Death Is A Mess

I decided at the beginning of 2017 that I would finally make the move I had been talking about making since I became an empty-nester. I would leave Flagstaff. Find a smaller newer home. Go on a residential adventure, so to speak. That was five years ago. The plan moved from the back and then to the front of my mind as finances and employment shifted. When I finally built back my savings, I lost my job. My savings dwindled, then disappeared, and I found new job. This year, I was finally ready to do it. And as all big life moments have proven to do–life, death and all in between–it grew messy.

As I embarked upon this journey, as with all journeys, there were the knowns of home repair: a zillion trips to the local hardware store, and to Home Depot, and to the paint store. The solving of one problem (eg. repair the brick facade on the front of the house) always led to the discovery of another (a network of wasps living behind the artwork hanging on the brick facade) and and so on.

I was used to the upkeep and re-keep of an old house. We had grown old together that house and I, and there was not much it could do that would surprise me. Granted, the hot tub, also old, leaking again the day before I moved, well . . . . chewing gum anyone?

But then there were the unknowns that continuously surprised me. How bureaucratic can a relatively simple, very common, everyday occurrence be? It wasn’t like I was in high rise rentals in Manhattan and Zurich. I sold and bought small, single-family homes in small American towns. But the paper. The paper! If I wasn’t sending the deposit, I was depositing the check,  and if I wasn’t checking on the email, I was emailing the signature, and if not signing but another electronic form I was forming a knot in my brain the size of Ponderosa pine cone.

Finally, I’m out, and I’m in. Old house behind me, new house around me. And yet, it continues. I am happily settled in these new digs, enthusiastically getting to know this part of Arizona, the Verde Valley, which is, yes, as the name indicates, green. And I have chosen a much younger house, on an un-treed lot, in a much smaller town with a much warmer climate. Goals accomplished. But wait! The bureaucracy continues. The former bank sent duplicate documents that had already been emailed. The new bank sent duplicates of thirty years worth of payment tickets when I already established that I will pay my new mortgage online. The seller’s mail arrives by the bucket loads.  Oh, we are shrouded in paper we are, shrouded until we die.

Which brings me, actually, to the other point. The business of dying. When my mother died in 2002, and my father, who had suffered numerous strokes over the previous ten years, let alone the gut wrenching sorrow of losing his wife of more than fifty years, was faced with the business of her dying, I was struck dumb. Me, who had railed at the financial aid system of yore for tying up my college funds in paper and tape and sour faces. Me, who had by then purchased two homes (although I happily agreed that my ex husband would take care of all of the business). Me, who had been a legal secretary in North Carolina where lawyers manage property sales, not realtors. Me, who had applied for university, graduate school, visas, passports, the Peace Corps, etc., I thought I knew bureaucracy. But there is none like that of dealing with the dead.

As my friend Michelle’s daughter noted, ‘but he’s dead!’ of her recently passed father and the entourage of bills and paperwork that currently bombards their lives. Shouldn’t it go away if he’s dead? No, darling. The status of the loved one as ‘no longer existing’ seems to mysteriously trigger a parade of very live and fast moving pieces of debris, or mail, message, and mystery, as it will all come to be known.

The sad irony, of course, is that as I work through the time-consuming and brain-kidnapping and toilsome work of selling a house, buying a house, and moving from one to the other, I am irritated, annoyed, tired, stressed, etc., but, in the end, I have a new house, a place to fill with life, and to make my home.

And the exact opposite is true in dealing with the business of death: all you get is nothing. Loneliness. Gone-ness. Each day new reminders of your loved one’s old habits or paths or routines or favorite shirt or stained spoon or favorite topping for pizza. You think that it is all over, and you just want to crawl under a rock forever and find the depth of your bottomless grief, and then comes the cheery phone call from your loved one’s dry cleaners that his shirts are ready for pick up.

“He can’t wear them in the grave!” you want to scream, but don’t, and just quietly click the call away and make a note, on the list, that seems to have doubled in size while you weren’t looking, ‘go through paper-clipped receipts on desk.’ Then another call. Someone telling you that the part for the truck is in. What part? Then the insurance calls to tell you they need the death certificate in triplicate. The death certificates that were lost in the mail.

The charity requests were the saddest calls for my father. My mother was known to be quickly and easily swayed by the late night starving-babies-in-Africa-charity commercials. And she would call the 800 number on the screen and give her charge card number over the phone in the wee hours to some voice far away. Then thank you cards would arrive donning the same sad faces that had convinced my mother to give in the first place. And then said charities would call her regularly asking for continued funding. Even when she was dead. It broke my father’s heart all over again.

I have lived away from my state of origin for many years, and thus, I was not there for the moment of my mother’s death as the rest of my eight siblings were. They stood by her bed together as she passed. When I arrived from Arizona, post her passing, I was assigned several duties, and listened, for days, to the re-telling of my mother’s final days, hours, and then moments. The lesson of death was well-taught.

I stayed with my dad for a few weeks afterward to help him out and keep him company. He watched La Boheme, over and over again, weeping quietly, as I tended, as best I could, to the business of my mother’s death. I learned the bureaucratic ride that this simple, every day, very common occurrence was going to be.

It all gets so messy. Death, life, homes, relationships, all of it, not only do they all get ‘messy’ as in complicated emotionally, they are all just a mess, literally. A mess of paperwork and decisions and reminders and calls and forms and thousands of lines of very, very small print, an onslaught of the bureaucratic lives from which we can not escape, even when we are dead.

Death Is a Mess

We enshrouded her with white velvet, mums,
explanation, and decided against the titanium

casket, we chose brushed steel. Potato salad and hams
arrived, packaged Danish, flowers in sad friends’ hands

but death is a mess you can’t cover with food, smiles
or words, it smells. Put a lid on it, a bag, a sheet, tell

again what you witnessed with her last exhale,
how men in suits wrapped her in the stained percale;

Tell of the pastel tissue you used to wipe
her lips, her chin, her discomfort, the Kleenex piled

up like crumpled carnations in the trash, all those
layers peeling off her body until death found home,

in her throat, that rattle, and she closed your eyes,
your denial more moist than her expected demise.

I never got to say goodbye but imagined her last breath
repeated again and again by those who saw her death

those who watched the final whisper of her uneven chest
the air slowly escaping its unforgiving nest

their coffin of words couldn’t solidify death’s puddle
like formaldehyde does for the dearly beloved

but we chose the right shoes, the rosary laced
through her polished fingers, we rouged her face

then the burnished cap’s click had the final word
cousins passed holy cards and threw wormless dirt

we plant only short flowers, crocus and ivy
lawnmowers can’t reach them, we keep the grave tidy.


poster image from Urban Flavors

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