Liz calls at 7:00am on a Wednesday in June to tell us Tom died in the night. “I woke early, maybe 4:00am,” she says, “And it was quiet, he was not in the bed. I had assumed he had come to sleep after me, but perhaps he never did. And then I found him,” she adds. “I called the doctor. The people from the funeral home are coming at 10:00.”
On the drive to her house, I weep only briefly; I will tend to my grief later, after I tell my children that their paternal grandfather died.
When we arrive, phone calls ring in and out: the transport, the funeral home, medical office. The family is reviewing Tom’s wish to be cremated. And amidst this, my brother-in-law is to be married in two weeks. They calmly discuss the logistics, the practical concerns. They weigh the options. Shouldn’t we wait to have the funeral until after the wedding, they are saying.
No,” I interrupt. “We have to bury him first.” Certainty rises in me unmediated by deliberation. How else will we be able to be joyful if this hangs over us? We need to mourn, then celebrate unencumbered by the anticipation of having to bury a father. There will be plenty of time to grieve again.
Although I am not a particularly observant Jew, I find myself intuitively calling upon the Jewish tradition of quick burial. Perhaps ritual comes not only from belief, but also from the needs of the human psyche.
They are Quakers with few ritualistic guideposts, few mitzvot (religious duties) as we have in Judaism. I am moved by how thoughtful they are in planning, but their shock and sadness seem unframed.
In the end, they decide the burial will be within a week, before the wedding, and a memorial service will follow in the fall. My mother-in-law agrees but is pre-occupied with something.
“There is one thing I would like to ask you to do,” she says to me privately. “The funeral home put me in touch with a cleaning service.” She is usually so articulate, her voice strong. Today it wavers; she searches for words: “The bathroom…”
I wait. “The bathroom where Tom died?” I say.
“They would like to know,” she says, “Generally, they need … someone to look and tell them. I can’t. I only glanced in the semi-darkness this morning and called the medics right away.” She cannot say any more.
“I’ll talk to them,” I say, “I’ll go and look.”
When I call the cleaning service, they ask me the dimensions of the bathroom and the extent and kind of “biomedical waste” (that term in 2007– and now– veils so much suffering). I tell them I’ll look and will call back.
With more grief than worry, I mount the stairs.
When we’d arrived at the house earlier that morning, they were just removing Tom’s body enclosed in a zipped black vinyl bag on a wheeled gurney. I wanted them to unzip it; I wanted to see his face. But I knew from my brother-in-law’s tensed jaw, my mother-in-law’s uncharacteristically dazed expression, and of course, the professionals in front of me, that I could not ask this. I watched the gurney pass and suppressed a yearning to rest my hand on the sterile shroud. He would be cremated, so, that was that.
The bathroom opens onto the bedroom. I hesitate and open the door. At that instant, I am reminded that it is possible to have several simultaneous and contradictory thoughts, a true mixture of feelings. For in front of me is something that, had I heard about it in advance, would likely have inspired a very different reaction than I experience.
Before me lies what can only be described as a pool of blood, spreading to the corners of the small room and beginning to congeal at the rim of the shower stall. Thick, glossy, a profound red like no other. Strewn about, soaked with this blood, is Tom’s typical weekend attire: worn, tattersall button-down, an old pair of khakis, black socks (the medics must have stripped him before preparing to take him to the funeral home). In a corner are the objects he always, in the two decades I’ve known him, carried in his breast pocket: a small date-book is saturated with his blood, and a sharp, yellow number-two pencil rests against a fallen pale blue towel.
The simultaneous thoughts come steadily. As if I am watching myself from a distance, I feel I ought to be shocked or torn with grief. He had apparently suffered— from what — a stroke? a fall? We have not heard the details yet.
And it occurs to me that I should also be disgusted. The scene in front of me immediately evokes Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King: the pool of blood, a streak of a handprint along the white tile wall, a thick silence, unmistakable red splatters on the shower curtain. I think, knowing how odd a thought it is, that this is exactly like those dramatic renderings. But I also know that I cannot escape that imagery. If we have been fortunate in life, movies and horror stories may be the only familiar, if melodramatic reference for this overwhelming event.
But those are passing thoughts devoid of emotion; I actually feel neither disgust nor shock. Something else overwhelms me: a feeling of grateful awe, a quiet regard for a space that feels sacred, and a peculiar, fleeting sense of immanence that may be what people describe as religious experience.
