Time is the only way to make sense of death, if making sense of it is what you’re after. It’s the only way to quantify absence and presence; without chronology a person is always here, or never was. Time proves the difference between the Christmas meal mom prepared—broiled salmon, asparagus crepes with a bechamel—and later, the Christmas meal I did my best to replicate without her.
This year I learned that it’s possible for the universe to open, swallow someone whole, and stitch itself neatly back together with little notice and even less evidence: a few objects gathering dust, a collection of photographs, bills, rumpled sheets. The night I found out, I sat quietly in the dark in Hargeisa, feeling only the compassionate numbing of shock. I looked up at the sky and caught a shooting star above me; it was too soon, I wasn’t ready for signals or symbolism. I couldn’t grasp that star fully, in the same way I couldn’t grasp the news fully, in the same way that it’s impossible to grasp a fistful of air. You can feel it when it moves past you, quick and cool over the skin, but you can’t keep hold.
I’ve been looking through photos of this year without her, a year of life continued. There’s a hard edge for me, a point of distinction on the calendar, while everything else just keeps going. I wish there were more of the early things that vibrate of a person just after death, like a drinking glass next to the bed or a sprig of dried rosemary hanging from the car’s rear view mirror. These talismans give shape to a person’s character and to their remembrance, and they are fewer and fewer as time passes.
I wish I could remember if there were dishes in the sink, and what we found in the fridge, and which pieces of mail were opened and unopened. I wish I had taken photos of everything so I could unearth a file now, like the hero of a cold case thriller, and deduce meaningful things about her final days. But time dulls the earliest discoveries until eventually we cobble together our own stories from the scraps of memories that stick.
I’ve taken apart her home in pieces, sometimes in a mad fury to move forward, other times moving a single item slightly to the left before becoming overwhelmed by the task and retreating. Her bed is upended, askew in the bedroom, the mattress in the garage, the dining room full of boxes packed, unpacked, repacked, empty. The kitchen table is gone.
There are a few things I still can’t bring myself to touch. And then there are the things others have touched for me, pushing my boulder of grief along like the feather it is to them. Like the blonde twenty-something who came to help, a kind friend of siblings, who casually removed my mother’s sacred purse, previously untouched, from her sacred chair and placed it on the floor. I caught my breath when I saw it there on the hardwood, a rough shove in a forward direction. It still sits where she left it.
This year has taught me that there is nothing underneath. There is no safety net, no one holding out giant, pillowy hands to catch you when things fall apart. On this earthly plane at least, we’re on our own. The goodness in which we insist on believing: we alchemize it from fear. The faith that keeps us buoyed: we produce it, practice it, will it into being. Generosity, patience, kindnesses: we craft them from nothing save conviction, and dole them out as best we can.
Deaths don’t have silver linings; we make them. People aren’t inherently selfish nor benevolent; we make choices. There is no one to save us from viral disease or terror or from ourselves; we bear that burden or we shrug it off and bear the consequences as far as they take us, sometimes into darkness.
Joy might be the only other way to make sense of death, because the juxtaposition helps you feel the weight of each. And while death proceeds with or without our willing participation, joy is a bespoke creation. There is a strange incongruity to mourning a springtime death, to a melancholy backdrop that frames blooming crocuses, birds flitting and chirping, the sun stretching and yawning after a long winter.
In truth, one death is nothing. Nothing in scale or scope compared to the sprawling tree of humanity. But I place my joys in relief against this particular death, pushing them up against one another, feeling the dissonance that vibrates my body, alive and present for one more spring.
This spring, joy comes in abundance, pressing against grief with vigor, insistent, electrifying the space between them. This season we reflect not only on what is lost and what lingers, but on the utterly new, on creativity at its most primal: a child. One named for her grandmothers and born unexpectedly early but just in time for her great grandmother’s birthday. The matriarchy in full force.Still, there is nothing underneath, all the more frightening as new life reflects mortality as much as vitality, shows us the risks we take in merely and audaciously living and in ensuring life for the fragile newly arrived. Yet here again is the miracle of community, which has all the ingredients to make life survivable, tolerable, and joyous. With gestures small and grand we take care of one another, and we have been cared for in abundance—and cleverly, given the isolationist circumstances of the day—with well wishes, lasagna and soup and short rib deliveries, gifts practical and whimsical, advice to excess, errands and flowers and diapers and measuring spoons and tiny socks.Our community has woven a net to catch us if we fall, where before there was none, and fortified us with sustenance and love and empathy for the exhaustion, caution and worry that permeate these early, transformational days. Where there is nothing underneath, we craft something. And hope abides.