When I was much younger and much more into organized religion, I literally believed that when a person died, they went straight to Heaven. Soul and body. I remembered the first time "someone passed", it was the neighborhood grandma who lived next door. I would usually show up at her kitchen door, exclaiming, "I smell cookies!!!" whether I did or not, because I knew Nana always had fresh baked cookies. And she always had them for me, she'd exclaim. She knew how to make a five year old feel special.
One day, my mom had told me when I asked if I could to go next door to see Nana, Mom quietly said that I couldn't anymore. I wondered if I had become a pest and Nana didn't want to give me cookies anymore, because, after all, at five years old, I was a pest. Mom explained that Nana had died the night before and I would never see her again. But she was in Heaven, my mom told me.
"How did she get there?", I asked.
"The angels came down and took her up to Heaven", Mom replied.
Heaven must be very far away, I thought, if I wasn't going to see her again. I then equated death with "going away forever", like someone packing up and leaving, never to return. I had visions of Nana, suitcases in hand, surrounded by winged angels, flying away. I thought that Nana was physically in Heaven.
That's probably where my separation anxiety started. The concept that a person can be "here" one moment and "gone" the next, forever to a place I couldn't even see was hard to fathom. I asked my mom if she was going to go away. Would she die, like Nana?
"I hope not anytime soon!", she said, trying to smile. I know she was trying to make me feel better, but it didn't. I then realized nothing was forever. People left and never came back, no matter how much they loved me.
A few months later, my sister and I were in the kitchen and my mom was making us some toast. When she pushed down the lever on the toaster, something caused the electric cord to short out, and sparks flew from the outlet. My mom turned to tell us to get out of the kitchen, and as we ran out, I turned in time to see my mom reach for the cord. A few seconds later my sister and I ran back into the kitchen to find it empty.
I started crying, "Mom's dead and she's in Heaven!" I had thought she had electrocuted herself when she touched the cord, was killed, and at that moment the angels came down and took her to Heaven, just like they had with Nana. No, my mom had merely gone down to the basement to pull the fuse from the fuse box to cut the power to the kitchen. Mom came back upstairs to find us crying because we thought she had died and the angels came down and took her to Heaven.
After many hugs and kisses, my mom explained that just our souls went to Heaven, not our bodies.
Woo, boy, that started up a whole other round of questions running through my head...which were finally answered when I attended my first wake when I was ten. I sat and stared at my grandpa's casket in a detached way. There laid his body. I knew his soul was in Heaven. That's what I was told. What a strange gathering this all was, I thought. If his soul was already in Heaven, why was everyone here looking at his body? Nothing was going to happen. But I sat and stared at my grandpa, just in case.
I also thought and the ripe age of ten, just how there was no permanence in the world. No guarantees. For years after, I avoided wakes. They only reminded me that nothing was solid. Death didn't make me appreciate life, it only made me fear life more.
And I felt that open-casket wakes were not dignified. Death on display. It was something I never understood. As I got older, I only went to the wakes I felt I couldn't get out of, and I went as if it were an out-of-body experience.
A month ago, my mom passed away from a insidious and puzzling form of cancer that all started with a simple broken arm. Three months later, I was at her bedside as she was dying. I didn't know she was going to die on that particular day, the family had been told it could be as long as a week before the end. But something told me not to go home, not to leave my Dad. Just stay.
So, I stayed. I stayed for my Mom and my Dad, and I stayed because I had to face my fear. I had to come to terms with lack of permanence, no guarantees. Life without promises of forever. Life is a process, and leaving it was part of that process.
But, of course, in retrospect I realized that.
At the wake, I sat with my family. My Dad wanted an open casket wake, which I was not comfortable with, but it wasn't my call. Dad just wanted to be able to see her one last time, he cried.
And as I walked toward the casket, I saw. And I understood. Because I remembered what my Mom looked like in death.
And now I saw what she looked like at rest. And as I stood there, crying, I felt that maybe, finally my coming to terms with life and death was beginning.
After all, ironically, death is life's only guarantee.