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
law. 
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
remain. 

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. 

Out of wedlock

Yesterday, we sat in a circle in
the lounge room of a cousin who lives near the beach at Sandringham where we
commemorated the life of another cousin, who died ten days ago on
the other side of the world in Holland, at the age of sixty five. 
I did not know this cousin
well.  She was older than me and our paths rarely crossed, apart from during my brief visits to Holland
and hers to Australia, but she is lodged forever in my memory and imagination. 
I don’t remember when my mother
first told me that this cousin had been born out-of-wedlock.  Such a loaded expression ‘wedlock’, as if the
institution itself is some sort of guarantee of imprisonment or security. 
My cousin was born in 1949, not long
after the Second World War, and she lived then with her mother and for a short
time, her father, who at the time was married to another woman.  He did not stay around for long. 
Imagine this at a time when
illegitimacy and infidelity in marriage were far more unacceptable than
today. 
We have such a craving for
certainty in life, such a desperation that people and events meet our expectations
and we look down on those who fail to comply. 
On another note, in my large extended family, the
children of my many siblings, there is one in particular to whom I draw your attention.  She has joined me in keeping a blog.
Hers is a special blog because it
deals with life and death at its core. 
I don’t want to speak for my niece
other than to draw you to her blog, A Loquat Tree.  She speaks well enough alone.  
Maybe if someone visiting here
reads this blog, they might find a way of helping us all in the vast blog
community to find a cure. 
I’m big on people working together,
as much as I also snuggle into the notion that conflict is a good thing.  It’s necessary in order to allow for growth.  It’s not the conflict itself but the way it’s
handled that determines its ability to be constructive.
And I am in conflict about sharing
this blog with you because of other peoples’ sensitivities and concerns about
privacy, but it seems important to go ahead anyhow.
I talked with one of my sisters
yesterday, a sister and a Facebook friend, and she joked about my predilection
to go on political rants, particularly in aid of asylum seekers. 
I thought then maybe I should stop
shouting in order that my message be better heard. 
But in these two instances, that of
my niece and the asylum seekers, I’m not shouting for myself alone. 
I’m shouting for all those of us
who are vulnerable, who struggle and for whom life has dealt a rum hand. 
It could happen to you, or me or
anyone of us, but these people by dint of circumstance – fate, chance, accident,
whatever – find themselves in impossible situations, and they must deal with
them as best they can.
As always, it helps to share
the load. 

And then like my Dutch cousin, who
– despite, or maybe because of her tough beginning in life – was a wonder at
helping others, we die.