Warning: Contains spoilers, human remains, and, worst of all, Clamato.
What you've done
"I'm sure you won't read down this far," said a commenter on my last post. "You won't have time to read all these," said another. And from another, "I wish there were something I could do for you."
I did, and I did, and there was, and you did it.
I read your comments avidly, even greedily, every single one. At my parents' house I would slip upstairs to the bedroom to open the laptop and scan your responses. It helped me more than I can say to know I wasn't alone. You offered your condolences, you told me your stories, and you shared your own experiences of loss, and there is no way I can adequately thank you for doing me that kindness. I needed it, and I am grateful and humbled that you've given it so generously. Thank you.
My father/The body
Beefalo. Rockumentary. Brangelina. Manwich. Blaxploitation. Cremains.
That last portmanteau, of course, denotes cremated human remains. Most of us call them ashes, more comfortable with a polite euphemism than the more accurate but harsher description, pulverized bone fragments. The funeral director settled for the middle ground, cremains, and was startled when I laughed. (It sounds like a brand name: Cremains™. I can only assume BoFrags didn't make it through the focus groups.) I spent the rest of our meeting tuning out his solicitous questions and thinking of other blends. Feminazi. Televangelist. Clamato! What can I say? I was grieving, y'all.
I am not sentimental about my father's remains. In fact, I am almost the opposite. The only part of his funeral service — Catholic, but not a mass — that truly offended me were the repeated reverences to the small wooden box that houses his ashes. So implacably do I believe that he's gone that seeing people bow to a few pounds of dust upset me: That isn't him. He isn't there. Stop acting like that's my father. That box contains no magic.
And later I had to think about this. If I hadn't seen him in the hospital, still technically living but stripped of life, I might have been more inclined to tenderness. After all, I loved his body. When I was little we used to roughhouse, the sort of loving tussle that Charlie begs for now. He'd lie near the edge of the bed, wearing only his shorts, and challenge me to push him off, promising me a dime if I could do it. (Of course I could; he saw to that.) It was the smoothness of his shoulder, so well remembered from my childhood, my handhold for pushing as hard as I could, that made me think of it at the hospital. When I saw him on his back, so injured and so still, I said to my mother, "Bet you a dime I can push him off the bed."
A joke. (She laughed, relief.) But a truth: Without the animation of his personality — that shoulder shaking with suppressed laughter as I shoved with all my five-year-old might — it wasn't truly him. Without the certainty that he would fall, but not until he was ready, it was finally just a body.
A well-loved body, to be sure, one wonderful in its turn to his parents, his wife, and his children. A big body that sometimes seemed barely able to contain the obstinate force of his character — "Larger than life," said friend after friend as they spoke of him to me, describing the impact he'd had on their lives or on the community. But a body that made him furious now and then with its limitations; in the end, a fragile one.
I am quite familiar with the disappointments of the body, both its expected failures and its shocking betrayals. I've spent so long treating my own as an adversary that I think of people as neatly divisible, what we are easily distinguished from who we are. It was a simple matter, then, to believe my father irrevocably gone before he'd even been extubated. Without the part that had made him who he was, the body no longer mattered.
But is it unseemly, or even inhumane, I wondered later after the funeral, to be so ready to divorce the body from the being? Am I too hasty to dismiss the last physical scraps of someone — anyone — unique and precious? Do the people who bowed in front of that box know something I don't? Maybe. But I know something, too: What our bodies can't do is not who we are.
Emotionally drained and in need of some light and undemanding entertainment, Paul and I took in the Simpsons movie last week. I recommend that if your father was recently crushed under a motorcycle, you give this one a pass. Oh, and if your mother was shot to death by a hunter, Bambi just might be a little rough for you. And, hey, steer clear of Citizen Kane if you're, you know, fond of sleds, because what they did to poor Rosebud shouldn't happen to a dog. (I'm not even going to mention Old Yeller.)