Skip to content

Finding Clarity | 2012 | Cobleskilled


Angels appear on the edge of death because death is the threshold between time and eternity. Death is a room with a view beyond the veil.  

-Gary Kinnaman


Between Time and Eternity

Rest in Peace

Her death makes me wonder at my capacity for reasonable emotional responses. I have cried more at breakups or at those movies inclined toward heartstring-tugging than I do in hearing of her passing.

My grandmother had been unwell for a long time. Years ago, my younger brother Bryan - an over-trained nurse - explained that she suffered from congestive heart failure. To me - a novelist and English teacher - "heart failure" as a phrase equated immediately to "prompt death". As far as I could put together, if your heart no longer passes its constant tests, you are flunked six feet underground. But no, she hung on through her ninety-second birthday and her ninety-third. Not her ninety-fourth.

She was largely cogent even to the end, though her talk of seeing black dogs and nightly shooing dead relatives out of her bed had become so frequent to have transitioned from worry at how short her time was growing to fodder for sardonic jokes. What else were we her family to do for her, short of an exorcism or needless drugs? I was the one to break it to my mother that visions of ghostly black dogs had long been thought to be harbingers of Death, if myth could grant a valid glimpse into pathology or destiny. When my grandmother reportedly said that the dog would make a fine pet for one of my uncles if it were not dead, I felt horrified at her queer self-awareness.

My mother served as one of my grandmother's caretakers and housekeepers for almost as long as I can remember, certainly since she, my mother, nursed her father as he suffered a long and addling death. She is the one who found my grandmother, blankets kicked off, clothing that had begun to be torn off, breathing but otherwise unresponsive. My grandmother was rushed to a hospital, but it was too late. She died after two hours.

I do not believe that I mourn for my grandmother. By degrees, I had come to accept her death as an inevitability in the near future. Every time I saw her, I considered it a possible last time. The actual last time was on Christmas and she seemed small and frail, but no more so than had become usual. I could not have known this would be it, but I could not believe it was not.

To my chagrin, my first thought upon hearing of her death (after the obvious) is that this will severely impact my book signing at No Such Convention. I cannot very well skip the wake and funeral to sign books for steampunk geeks and remain a member in good standing of my immediate family.

My next thought is profound sadness for my mother, the sort of emotion that makes everyone behave awkwardly around the bereaved. She no longer has a mother of her own, a condition of which I cannot fully conceive and will blithely put off considering as long as humanly possible. This death and its subsequent stresses will likely be sufficient to estrange my mother from her siblings until long after the dust settles, whatever that phrase will end up meaning. My grandmother was the glue that kept my aunts and uncles civil, to the extent that her kitchen served as their meeting place, a neutral ground where they could manage to hold conversations while doing laundry.

At work, I let slip that my grandmother has died and they begin circulating a card for me. I do not feel this is necessary. They barely know me, they never met my grandmother, and I don't see how I am supposed to derive comfort from this action, but I cannot very well stop them. They ask if I would like to go home, if I will skip work the next day. This, too, seems unnecessary. I am fine. She was old and her death did not come as a great surprise. I might as well work and get my full paycheck, since my mother makes it clear that she does not require me at her house before the wake tomorrow. My father tells me that she nearly forced him to go to work, if just to leave her alone to process the enormity.

When I return to my apartment to change into something more funereal than academic the next day, I am aware and distantly bemused that my reactions are frankly wrong. I become irrationally annoyed with an actress, who appears in a video in my email advocating equality despite sexual orientation - a cause of which I am unequivocally in favor. I know she is undoubtedly a lovely and caring person - third-hand gossip of her behavior from her time at Vassar College notwithstanding - who played no part in my grandmother's death, but the desire to yell at a strange woman on the internet is suddenly consuming. I have to audibly remind myself that this makes no sense and that wasting a moment more on this emotional sinkhole will make me late to the wake, over an hour drive.

