Monday, June 08, 2015

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. 
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