I know the smell of death, the smoky death of a building, the rotting death of food gone bad and the pieces of home and hearth that have vaporized at 2000 degrees then reattaching themselves to different places in the house.
I am the first to see it, to smell it, to feel the burning in my eyes and lungs after the fire is out. The first to stand detached among the debris, the soggy water-soaked aftermath: The first to begin the plan of what to save, what to restore, and what to replace. It’s the things, the mementos, and the snippets of lives that I see with charred and melted edges. The decision of what to do next lies with me, and then I face the family.
“Sorry to meet you under such difficult circumstances”, I say. We’re going to take care of you”. I remember their faces, the grief, the shock and I know they don’t remember those first moments with me. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we cry alone.
They don’t often die, sometimes a pet, seldom a person. But I’ve seen the outline of a woman baked into her bed, seen her next nights dinner defrosted on the counter, the soot-covered list of things to do and presents to buy and calls to make and I wonder why. She did not expect to die.
I think of how she would feel, my crew, taking her furniture to the dumpster, her next of kin looking on, not wanting her belongings. “She was a packrat”, they say as they leave. “Just set aside the dining room set, we’ll pick it up when it’s cleaned”.
They drive away and I watch them go. They didn’t care about who she was; content to have her life piled into a long open dumpster. It takes us days of sorting, inventorying… we touch what her life was: collections of statues, teddy bears, linens, photographs… her Bible… her clothes, all covered with the fire. We take our mementos, the house now ours to empty and disburse of its contents. We work in respirators and Tyvek suits to protect ourselves from the poison seeping from the soggy debris. The ceiling is on the floor. Long broken pieces of sheet rock, like misshapen platters, piled with eight inches of wet pink insulation. Like a surreal strawberry sundae, the soot and smoke becomes a morbid chocolate topping.
We make our way down hallways with shovels and trash bags. We don’t know what lies beneath the madness and sometimes we don’t want to know. It seems like rape and robbery all at once. The house was dusty; she wouldn’t have wanted us to see that, I bet…I wonder if somehow she’s watching.
I walk the long black path from doorway to dumpster, shouting instructions to the crew, the insulation finding its way out the door like pink fiberglass cotton balls lining the path. The artist in me sees the contrast of colors with the black, the burn, the grass, the pink, and the white gone gray suits of the crew. We are the ghosts that carry her soul away.
Her neighbors look on. They don’t know what to do. Someone has been placing the daily newspaper by the door but she isn’t coming back.
There will be nothing familiar when we are finished. Even the walls where she hung her pictures will be gone, the kitchen cabinets, the front door with the gouges from the firemen’s ax, all beyond repair.
And days later when finally we are through, I walk through the house, now nothing but two by fours and electrical wires on the inside. Like a long dead corpse, only the bones remain and they tell no stories.
In what was once the living room I pause, bend to pick up a piece of paper, but it isn’t. It’s a photograph, it must be her and I feel like she’s looking right out at me.
“I’m sorry”, I say, “Someone’s got to do it”.
It has been an interesting year in many ways. How redundant for me to start that way. Every year is interesting and brings learning, loss, newness, hellos, epiphany and more. Death is on my mind right now because there is always so much of it. It is the only thing that is certain and we all share it, from the tiniest microorganism to the biggest forest to the longest living things… we all die.
On our farm we see it unexpectedly when a hawk comes hurling from the sky and flies away with a chicken in its claws, leaving a skewed pile of feathers as the only remains. We see it in our field, where the incessant rains have carried away our crops for the second year in a row. We see it in our lives too, with a startling phone call or a neighbor stopping by as they go by the house.
July begins with excitement. Summer is in full swing. Patriotism is winding up for the annual grand display with fireworks, grilled food, much flag waving and gratitude. Then it begins with a phone call and suddenly Candace has lost a brother and I a brother-in-law. Just a few days later and a friend I have known since I was a young teen has passed just as unexpectedly. He was part of my second family growing up and was the closest thing I could have had to a brother at that time. Even though I had not seen either of them in some time I am transported to times when we were younger, remembering times both good and bad. How did the time pass so quickly?
Time. Another phone call only days later. Our social circle is cracked to pieces as word spreads of the death of a friend. Young. Gentle. Caring. Surgery and recovery gone horribly, inexplicably wrong and a true light is snuffed out. The grief is palpable now. I can taste it and I am filled with sorrow and rage. How. Can. This. Happen.
I remember my 20s, 30s, 40s, and feeling like I had so much time. I was wrong.
Now it is September and my neighbor Bill and friend Ruth have both passed and I find myself in tears at random moments… when I am digging in the garden, or folding laundry. When the phone rings I cringe and wonder who else has passed, what more has gone wrong.
Death is not the only darkness… people disappear from out lives for many reasons and in many ways, some leaving me dumbfounded, some leaving me broken, all breaking a piece of me away to roll to a dusty corner. A loud voice tells me to flee, to hide, to keep all away, to build a wall to protect me from the pain of goodbye… from the pain of silence when the words don’t come and I am left with only questions.
Some days like today, the darkness is calling to me from my past, from moments in time that linger like flies over carrion. Today, when nothing makes sense and trust has a bitter taste that I spit out and grind into the dirt with worn wet sneakers. Where do we go when the darkness comes, when we feel that hand on our shoulder, know what it is, and not want to turn to see it. Where do we go when everything stops and all that is good and right and sure drains away like the blood drains, crimson and thick from a deep wound. When the dark comes calling, like fear, uncertainty, or a speeding train…. where do we go. Where do I go. What do I do now.