Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Death in the Family

For me, the end of a life is always announced with a phone call:

“Hi John.”
“Amelie was killed.”

Just a few words to open shock, disbelief, sobbing.  Amelie, my niece, was only 24 years old.  She was riding her bike South of Market at 7:07 am, riding to make an early morning meeting at her work, Voce Communications.  A big rig passed her on the left, and then cut to make a right turn.  Amelie crashed into the truck and was run over by its rear wheels. I saw a photo of her mangled, blue bike on the Internet.

I rushed down to my sister Jessie’s home in Redwood City. We embraced, sobbing. “My baby is gone.  My baby is gone,” she repeated.  What to say?  What to do but sit with this giant grief.

Until these moments, I had never really believed in “life after death.”  It’s not that I disbelieved it either.  I just didn’t know. But I said to my sister – and now believe – that she is very much present with us, between us.  I could actually feel her. Jessie said, “Yes, I am closer to Amelie than I have ever been.”

What I want to say is this: joy and grief and love exist at the same time.

Amelie’s brother, Charlie, aged 21, wandered in and out of the rooms, crying, confused. Jessie would disappear and then re-emerge, saying, “This can’t be true.  I don’t believe this.”

Over the next few days, Jessie’s friends arrived, a few at a time, bringing food: lasagna, cheese, cookies, fruit.  I think I would go to bed and not get up again, but Jessie needed this flood of love and support.  I told her of “Indra’s net,” the celestial net in which the nodes are stars, are beings, and that we are all interconnected.  And that the net would hold her and would not let her fall.

What I want to say is: Joy and grief and love exist at the same time.

There were decisions that one thought one would never have to make. Immediately. Cremation?  Open casket and then cremation?  Going to Amelie’s apartment to find clothes she could wear – to cover everything but her face. Scattering of ashes? Where?  Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls.

Brad, my husband, was the anchor to all the plans, gently suggesting to Jessie that her ex-husband, Amelie’s father, Denis, might want to see the body.  He was arriving from Strasbourg.  Amelie’s sister, Rose, needed to be located.  She was traveling somewhere in Spain with her cell off.  Every grieving and confused and overwhelmed family needs someone like Brad to guide them, love them, hold them.

It was decided that there would be a viewing of her body at the funeral home before cremation.  How odd when the body is dead.  The person is gone, but, still, the body is there.  So sad – her beautiful eyes, her perfect mouth with the bright red lipstick she always wore.  Her hands utterly cold and hard – with nail polish, carefully applied by someone we didn’t know.

I grieved for those who grieved.  Her young friends came up to the casket. Some stood at a distance, some kneeled, some sobbed.  I wondered if this was the first time they had seen a dead body, had realized that death is indeed possible, even for them.

I could hear, across the folding screen, laughter.  Jessie’s laughter!  Others laughing as they shared Amelie stories.  She was a wild and loving and crazy young woman. People would go back and forth: to spend a few moments with Amelie, and then to go to the adjoining room to drink wine and share stories.  Brad and I remained with her body.  I wanted to keep vigil in some way.  I wanted to stay with her.

Later, above her casket, in the subdued golden light, there was a slide show of her life.  People were laughing, because she was a very funny person.  She loved to make faces in front of a camera.  Amelie lay motionless below her life.

Her ashes were spread in the waters just beyond the Golden Gate bridge.  We threw flower petals to follow her ashes. The fog was such that we were in a gray, cold place to say good-bye, and then as we entered Sausalito, blue sky and then radiance of sun on water.

What I want to say is this: joy and grief and love exist at the same time in this very fragile and precarious life.