Partial Views: A Memoir in 365 Parts — Furnace #2
I found the account of my mother’s death the other day, downstairs, in a box of ancient journals. I’d written it down on a yellow pad of paper and have been looking for it for 12 years. Resigned to its loss, I found it, bobbing along on the sea of my past, washing up on the shore.
It bears mentioning that my siblings and I (there are four of us) are respectful of one another, but not close. Not exactly estranged, we exist in our own orbits, having protected ourselves however possible, each in our own way, to get through four very different, very difficult childhoods.
My mother was 86 when she died. She had loved life to the end. Her mind was beginning to slip, and she had lung cancer. But she fell on the kitchen tile and hit her head, hard. And that was what took her life in the end. She lived for about 24 hours after the fall. She had stipulated in her will that she wanted to be cremated. This is what I wrote about it.
Having decided we wanted to be present when Mom was cremated, we had assembled at the crematorium in Reno, Nevada, a little warehouse with three ovens. She came out of the hearse in a gray cardboard box the size of a small coffin. The people running the place were very thoughtful and sweet. They explained the procedure, showed us which furnace it would be, and mentioned that we needed to wait for the preheat to reach 800 degrees, and then she would go in.
When the time came, my brother and I together pushed the button on Furnace #2 that started the process. We waited. When they wheeled in the cardboard box, my brother put some things in it, to go with her. My husband put his hands on it and said his final goodbye. I don’t remember what I did. We all stood around, numb and awkward. And in she went.
The oven door opened. No visible flame — this bothered me for a long time. If we’re burning her up, we should be able to see and feel the flames. Nothing. No particular blast of heat, no flame, no smell…so completely devoid of the human smell that had been in her bed that morning. Her body fluids had drained into it, and there was a strong, sweet, acrid, human reminder of a living being gone away. The very last sign of life from her.
800 degrees came, and in she went.
None of us moved for a very long time.
I sat down and meditated for a while. I wanted to notice everything.
I noticed that the place was almost completely 90 degree angles. Nothing circular except the wheels on the gurney and the smoke stack — both relating to movement: one to move her in, and the other to take her out.
I noticed the lack of visible flame.
I noticed everything steel, metal, smooth, shiny.
I noticed our silence.
I noticed the depth of our silence.
Oh, and I noticed the roar of the furnace. I noticed the sound of it, and tried to imagine her body being consumed in and by that sound.
I noticed many other cardboard boxes, and wondered whether they were full or empty. I felt like we were intruding.
I noticed, too, the “BIO-HAZARD” sticker at the top of Furnace #2, and how wrong that felt. Maybe not as wrong as if some environmental activist were being cremated, but still…
I noticed it was cold, and how odd that felt. To be cold in the place where we’re burning my mother’s body. I wanted heat and odor and color and tears and pain. But all I had was clean metal, the sound of the furnace, and the shut-mouthed silence of our not knowing how to be.
When we walked outside, we could see the fumes of her disappearance reflected in a building across the street — reflected in its golden windows, windows made gold by the setting sun. Reflected there were the fumes containing my mother, containing her burnt off self, what’s left of it to go up the chimney.
I hear that afterward, when the burning is done, there are still bone fragments. So they put those in a processor of some kind that crushes them down so that the ashes will fit into the urn.
And that was it.
I wish there were more ceremony involved. I know it’s on us. But we have no idea what to do.
I wish there were some known, accepted protocol, some way in which we all knew we were going to be, with all of this.
I wish there were a way of lancing the boil of isolation and sharing some cathartic experience of either the divine or the ridiculously mundane — and that raucous laughter, or messy, gut-deep sobbing, or both, could heal us from the wounds we’ve carried all our lives.
I wish there were some ritual that could lower us into into each other’s lives, and lead us into our love for one another.
I wish there were sacred rituals that were baked into our family zeitgeist. Stuff that isn’t questioned, we just all know it.
I wish. I wish.
But there weren’t. There aren’t. So we’ve lived out the rest of our lives growing further and further apart. Some of us voted one way last year, others of us the other. This has lodged an axe of deeper division between us. We still try to be brother to sister, sister to sister, brother to brother; but none of us knows what it means anymore — if we ever did. And so the illusions dissolve, and we are what we actually are to one another. Blood relatives with no real blood flowing between us. Carrying into our elder years a loneliness of heart, a shyness, and a resignation to the way things are.
Both hardened and softened against trying for more.
I’m a patron of Ninja Writers and this is part of the Medium Post-a-Day Challenge of blogging for 100 consecutive days. If you enjoyed this piece of writing, click on the clapping hands at left and give it some love, or comment, share or follow me. And thank you so much for reading.