classmate was dead.
The whole room was lined with massive bouquets of flowers. Lilies, roses, carnations, and a variety of flowers filled the room with a strong perfumed scent that, although wasn’t unpleasant, wasn’t exactly a smell I’d like to remember.
Just like in the movies, the crowd parted and I could see the pale tan coffin at the front of the room. Aimee’s mother sat in a chair sobbing while various, I assumed, relatives attempted to console her. My mom guided me with her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. My daughter was her classmate.” My mom offered her words of comfort. I mumbled something and couldn’t meet the grieving mother’s eyes. She thanked us for coming while sniffling back another sob.
My mom guided me to turn to face the coffin.
The pale tan of the outside and the pristine white interior looked odd to me. The inside lid had diamond shapes patterned into the lining. A spray of flowers lay on the top and I could just make out the top of her head from where I stood. My mother guided me closer and whispered to me that we had to pay our respects.
Walking up to the edge of the casket, I peered into the face of death. Only, it didn’t look any different, really, than the girl I talked to. She looked like she was sleeping. Her face and hair were pretty as always and her hands were folded neatly on her chest protecting her heart. I didn’t know what to do. My mom tried to guide me away but I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to understand.
I got the idea of death. I knew that when someone died they no longer got to hang out or talk or any of the things living people do. But there I was, face to face with it and I wanted to wait until it was done. It didn’t seem right. She was my age. She still had things to do. Why was she laying in a box at (I think) 13 years old?
That was the first time I remember realizing the permanence and absence of a person from my life. I knew that she would no longer be in my classes. I knew that after the mourning period was done, her friends would go on to live their lives, grow old or not, have kids or not, go to church or not. They had choices that she’d never have.
I cried. I cried a lot for the girl I barely knew. I cried because I knew that someday I would lose people that I was close to and that scared me. On the way home, I stared out the window at the passing houses. There was probably some classical music playing from WOOD-FM that my mom liked to listen to when my dad wasn’t in the car. There was probably traffic lights, cars, and other such ordinary things. People sitting in their living rooms as I rode past catching a fleeting glimpse at someone reading the newspaper not realizing that my friend was dead. Life went on.
Over the years, many people I’ve loved have passed away. I’ve attended funerals, paid my respects, gone through the many different rituals of their family and my family traditions. I’ve used boxes of tissues mourning their death and my losses.
“There is a wisdom holy that I must pass to you and give
There is truly only one life you have, one life for you to live.
When your eyes drop down with despair, the tears they freely flow
Remember in your heart and soul that you already know
That love is the only answer, that giving is its boon
Gyrate your hips to the music you hear, spiral the cycling moon.
Lift your maudlin mourning eyes for love isn’t found beneath
Don’t believe that you’re not worthy, don’t heed whispers from deceit.”
From the poem, “What You Give Up” by Mare Martell
From death, an ultimate truth, an unavoidable circumstance, comes a valuable lesson to each of us that, if embraced, creates a comfort in its own. For every person that you’ve loved and lost, live your life with your heart wide open, grateful in your spirit, and filled with the knowledge that you’re taking that part of them, that you held so dear, with you for the ride. Make it a great one!