The fireflies low on the fields of freshly planted corn and soy
Taking your breath away so sharply you think that might be the moment you leave the earth
It's a joy and a fear of dying so strong that it's almost as if the joy will cause your death
The moment when you realize that you can't record what you're looking at
The fear of not being able to put those moments down in words, or in photographs, or in paint
Because that is our immortality
And so instantly you face your mortality with the beauty and the joy
And everything there is
Terrified that you won't get those words down before you go
To the point where you rely on the voice recorder on your cell phone
To do the work for you as you race along the highway
So you remember those fireflies, that corn, that soy
The mist hanging low over the hills after the rain of the storm
The lightning flashing through the clouds in pinks and orange
The light of the sign: Ted Nugent is playing soon at the Indian Creek Tavern
Cars pull up, you wish you could go, but you know you're female, you know you're scared
But that light: the lighted arrows pointing the way
And yet you drive, and get lost, and drive by a cemetery
And hold your breath because you know that you're so vulnerable
That that could be the moment that it takes you
That you leave, that you're gone
The fireflies, the corn, the mist, the soy, the lights
Entries in angry at death (8)
The fireflies low on the fields of freshly planted corn and soy
I’ve been thinking very much about my Grandma recently. She died nearly a year ago, ten months ago to the day to be precise, and her ashes were recently laid to rest under a tree planted in the woods where she used to take walks, even on cold days like this, bundled up in knitwear and down. I saw a female cardinal playing in the snow this morning, crown sharp and alert, and something in the way it turned its head, something in its watchfulness reminded me of her. Of her goodness and her curiosity. I wrote the following piece shortly after she died, and shared it with no one. It felt too personal and raw, but I think it’s time to share this. Not on any anniversary: just on a day when I was thinking of her. When she felt strong in the nature around me.
* * *
If I were to set the very moment of her death into words, permanent words, it would go like this:
First: Mom brought Grandma home from the Memory Unit to die, and I came to be there too. It was late in the night as I watched Grandma take her last breath, and I saw her at peace.
Then: I knew intrinsically that she was no longer there in that body, but somewhere nearby as Aunt Mary held her hand and Mom stroked her knee. Finally liberated.
Finally: A moment that I will never again forget as long as I have the capacity for memory. Grandpa had come to say goodbye to her body, Mary still holding her hand. Grandpa touched his wife's shoulder and wept, saying goodbye in a way only he knew how, a wordless goodbye that comes from seventy-five years of being in each other’s lives. He left the room to get a tissue, and as the rest of us were sitting there, the door at the foot of her bed blew open. Not widely, nor dramatically, but quietly, just a few inches, just enough to let her spirit go. The following day when we told my brother, he told us that he’d woken up around 2:15 from the strangest dreams. “That’s about when the door blew open. She was coming to say goodbye, John.”
Those would be my words. What else do I have left to give her but my words?
* * *
The day after her passing, we went into her old room at their house to collect remembrances of her for each of her grandchildren. We found pieces of sterling silver and turquoise, scorpion pins, and fish pendants. Decorative fans from Japan, pearl necklaces, and combs. Her jewelry choices reflected a favor for non-precious minerals, an assemblage of rock and stone and silver. My chosen remembrances were to be found in a lower drawer, where I came across the pillowcases she used to use on the guest beds, the ones I remember so vividly from the nights I’d sleep over and wake up in the middle of the night with heartburn only for her to feed me a piece of bread and stroke my hair. On her nightstand -- as if she'd only just left them there the other night, not many years ago when she was moved into the Memory Unit -- were several mass market paperbacks by Elizabeth George and other mystery writers, two books of Emily Dickinson poems, a book of the wit of Mark Twain, old Irish blessings, a Wendell Berry novel, and a Muriel Spark novel. I took the latter two, slipping them into her old canvas tote next to the pillowcases. The Dickinson poems I brought home to send to cousins Daniel and David.
The next morning, I pulled out the Muriel Spark, and noticed for the first time the title: Memento Mori. On the cover, she’d affixed a return address label circled with a ballpoint pen. On the back: her initials distractedly scribbled in teal pen, and next to the title, a page number written in her hand: p. 172. I quickly flipped to the page, and saw an underline: “That is our memento mori.” Memento mori: Remember your mortality.
