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Contrary to the Natural Order

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay

Perhaps my family seemed a little callous on the occasion of my grandpa’s funeral. Maybe we laughed too much, too long, or too loud. We may have even seemed a little giddy in the spaces between our tears. But try to understand the relief of being in a world where up was up and down was down and people died when they got old. Try to understand the joy in feeling simple sadness. Clean grief – unadulterated by regret, unnatural timing, or despair – is a beautiful thing.

Life is instantaneous, and living is dying. ~Buddhist

I was two years old when my mom’s younger brother David died at a friend’s house after accidentally eating a cookie with nuts in it. The morning after he died, I was pulling a wooden duck on a string across my grandparents’ entry hall, the duck bouncing behind me on the stone floor. I loved that floor, the cool grayness of the stones, always icy no matter the season. I pushed open the door to the dining room and saw all the grown-ups at the table, crying into their hands. I closed the door and crept back across the stone floor. The huge poodles Homer and Buffy followed me into the bedroom and let me brush their hair.

Most things break, including hearts. The lessons of life amount
not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus. ~Wallace Stegner

Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Is it part of the human condition, this belief that we will always bounce? Because I’ve seen people shatter. What Nietzsche should have said was this: That which does not kill you makes you stronger, except when the thing that neglected to kill you breaks you into a thousand sharp shards, then grinds you into a fine powder before throwing you into the cosmic lake of fire.

These are the names of the people I have loved and mourned:

  • David
  • Nadine
  • Rick
  • Janna
  • Maxx
  • Mikhael
  • Gabrielle
  • Janet
  • Michael
  • Rachel
  • Tyler
  • Margaret
  • Howard
  • Tracey

Eyes that do not cry, do not see. ~Swedish

In early 1993, three months pregnant with my first child, I walked with two friends through the doors of a funeral home. A wall of noise slapped us hard, the sound of our friend Rachel. Rachel, who had brought her baby Gabrielle to my wedding just the week before, held her daughter’s body, two months old forever-more. Tears and snot and anguish ran together on her swollen face. I put my hands over my belly, found that I could not walk into the room with Rachel, knew that I would watch my baby sleep more than most new mothers do.

When death knocks at your door, you must answer. ~George Bernard Shaw

On a beautiful early spring Sunday morning in 1996, I stopped at a convenience store for a newspaper. The cover story in the Albuquerque Journal that day was about three young women shot to death in a car by one woman’s estranged boyfriend. It took me many seconds of squinting at the familiar face in the picture and the name underneath it before I understood that my friend Rachel had been murdered. She was 23 and her son was 2. The stone on Gabrielle’s grave was not yet marred by weather.

Life is not separate from death. It only looks that way. ~Blackfoot

When we entered the little flower shop – my sister and me, our parents, and our paternal grandparents – I’d known the facts of what happened for over 24 hours, though my understanding of what my aunt did changed a great deal as I grew older. What eight year old could have understood something so deeply wrong? On the evening of October 27, 1979, my dad’s younger sister Nadine went to the home of her soon-to-be-ex-husband. He wasn’t home so she let herself into the house and got his shotgun out of its case. In the garage, she sat down on the floor, put the gun in her mouth, and pulled the trigger, thereby moving the better part of her head onto the garage walls.

In the flower shop, my five year old sister Erin and I were tiptoeing through the floral arrangements, trying to find the perfect one for the coffin from just the two of us girls. There was a crash and a scream and by the time I turned to look my grandpa was putting his arms around my grandma and my dad was helping to hold her up. Erin put her thumb in her mouth and moved close to me.

My grandma screamed, “My baby! My baby! My baby! I’ll never see my baby again! My baby!” until she dissolved into wordless keening.

Over 30 years later and well into her fragile dotage, she has never stopped screaming.

This is how they died:

  • Cancer – 4 people
  • Suicide – 3 people
  • Murder – 2 people
  • SIDS – 2 people
  • Born still – 1 person
  • Congenital birth defects – 1 person
  • Asthma – 1 person

In the back of my closet, in an old shoe box, I keep a small, black purse – out of date, not my style, too small for all the things I usually carry. On top of that is another shoe box, this one the container for a pair of black shoes that pinch my toes and rub blisters on my heels. Sometimes I need to wear things that are black.