I get to the wake shortly before it starts, though it is impossible to delineate a proper beginning time. I find my immediate family and silently attach myself to them. We then mill around with relatives and people who I do not recognize. People ask where Amber is and I explain that her absence is by my suggestion, that she is selling my books at NonCon and fielding any inquiries from people I have invited. Most importantly, she has been preparing her art so long, I cannot ask her to be at a wake and lose the point of all her effort. In seeing how many of my cousins brought girlfriends or fiancées, I do wish she had been there, both to deflect the questions and give me a hand to hold.

"When does it all happen?" I ask my father after fifteen minutes that seems to last three hours.

"When does what happen?"

"The... the wake portion," I stammer.

"This is the wake. We stand around and talk. Tomorrow is the funeral and pizza afterward."

I look at the forty people staring stunned at my deceased grandmother in a box. "What is even the point to this, then? Why have a wake?"

"In olden days, when someone might just be paralyzed with a poison mushroom, they would have a wake to see if all the loud noises would wake them up. If they didn't wake up, they were either dead or buried alive."

I glance at my grandmother, at the shade of lipstick a bit too pink for her face, looking five years younger than she did when she died. "I'm pretty sure the old girl has been embalmed. She's not getting up."

I mention to my father the theory that, the closer you get to a black hole, the slower time flows until it stops entirely for you. You are trapped, circling this vacuum, effectively until the black hole ceases. I look at my watch, several hours pass, I look at it again and it registers only minutes.

I see my cousin Katelynn and she has visibly been crying when she comes in. If we may consider their grief like oxidation, I am slightly rusting in a room full of the inflamed. I wander over to her, standing near a picture of my grandmother that was taken in her twenties and comment that grandma was quite the looker. My late grandfather, however, looks rather goofy in every picture. Katelynn ventures that this might be where we get our sense of humor, as he looks a bit like a cartoon duck, but she gives a smile that grants me some relief.

My father tells me that my mother has been wailing off and on since she found my grandmother dying. "She was watching some show where someone was telling a kid he would have a new brother. She looked at me and said, 'Do you think they'll bring me a new mother?'"

I almost cry for the first time upon hearing this. My father says that my mother is handling this death by metaphorically packing things into a box and that he does not look forward to when the bottom falls out.

Soon after this, I am holding my nephew Aaryn to give myself something to do to try to remind time that it had better not grind to a halt while I am in this funeral home. He asks when Grandma is going to wake up.

This is the second time I almost cry. I tell him she is not sleeping and that is sufficient for him, he simply wants a yes or a no. His older brother Aydan wants us to assure him that Old Grandma's feet are in the box with her, since he cannot see them.

My younger brother Bryan, who lives with my parents, tells me that my mother blames herself for Grandma's dying. My grandmother had seemed ill the night before and my mother had offered to stay overnight. My grandmother said no, claimed that she felt just fine despite looking ashen.

"How could she blame herself?" I demand, sideways, looking at my mother talking to someone across the room. "She can't. Grandma was ninety-three. She was going to die soon. Mom had to know that."

"She thinks, if she had been there, she could have brought Grandma to the hospital sooner. I told her there was maybe a ten minute window that would have made Grandma still alive right now. But she wouldn't be awake. She would be a vegetable on machines in a hospital, which wasn't how she wanted to die. She died exactly where she wanted, at home. I told Mom that. She doesn't want to hear it."

"She can't blame herself," I insist again.

My mother tells Bryan that he does not have to go to the funeral tomorrow, that he enjoys the job he will be doing and it is more important that he do that job than be there. I do not dare to ask for this reprieve and I am not sure I would accept it if it were offered to me.

I wander, seeking pockets of normalcy - my mother gossiping about a woman who does not really belong there, my niece Alieyah playing with her Nintendo DS - but they do not linger long enough to make me feel at ease.

I last two hours, though I swear it must have taken twelve. I am hungrier than I think I have ever been and the night air feels both lovely and painful. I waver between going home or going to catch a few hours of No Such Convention. I call Amber and ask if she needs anything.