Not knowing what the book was about, I scanned the page for context, and realized that the character is visiting a nursing home. He describes a group of patients huddled around a television, emitting noises, attempting tasks but instead of, say, pouring themselves a glass of water, they end up with water jugs over their heads instead. This. This is a reminder of your mortality. This: this too was how her life ended.
I flipped through the rest of the book and found other underlined passages. Some denoted important character names or plot points, but the bulk of them were about aging and senility: p. 10 - “attempting to put her thoughts in alphabetical order”; p. 13 - “Her resemblance to himself irritated him.”; p. 23 - “doleful hands”; p. 37 - “‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.’”; p. 44 - “How nerve-racking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old!”; p. 58 - “He rose to leave, for he knew how Charmian’s memory was inclined to wake up in the past, in some arbitrary year.”; p. 67 - “arcus senilis” underlined and written as well at the top of the page; p. 119 - “‘We’ll soon be senile ourselves at this rate,’ said Granny Green. ‘Sh-sh,’ said the sister. ‘We don’t use that word. They are geriatric cases.’” and underlined: “‘To think that I spent my middle years looking forward to my old age and rest!’”; p. 121 - underlined twice: “‘Remember you must die,’”
I raced to write these lines down as I turned each page of the book, like transcribing a long lost audio recording. I was suddenly privy to Grandma’s very private reading of this text, the lines that were important to her, the lines which resonated the most with her right before she began to disappear. Remember you must die.
Thinking there might be more, I picked up the Dickinson, and noticed how she’d marked a certain poem with a paperclip and a pencilled check, a poem that held such significance to her later life that we gasped as we read it:
The Lost Thought.
I felt a cleaving in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before,
But sequence ravelled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor.
And another poem, dog-eared:
A thought went up my mind to-day
That I have had before,
But did not finish, -- some way back,
I could not fix the year,
Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely what it was,
Have I the art to say.
But somewhere in my soul, I know
I’ve met the thing before;
It just reminded me -- ‘t was all --
And came my way no more.
The later years of my grandmother’s life were dominated by her Alzheimer’s. We watched her begin to repeat herself, then stop remembering us, then stop remembering herself and the reality of the physical world around her. Her “Alzheimer years.” As if it were just a phase she was going through. Alzheimer’s is a misunderstood disease: in films, we’re shown a woman who can’t quite recognize her children, who misplaces things or gets lost driving to the grocery store. A distant-eyed Gena Rowlands unable to recognize James Garner's face. This is just the early stage of Alzheimer’s. What’s hidden from us in the Hollywood rendition is the moment when that person disappears altogether, when all they are able to do or say resembles the acts of an infant, when she utters nothing but garbled words and helpless cries, unable to sit erect, her fingers pinching and trembling against your wrist as if squashing spiders that only she can see. When her eyes are distant, nearly hollow, almost abandoned. Almost. Later in her life I fed my grandmother like a child, stroked her hair the way she once stroked mine, telling myself she was still in there somewhere, unable to imagine where on earth she might have gone. Willing her to come back to us for one last conversation.
When someone dies after many years of suffering from Alzheimer’s, there are no last words, there is no note. Nothing that would signify someone’s last great wisdom before slipping away into the light. We don’t even know if there is a light. All we have left are the words they left during life, real life, before.
In the days after her death, I went back to emails she sent me when she was just on the verge of all this, before, when the signs were still so small that they didn’t show up in letters, unless they were letters she’d forgotten to send. In one of her emails, she writes about the process of going through her things for the move to The Knolls, a retirement community on the edge of town.
Moving is progressing slowly but inevitably with lots of help from your mom
who is quick to say, "You don't need this--throw it out, give it to the Good
Will or whatever.” Otherwise we would have to fill our yard at the Knolls
with our useless trash (also known as “memorabilia") Books are hardest to
part with, but if their pages haven't been turned sometime in the last 50+
years, they need to be gone. Besides there are always new ones to take
their place. Right?
This, too, could be a metaphor for death (Right?), but instead I looked literally to her books and to the words she’d underlined and cherished. It made me realize that the books she did keep were the ones whose pages she turned most often. Most importantly, she saved an Emily Dickinson given to her by my Aunt Mary, her daughter, and when she passed she still had other books on her bedside table, either in the process of being read before she was no longer able to read, or read long ago and loved and underlined. Piecing together her last words from pencilled marks in a book and scraps of emails. This is what it is like.
Remember you must die. “To think that I spent my middle years looking forward to my old age and rest!” Hardest to part with.