This is the last of my father-in-law, I think, the last of my friend of a quarter century. (For I knew him before I met his son, my husband at the time.) Part of him is still there in that room in the most intimate way — his blood from the very interior of his body, the red and the white cells, the platelets — maybe even a remnant of the leukemia that swept his life away in these past six months.
I suddenly have the most atavistic and unprecedented urge. I want to take up some of that blood and warm it in my hands, even to touch it against my face.
I must be crazy. But I know that I am not. People secretly bury their faces over months in the last blouse that a deceased loved one wore, avoid changing the sheets, inhale a familiar scent. But this is not only sensory and emotional; it is not an effort to retain a memory. There is something more.
I am as close to the limina of this person’s life, the edge of death, that one can experience: actual life’s blood.
Is this what pagan rituals, the reliquaries, St. Catherine’s bliss, were about? Would everyone feel this immanence before the stark humanity of this pool of blood, in the pencil that rolled along the floor and came to rest against the towel?
Judaism complicates my views of blood. Traditionally, the dead body, along with the substances it exudes, is tameh, usually translated as “impure.” Preparation of the body for burial includes cleaning and sitting with it, making it tahor, or “pure.” But Tom’s body is gone.
If I could handle this fully tameh substance in a ritual way though, maybe it would be transformed. It would become tahor. I have heard that an encounter with this sacred knife-edge between life and not life, the most tameh and the most tahor, can create kedushah, holiness.
These notions hover among my thoughts.
I do not, of course, touch the blood. Not in this 21st century, secular climate of invisible hazards and mountains of waste. Although rationally I know there is no disease I could catch, I defer to the rules, anticipating the arrival of the gloved and suited experts who will come clean it away, dispose of it properly.
So, I take a step back from the lintel and as instructed, make a silent appraisal, estimating the dimensions of the room and making mental notes as to the extent of the waste and the damage.
When I finish, though, I cannot tear myself away. Something catches my breath. There is something more in that room than awe and remembrance.
I am ordinarily a quite empirically minded person and at most, an agnostic. Yet I stand there thinking that I might be witnessing Tom’s soul. It lingers in those cells and seeps away while the blood hardens. Maybe this is why some believe that the soul rises. My friend is not completely gone; here, he is still tangible.
But skepticism battles sensation.
The cleaning service is late. When I am not needed downstairs, I climb the stairs again, not telling anyone, not wanting them to think me morbid, self-indulgent, or disrespectful. But it is the opposite, and I wish I could pray. I wish that that meant something to me.
Later, in the kitchen, my mother-in-law talks to me about some details of the next few days. I fix her a small plate of fruit and cheese.
We are quiet for a while; her sons are at the funeral home arranging things.
“What is shiva?” she asks out of the blue. I look at her surprised, this woman who took on Quaker ways when she married. I explain that it is the seven days that Jews sit at home after the funeral of a close family member. We neither work nor tend to the usual tasks; people visit and bring food, and we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer.
“That is interesting,” she says. “Would you like to do something like that?” I ask. “No, I could never sit home.” “Perhaps we could bring you some meals, though, and eat with you if you like.” “That would be good,” she says, “Thank you.” We sit in silence again. I scrape the dishes and place them in the dishwasher.
Images of the quiet bathroom return to me throughout the day and part of the next week before the funeral, and with those images, a visceral tenderness for life. I grasp for it, just beyond the periphery of my awareness, at the edges of the quotidian. For it is an elusive sensation; work and conversation dissipate it. In the mundane, it is lost. I felt it most strongly standing at the threshold of that room. It is neither disgust nor horror nor grief, but a peaceful sense of awe and love and something beyond words. Later, it is imbued with deep sorrow.
As we whisk away the dying and the dead in modern life, such profound moments are rare. Day-to-day, we may forget that we yearn for these moments, just as we yearn for rituals that contain our sorrow and our beauty.
Wendy Horwitz’s essays, editorials, and reviews have been published with McClatchey-Tribune News Service, in The Sacramento Bee, Afterimage, Intrepid Traveler, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Neurology (Humanities Section), among other publications. She teaches English, Writing, and Health Humanities at Penn State Abington (PA), and writes, gardens, and bird-watches in Philadelphia.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Cristina Adams, Laurie H. Bayer, M.D., Julie Conover, Rabbi Linda Holtzman, Anne Krawitz, Marlene Molinoff, and Douglas R. Reifler, M.D. for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.