I didn’t grow up in an intergenerational family, never ran to embrace a grandmother or grandfather. There were no holiday dinners or birthday parties, no summers with great uncles or aunts. I didn’t meet my paternal grandmother until I was eighteen, and by then my grandfather was deceased. I didn’t meet my maternal grandparents until I was thirteen and placed in kinship care. So, as a little girl who had no relationships with older people, I feared them. I feared their dark, deep-set eyes, and their paper-thin skin that did little to cover the soft sinews, bones and blood vessels of their fragile, claw-like hands. When an old person would reach for me in public, grasping at me for emotional connection and physical touch, I would cry, and squirm away while telling them, “no.” As a young adult, with my own unresolved pain, that fear morphed into indifference. I had no patience for the aging. I would roll my eyes and briskly pass them when their pace frustrated my own, or aggressively speed around them when they drove ten miles below the speed limit. I didn’t know what it was to sit and listen to an elder tell a story. I couldn’t surrender my attention long enough for them to get to the marrow of the tale, and I didn’t trust there was any to be found.
I also had little tolerance for the fickle temperament of fall and the unaffectionate touch of winter. Being from the east coast, I did love when the leaves would catch fire without being consumed. I admired the trees standing valiantly, while their leaves danced in contrast to the coolness of an icy blue sky before falling to the ground, but I hated the winds that carried them away, and I saw no beauty in the barrenness of trees. It was as if they had been stripped of their purpose. While winter offered both the invitation to play, and to be still, I resented the earth being blanketed in snow. I did not like when my face stung from unrelenting winds. To me, the world seemed harsh, bleak, and the snow was only beautiful when it was captured, stripped of its verve and held placidly in the creative space between an artist’s canvas and the imaginative strokes of their brush.
I also despised death. I thought it was rude, and the concept of heaven did little to soften its non-negotiable intrusion. I remember the night my grandmother died. I heard her calling out for help, but her voice was not clear and robust. It sounded as though she was struggling to breathe. It was early in the morning; the sun had not yet peered in from the east. I ran down the hall and turned on her light. Her eyes were wide with terror, and she was reaching for me, grabbing my arm as if I were the oxygen she needed. I ran downstairs, screaming out for Tommy, her adult son. He shoved me out of the way as he sprinted up the stairs yelling, “call 911. Call 911.” Within minutes the street was lit up like Christmas morning as the ambulance lights twirled and the sirens went silent. A cold blast of air chilled the house as the EMT’s rushed to the second floor. I stood in the living room, watching as they ascended and descended the stairs. As a new day was dawning they carried her away, and I never saw her again.
Nothing could explain away the mystery or fill the vacancy death left behind. I have never been comforted by the clothes or the make-up that was used to adorn death with a familiar guise. I knew the casket’s plush inner lining and satin pillow were really for our heads, our sentimentalities, not the eternal comfort of the deceased. All I could see was death, and in that moment I refused to sit with any other parts of the cycle. I contemplated the pain; I had to, but my contemplation was tainted with a resentment that denied all that was good about the gift of living. The summation of the person’s life was lost for me; if death was the end, then their living, my living was all in vain.
This week I was sitting in a Zoom call and just above the rim of my computer screen was a week-old bouquet of flowers that had been gifted to me. Uninspired, and no longer interested in the conversation that was happening online, I found myself lost in the graying folds of a single flower that seemed to be speaking to me. It had changed and so had my joyful devotion to its care. The flower was shrinking, and what was once a soft rose-salmon petal with a sturdy flesh had become paper-thin, its color shifting from blush to pallidity. I slid my laptop over, pushing the chatter aside. My eyes followed the head of the flower to its bent stem, once erect, and observed how it was no longer able to hold the weight of the flower. Captivated, I searched the glass vase and the stagnant water as I tracked my thoughts across a lifetime. My gaze finally rested on the table where some brittle leaves had fallen. Inspired by the wisdom of it all, I smiled and looked back up at that simple flower so confident in its season…