But here is the most magnificent thing about her death, about her departing: as hard as it was to watch her go, as soon as we let go of the body, she came back to us. The memories of her from before. Hiking a trail on a crisp autumn day, her gray hair moving in the wind, sitting cross-legged in a club chair doing a crossword, Jeopardy on in the background, watering the plants in the greenhouse overlooking the ravine, looking out the window at the birds on the feeder, handing me a Madeleine L’Engle book, saying she’s one of my favorites.
We all talked about how strange this feeling was, my aunts and uncle and mother and sister and cousins and I, how it’s as if the moment she died, the Mom/Grandma we knew before she got sick with Alzheimer’s had suddenly come rushing back into our lives.
“It’s like the Alzheimer’s version is no longer there to get in the way of who she was,” said Mom.
“I felt as if she was right there in the car with me,” said Aunt Joann.
“But now that we have her back I want to shout, NO, don’t take her from us!” cried Aunt Mary.
None of us expected this part of losing her: that we’d have to lose her twice. Not only that, but that the second time would be harder. People assume -- as even we assumed -- that the passing of someone with Alzheimer’s would feel like a blessing. And it did, for a moment. The first thing we were all saying is that we felt an enormous sense of peace once she was at rest. The peace of knowing she was no longer trapped in that decimated body, trapped in a mind that she couldn’t control. That we ourselves were no longer trapped in the thought of Grandma not how she used to be, but how she was in that moment, with the eyes that couldn’t quite see you, and the tongue that couldn’t form any recognizable words. But the overwhelmingly dominant feeling is still one of profound loss, and because we’re suddenly able to remember everything that she was, because it’s all come rushing back with the force and weight of an ice storm, the memories of things she said or did, a look she gave, the way she held your hand, the knowing smile she once wore -- the loss is all the more profound.
Death sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly
To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With "This was last her fingers did,"
The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then 't was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.
A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him, —
At rest his fingers are.
Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.
At one point in the Muriel Spark novel Grandma so carefully underlined and left behind on her nightstand, as close to a final note as we’ll ever get, there is a passage she didn’t underline, a sentence she wouldn’t know would reverberate with me so strongly after her passing, but a sentence that stopped me like a downed tree in the road: “A good death doesn’t reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul.”
It had been years since she had been afforded the freedom to bear herself in any way, dignified or other. She was carried by a body that disobeyed her, a brain that betrayed her thoughts, twisted them, turned the outside world into a hallucination, her words into garbled songs. But her soul: as I watched her die, I knew her soul was still strong, still good. I knew when that door opened six inches, gently, that her soul was no longer fighting, but walking gently, composed. And so it was: A good death.
The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.
How removed we are from death now, how sterile and unseen it has become. My entire fear of death was built on a foundation of having experienced it too little. I feared that the burst of noise that is our lives, once silenced by death, would have no echo. But having experienced her death, having stood at the side of her bed in the middle of the night as she gave one last breath for each of us present, I can tell you that this is what death is like: motionless, hushed, the sound of a candle being extinguished. And then: the cacophony of memories that follows, a cacophony that is both torture and ecstasy. The noise of these memories is what makes you wail and shake and hold your head in your hands. Mourning is the noise of memory that follows the quiet liberation of death.
In her Dickinson book, Grandma had marked another poem with a tiny pencilled checkmark, almost as an afterthought:
The dying need but little, dear, --
A glass of water’s all,
A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall,
A fan, perhaps, a friend’s regret,
And certainly that one
No color in the rainbow
Perceives when you are gone.
It won’t be the first time I’ve argued with Grandma over large and important life philosophies, but, dear Grandma, I beg to differ with your beloved Ms. Dickinson: I wish you knew how much all the colors of the rainbow perceived your absence. Particularly these: the deep blues and greens, the turquoise and teal. The colors you wore and loved and chose to adorn your surroundings. The colors of your pillowcases and scarves, the agate slab paperweight we found in your desk drawer that was the color of your eyes, rimmed by a white halo where crystals had formed like arcus senilis later formed in yours. The colors of the illustrations in your Dickinson book. The color of the blue ballpoint pen you used to mark those words. After you were gone, to my eye these colors shone brighter in nature, even still in this gray and brown January. There: solid as agate, unobtrusive and bright.
You are now, again, still there.
©Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.
