Body Bag

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

Lao Tzu

Kelly Salasin

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately, noticing where it thrives  in my life (and where it doesn’t.)  There’s a moment around my mother’s death that I’ve yet to embrace, and it has become more and more commanding of my attention.
Look at me,” it whispers.  “Time to let go.”
But I’ve been too afraid.

I’ve never really thought of myself as a courageous person.  I’ve never jumped out of a plane or skied the trees.  I’d never be able to run a marathon and I never wanted to do any of these bold  things.
I did backpack through Europe and even ventured a bit into Northern Ireland during the peak of the fighting there.  That was kind of brave, I guess– or stupid.   I gave birth to my last child at home, and walked to the ambulance rather than be carried out on the stretcher when my first delivery ended up at the hospital.  I even wanted to watch my own c-section.  I guess that makes me more strange than courageous.

I could call myself bold.   I speak up a lot.  I say things others don’t say.  I share things others would never share, and I put myself out there in a way that makes even me uncomfortable sometimes.   Like I’m doing right now.  Like I did the morning my mother died.

Do you know that kind of courage that bubbles up inside you, but isn’t of you?   That’s the kind I most demonstrate, I think.  After my grandfather died, I was able to stand up at his funeral and share all the things I loved about him– without falling apart until I slumped into my seat.   When my beloved great-grandmother Mildred lay dying in a hospital bed, I was able to reach under the covers and massage her beautiful ninety-year old legs, saving my sobs for the floor of ICU’s bathroom.

This kind of courage doesn’t climb mountains, but is born of devotion and determination.   I didn’t cry when my mother took her last breaths, I sang.  I wanted to welcome her into the light; I wanted her to have wings.   And I remained there with her when the undertaker arrived to take her body and everyone fled into the kitchen and out the backdoor, and the last lingerers were chased away by hospice workers who said, “You don’t want to see this.”

Who would?
Who would want to stay and see their beloved folded up like a cardboard box and put into a bag.  Who?

And yet I could not leave her.  She was my mother– still– and I had not been here with her in the months when she struggled to stay alive.  I had only come now, at the very end, after the baby was born. With him at my side, with God’s pure grace shining through his bluest eyes, I could do anything that was asked.  Even this.

I sat in the space that had been her dining room- where she had drank her morning, and afternoon, and evening coffees- black, no sugar;  read the paper, did the crossword;  listened to the scanner, checked her email;  caught the game, the weather, the latest deals on QVC.  I sat  in this place where each one of us had sat across from her– at the table- all of our lives.
Only now the place where the table stood was filled with air mattresses and I wasn’t talking to my mom, I was watching… as her old highschool classmate- turned funeral director- lifted her rigid body from the hospital bed.
Ben had visited my mom in the hospital when she was first diagnosed with stage-four cancer, just a three months ago.  “Not the kind of visitor I want to see right now,” my mother remarked wryly once he had left the room.
He seems like a nice guy, why not, Mom?” I asked, surprised at her uncharacteristic coolness.
He’s the undertaker, Kel,” she replied flatly.

How did he do it, I wonder?  How did Ben pick up “good-natured Bonnie” from his senior yearbook and zip her into a bag?
But he did.  That was his job.

And I did too.  I stayed there attended my mother’s body.   When I couldn’t bear to look anymore,  I watched through my grandmother’s gilded mirror that Mom had frost pink and purple, as worked to lift her from the bed where her workout equipment had stood just a season ago.  I waited and watched even though no one, no one, should see something like this.

I followed them out the front door as they carried my mother to the back of the undertaker’s wagon.  She’d always been the one in the front seat- driving one of the eight of us to school, to practice, to birthday parties or dances.

I stood there frozen on her porch- where she had smoked her cigarettes, and watched the cars go by, sitting on the furniture she picked up at the wicker store, next to the tomatoes she had planted that spring.   She never got to pick a one.

Suddenly I was drained of all the courage that had sustained me.  It slipped from my shoulders and onto the floor.   I stood alone sobbing, my hands covering my face and gripping at my hair.

