what heals you, get you to it
I have only ever touched three dead bodies. Each with my index finger tracing the middle proximal bone, past the knuckle, stopping at the end of the capitate of the right hand laid gently over the left. There is something about cold skin that renders the body ageless. I remember that my brother, not even twenty, felt as old as my father at 49. And that poor cadaver in between; she could have been in her sixties, the skin over her ribs peeled neatly back. With her I had to strain so hard to tune out the nervous and brutal chatter of other students. I later laid my hand across my father’s breast bone as well, thumb along the sternum, fingers spread over his ribcage. He was dressed in his temple clothes and they were so white; my hand like a tea stain upon them. I felt my own heart stutter and understood, finally, the futility of a deep longing for a thing that can never, ever be. I wanted to believe it was a brave and loving gesture, but really it’s just so difficult to give and receive love from the dead. Before he had even gone we had already begun the systematic transfer of our affection to the space he occupied in memories and stories. Such as it is with a long illness; you have nothing but the fleetingness of time.
I have a young daughter who explores dead things. She pores over each squirrel and chicken. Sometimes through a scrim of tears, though it happens less and less frequently. In part, she seems coldly eager to understand the lifelessness of a thing that once scampered or preened about. But she’s also taking her first tentative steps to peer into the face of her own inevitable passing. I admire her courage. There is very little space left over in me for reverence, but for her I’m still capable of a private awe. For a week in September I watched her navigate her father’s complicated nature following 24 months of absence. Two years so saturated with longing, I could have wrung out time and made a salty lake of desire in our back yard. When he finally arrived she was exact in her loving gestures. She was precise in her grief when he left. Sometimes, if I’m being honest, I regret how vulnerable I am to her losses. Before her, I too could determine how much I was willing to unravel, how much love I would pour out and at which intervals. Now I round out my days watching her speed down the road with her breakable bones and delicate membranes, my heart somewhere in my throat.