Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, will you please stop and
say that name? Quietly enough that only you can hear it.
I started this column when I was working at a cemetery. People came in weeping, contracting with an entity represented by me to bury their loved ones. Their eyes and cheeks were hollow with grief. They shuffled in, holding hands, propping one another up, anxious to get it over with, eager to get all the details just perfect, distraught but also almost universally polite.
As if they were sorry to disturb me. And, by extension, the dead who slept all around me.
How does one reckon with death?
Let’s consider the semantics. According to my Pocket Webster’s, to reckon is to consider, or calculate –- so a reckoning of the dead is a calculation of those who have died.
A dead reckoning, though, is really something very different. It’s a nautical term for pinpointing your position by estimating the direction and distance traveled rather than by using landmarks, astronomical observations, or GPS.
So yeah, I’ve spent my ink in this space opening old wounds about my addled and alcoholic father, my stillborn brother, those dead delivered years ago in lacquered boxes to Sunrise Cemetery, Grandpa Boyd, Grandma Catherine, and traumas that were best left dead in the dirt. Often those soiled bandages became the very pages I’ve delivered to this space, the whole process an act of cathartic renewal.
I’d accepted that people knew me in an uncomfortable way given my past, so I was free of shame. Each name I scrawled on my inventory of the dead seemed to lift a burden from me. By writing about the dead -– dead people, dead moments, the dead selves I’d left behind like so many snakeskins ditched in the alleys of Eureka next to the Free Meal, under bushes outside the filthy DMV building, I inexorably exhumed myself, one spadesful of grief at a time.
Yet I’m no more equipped now to deal with actual loss than I’ve ever been.
I learned yesterday that I lost someone dear to me, and my family. Though we’d drifted apart over the years, when we were kids, I absolutely worshipped the ground she and her sister walked upon. They were Gods.
Jennifer. She was in her 40s.
Those moments as a kid, playing upstairs at their house, they would dress me up, spin me around, apply gaudy makeup and tell me that I would have made the prettiest girl in the family. These were happy moments, some of the purest experiences of joy I’ve ever had.
At her best, Jennifer was vibrant, buoyant life, her laughter loud and uplifting enough to lift the house off its foundations. The sparkle in her eyes was later the twinkle in yours. She was infectious in her love of family, sweet and sometimes mischievous in disposition, witty, catty in all the right ways, louder than the loudest voluble Pollocks. It really feels like she represented the best of our family, and she’s gone.
When I’m faced with this kind of grief, my brain shorts out. I find myself thinking the same thoughts over and over again. I fear for my wife, and my mother. My kids, of course. Remarkably, since I feel healthy, I don’t have that much concern for my own health though I do need to continue on many of the changes I’ve started this last year.
More exercise. Get off the e-cigarette. Lose even more weight.
But that’s not really it. I dwell on the impermanence of the vehicles we’re all driving. It’s not actually health as much as it is mortality. No matter what your engine will break down. Your transmission gears will grind away. The tires, like your head, will go bald.
Many believe that in the grand scheme of The Great Video Game Designer, we’re all just soap bubbles and he’s a big pricker. I’m not sure what I believe in this moment.
Jennifer was damn near my own age. We were issued our feet, hands, and gall bladders at pretty near the same year. For some reason that hasn’t yet been explained, something of hers just stopped working: The warranty was up. Order came down. Time ran out.
The gavel dropped out of nowhere like a piano in a field of peonies. Its dissonant arguments were too loud for anything else to be heard. Saying her name just now helped to affirm her spirit, lift her up and send her along. It was a prayer. Maybe a spell. It felt right, so I asked you to do it.
I knew her and loved her deeply. She was so much more than whatever defective organ killed her. We’re all so much more than the sum of our parts, right?
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org