"It's over?" she asks.

"No, not exactly. It goes for another hour. But I am over," I say. "I am stopping for dinner. I'll get you something, if you want."

"Chicken nuggets," she says, "but no rush."

"You haven't sold all of my books?" I ask, facetiously.

"I haven't sold any. One guy came around and was interested. I told him you were at a wake and he said he would be by to buy a copy from you tomorrow."

"Hopefully I get a pity sale out of this," I say and try to laugh.

I don't really remember the drive to Vassar, only that I feel oddly light in ordering my chicken sandwich and nuggets from a surly girl at Wendy's. I cannot place this feeling almost of levity. There is no cause for this sensation, except perhaps that I am not before a coffin right now.

I sit beside Amber at Vassar, cracking jokes while dressed in funeral garb. No one much examines our wares, though I sell a signed copy and she sells a few pieces of art. After a few hours, feeling buoyant but detached, I return home alone. I am asleep when she returns herself and roll over to acknowledge her with a nuzzle.

On my way to the funeral proper the next morning, my mother calls and asks if I will be a pall bearer. Not that I would be inclined to say no, but it is clear to me that I cannot refuse the honor.

I sit in near silence in the funeral home, refusing to let my niece Alyssah off my lap. It is not merely that I feel I have nothing to say - not that there is a sanctioned time for reminiscence while within the funeral home today - but that it stuns me to realize that nearly everyone in this room, some sixty people, is a direct descendant of the woman lying dead. The universe itself is changed by the fact that she lived. Without my grandmother, none of us would have existed, for one. And now, she has vacated her form for whatever comes after our last breaths and I cannot see how the world would not be less for that.

The priest comes out and seems no older than me. He apologizes for his cold and says we will have to forgive him if he begins coughing, winning us handily with his charm. I further appreciate him because, after a reading from the Gospel of Matthew he says, "And this is all made up... because we cannot possibly express the truth. Thomas, one of the disciples, asked how we would know what comes next, after death. We can't, it is beyond our reckoning. We talk about angels playing harps, pearly gates, but we can't know it. These are metaphors, to try to explain something that is outside our conception. Jesus talks of sharing a meal with us when we join Him, so we know that we will have bodies after death. It will not be a stuffy occasion," he almost laughs. "There will be all the foods we love and Jesus will welcome us to the table not as a god to his followers, but as someone who has loved us all our lives. I've heard about Iva's meatballs and spaghetti and I know that they will be waiting for me when I get to Heaven. I have that to look forward to now." I have been to funerals where it seemed the clergyman barely knew the deceased and - while it is possibly he has inserted my grandmother's name and food of choice into a template sermon - he doesn't preach what a wonderful thing her death is. He does not condemn us for a lack of faith, but admits that much is incomprehensible and badly paraphrased. He posits an afterlife not of celestial misunderstandings cribbed from Dante and Virgil, but someone warm and homey.

The funeral home employees - whose precise title or rank I am not going to bother to look up - ask those of us who are pall bearers to say our final goodbyes before the rest of those gathered. I walk up to the coffin and kneel on the mourners' bench, not knowing what to say. That is a body in there, my grandmother - the important part of her - is gone. I do not know that she is lingering now to overhear what is said, if what I say matters at all. I do comprehend that this is the last time I will see this body in my life. I look at the body and think a simple goodbye, because the part of her that can hear me is not likely to be impeded by a closed lid. I do not know any of this, but it feels true and I am more than willing to trust that.

My father, older brother Dan, and cousin Phil stand in the other room while other people say their goodbyes. The queue stretches more than the length of the room. Phil seems distant and we end up talking of anything but our grandmother's death - work, mostly, and how he is progressing as a marathon runner - until he seems more familiar. Once everyone else as gone, I watch the funeral home employees use a large device that resembles a drill to unfasten what keeps my grandmother's coffin lid open, then screwing it in place. I have seen movies galore involving the lids springing open in transit, but this seems an impossibility allowed entirely for dramatic purposes. Nothing can be left to chance on such a solemn occasion.

