A dead man’s shoes

Is it churlish of me not to believe
that my beloved niece who died five days ago is up there in heaven with my mum
and ‘having a ball’,  as one of my sisters told me the other day?
I wish I could believe it.  Such thoughts make going on living
easier.  Such thoughts make the idea of
dying easier, but they don’t help me. 
My niece has died and the process
of saying goodbye is too raw and close to write about.
Given my preoccupation with my own
death of late, I try to find other ways of processing this stark event.  Stark because it’s out of order.   Read my niece’s words, before she died, if you will. 
She writes like a dream.
Young people should not die, but
they do.
Young people who leave other even
younger people motherless, should not die, but they do.
I have only attended funerals thus
far in my life where the death has felt vaguely okay, given the age or circumstances
of the person who died, my parents, my husband’s parents, my brother in
All their deaths felt
bearable.  This most recent death in my
family does not.
So I will go into memories of an
earlier death, one that did not leave me breathless, but curious.
The Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel
Mannix died in his nineties and our city grieved, at least those who shared my
bubble of the world as a young girl living in the  leafy green suburbs of Catholic Melbourne grieved. 
They laid him out in state in the
middle of Saint Patrick’s cathedral and people were invited to visit him over
the course of a week. 
My family went, those still living
at home, and by some strange turn of events, my father, who had long stopped going
to Mass, came too.  He drove the car and
my sisters and I sat in the back of the station wagon from where we waved to
cars that followed. 
The idea was to get as much of a
response from the driver and his passengers following.  A nod, a smile a wave of the hand was enough.
 It was more than we could elicit from
the body of the archbishop. 
We queued outside in the early evening
and walked up the aisle in a shuffling procession of silent believers, heads
bent in grief. 
I had to pretend and studied
the terracotta tiles on the floor and the curve of the arm rests at the end of
each pew.  The way they formed an ending
to each row and became their own sort of row going up and down the church.
I had never before seen a dead
body, at least not in the flesh.  I
imagined only the dead saints from holy pictures, those who were burned at the
stake or flailed alive or had a red cascade of blood flowing down their sides,
with a beatific smile on their faces. They welcomed death.
The archbishop’s face was white and
his skin taut.  He wore makeup and his
hair, tucked underneath his archbishop’s hat, what little you could see of it, was
neat and slicked down. 
Clerical robes hid the rest of his
body, all of it unremarkable.  But the
shoes left me puzzled.  They shone as
though they were black patents, the shoes of my First Holy Communion.  They shone as though they were made of black
plastic.  They caught the light.
I could have seen myself reflected
in those shoes if I had been allowed to lean over far enough to try.  But the coffin was erected on a dais and held
away from the people by a frame of posts held together by dark braid. 
No one told us to keep off but it
was obvious.  Keep off.  Keep out. 
Death lies here. 
Death has a way of silencing
us.  It leaves us breathless, and I’m not
talking about those who die.  They are silent
and breathless for evermore.  I’m talking
about those of us lucky enough or unlucky enough, as the case may be, who

Those of us who must go on living
in this imperfect world without their loved one.  Those who must make sense of the world
without her. 

6 thoughts on “A dead man’s shoes”

  1. So sad to hear of that darling brave girl going through all that pain and suffering to lose at the end, and her little girls and husband left behind her. You were right, she did write like a dream, and so matter of factly, when she probably was screaming inside at the unfairness of it. I am sure her family will be well supported,but this never should have happened if that doctor had read her MRI properly at the time… hugs from across the pond J

  2. Life is cruel. A bitch.

    Disappointment, heartache and unfairness.

    Being the eldest of five boys I expected to pop my clogs before my younger brothers. Three have died already. The youngest died in 1990, aged 45. Massive brain bleed, a quick death. The next youngest died about a year ago of lung cancer. The other, Geoff, died seven years ago, kidney cancer. The other brother, John, may still be alive for all I know. He has been absent for over 30 years and I have no idea where he is.

    For those who cling to a faith in some god I would ask: where is your god when you most need him/her/it/whatever. A 'loving' god, as most are said to be, that allows such cruelties in this life makes a total nonsense of such beliefs.

    You can't have life without death and that's all there is to it. It makes us feel most sad when a loved one dies. Hardly ever bothers us when millions of unknown people die.

    I will sound selfish and uncaring. So be it. I am often sad, for a while, when someone I know well dies. I also feel sad when a pet dies. But acceptance of these things cuts in and we 'get over it' and carry on.

    What is REALLY hard and very difficult is being close to someone who is struck down with a disease and fights it day by day, only to lose despite all the pain and suffering that various treatments inflict upon them. That's desperately hard to contend with. Awful.

    I hope that you can face up to your fears and worries Elisabeth and accept that life must go on.

  3. This is one of those posts where I want to say everything and yet nothing is right or fitting. Sorry? So fucking trite. If the word sorry was said everyday forever it would not begin to lighten this awful load. What makes this a death so much worse than others is her little girls will not remember the beautiful soul that was their mother. That is beyond any tragedy I can think of.

    Elisabeth, I can only send you love. I hope that in its smallest bit it brings you some lightness.

  4. Last month I talked again about how I felt when I discovered my first girlfriend had died. I went looking to see if I could find other people from my past and I did, several dozen. It was important to me to learn that these people were still alive. I had—and still have—no intention of making contact with them but I didn’t like the idea that they might be dead even though their existence or nonexistence makes no difference to my day-to-day life. Did I think the world’s a better place with them in it? No, and in a couple of cases I’m not sure it is. Did it have something to do with reassuring myself? I don’t think so. Death is fairly arbitrary in my experience and even people who go out of their ways to live healthy lives have no guarantees; there are too many unknowns. Alison was not the first of my generation to die and I’m sure there’re others I don’t know about mowed down by an out of control vehicle or laid low by a brain tumour. The first was Marilyn. The way I heard it she attempted suicide and was more successful than she’s intended to be. Someone didn’t arrive when they were due; there was an extra-long queue in the bakers or the Council had decided to dig up the main road. Something like that. She failed to get the attention she was looking for. I guess she’d done it before and timed it better. She was probably twenty or younger. I hadn’t seen her since we left school. I was fond of her but I can’t say I was terribly upset by her death even though she was so young. I’m sure there will be those who said of both women that they were taken “before their time” and we all know they mean by that. I don’t believe any of that. There’s no grand plan. Young people shouldn’t die but they do. And it’s a shame.

    How many funerals have I been to? I can only remember eight—five burials (one a double, mother and son) and three cremations (including both my parents)—but there have to have been more. None are very clear to me and in three cases I couldn’t tell you the name of the deceased. I know lots of people who’ve died. How come I can’t remember more funerals? Perhaps because they hold no special place in my memories. They were interesting at the time, from a writer’s perspective, but I never felt especially involved in them. I’m sure this is because of the fact I don’t mythologise death in any way. Carrie is well aware of what I want to happen if I die before her: dispose of my remains with as little fuss and expense as you can legally get away with.

    Beliefs can be comforting. And nonbeliefs are comforting too. The prospect of an afterlife is scary for some because a heavenly reward is never guaranteed and who’s to say we’d even like it there? What amuses me is that I’ve written about it so much, something I couldn’t care less about. It is a great trope though. I’m sorry your niece has died. For lots of reasons but mostly because you’re hurting. She isn’t—or at least I don’t believe she is—and that’s a blessing.

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