All my life, I’ve had to be more together than I wanted to be, and this moment was like none other.   I lacked the courage to reach out, to be held.  I lacked the ability to be noticed as needing.
I wish I could say that I’m ready to change, but I’m really not.  I take baby steps and those are hard enough.   That’s all the courage I have.

Today, I took out the folded check my mother had given me in the weeks before she died.   I had come to visit for the weekend just after the baby was born, and when it came time to leave, she asked me to wait, whispering for someone to get her the checkbook.  And though by this time, she could hardly sit up or lift water to her lips, she managed to covertly scribble our names and hers on a check to hand to me as we kissed goodbye, a gift to celebrate her grandson’s birth.  I could never bring myself to cash it, even to buy him something to remember her by.  I kept it folded in a bag of runes that were hers, and everyone once and awhile, took it out and looked at it to marvel at her determination and devotion; and at how her perfect Catholic school girl writing had gone bad.   It always made me sad, but I couldn’t let it go.

It’s been almost five years since that time, and today I’m going to give that beautiful testimony of her love back to the bank (or to the compost pile since it’s too late for cashing).  I’m going to spend that love on something for our garden as we celebrate our first summer in our new house.  It will be something that makes me smile, remembering her.   Something that celebrates my tremendous courage in letting her go, one more time.
Kelly Salasin wrote this piece from her home in the Green Mountains of Vermont where she has just painted her studio walls, “Bonnie Cream.”

Graduation Day

~When everything around you seems to be lacking in integrity, you know what you do?
You find it in yourself. You change the world right where you’re standing.

(from the HBO series, Madam Secretary)

Graduation day was both a celebration and an initiation.
After spending years immersed in the lives of my friends, my attention was abruptly shifted back to family and into the future–without any of them.

The previous weeks dissolved in survival mode–papers, finals, late night pizza, parties–and then suddenly, I find myself on the day when I formally exit this world, that has been my… Everything.

I remember that sunny day in May ’86 well. My roommates and I were living off-campus in a building filled with upperclassmen. After two years in a dorm room the size of a walk-in closet, this three-room apartment felt regal. It was an old building, but that only lent charm to our autonomy–wood floors, sculpted moldings, high ceilings and tall windows letting in lots of light.

On the morning of graduation, the apartment was buzzing with preparation–hair, caps, bobby pins, gowns. Margie’s parents arrived first, then Kelley’s.

My parents were recently divorced so the day was neatly split in two: brunch with Mom and stepfather; dinner with Dad and girlfriend. My younger sister Robin was my extra (each graduate received 5 tickets for the ceremony.) She would bridge the divide–riding up with my mother, returning with my father; while both sets of parents would be at the graduation–in separate seating.

Everyone lingered in anticipation of my family’s arrival. Ten, fifteen, twenty-minutes passed; and Margie, who was in the highest spirits, insisted I join her family for brunch. I encouraged everyone to head out, and not to worry. My family had the farthest drive and no doubt they’d hit some traffic.

Kelley’s family stayed behind. We had been roommates since freshman year, and her people had become my own over the years.  “Are you sure you don’t want to come to breakfast with us?” the Smiths asked, before I insisted they depart. I assured them that I wanted to wait for my family even if though it might mean I missed breakfast.

After the apartment emptied, I stood in the empty space, feeling the echo of love, in anticipation of my own reunion. Soon after, the phone rang.

In the days before cell phones, a ring, at a time like this, was cause for alarm. It implied a serious delay (or worse) because it meant that someone had to pull off the road, find a pay phone, and dig up pocket change–thus creating even more of a delay.

It was my sister Robin on the other end of the line.
I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
She was sobbing.

They weren’t running late.
They weren’t stuck in traffic.
They didn’t have an accident.
They were still at home.
At home?
They weren’t coming.
At all.

The apartment grew larger and emptier and quieter, and I grew smaller.

My first thought was my roommates and their families. I didn’t want to dampen their day.

My second thought was: Why? Why today? Why me?

It made sense that my mother drank because my father worked all the time; or because my stepfather was unfaithful. But I had been her friend and confidante all these years. Why on my graduation day? Why so early in the morning?

