Eight months, two weeks, give or take three to seven days. February to December 31st, a time frame that is almost the same as it would be if you were giving birth, yet, it is just about the life expectancy doctors gave my grandmother those first moments she even knew that those things on her neck were cancer. These were the same things that would later appear in her brain, her lungs, her liver, slowly leaking into her bone marrow and quietly working its way through her body. This is the story of her death.I had a very conflicted relationship with her. Hell, everyone did. All stories aside, the layers that defined her personhood were at times wonderful and other times infuriating. My father referred to her always as, “60% southern lady, 30% women’s libber,” a 30% margin that was rare to acknowledge with her generation of women in the deep South. She had defied most odds, yet basked in a very privileged life, one that often required her to choose her existence over others. She sought out a life that was, at least to the standards of what it meant to be a southern woman in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, ahead of her time and one that was, in essence, a mirror of the ideals of what feminism was willing to achieve. As a good southern lady knew, she never mentioned that word. She could be cruel, though many who knew her might consider it blasphemy, because, like all good family secrets, they stay inside the family. However, to stay away from talking ill of the dead, she was a person who was always, always alive, a state of being that ultimately has the misfortune of only being simply described by cliche.
Death puts you in limbo, a new reality where the only motions you have to go through are those of the polite kind. The introductions, the reintroductions, the saying thank you, thank you, thank you to the “sorry”s that you hear over and over. Cheap fried food and flowers litter tables, along with potential unpaid bills, unopened letters, and a random assortment of other undone things. The new reality shakes you out of the routine you have come to know, maybe the one you have come to realize is not so important. As the days after the announcement of her death passed, I began detaching quickly and furiously from the life I have hustled so hard to cultivate. It surprised me how quickly certain things become frivolous when you have worked towards them for the bulk of your life. There is something about death that can kill ambition – not completely, but it does, or at least has for me, cut off that part of ambition that requires you to sacrifice over and over for some type of career or goal. Like most folks, I used to believe that if I really wanted it – I really, really, wanted “it” was – that I would have to put everything on the line – relationships, family, friends, my own inner life.
God, is that just some horse shit.
Of course, it’s harder to keep that mentality in a culture that values (requires) you giving everything, and I mean everything, over to working towards your dream, goal, career, or whatever. I don’t think it’s about not working hard and hustling, especially if you don’t have the choice. Rather, it’s about the normalcy of sacrificing everything taking on the idea of a myth you have bought for years. Family? You can see them later. Friends? They will understand because they are probably doing the same thing! Relationships? Plenty of fish in the sea! Your inner life? Well how badly do you want this? Do you want it badly enough to put your feelings aside? Buck up? Work more hours than you ever thought you could? How badly do you want the life you want? What are you willing to sacrifice? The boundaries become harder to define as the world rapidly evolves and self becomes that which you do, a position that many of us still do not know how, or have been given the opportunity to navigate.
Not to speak for many, but perhaps some can agree with me that as you get older, this type of world view becomes more and more destructive as you age. It is hard to swallow that my mom kept telling my dying grandmother, four more days, four more days, then three more days, three more days, she will be down in three days after she gets off from work. The reality of work is complicated and of course, you never expect someone to just up and die, but the idea of telling a person to hold off dying because you are busy, is, well”¦ difficult. Certainly that conversation doesn’t fall on my mom because she was just the messenger of my obligations. My mom, considering she was the last one who saw her, tried to wake her, fed her the last meal (Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream), and who told her over and over to just hang on, speaks of the hopeful and understanding nature of my mother. Part of me wishes I could have also been there feeding her. Part of me is happy that I am so incredibly distanced from how bad she deteriorated.
Common wisdom says that all you can do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep moving, yet my desire is to want nothing more than to remain here, in a state of limbo for so much longer. Limbo is static and motionless – your body moves forward in time because life propels it. The days pass, yet you are the same as you were before, even though everything has rapidly changed. Life moves on with or without you. It doesn’t stop because you have a hole that demands to be filled with someone that means more, needs more love, and needs to give more love. It doesn’t stop because of sadness or anger or even because this moment is just so good and you wish nothing more than to rewind and have it just a bit longer, please.