I automatically bring the flowers out when requested, packing them into the back of a vehicle without much thought. I am startled out of my fugue when one of the employees of the funeral home scolds me for bring out the wrong flowers, for daring to think that the vases were included in the request to serve as a floral transporter. I am the bereaved and I am allowing myself to be a pall bearer, some kindness to me over mistaken glassware would not be unwelcome.

Then comes the moving of the coffin itself. I stand against a banister and watch as it is wheeled out. I should be feeling something, I know, but I cannot summon up anything much until a mortician grumbles at me for being in the way and on the wrong side. I scurry to where he wants me and then lift the casket into the back of the waiting hearse, trying to bear as much of it as I can.

I ride to the cemetery in the cab of my father's truck, squished against a niece and nephew. I cannot fathom what they make of all this. I was young when my maternal grandfather died and recall only that there was food at the house afterward. For whatever reason, I was not at his wake or funeral. I do not know how I would have coped.

When we arrive, six additional male relatives are enlisted to bear the coffin up the hill to the grave. I am not thinking, simply acting as required. My cousin Jesse jokes to his brother not to eat the liquefying candy canes on an adjoining bush and I fake a smile.

The priest speaks again, while sprinkling water on the grave. I cannot connect, instead grateful that my glasses tint enough to allow me to study the other mourners without being noticed.

As the priest finishes, the church rings its bell eleven times to signal the hour. I would like to believe this was intentional. My mother asks later if the priest had a remote than controlled the bell. The employees from the funeral home who have followed us to the cemetery now make it clear that we had better go elsewhere. I am not certain why they are in such a hurry, but I do not think anyone present wishes to dawdle in a graveyard.

We return to my grandmother's house, which seems curiously usual. I want it to be bare, to have been stripped of all that is familiar so it will cease to be a home to ghosts and will instead be only a space. But no. There is the bed where she was found. There, in the bathroom, the silver art nouveau wallpaper that constituted the first naked women I had ever seen. The table where we had Thanksgiving meals. The roll top desk where I wrote as a child. The hutches, the creepy porcelain dolls, the lace curtains. All that is missing, aside from my grandmother, are her finches that were taken by my mother to arrest any further mortality. Everything seems so untouched that, when I see a white-haired woman settling into a pink easy chair, my brain momentarily mistakes her for my grandmother.
She was loved

My extended family is gathered in force, drinking beers and joking around while waiting for pizza to be delivered. It could be any birthday or holiday. We should be abused by our grief, hardly able to form smiles. I am not suggesting that this is what my grandmother would have wanted for us, but that several cases of beer strikes me as the wrong timbre for the event just behind us.

I realize at this point that I have left my coat inside the mortuary and run to get it, but the doors are locked. I do not know if they are prepping for another funeral - they do seem like the sort of organization to be nearly double booked - but I need my coat and do not wish it to be buried with Mr. Johnson down the street. After a few minutes of pondering how to quietly break into a funeral home - rocks are out, but maybe there is an unlocked door someone inconspicuous? - when a man glimpses me and asks if I am here about the coat. I joke with him, but get out of the funeral home as quickly as possible.

I return to the gathering, where people are still drinking, chatting, and laughing but I can't stay, however much I feel that I maybe should. I told Amber to assure those seeking my book that I would be there by one and intend to keep that promise as near as I can. Also, though I don't care to articulate it, I feel as though I am out of place with the mourners.

My mother boasts to anyone who will listen that I am leaving early to go to a book signing. Cousins and aunts wish me luck as I flee.

