Lifed: Past Tense, Present Continuous was read as part of Miss Spoken’s July 2016 show, Road Trip. You can find Shay at the three-minute mark.
After being forcibly removed from my job of 19 years I need a change: a career change, obviously, though that’s been decided for me, but also a shift in perspective, in priorities—in the way I live my life in general. Is there anything meaningful I want to do? Because helping kids through art school, draining them of thousands upon thousands of dollars wasn’t cutting it in the “meaningful” category. Over the years, I’d received catalogs from different programs and services in the death trade, a profession I’ve thought about since my grandfather died when I was 13. A vigiler, to watch over the dying? A hospice volunteer? A celebrant? A home funeral guide? A death doula? I liked the ring of that title. A licensed funeral director, an L.F.D.? The letters spell out “lifed”, like ”life”, past tense. Perfect.
But before I bury myself in this work, I need to leave Chicago for a little while. I don’t like to think I am running away, I just need a break, a departure from accumulation and stagnation. Life has a way of piling up on you, then making you believe you can’t move out from underneath it. This overwhelming suffocation can actually make death appear like a welcome relief. I know I need new ground under my feet or I will perish here. I make plans to drive away from the city, scorching the earth behind me as I go. Perhaps some new growth can spring in the ashes of my absence, a good, controlled burn on the Midwest prairie.
I pack the car with nuts and jerky, coffee and water, music and books-on-tape about death—everyone’s future, my future career. I drive 6,900 miles, mostly alone with my blind, aged dog breathing slowly at my side. I travel through eight different states geographically and at least that many psychologically, although I am primarily focused on the state of uncertainty. I plan very little for this loosely defined adventure, except to say, “I am going west.”
I spend two months sitting still in the car even though I am constantly moving forward. Life progresses even when you don’t notice it, even when you don’t really want it. I keep my eyes and ears open to all possibilities. I seek connection with other people who just appear. No itineraries. No dates. No plans. No reservations. I have to move forward with the mantra, “Whatever happens, just fucking happens.”
Generally, you don’t plan your own death. I mean, unless you do.
My homecoming is the ultimate mystery I leave behind; the uncertainty of not just when I will come back, but if I will come back at all. There really are no guarantees.
July 2, 2016
The Facebook post goes like this:
On a lark today, I decided to drive alone to the top of the highest paved road in North America on Mount Evans, elevation 14,310 feet. It was sunny and 80 when I left. The trip up was foggy and rainy. It was only 30 degrees when I reached the top. Needless to say, I was unprepared. I sat in the car at the climax, trying to catch my breath – the shortness of which was caused by the lack of oxygen and the fact that I had just driven on an unguarded road with 1000+ foot drop offs, only able to see 20 feet in front of me. I had been traveling, anxiety-ridden, through a cloud.
With the rain pouring down, freezing, I wept and ate beef jerky and prayed it would let up so I could get out and see the world from this high above. I mean, I had traveled so far. I persevered even when I couldn’t see where I was going. I deserved this view, didn’t I?
Suddenly, the sun came out but it was still cold and raining. I waited. I breathed really slow. It hurt. I was dizzy. I turned around to see if the clouds had lifted. I jumped out of the car and ran to the edge of the world: A DOUBLE FUCKING RAINBOW.
Best life metaphor a girl on a soul-searching journey could ask for.
Cliché ending, I realize. But for the social media public who still didn’t know when I’d return, it is a perfect “You go girl” feel-good close. What the Facebook post doesn’t reveal is how many times during my ascent, breathing beleaguered, tears streaming down my face, I want to “accidentally” miss that turn I cannot see and plummet to my end. Usually when thoughts like this come over me, I start categorizing people in weird ways. I think about those who would miss me, maybe. Those who would be disappointed in me, maybe. Those who would think what a waste of a really cute car, maybe. Those who probably won’t even remember who I was.
I try to envision someone who so grieves my absence that his heart is shattered into a million pieces. Maybe. I mean, you never know when there will be a double-fucking-rainbow at the top of any road you take.
During our last conversation, he tells me that he had wanted a family. At that moment, sitting in my backyard that will soon belong to someone else, I glimpse the end of our never-named affair. We had been good at dancing around each other, playing nice and remaining equally non-committal. Rather than bringing freedom, this ambiguity makes me overthink every aspect of my life in minute and frustrating detail. I may be laissez-faire on the outside, but I am raging for security and connection on the inside. I want the phrase “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” to actually be true, and not just a truism.
As I drive away from the city, towards Iowa, Nebraska, through the flat and boring lands, I think to myself, do I want a family? I mean, at this age, if I am going to do it, it has to happen yesterday. It seems unlikely that I do, but in these moments of sheer panic in the desolate landscape of nothingness that is eastern Colorado, all sorts of reveries begin to unfold. There is no scenery to distract you from yourself. So I fantasize, however briefly, about having a child. I mean, it seems like the perfect thing to do now that I have no health insurance, no job, and I’m selling my family-sized house because I can’t afford it. Not to mention, I am dating someone who is still married to another person, and I plan to spend my life helping people die. None of this seems promising to the start of a new life. Especially someone else’s.
