By Jessica Knuth
There is an unexpected sense of loneliness in watching the dead body of someone you love being taken away from your home. Alone in the back of a car. Zipped up inside a body bag. Driving away into resounding blackness.
Somehow, in your delirium, through the tears and snot, through the sharp pains in your chest and loved ones touching your shoulders, your hair, somehow you manage to walk down the hallway where your Dad should be sleeping, where he has slept your entire life, and you look inside his bedroom, though you know you shouldn’t. The bed is unmade, sheets jumbled and repositioned in haste. There is a stain on the bed and you can’t tell if it’s blood, or urine, or vomit. Otherwise, the room is the same as it was two hours earlier when he was still alive. When his lungs still worked. His heart, his brain, however limited. Before he went from present tense to past tense. Animate to inanimate. Living to dead.
You lie in bed feeling lonely for him. Anxious. It’s 3 am and he should be home. You can’t help but worry. Your brain doesn’t know any better. Where is he? Is he being looked after? Is someone with him? You are too tired to think and too heartbroken to sleep. Your tongue feels swollen and dry and you remember it has been a long time since you’ve had anything to drink. Your mother comes in. She takes two pills and gives one to you. You take it without question, just hoping to erase everything that has happened, desperate that tomorrow you will wake up and find your father sleeping in his bedroom, his chest slowly rising and falling. You do not dream. You lie completely still in the blackness, just like him. Except you get to wake up again.
And then you wish that you hadn’t.
It is jarring how quickly the life leaves our bodies. We stumble around making coffee, folding underwear, riding subway trains, laughing, yelling, working, eating pizza, watching sunsets, kissing spouses, rocking children. 56 years of mundane and magnificent, terrifying, joyous, thrilling, sad, useless, wondrous, bloody magical life. Over in one second. Lights out. Shut down.
We go from constantly moving to permanently unmoving. So much time spent inside our bodies and yet we leave them so abruptly. We would lie there forever, dead, in a motionless heap, until someone moved us or buried us. It’s all the same to the dead man. He could be strapped to a rocket and launched into space and he wouldn’t know the difference. Only the living would know.
We don’t bury the dead just for the dead. We bury them for ourselves.
We remember their birthdays for ourselves.
We bring them flowers for ourselves.
We tell their stories for ourselves.
Because as much as we want to honor and preserve their memory, we are really trying to keep them alive just enough so that we can piece ourselves together and hobble on brokenly with our own lives, until we too are just a birth date and a death date etched into a piece of stone, a fist full of ashes dissolving into the river.
I don’t worry about my father anymore. I know that wherever he is, he is at peace. I like to imagine him in a permanent state of early Spring, all alone on some celestial lake, just fishing. I imagine this for him, yes, but I also imagine it for myself. I can close my eyes and see a heron dipping low and landing on the bank just over his shoulder. He untwists the lid to his thermos and takes a drink of coffee. He looks around at the shoreline, naming all the trees in his head. Sycamore, Birch, White Pine. We both exhale. There is a tug at the end of the fishing pole.
Over, and over, and over.
Jessica Knuth is a writer, wife, and mommy to one baby girl and two rambunctious cats. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She currently lives in the country where her hobbies include yoga, not sleeping, and singing Rock-A-Bye Baby for hours on end. Her work has been featured in BLVDS magazine and on her blog, The Tiniest Monkey.