I remember little until I am at Vassar again. Being with Amber soothes me, though I do not know that I need soothing. I sew tears in my jacket to pass the hours. I read books to Amber. I sing with her. I watch strangers in silly costumes wander by, not buying things. Strangers for whom I traded time my mourning and pizza (though one does buy my book out of the blue, without looking at the back cover or asking anything about it). Further, Amber reports that the self-published author invited to officiate two panels takes time out of his busy schedule to glare at my table whenever I am not paying attention. While on one knee to get something from my bag in the midst of talking to Amber, I tease that I am about to propose. She begins crying with joy and it is all I can do not to fracture as I assure her I will not be popping the question at NonCon, hours after the funeral of a loved one.

I cannot write, though I try to. Nothing substantive will come, not even editing of the sequel I should be writing to Danse Macabre. It feels as though I cannot quite fill my lungs, that my breaths get shallower with each attempt. If I could just get my fingers moving, this sensation could abate at the thoughts and emotions building in my head found their purging on my keyboard, but it isn't time for that.

People nose at my book, occasionally startled that it is actually a book and not, I suppose, a cunning place to hide a flask. They do not buy, nor does the tiny, hyper girl who insists it is the best thing she has ever seen in the entirety of her short life. The stated purpose of my presence there and I may as well have stayed home for all the good this is doing me.

It all begins to collapse upon me an hour before we leave NonCon for the night, around ten. I am unable to find distraction anymore and suggest - but only suggest - to Amber that we should pack up. I can't say what I am feeling because I can't breakdown while surround by Vassar students badly dressed as Homestuck characters.

As we walk back to the car an hour later, Amber interrupts her idle rambling to ask what I am thinking.

"I am trying not to," I say, curtly, not sure if I want her to leave me alone or prod me more, not sure which will hurt more.

We drive back separately. I yell at the radio for refusing to provide me musical distraction when I need it so badly. I am aware even in the moment that these are not my authentic reactions, that I need to express something intense and profound and my emotions are pushing for the nearest exits in irritation.

When I get home, I feel nearly mute. I check my email, hoping for something positive that will lift my mood from this abyss. Instead, I get a letter from my publisher registering sales so low as to make me feel fraudulent for calling myself an author.

Amber gets home ten minutes later and I have nothing to say to her. I pull up the file about my sales, point, and glower.

We get ready for bed in near silence. I climb in and cover myself up to my neck. Let this day end and never be revisited. She crawls in next to me and cuddles against me.

I feel her weeping rather than hear it.

"Why are you crying?" I demand after a moment.

"Because you are so sad and I don't know how to make it better," she moans.

There is no making it better. My grandmother is dead. I had to carry her up a hill like furniture. I have lost a connection to the past and it can never been healed. I had to maintain through this day, putting thing after thing into this emotional box. I can't fathom how this can be ameliorated.

I break. The uncontrollable sobs, wet and animal, wrack my body. I do not remember crying like this since I was a child, maybe not even then. I cannot control myself any longer and tell her everything I can manage between explosions of emotion, the fire finding me all at once and burning me up.

"You could have told me sooner."

"Impossible. Not there. I couldn't... I didn't think you realized how I felt before."

"I was trying to hide it... I ramble when other people are sad and I don't know what to do."

We talk of her grandfather dying, of my other grandmother. What I remember about my grandmother, memories of playing in her yard or stirring the ice cream she gave me into a lactose sludge, of scolding us when she caught us watching The Toxic Avenger when we were far too young to process it. My grandma was in her sixties when I was born. I never knew her as anything other than old.

"We weren't close. She didn't know me as a person and I didn't put any effort in getting to know her. I was still that little kid to her, no matter what I did, and it was easier to stay that way than explain who I actually am. And she was just a grandmother to me, this old woman whose house was the axis around which the lives of her daughters rotated."

I cry until I am empty, but I no longer feel divorced from human emotion as Amber holds me and lets me flush out my grieving without fear.

Soon in Xenology: Howe Caverns.

last watched: The Fall
reading: The New Death
listening: Buffy the Musical

Finding Clarity | 2012 | Cobleskilled

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

eXTReMe Tracker