I enter the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah, driving towards what is known as Hell’s Backbone. Their names are appropriately foreboding. I am in a forest full of aspen. The trees are numerous and tall, majestic and ghostly. “Open pasture” signs warn against smashing your car into a wandering calf. The cows don’t know that they may get hit. They do not know or just don’t care that they will be food one day. It is the greatest thing about the animal mind, the lack of awareness of anything except right here, right now. They don’t know their own death’s approach. Not that I want to be a cow, but to not worry about anything in the unforeseeable future sure makes life better, dare I say easier, especially since, the future is indeed unforeseeable. Humans just like to pretend we have control. We like to pretend a lot of things.
I learn from a park ranger that these aspen, all of these aspen, are actually one, single biological entity. They appear to be individual trees, an entire forest of wooden trunks, each standing separately from one another. However, they are, in fact, all connected underground by one continuous root system. Each tree grows vertically from this entangled, underground knot collectively united beneath the earth, below the feet of the unwitting cows, where we cannot see the origin of their growth.
“They are rhizomatic,” I reply to him.
He concurs: “Yes. Yes, they are.”
As are we, I think to myself.
“What brings you to Utah?” he asks.
I state that I wanted a good vacation before I start school again. This is the simplest answer for people to digest. It also opens up a conversation beyond anything one could expect in the wake of the automatic next question:
“Where are you going to school?”
“The Worsham College of Mortuary Science.”
“Uh, oh. You are going to become a mortician?”
“They are generally called funeral directors now, but yes. One of those.”
The young man immediately proceeds to tell me about the death of his father, about the memorial service he held for him, that he needed to hold for his dad, the service that went totally against what his grandmother wanted for her son, something about a party at the roller skating rink. This, I come to realize, will be the hardest part of my job—managing the family unit as the personalized sense of loss argues with the individual ownership of grief.
The floodgates open. Not very wide, mind you, only just a stream from the outer corner of each eye, down his cheeks, quietly. He is not the first person on this trip to offer up a personal tale about the demise of a loved one. He is not the first to cry in front of me. Inevitably, whenever I mention my future career path, the private ghost stories of deaths most felt are revealed.
I hear tales of guilt, confusion, sadness, shame, annoyance, anger, and heartbreak. I am thankful for each one’s willingness to share. It gives me the opportunity to see what I am potentially up against.
I continue my journey westward, in the direction of the setting sun. At a brunch party in Los Angeles, a friend of a friend goes straight into our discussion, stating she believes the body is just a body and who cares? She is very adamant about this.
“What do you do for work?” I ask her.
“I am a midwife, a doula,” she answers. Eureka. I find my in.
“If the body of the baby being born is so important as it comes into life,” I say, “why is it not important any longer when that life leaves it?”
“Do you have children?” I ask.
“Take then, for example, if you have to bury the body of your own son, a body you carried, you birthed, you gave life to, you cared for—is that body no longer of any import? Should it not demand the respect you gave it while imbued with the energy that made it distinctly your son? Why wouldn’t you want to honor the vessel that was the ultimate vehicle by which your son was able to express his humanity in the world?”
She becomes hot, flushes. Her eyes widen, then well. All I can do is let her squeeze my hands as tightly as she wants to, look her directly in the eye, and let her let the tears flow. We connect. She kisses me when we part that afternoon, and thanks me. She had never really considered death a part of life. To her, death was a battle, something she fought against every time she helped a woman give birth.
At a restaurant in Eagle Rock, I have a discussion with another friend regarding the death of her child, of her miscarriage. She speaks with an air that says you wouldn’t understand. I interrupt her.
“Remember that time you drove me to the emergency room when we were in grad school?” I ask.
“Yeah. I do,” she says. “There was a lot of blood.”
We stare at each other without words. She suddenly appreciates that I have felt her pain intimately. We are closer for this. I suddenly appreciate that I almost did have a family. Almost.
Did I? What are we considering these miscarriages? The loss of a singular child? Or more specifically, the loss of a hope, a dream? Are we grieving the death of an actual being, a life, or are we lamenting the inability to bring beings into the world, to give life to another? If you pull up “miscarriage” in the thesaurus, your alternates are mistake, blunder, debacle. Failure.
Was the child I carried a failure? Am I a failure? Is death a failure? Or is it something that we implicitly just do? In the end, do we not birth our children just so they can die? It is the only thing we are able to offer them, really, without being untrue.
Unwilling to heed the signs warning us at every turn on this perilous journey, we become unconscious on the open pasture. We fail to notice what unites us all, that unseen, entangled knot below. We don’t want to know. But without acknowledgement, it may seem to others like we just don’t care. That conversation goes like this:
Neither of us are dying, ok?
Everything is FINE.
Okay. Agreed. Neither of us will EVER DIE. (wink wink)
We turn our backs. Walk away. Disconnect.
All right, let’s try that again:
I am dying.
Not in some futuristic, “some day” sense.
Not I WILL die.
I. AM. DYING.
Guess what? Little secret.
You are dying, too.
We face each other. Step closer. Tuck this knowledge away in our minds, the certainty (not the possibility but the certainty) that neither of us will be here forever.
With this awareness that we will someday cease to be, every person we encounter becomes unexpectedly cherished. I am not unaffected. The knowledge of your absence, a loss that can shatter me into a million pieces, does indeed make my heart grow fonder.
I head eastward, towards the sun as it rises once again, new growth springing forth in its reappearance. I return home.