Every week I volunteer at an organization that sorts through donated books and decides what's salvagable in used book sales to benefit the public library, and what can be recycled. We open boxes of donations, never knowing what will be inside, and then begin sorting. Usually it's stacks upon stacks of ex-library Danielle Steele, Clive Cussler, and Tom Clancy, the airbrushed faces multiplying as they stare out at me from the blue boxes. But there are some real treasures in those boxes, too. We get first dibs on the books before they go on the shelf, a good exercise in restraint knowing I can't buy every single book that passes through my fingers.
Last night, I was especially lucky, and especially weak. Some I didn't buy: an old set of Salinger books (The Catcher In The Rye with its original dustjacket, a first edition of Raise High the Roof Beam) and first edition of Daniel Moore's Dawn Visions, put in pride of place on the "rare" shelf in the warehouse. I did buy a few titles, though at bargain prices: The Next Whole Earth Catalog, with its instructions for what to do with roadkill and how to make musical instruments and the best punk zines. Seymour Krim's The Beats, John Gruen's The New Bohemians, and a 1962 issue of the Evergreen Review with an introduction from and review of Naked Lunch just before it was published in the States for the first time. (Also, in a strange moment of prescience, one of the volunteers nearly recycled Where The Wild Things Are [it was an old, beat-up ex-library copy] before another volunteer removed it from the bin and handed it back to him, saying "THIS is a CLASSIC." Rest in peace, Mr. Sendak. Your books will find their rightful place under our watch.)
But the most precious to me are the bits of ephemera we find in the books. Little slips of paper used as bookmarks: a letter written in French from daughter to father, a negative of a religious ceremony, an old receipt from The Rollman & Sons Co. for two dollars and fifty-three cents (May 16, year unknown, though definitely pre-1960, when the store closed), a photograph of a suburban house. Last night, I even found a handwritten poem.
The consensus among the volunteers was that it was written by a teenager, taped inside his or her (though the handwriting suggests it was a female) copy of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Written in ballpoint pen on a sheet of paper ripped from a stenopad. Maybe by a young girl who'd just read The Colossus and figured herself a Sylvia Plath. Maybe by someone who was trying to talk herself out of something; maybe even by someone who lost someone herself. The poem isn't anything special, the stuff of teenage journals, but it seems to go with the "angry at death" theme I can't seem to escape here, and so I thought I might share it with you.
Lines For One About To Turn On The Gas
Death is so definite.
What I don't like about Death is
You can't change your mind.
Suppose you drank a great drink
And took so many sleeping pills
And lay down with your head on a pillow
On the kitchen floor;
Having turned on all five jets
Which after all would be an efficient
And comparatively tidy exit.
Then suppose just as you crossed the line between
Here + There
The telephone rang.
Someone caling to say:
"Darling, I am sorry — "
Or: "Your Grandmother's will just probated —
You inherit five hundred thousand."
Or even: "Will you come in for cocktails Sunday?"
Life might then seem lovely.
Might then seem desirable.
Life is like that.
And there you would be — out of reach.
No more moons.
No more late spring. However late it comes.
Spring is still a miracle.
There you would be, quiet + cold + stiff...
Ready for the mortician.
What is there underground so good as what's over it?
Do you like moles + worms + black beetles
Better than apple blossoms + cider?
Do you like a mouth stopped with clay
Better than singing — even if off-key?
Think of all the ways out you haven't yet tried.
Death is so definite.
What I don't like about Death is
You can't change your mind.
Never to have another chance...?
God — not yet!
Dark, I know; forgive me. But it was either this, or the mimeographed copy of a science class handout titled "Investigating the Excretory Structures of a Fish." (Would you expect the arrangement of tubules for the removal of nitrogen wastes in humans to be more like that of a fish or of the earthworm? Explain.)
I like to think that someone asked her in for cocktails on Sunday. Or she called her darling to say she was sorry. Or, heck, she started reading Daniel Moore, moved to a commune, and learned how to make musical instruments from a book she ordered out of The Whole Earth Catalog. However her story ended, wouldn't the precious time I spend coming up with endings to other people's stories — apple blossoms? or black beetles? — surely be better spent working on the material for the middle of mine?
Oh poo on this endless navel-directed philosophizing. Should have just posted the durned fish shit handout.
(Previously: Executive's Data Book, 1964)
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.
Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute.
