After the Wake

Loss is ingrained in us by nature; deep in our shared history is the fact that death is the inevitable end to everything. It’s part of living, not diametrically opposed to it. The natural arc of a person's existence turns into a circle when you pull back enough, you start where you eventually end.

I am not religious. I don’t believe in heaven. I don't believe in anything really. Belief is the foregoing of the due process of logic, it’s acceptance of something intangible existing based purely on the promise that it’s there. It’s contradictory to my nature to believe things can be without validation from our direct perception. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to believe without proof, it leaves you open to the snares of ignorance, acting on emotion, fear.

On the evening of October 30th 2017 at 45 minutes past 10, I found Barbara Ann Alazruei, my mother, dead in her apartment. She was 63. We had spokent two days prior, via text, about me going into the city for a photo conference. I didn’t hear from her, and assuming she was operating according to her standard schedule she was busy too. I had moved out two years prior, leaving her empty-nested and bored (by her own account), but suddenly free to do whatever she wanted. For the first time in 35+ years she was single and not with child. The freedom must’ve been overwhelming at first, but she entrenched herself in online movies, book reading, taking care of her dog Sam. We talked every day, usually, and had an ongoing game of gin rummy going (she was winning). She filled her living room windows with plants, and kept them healthy. She cooked food for me and we exchanged fruit on the weekends in the summer. It felt like the world was finally giving us a break. We weren’t a single parent household, we weren’t scraping by, we were two entities tied together sharing our newly independent lives through texts and pictures and occasional cups of coffee.

She had died some time over the weekend. Checking her phone the morning after we found her, I saw my increasingly frantic texts had not been opened. The shower was running and all the lights were off, telling me she had probably just started her day when it happened. The medical examiner decided not to autopsy her, deeming it death by natural causes. Possibly a heart attack, aneurysm, some kind of betrayal from within. She had a colorful medical history, and she herself expected something similar to happen one day. One day.

The EMTs left just as quickly as they came. I answered questions about her medical history, circumventing my overwhelming shock with a thin veneer of pragmatism. I listed the medications she took to the best of my memory. Plavix, Xanax, Lidocaine patches, iron infusions. The surgeries she had. Two stents, knee replacement, gastric bypass. I kept seeing the outline of her body laid out on her floor, lit by a single fluorescent light in her kitchen, with skin crosshatched by veins and pale as moonlight. I shook uncontrollably, terror infusing itself into my cells, anger and anguish wrapping around my bones, sadness filling my weak lungs. I held my breath. The realness of it crashed around in my head like a freeway pileup and I felt myself receding into my own thoughts.

I sat on a wicker armchair in the middle of her front yard, counting minutes syncopated with the loud flight pattern overhead. Before the police got in their cars they recommended we call a funeral home to arrange a pickup. That’s what you do when someone dies in their home, you Google local funeral homes on your phone and have them picked up like a bubble mailer filled with knick knacks. Simple. The cars pulled away, their flashing lights quieted on the slow roll to the end of the block. I had cried so much by then that my eyes were sore and burning, and my body became so dehydrated that I felt like I’d just flake apart and get carried away piece by piece by the wind.

Up to this point I had convinced myself I was doing the right things, fighting the right battles, protecting her from that inevitable end we all avoid thinking about. I had made sure she got to her doctor’s appointments. Made sure she had groceries. Made sure she was healthy and busy and not too lonely. I let myself become responsible for those things because I thought if I stopped caring for a moment, a second, I would lose. She would die. The walls of my existence would disintegrate and I would be lost to the abyss of my own self. Those things didn’t matter one bit.

No amount of nagging, consoling, hand-holding, hard-talking love could save her from what was coming.

Two men in a completely blacked out Tahoe ambled by us, surely knowing it was the right house because of the distraught looking bunch standing outside in the dark. They double parked, and hopped out, wheeling a stretcher with a velour blanket on it towards us. They wore rings, thick and shiny, surefire signs of good business. They spoke gently and moved quietly like suited spectres, passing us and heading into the house to retrieve her body. It was a few moments before they returned, wheeling her corpse tightly bound with safety belts down her front steps toward the street. One of them quietly shook my hand and whispered his rehearsed condolences. The transactional nature of the whole thing made my head spin. They lifted her body up into the back of the truck, closed the doors, and left.

The morning came with a sense of denial so heavy it had its own gravitational pull. This isn’t happening. Surely the violent fog of the night before might clear from my view and there, standing stark and vibrant would be my mother, shaking with life arms outstretched in anticipation. Surely, the dog sleeping on a blanket in the corner of my bedroom wasn’t hers. Surely, the blood on my swollen right hand wasn't from me repeatedly punching the plaster wall in her living room. Surely my vision would balance out and my head would stop pounding and we could all go grab breakfast at the diner in town and laugh about it.

Instead I was greeted with an empty apartment. A bloodstained floor. Quiet light filtering through dracaenas and lucky bamboo and spider plants. Pictures tilted a few degrees off axis. An unmade bed. The smell of earth.

Morticians have a certain way of speaking. Like librarians and car salesmen blended together. They find a way to sound sincerely sorry for you while still selling you things. It’s impressive, actually. We were eased into an office with plush carpeting and victorian style seating by Tom, our chaperone though the process. His office was decorated with pictures of his family. Children, seemingly unsullied by the world, based on their guilt-free pinned-back picturesque smiles. In that moment I envied them. I wished to be pulled by the hands of time back to that unspoiled youth and live a few moments of unquestioned happiness before I had to talk to a stranger about what to do with a dead body in the basement of a funeral home. We talked dates and times. Picked poetry and designs for prayer cards. We picked a heavily varnished oak rental casket for her viewing. She would be cremated the day after, just a mile from the hospital she was born in some 63 years prior, surrendering her last physical form to become dust - her component parts breaking down and releasing themselves into the universe as smoke.