All of life is a dream walking. All of death is a going home. ~ Chinese

In 1987 I was 16 years old. I collected all the pills in the house and put them in a little gift box that had a circular, accordion folding lid. We didn’t have much by way of medicine, but I gathered what I could: several half-empty boxes of allergy medicine, a few muscle relaxants, some ibuprofen, a little cough medicine. Getting the pills down was not hard. Getting them back up burned like a motherfucker. I told no one what I had done for 2 years. When my family found out, they were not shocked.

Remember that your children are not your own,
but are lent to you by the Creator. ~Mohawk

A few hours after my eldest child Jacob was born, his warm body heavy in my arms, I looked at his father and asked,

Oh, God, the naïveté; can I even bear to tell it?

“Do you think our parents felt this way about us?”

They are not dead who live in the hearts they leave behind. ~Tuscarora

In a movie, when the bad guy hurts the woman’s child, it’s called the “rookie mistake,” because the woman will became the mama tiger and make the bad guy pay, and pay big, for hurting her child. What happens, though, when the bad guy is that night-thief of babies, SIDS? What does a mom do when the bad guy is inside her child, filling her body with misshapen, damaging cells? What does she do when the bad guy is her child, when he hooks the vacuum cleaner hose up to the exhaust pipe or puts a gun into her own mouth? What’s a mama tiger to do then?

Life cannot be trusted; death can come at any moment. ~Kashmiri

My son Carter, four years old at the time, was sitting on the futon outside my bathroom door, huddled in a green towel and waiting for me to finish my shower. I soaped and rinsed, made plans for our day, and suddenly felt a cold breeze.

“Carter, I told you not to open the shower door when I’m in here! It makes me cold!” I rinsed the soap from my eyes and looked at Carter standing in the shower door. He was clutching his stomach, above which his ribs were thrust out. He was using his abdominal muscles to move air in and out of his lungs, air that wheezed and whistled. He was blue around his mouth and his eyes. Fat tears rolled down his face and dripped onto his naked chest. When I put him back on the futon, he reached over his head and pulled down the curtains in his panic.

I called for an ambulance, administered medicine, sang to my baby, my baby, my baby, stayed calm. The paramedics arrived and filled him with magic fluids that let him breathe. He was so small on the ambulance gurney, a puff of smoke that could blow away at any slight breeze.

That evening I told a friend the story of our ordeal. She replied, “Wow, I bet you’ll never take his life for granted again!” I chuckled, hung up the phone, and never spoke to her again.

The only truly dead are those who have been forgotten. ~Jewish

On a visit to my Uncle Don and Aunt Marilyn’s house, I found an urn on the fireplace mantle. The urn held the cremated remains of my cousin Janna, dead ten years by then. Down the road, Janna’s sister, Sue, had a miniature version of the same urn on her own mantle. It held the ashes of her baby Maxx, taken just days after his birth. Down the street a little further and around the corner was the cemetery where the family had erected a large gravestone, silently waiting at the head of the empty graves.

Must not all things at the last be swallowed up in death? ~Plato

On Friday, September 14, 2001, I sat at my desk, numbly filling out receipts for the families in my daycare. It felt strange to do something so mundane, so ordinary, in the face of the world’s burning. When the phone rang, I expected another call from friend or family, another person reaching out to connect and counteract the growing darkness.

“Hello?”

“This is the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. Is this Adrienne Jones?”

“Yes, it is,” and why is the sheriff’s office calling me?

“Is this the Adrienne Jones who was the daycare provider for…ummm…hang on…Tyler…yes, Tyler Madden who died yesterday?”

I gasped, put the phone down, threw up in my wastebasket.

“I’m sorry,” said the caller when I picked the phone back up, “I thought you knew.”

Two days later I sat in the passenger seat of our car while my husband drove, following the funeral procession from church to cemetery. We arrived at the burial site, helpless to do anything but bear witness to a little boy’s life and his parents’ pain.

