Three days after Ellen’s death I found myself, or at least the wispy remnants, floating around Italy on a class trip that had been scheduled for over a year. In the weeks before my departure date we all hoped God would hurry up, already…
What if she dies while I’m gone? Do I stay home? Do I ask God to take her ASAP because I want gelatto?
On May 24th, 2004 I suit up in my school uniform. Ellen’s stench worsens, she hasn’t eaten in days, and the gray darkens with each hour she lies unconscious. I peek in to whisper good-bye before loading Fiona and Sean in the van. My sister is naked except for the diaper and the green knit lovey that wrapped her newborn body fourteen years earlier.
It’s threads now, just strings held together with time and love and a few stitches.
I don’t want to write these words.
Gail, my office lady Mama, pages the three of us who are not dying to the front office shortly before dismissal. 2:30ish? We wait for Mama to come take us to our sister’s deathbed.
“It’s happening.” My mom says. She is equal parts frantic and calm, like the ocean or a fire.
We rush into the back room where both dads, a nurse, and some other blurry faces wait for the kiddos and me. I think the blurry people leave? Some return later to whisk us away while Ellen’s body is removed in a black bag.
The hospice nurse shuffles out, too. Any robot parts have been removed for the occasion and we cry. Her breathing shallows and she turns a murkier shade of gray. Is she cold? She’s just got Lovey covering her. She can’t be cold, she isn’t here, remember? She is in the stars.
By 3:40pm people start feeling overwhelmed by the roaring and the smell and the death; we take turns walking in circles around the house. Around 4pm I am in the room with Mama, I think Fi was in there too. We are brave puddles, keeping watch, making sure she isn’t alone when Jesus comes to take her.
I remember piles of used tissues on the carpet, but I kept mine in the pocket of my white collared shirt.
A loud exhale.
“You guys, get in here!” We yell.
Another deep rattle. We know what comes next, and we are together—stitched to one another with time and love.
One more exhale, longer and cemented to eternity this time. In the corner of the room I see a light hover above us. Does anyone else see this? What is happening? It tells me to check her eyes.
My tears cascade onto her puffy facial features as I lean over to see if my sister is dead, finally, after ten years. Because I have a thing with dead bodies I hesitate, but lifting up her eyelid confirms it.
“She’s dead you guys! Her eyes are dead!” I scream.
Hospice warned us about what happens next.
We washed her body after removing the threads and the diaper. But people would arrive soon to wheel her body away, and the image of a body bag can really fuck a family up.
“The children should leave. Everyone should avoid it, but especially the kids.”
Mrs. Dimas, my sixth grade teacher and close family friend swooped in and flew me to Mt. Boney, a rocky mass with meadowed trails that sits at the edge of the Pacific. It’s a five minute drive from the house. Where are the little kids? Who took them? I don’t know where the babies are… We walk to the bench at the trailhead. God designed heaven after watching May explode in these mountains and meadows.
Can you smell the tall grass? Wet and plump and slimy, like land algae. What about the velvety sage and damp sea salt? I can.
The sunset slips through the slivers of my puffy eyelids. What do we talk about? Do we even speak? I wonder when it’s safe to go home? What will the house feel like without her body there? Where is she? Is it safe? What does her new Home feel like?
I miss her and it’s only been two hours.
When we get home I sneak a pill bottle of hers and toss out the leftover meds. I hide the damp tissues from inside my pocket into the little orange plastic urn.
It is finished.
A week later I stand in front of La Pieta in the Sistine Chapel. Have you seen this piece of marbled love? Mary sits, robed to the max, holding a freshly-crucified Christ.
The thick crowd can’t keep my heart magnet from walking closer to the details of this grief, this death.
I know her. I know how that feels.
My mom, my poor parents. They feel like her, too.
What just happened?
And then I crumple to the floor, weeping bitter Mary tears in front of hundreds of people, but it was only She who saw. Someone had to wipe my hair out of the snot and remind me that security was watching, so Mrs. Horan swoops over to help hold the pieces.
I know what happened here. Christ took pity on us. La Pieta. The Pity. He isn’t the one to be pitied, He pitied a fearful, forgetful humanity. Forgive them, for they do not know. Ellen pitied us, too. All our anger and doubts and resistance—forgive them Father, they don’t know.
To Jesus and to Ellen, death was mercy. Their sacrifices, stitched together with time & love and cemented to Eternity, electroshocked their communities. We still feel the zapping. Nobody can answer why death and suffering exist, but lots of people can collectively prove that death is never wasted—blood and suffering are never wasted— because of people like Ellen & Jesus and you & me.
It’s happening. Mary and my tears can prove it.
If I had known that viewing Michaelangelo’s masterpiece would induce hyperventilation I might’ve stayed away. You live you learn. I rise up because our tour guide has a schedule to keep and my cohort of Christian school attendees start sifting out of the crowd.
No, I am not ready, how can I leave her? How can I leave him? They’re the only ones who know.
Later, in Florence on a balcony overlooking a quiet street my friend plays IZ’s song “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” for me, that remix of the Judy Garland classic and Miles Davis’s “What a Wonderful World.” She had no clue that both those songs hold dear places in the heart Ellen and I shared.
Before iPhones, when Nokias with QWERTY keyboards sufficed, a complicated series of logins and pages prevented me from reaching my dad. After an hour of frantic button-pushing the fiberoptic cables align and the email skips across a continent or two.
“Here is the song we need to play at her funeral.”
“Yes,” he replied.
Because her talent show performance of Judy Garland’s classic was recorded on his videocamera at Bruin Woods. And the speakers of his evergreen Jeep Grand Cherokee played “What a Wonderful World” in the parking lot of the Vons, along with Shania Twain and Bette Milder.
Talk about convenient, I got to fly home with my English teacher!
She proof read the eulogy I was to read in a couple days—no corrections, no red marks, just a few tears. I couldn’t read the words out loud on the stage in front of the hundreds who showed up to receive their electroshock therapy. Daddy’s ex wife, my ex-stepmom, the one who painted tigger and shared her big family with me read the words on my behalf.
What did people do after they washed Jesus’ body and put him away for good? I wonder what they felt after He exhaled “It is finished.” Because for years Ellen’s death was just that, a defeat, a death, a charcoaled patch of earth, a ripped tabernacle curtain and a dark smokey sky.
Did they take a walk to the mountains or the sea? Did their swollen eyes ever deflate? Did they save the tear-soaked linen scraps? Did they rage and swear on their skin and in their heads?
The story wasn’t finished though, not for them. Because Love had the last laugh. And nothing is wasted, that’s the beauty of compost.
Ellen’s story was never wasted, because I never stopped telling it.
Jesus’ story was never wasted, because we’ll never stop telling it.
Eternity is stitched and cemented to our hearts through the power of Goodhardgood Stories. Don’t stop telling them, don’t stop listening for the Light that’s always hovering in the corners of your heart. We are not alone & we never will be. Thanks God.