The walls of her apartment were the color of flowers. In each ounce of paint put on those walls was a promise that 60 plus years of subsistence would finally amount to peace and relief. Years of raising two boys, marriages that just didn’t work out, a job taking care of frail and dying children. This would be the room painted a deep lilac, now for reading memoirs about families in decline, a small stove surrounded by daphne blossom pink where she’d make us hearty meals without waiting to see if we were hungry. A small living room flooded with deep greens sat adjacent to it, where she would doze with the family cat resting on her chest over hazy summer afternoons.

The day of, I busied myself with small tasks. I pinned every good picture of my mother I could find to a poster-sized cork board. Her face stared up at me from that board a hundred times over, black and white with young hope in her eyes, pregnant with her second son on Halloween, sitting in the back of a shag rug-lined econo-van sometime in the late 70s. Smiling, persistently happy, striking, intense, gentle - guided by the progression of time to the present.

We dressed her in a floral gown, gold bangles from India; they did her hair like she did before an awards dinner or a school play, straight down like auburn curtains framing her face. We left her glasses on, it seemed to lend her some residual dignity, as if she had merely lied down in the satin-lined rental casket to read a book and dozed off mid sentence. We asked attendees to write a note for her and place it in a small wooden box to be cremated with her body. The idea was to give people a chance to let their final words to her lie interred with the last bits of her physical self. It was as good a wake as any; I can’t number the people who walked through that room but each hand-shake and back-pat and deep hug with a somber reassurance that life would correct itself helped me distance myself from what was happening.

Once the throng of mourners filed out, my brother and I spouted our last goodbyes at her body like we were shouting at a passing train. It felt pointless, like all the breath we’d ever breathe wouldn't fill my lungs enough to scream into the void between us but we did it anyway. The eulogy that I had written the night before sat folded in my breast pocket. I was too overwhelmed to speak my peace before the congregation, so I said it to her there in that empty room. It was an apology, a list of things I should have said. I rested my head on her folded hands and shook while the words left my mouth.

We settled up and walked our disheveled and disoriented husks out of the viewing suite. Tom met us in the extravagantly carpeted foyer and handed us a massive tray of Polish butter cookies.

“In our family, we eat our feelings.” He half-smirked.

So did we.

We stood at the hatch of my subcompact and I fiddled with my keys, the only sharp object I had on me, to tear open the cellophane surrounding the cookies. My brother, my girlfriend, and I stood silently, plowing through them for ten minutes - our eyes sore from crying, throats sore from telling people we were “doing alright”. A brief but welcomed respite from the torrent of emotionality that we were all sharing. I thought of how funny this scene must be to a passer-by. A group of visibly sad people standing in a loose circle in a darkened parking lot between a bodega and a funeral home, eating a foot-tall pile of cookies out of the trunk of a car.

“She would think this is hilarious.”

“She would have laughed.”

When you die, your remains are numerous. The things you loved, your books, a picture your kid drew you when he was small. The socks that kept your feet from aching. Your exercise bike that you used once a week to keep up cardiac health. The calligraphy you practiced on index cards. Odds and ends, knicks and knacks.The words you spoke. The impressions you made. The love you gave into the world. The space you occupied was not merely physical. You are a timeline; an accumulation of thoughts and actions compressed into a tangible form, intersected with age and weaved with experience. You echo through the lives you touch, you live so long as you are not forgotten. We are time manifested, and each of us has the ability to blend ourselves with those we love.

She always encouraged me to write. To pen my words into prose filled blocks of digestible discourse. To fill reams of notebooks with notions of self and introspections. I did, and I do. She was always on the verge of writing the next great self-examination piece, an investigation on who she was and how she came to be. Due to the stresses of building a family, battling through depression and the economics of living a decent life she never made the time for it. That leaves me with the metaphorical reigns, steering our collective history in the shadow of all that’s happened.

The space between life and death is reserved for our memory. My mother was our tiny family’s bearer of this catalog, the keeper of hurt and loss. She guided hundreds of others through this process as they laid their children to rest. Their barely-born infants skirting the advances of death with modern medicine, waiting for my mother to help them accept the pain of losing someone they just met as their own. To have empathy so deep you would place yourself among grief so great it crushes those less experienced, to love so deeply you gladly inflict yourself with the calamity of humanity’s greatest shortcoming just because it’s the right thing to do, that’s as noble a deed as any other.

I am still unsorted. A year out, the world still seems slightly disjointed, the point of it all still wholly unclear. I wish I could just ask what my next step should be, but the pain of learning about the world via the mechanisms of loss seems to be a valuable lesson in and of itself. No part of me wanted to write these words, to let my truth be punctuated so completely by grief - yet through these experiences I can accept that my story isn’t unique or particularly poignant. It’s normal. Every single one of us will wade these waters eventually; we can find a way to hoist ourselves out by our own volition or be washed out when the waters slink back to the sea.

There is one lesson she has taught me in the year since I found her there - it’s to appreciate the brevity of your existence. Living will be the longest thing you ever do, but to be unfulfilled - to die with things unsettled, quarrels unmended, dreams unrealized is both a shame and an inevitability. We are imperfect creatures, driven by imperfect desires. We leave footprints in the minds of others and if we’re lucky we persist past death. Heaven, in my mind, is the cosmically brief visage of a life once lived, preserved in the memory of those still living. A series of electrical impulses passed from human brain to human brain, gifting the knowledge of a transitory lifeform that once intersected with other transitory lifeforms here on Earth. We are briefly given a chance by nature and the randomness of the universe to scream into the void like the multitudes before us, and if we do it right universe screams back with joy.