Doing death

I spent my twenties and thirties at funerals—mostly friends’ from AIDS.

Funerals, even without surprise appearances by outside children, are fascinating places to witness the range of contending yet legitimate selves a dead person’s memories leave behind. Many I’ve attended were contests (some polite, some dramatic) between chosen and birth family and faith community over the representation of the deceased, and what should be buried in silence. I’ve witnessed with pain—or outrage to the point of laughter—dishonesty, spiritual violence and just plain carelessness done to people we love so those bereft can make their dead, or themselves, respectable. Sinners we begrudge heaven, or pretend cried out to Jesus on respirators.

I thought this contention and spite were about the shame and hurt and defiance of sexuality. So I assumed my father’s 2003 funeral would be a prim, unifying Methodist affair. My mother caged her bitterness; one freshly disinherited sister bit her lip, charged her ticket, put on a pretty black dress; I gracefully withheld details of the service from an inquiring stepmother to protect the other—and we all showed up dutifully to pay respects.

So did Arlene. Familiar with his business colleagues she’d associated with for years, but out of rank among the family, she put her lips to my ear from the other side of the casket, hair brushing my cheek, and whispered her introduction: “I was your father’s lover.” Until I told the story again this week, it never occurred to me that she was no less brazen and out-of-place than any of the aching lovers whose hand I had held at so many burials.

Nor should it have felt odd that an obituary delivered by Raoul John, for which an aunt had verified details with my mother, would end without mention of my father’s two oldest children, born in wedlock, sitting in the first pew.

These experiences left me with two clear wishes for my own last rites—

  • that they be an open forum for all contenders to claim me equally, despite the disappointment of others;
  • and include a parcelling of my cremains, much like wedding cake, into ribbon-tied boxes each mourner could take home and enjoy in as reverent, careless, rapturous or wicked ways as they choose.

My testament of these funereal wishes is, fittingly, a soon-to-be-published poem, “The Plural of Me”.

Over the past few months I’ve entered what a friend of a friend called “deep adulthood”, with responsibility for managing a parent’s end of life. Little in my familiarity with death prepared me. There are countless lessons. Most immediate is how many thoughtless things I’d been saying for so long to other people dealing with dying that I now found so useless or infuriating. My family jokingly clustered them into three themes:

Curiosity about clinical medical details of someone you barely know was the most consistent. I’d just go silent in Facebook conversations when someone’s first, second or third question was the innocent: What’s she dying of? With one phone caller, I said I had another call and disconnected. He called back. With a few eager young people, I had to be more patient and offer lessons. One, after all, had asked, “How am I going to learn to deal with these things if you don’t teach me?” But my pedagogy was brutal. I felt little difficulty being thoughtlessly selfish. I had no time whatsoever for anyone who required attention. All attention ought to be on me, my grief, my loss, my needs.

It was striking, therefore, when a few people responded to us with sincere accounts of their own recent losses. One friend still managing his mother’s death burst into sobs online. Strangely, few of these occasioned empathic bonding, more an awkward distance, a sense of how different my own journey was from each of theirs. The one person I connected to most was an old schoolmate I was scarcely in touch with who, out of the blue, emailed a news item on medical advances in HIV. It elicited the wry response from me that what I actually wanted was a cure for cancer. It turned out he was walking the same road, choosing the same hospice. I’ve eagerly wanted to be useful. He hasn’t needed me much.

The third cluster of responses was the offers of “Tell me what I can I do to help”, which someone later explained is like “Let’s do lunch”. It’s intended to make you feel supported; not to offer practical support. After taking the first few offers seriously and being seriously disappointed, we generously acknowledged the generosity.

I discovered—accidentally—that funeral home pricing varies according to perceived ability to pay. But a manager at the one we chose honoured a quote they offered when they thought we couldn’t. I discovered the callous customer service for which our nation is renowned is no different with death—a Caribbean Airlines clerk processing a flight change penalty waiver decided a different spelling of mother’s name on my birth certificate did not constitute proof of our relationship, but announced I was “saved” by being listed as her son on her death certificate.

There are many people to thank, none of whom I will here save—at a time when public hospital nurses are poorly regarded—those of all ranks at Caura’s Palliative Care Unit, whose humanity, professionalism, nail and hair care touched us deeply.


One thought on “Doing death

  1. How strange the garden of memory where she lives,
    nothing ever changes,
    the heavy fruit cannot pull the branches,
    any closer to the ground.


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