I soothed my sister and told her it would be okay. (We’d shared many phone calls like this in the past months.) “Hang up the phone,” I said, “Call dad right away and get a ride up with him.”

As I put the receiver into its cradle, the love drained from the room. I considered catching up with my roommates and their families–with a lie.

I considered not going to graduation at all.

I considered not existing at all.

I didn’t want this story to be mine.
I didn’t want this family to be mine.
I grew up in a normal home where my mom kept the house clean and make cookies for Christmas. She was always there–after school, whenever I called, whatever I asked for, but lately everything was falling apart.

It’s been twenty years since this day and still destroys me inside.

From a distance, I can see that life is a string of stories and moments whose thread is made up of–you.

Sometimes the thread is lost in the heaviness of the beads, and sometimes it’s found–stronger than ever.

I let out deep exhale, and sucked in determination, affirming that this was MY graduation day. Celebrating  4 years of hard work. Magna Cum Laude.

I tossed my robe over my shoulder and headed out of my apartment with my cap in hand. I walked the thirteen city blocks to campus, and then continued walking down City Line. I stopped when I reached Cavanaughs.

I pulled open the heavy door, and stepped across the threshold from bright sun to the cool, dank, familiar darkness of the pub.

I was surprised to see another classmate on a bar stool. I took the one beside him. In front of us was a plate of pastries instead of the relish tray of hot peppers, horseradish and spicy mustard–which I had mastered over the years. (My friends and I often joked that we’d been the ones to pay for the new ceiling they’d recently put in.)

In a booth behind us, another classmate sat with his family.

I ordered a mug and took a bite of a lemon pastry, finding a sense of belonging.

There’s not much more I remember from that day. Most of my friends were in the Business College and I was seated among the Arts and Science majors–without ever having to explain my morning.

There’s a single photo of me on the podium–the sun in my face–a diploma in my hands. Afterward, I hugged friends goodbye and we all dashed off toward our families.

My father took me to my favorite Italian restaurant on City Line where Mr. Smith had often taken my roommate and me over the years. He wrote me a check in the amount of my GPA. Three-hundred and seventy-eight dollars, he said, Happy Graduation.

Though it seeped from my pores, there was no talk about my mother, especially in the presence of my father’s girlfriend. From time to time, Robin and I shared weary smiles across the table. There were four years between us, filled with fights and jealousy and resentment, but our bruised hearts were weaving closer together as what we knew of our family disintegrated beneath us.

A few weeks later, my father threw a huge graduation party for the two of us after Robin’s graduation from high school.

“You’re terrible daughters,” he said. “I’m only doing this because this is what you do.”

My mother’s drinking worsened that summer, and instead of embarking on careers like my classmates, I took the party money and went backpacking through Europe. The following year, I took off for the Rockies. Fell in love with a man who became my best friend and lifelong partner, and returned home to begin my teaching career.

My mother finally hit bottom the week of my wedding. She arrived to the ceremony with matted hair, barely able to stand. Two ushers escorted her down the aisle to her seat in the front row. I was relieved she made it all. I didn’t want pity to distract from my wedding day.

We both wore the same shoes–hers in cream, mine in white. We’d picked them out together. Her dress hung on an emaciated form.

While I backpacked through Europe with my husband, she went into rehab, and spent the next ten years sober before succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 57.  One afternoon, long before she got sick, she invited me out to lunch to apologize for my graduation and wedding. “It’s okay,” I said. I was too afraid of my feelings and of her fragile sobriety to say anything more.

She was diagnosed in my last months of my pregnancy and died a few weeks after my son’s birth. Her photo sits at my desk as I write. Sometimes I yell at her and sometimes I cry tears of anguish and abandonment. But mostly, I’m grateful for knowing who I am–apart from it all.

My graduation morning stands out as a defining bead on my life’s thread. Sharing it now drains what weight it still held, revealing a strength of character that I’m proud to call my own.

(2009; first published in Chicken Soup, Campus Chronicles)

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