—Thornton Wilder, Our Town
12:34am. Last night as I was falling asleep I was visited by my Uncle John. A brief visit. He smiled, standing arms akimbo, and I suddenly realized I won't ever see him again and then he was gone and I was left to dream nightmares of wild storms and patios and a grand hotel where we sought refuge when the sky turned dark.
8:15am. Sounds: the coffee grinder, a cardinal (is it Big Bob? the one who perches among the bamboo in winter?) singing high up in a tree, a train horn in the distance, the trickle of the creek, the wind in the trees.
1:23pm. "The country has become gripped with a terrible disease that is called lotto fever! A doctor is so expensive, and so I have found the cheapest remedy: instead of going to the drugstore, I buy a lotto ticket! One dollar and I am cured!" "Did you win?" "No, but I got two numbers!" "Sounds pretty lucky if you ask me."
5:14pm. Grandpa came to see the wildflowers. He poked at the ground cover with his walking stick, uncovering trout lilies and toothwort and the little fiddlehead buds of ferns poking out of the ground. He spotted dwarf blue phlox on the other side of the creek through his camera, steadied on the railing of the deck. We discovered a tree that appeared to be dying; the only one yet to bud, its bark brittle and dry. I pointed out the sessile trillium growing in the picnic patch. "It's amazing; just when we think everything has come and gone, that spring is over and summer about to begin, there's something new that comes again and it's just so beautiful."
8:57pm. Check Twitter. Check Draw Something. Check Tumblr. Check Twitter. Check Gmail. Check Facebook. Check Instagram. Check my reflection in the bathroom mirror to make sure I'm still here. Check Twitter. Check Twitter. Check Twitter.
9:41pm. The window was cracked and the grass had just been cut and the smell of onion grass crept in as I drove past the old Shady Nook and in the rear view mirror there was lightning.
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.
Zan and J,
What a delight to hear from you. I regret not being able to gab face to face (or face to beard, as the case may be} but it is the electronic age and email is better than nothing.
As you might have suspected the landlord wasted no time in renting your apt. Saw somene moving in, but have no notion who they are or what they do but I do know that I wish you were still resident there rather than he, she, they or it as the case may be.
You mentioned that you might be working with bees. Has this become a reality? Whatever, I hope you are happy in your new environment and hope to hear from you whenever you have the time and inclination to write
I feel a bit sad when I see that the blueberries and other farm goodies have taken leave for another year, but hopeful that neighbors who have recently taken up new residence might return with the coming of Spring. In any event I would like to know how you are and what you are doing so please let me hear from you if only to tell me the current length of the beard.
* * *
Dear Mr. Byron,
I apologize for the long delay in my response! I'd like to use the excuse that the house has been a handful, but really time is just passing too quickly and I sometimes forget that there are letters in need of replies. Inclination I have plenty of, but it comes with a heavier dose of procrastination. Which isn't good for anyone.
You'll be happy to hear that the beard is doing fine. He shampoos it and conditions it regularly to keep it nice, though I think it's reached its maximum length. Still, I think you'd be impressed! It's so big he shouldn't be in need of any bees to provide extra beard, but the bee plan is going forward. He's been reading up on beekeeping, and he and my dad plan on getting some hives together in time for spring. Who knows, we might even be enjoying some of our own honey by summer? We'll have to send you a jar to have with your morning toast.
Something in the universe made me think of you the other day. I hope you're doing alright, and that your back and heart aren't giving you too much trouble. I know how much you enjoy your walks; I hope the New York winter hasn't kept you from getting out too much.
I look forward to the return of the blueberries too, and hope that the farmers markets in Ohio can provide, though it won't be the same not seeing you there and enjoying a leisurely stroll back to the building with you. As for us, we'll be back to visit before the blueberries, maybe even before spring! We'll knock on your door, though I know you don't answer if you're not expecting anyone. Maybe you can expect us? It would be wonderful to see you again.
With many thoughts of you from far away,
Z & J
PS We're going to take your advice and watch the Peter Sellers film Being There soon. I know it was a favorite of yours, and I'm really looking forward to finally seeing it. Some things you just shouldn't put off any longer...
(I don't know what the internet connection is like in the afterlife, but I really hope this reaches him. Somehow. Rest In Peace, Mr. Byron. May your walks through the park never give you any more pain, and may your good neighbors up there in heaven/out there in space stop and talk with you about the state of the world for as long as you want.)
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.