I have been reading a bible verse over and over: Genesis 19. This is about as shocking for me as it is for everyone else, though the element of surprise is always wonderful. It’s not a comforting verse, nor does it change my thoughts on how I feel about Christianity, God, or whatever it is that defines the great beyond. If anything, it serves as a cautionary tale of the proper ways to grieve, the consequences of disobeying those norms, the shame of unmanaged curiosity, and the desire for longing, specifically, what I believe to be a female longing – a way women have been coping with trauma and sadness for as long as dust has been underneath our feet. Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away, people are told. It’s current day translation is move on, move on – life goes on. Lot’s wife is punished for looking back at a past that is certainly not perfect, watching as it is burned out of existence, welcoming her own demise. It, like most of my interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, seems so overtly willing to destroy or make examples of women, casting them as overemotional bodies that cannot be trusted to keep in line, servants to the greater gender. One only has to look at the fact that she is referred to as “Lot’s wife,” a nameless being in Christianity, though the Tanakh has the sense to give her a name: “Ado” or “Edith.”
But Lot’s wife looked back as she lingered behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
Is this what it means to have to keep going? That if you don’t, you will remain forever in limbo, neither happy or sad or anything, just there as some sort of shell of a person, comforted by little things like blankets and pillows? The idea that if you could just feel safe, you think you could get up and start all the hard work again? Does it mean that at some point, you must swallow your grief, and push on with the sometimes idiotic normalcy that is life?
Does it mean that to consistently look back at what was means to dissipate and become something that is not alive?
Does it mean that you will be punished for looking back? For the conflict of what was? For wanting what looking back may mean?
Does it mean that you can’t ever look back?
I have always wondered why she was punished for the very human act of sorting out and grieving over the complicated reality of what was once her home. Like most of us who end up losing someone, there is always good, bad, but more often than not, the realities are far more complex. It is only by looking back that you can begin to sort out with clear vision what was what. Psychologists consider this part of the Acceptance stage of the five stages of grieving, a way to ultimately make peace with even the most hard of history. This stage is actually considered a very privileged place, because given the nature of your loss or trauma, sometimes acceptance is just not possible. Yet she, Lot’s wife, is rendered lifeless, a warning to all those who dare to stop and say, wait, wait just one minute please. Let me be still and just look back, so I can eventually move forward. Her looking back is not of longing, but of trying to understand why, even in the wreckage and flame, that she holds the feelings she does. Why is she not allowed to just sit with her pain? Life will move on with or without her, so why must she keep the same frantic pace and push the pain of loss aside and hustle on with life? Even as our own culture says that grief is a process, we are expected to pick up and move on.
What’s more interesting is that, while she is punished by being turned into salt, there seems to be no link to the idea that salt is forever. Salt is in the earth and in the body and ocean. Salt was in funeral offerings in Egyptian tombs and exchanged for goods in Lebanon and created the Mediterranean trade empire. Salt relates to the word salarium – salary, a price paid and a profit gained – the literal and spiritual currency. Salt heals skin and destroys old electric wires, causing fires that wipe out entire communities in the midst of hurricanes. Salt is found in everything and salt is the oldest of the old. Salt is Huixtocihuatl, who presided over the sea and salt water, became that which people anointed themselves with because looking to the sky and yelling out for a god brought comfort to those who were lost and wandering and who were equally scared of turning into a pile of salt. Out of all things to be turned into as a punishment, salt seems to be an interesting conundrum.
I suppose this is my way of saying goodbye, writing out sentences that she will never hear, talking about the limbo of being stuck between the choice of work and family, income and intimacy, opportunity and comfort, the should have, would have, could haves that always come about when someone close to you dies. I don’t know what she would have said about this wrestling for balance, but in her life, she was able to have both, even as dysfunctional as they all were. I don’t think she would have ever thought to look back, even as much as she experienced in her life. But as she sits in the ground now, cremated into a pile of ashes set to mix with the thick Georgia mud, now heavy due to the chronic rains of January, I would imagine that she has finally reached her place of being salt. She is now back to something basic and spread amongst the earth. Maybe that’s why people are told to not look back, because it means you will die in a way that often comes from being at a standstill and stuck. It is so much easier to flee from death with the idea of progressing forward and perhaps making a small stamp on earth. The accolades take us away from death and moving forward provides a sense of not stopping, of never stopping. If you move forward, move towards the hills, you will never die.
Personally speaking, I am okay not moving forward for a while, or at least just a little bit longer. While I hear everyone around me say that life goes on, I feel stuck in that one place, looking back and looking back and looking back to something I don’t even know that I am looking for. Looking for an answer, an explanation, a way to better describe to those around me the complicated, heavy, and often wonderful relationship I had not only with my grandmother, but with cancer, with death, aging, and with what it means to let myths of what you need to do go. I haven’t turned into a pillar of salt yet, though I know one day I will. I’d rather know it now that it will always be that way.