Tiny coffins are an abomination.

This is how old they were:

  • 1 died before he was born
  • 1 died when he was a few days old
  • 2 died in their first few months
  • 2 died in their teens
  • 4 died in their twenties
  • 1 died in his thirties
  • 1 died in her fifties
  • 2 died in their seventies

When I was a young teenager I started babysitting for a family who had a toddler daughter and an infant son. Michael was a beautiful baby, TV-commercial perfect and soft. I watched him sleep when his parents went out to the movies and imagined that someday I would have a baby just like him. Even as Michael grew older and became difficult, I could see the baby I loved under his fear and rage.

When he was 13, Michael went to the garage and used a rope to end his life. I did not see it, but I imagined it (still imagine it; cannot stop imagining it) as if it was a movie playing on the inside of my skull over and over again – Michael’s mother, arriving home after running errands, pressing the button to raise the garage door. I wonder how many minutes or days or years it must have taken her to believe what she saw.

An old wound will not go away. ~Somali

The normal laws of physics don’t always apply. Some things can turn the world into a melting pool of red Jell-O, lacking gravity, direction, and air. Some phone calls make the earth rotate backwards for a moment.

Daylight will come, though the cock do not crow. ~Danish

I was driving home from work when my friend Janelle called me. “Pull over and turn off the car,” she said.

I knew that tone. My heart turned to sludge in my chest. I did as I was told.

“Tracey was murdered. Her friend was living with her, a girl whose husband was abusive. He hid in the bushes and when Tracey came home from work he hit her with a shovel.”

Our friend Tracey, as generous in life as she was in death, died on the front lawn of the house she shared with her husband and two young children. She lay there from 2 am until dawn when her husband woke and discovered that she had never come to bed.

Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven
where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines
upon us to let us know they are happy. ~Inuit

Once I had a dream, a gift. I was sitting in a huge grassy meadow surrounded by the people I love who are gone. The babies cooed and giggled in the sun. The teenagers and adults sat in the grass near me, telling jokes and eating sandwiches and drinking wine.

The people who died sick were healthy.

The people who died sad were happy.

The people who died too young lived on.

Death is a black camel that lies down at every door.
Sooner or later you must ride the camel. ~Arabian

My sister Erin and I stood in front of our Grandpa’s open coffin, listening to our parents and our grandma playing with my daughter in the next room.

“He looks weird,” Erin said. “He’s not scruffy. He was always whiskery.”

“Yeah,” I laughed quietly, “Remember how you used to pet his scratchy face when you sat in his lap?”

“I remember better playing with his ears,” she said.

Now we both laughed, louder this time. Never in the history of humanity did any person have earlobes like my grandpa – long and pendulous, soft as putty, we played with them constantly when we were little girls. When he put a CB in his little yellow pickup truck, he used the call sign Old Long Ears because he knew it would make us laugh.

Forgetting myself, I reached for his ear, thinking I’ll just play with them one last time. The lobes didn’t move under my fingers.

“Shit.” I moved back. “I forgot.” Erin and I cried some more, holding hands, remembering him.

Erin lifted the curtain that hung from the bottom lid of the coffin. She cracked up, doubled over, holding her stomach.

“What?” I looked behind the curtain myself. “Oh, my God!” We held each other, laughing until tears streamed down our faces and I had to cross my legs hard so I wouldn’t pee. My grandma, child of The Great Depression, exquisitely frugal and equally generous, had not wanted to bury a “perfectly good pair of pants when some men don’t have any.” So Grandpa went to his final rest in a flannel shirt and a pair of orange plaid undershorts.

We gasped for air and wiped our eyes. “Ah, fuck, you know?” I asked.

“Yeah, I know. He loved us. Like, loved us deluxe. Crabby old bear thought we were perfect.”

The next day, my grandma reached across the kitchen table and grabbed my dad’s ear. She pulled – hard – until they were nose-to-nose. “I am next,” she said. “Understand?”

My dad – a boy again before my eyes – answered around a lump of grief. “Yeah, Mom.”

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