Thursday, October 6, 2011
People often ask if you feel older on birthdays, and as those years add up and friends get married, we rhetorically ask each other, "Don't you feel old?" And to those I answer no and no. Sure, the numbers always look higher each time, but it never fits right (am I the only one that feels like my brain is four years behind, older and none the wiser?); and all weddings seem to do is emphasize how not old I am. In all sobriety and no means of morbidity, nothing makes me feel older than funerals.
For those of you who are confused, I went home (San Francisco) last week. And trust me, I'm just as confused as you are, which is probably why I told barely anyone where I went and why. (Frankly, most people probably didn't know I was gone. Welcome to the self-absorption of working life.) What can be said in thoughtless conversations with interval friends?
"Hi, how have you been?"
"Oh, actually my aunt died yesterday from something that had to do with a stroke and the leukemia she found out about two weeks ago and I found out two days ago. I'm going to California tomorrow to attend her funeral."
I don't mean to be cavalier about it, but I don't think (don't think) I realized I was talking about a dead body. And not a dead body, a dead person. And not a dead person, a dead aunt. A dead sister, mother, grandmother. My aunt. Dead.
It wasn't until the wake that it sunk (maybe that's why they call it that -- a wake): she's not going to be there anymore.
"Were you close to her?" is the inevitable question. Does it matter? She was there for as long as I existed, but she wasn't a part of my day-to-day life.
And now, she isn't. Won't be. Now, her powdered remains lie there in the open casket with glued lips. All I think is, open caskets are stupid. (I know what they symbolize, but symbolism isn't immediate in the minds of those in bereavement.) My grandpa and my dad's sister also had open caskets. The made-up cadavers look strange and foreign, a mockery of our loved ones, a sad imitation of the living, the real person. Like a sick joke. Like they're simply hiding in the closed part of the casket, waiting to spring out at you, laughing. Surprise! It's the laughs you miss the most and remember the longest. So laugh a lot.
When we arrived at the burial site, my family noticed she was being buried right next to my grandfather. We took time to say a prayer after the service, me, my brother, my parents, the pastor; and afterward, I stayed behind with my dad for a minute.
"Dad, I miss Grandpa." And I did. I think it was the first time since his passing that I really felt that ache: the I-haven't-seen-him-in-a-year-now kind of missing, and slowly, the I'm-not-going-to-see-him-here-again kind of missing. Does that make me inhuman? Or more so? I cried at my aunt's funeral in surprise, for my mom and her sisters, for my cousin and uncle. I love her and my family will never be what it was without her, but certain kinds of mourning turns out to take its bitter time.
I've never felt older because death has never felt closer, or more visible. Twenty-two is not old by any measurement of life or death, but I no longer have delusions of this body's immortality. I know it is inevitable, unpredictable, and its clammy claws take with no consideration of our plans. I see it and it exists.
When we passed by my grandfather's stone, my parents and their close friends stood around me and pointed to their plots down the row: "Look, this is where I'm going to be buried!" Yes, in exclamation. I can't say I've accepted it to that extent, but my recognition of the Styx is the marker: I'm not a little girl anymore. Twenty-two is not eternal. Twenty-two is twenty-two.
Everything feels a little more trivial and bigger at the same time -- the paradox of growing up.
They all said it was a beautiful funeral and that they'd never seen so many attendees before. Maybe they were being appropriate, but there were nearly as many people standing, spilling outside of the chapel doors as there were sitting in the pews, a total of 300-something people. To have loved that much is all I could pray to do until I'm called Home.
Who knew I could be so Russian?