When I got through the cold they made me swim in a river, and I forgot his name. I forgot all the names. — Sarah Ruhl, ‘Eurydice’
I cared for both my boyfriend and my mother in my house. My boyfriend died in his hospice bed in my living room. Afterward, whenever I stepped onto my patio, I passed through the physical space where he sighed his last breath as I held him in my arms.
Most nights, after helping my mother to bed, I’d stand in the salty air, staring out at the lights reflected in the marina. If I turned and caught my reflection in the sliding glass door, Dan stood near me. Less than two years later, my mother left this life too. For months, whenever I sat at my dining room table, I felt her next to me.
In the beginning of their absence, I spoke to my mother and to Dan, and they often spoke back. My mother was no stranger to communing with someone on the other side. Months before she died, she conversed with her deceased twin sister every evening. I witnessed her in this eerie borderland, hovering over her martini glass as if it were a crystal ball, her head bobbing in and out of sleep. Their conversation seemed as real as my conversation with my long-dead father, who visited me after the birth of my daughter. Sixteen years earlier, I’d given up my first child for adoption. “I never got to meet your son,” my ghostly father said as he sat down at my kitchen table, “so I really want to see your daughter.” I introduced them.
We, the living, are the vessels that house the dead. We shelter them from oblivion and silence by speaking their names. We wear their neckties, their pearls, and their wedding rings. We warm our cold grief inside their sweaters. We spend their money, drive their cars, play their guitars, listen to the music they loved. We are living, breathing receptacles for the vibrations that connect their world with ours. Remembering them is a holy practice.
Some nights, my laptop is a Ouija board, my fingers suspended above the keys, waiting for an answer to materialize. On my boyfriend’s Facebook page, I revel in the music he shared, reawaken my taste buds to the recipes we tried, and trace the roots of my interest in tai chi through his passion for it. Our private messages, mixing the flirtatious with the mundane, unfurl down the side of the screen like a rope ladder to the underworld. My mother also lives on in this virtual place, resurrecting herself through her nightly dinnertime stories, which I posted into a blog. Hungry for details I’ve half-forgotten, they emerge in the glow of the computer screen.
Real life as a caregiver was often darker than these visitations. Like a spectator in a mysterious black-box theater, I didn’t know what show I was watching or when it would end. Is this infection, this fall, this fever, the prelude to the final act? Will I even know when the final act begins?
My mother made eight trips to the ER and was hospitalized six times during the three years she lived with me. Dan went to the ER twice in the two months he struggled to recover from his surgery for lung cancer and as he endured chemo and radiation. During his final stay in the hospital, we learned it was time for hospice. I drove him directly to a nursing home, convinced that I couldn’t care for him and my mother simultaneously. A few days later, I dreamed I’d sewn a green velvet backpack, put him in it, and carried him to the ocean. “Let’s go!” he said, after I recounted the dream. That afternoon, I had him transported back to my house.
I’m not sure what love teaches us about death, but death has plenty to teach us about love.
With each new crisis, my heart shriveled into something small and hard, but like the backpack that expanded to hold an adult man, my heart reopened. In these moments, life and love were bigger and deeper than I’d ever imagined. I’m not sure what love teaches us about death, but death has plenty to teach us about love.
Six years have passed since Dan’s death. My life is full and happy. After decades in California, I recently moved to the Midwest to be closer to my daughters and other relatives. The Iowa city on the Mississippi River where both my mother and I were born is a five-hour drive from my condo. In the smaller town where my parents raised me, the two of them lie beneath matching headstones across the railroad tracks from the church that still holds a monopoly on the skyline. When I visit them, time is as fluid as the river.
It’s already been five years since my mother’s final trip from California to Iowa, when she sat inside the jetway in the aisle-sized wheelchair, smiling and waving like the queen of England at the other deplaning passengers. The plane’s crew remained with us as we waited for an attendant with a regular wheelchair. “I’ve come home to die,” she said when she was ready to be wheeled away. “Thank you for everything!”
I’ve come home to live. Grief’s crater in the landscape of the present grows smaller and smaller. But some days I itch to claw the crater deeper. This is the hole that love left, and some part of me craves the ache of fresh dirt, the raw scar, the pain that feels like a heart attack. I hunger for news of the dead, and lately, no one’s come to visit me.
I still have the collection of heart-shaped rocks that I plucked from the sand on my regular beach walks when my boyfriend, my mother, and I lived in California. The heart rocks stood on the mantel at the head of Dan’s bed in my living room, where he lay dying. Walking on the beach with my friend Ellen the day after his death, I spotted a large, smooth heart-shaped rock resting on the sand. I stepped over it.
“Don’t tell me you’re not going to pick that up,” Ellen said.
I’m not sure what love teaches us about death, but death has plenty to teach us about love.
It’s unsettling to witness love’s journey from one world to the next, but I turned around and pocketed it. A month later, crying my eyes out on a solitary beach walk, I begged the universe for a sign that I should keep on living. Ahead, in the waves, a tall Styrofoam cup rolled this way and that. In the habit of picking up beach trash, I strode into the surf and snatched the cup before it could be carried out to sea. On the cup, in bold black marker, was a name: Daniel.
Dan not only sent messages after he died; he also visited me in dreams. He has assured me that he’s doing fine and that there are parties and music in the place beyond the living. In our dream world, he’s traded his jeans and Costco T-shirts for boleros, designer sunglasses, and stylish leather jackets. There, we’ve traveled more — a camping trip in a spectacular canyon, a visit to a magnificent library, and a festival where the sky is full of men fashioned from balloons.
In one dream, we laid out a plan for how to make contact when he returns in another body. “Bruges will be my new name,” he said. A friend told me that the name Bruges means “bridge,” but I don’t know what to make of any of this. Sometimes the new name slips from my mind, and my heart pounds until I remember it.
Maybe the dead miss the living the way we miss them.
When my mother came back to me in a dream, she appeared not as the wise and benevolent ghost I expected, but as a zombie trying to drag me to the other side. She clutched my ankles and nearly pulled me off my feet. “The soul leaves the body through the feet,” an artist I met in Mexico said. This felt true as I struggled in my mother’s clutches, certain that if I hit the ground, she had me. In another dream she was a specter, hiding behind the living room curtains, poised to jump out and grab me. When I spied her pale feet protruding from beneath the dark fabric, I ran from the room.
Maybe the dead miss the living the way we miss them. Maybe yanking my soul out of my body and dragging me into the netherworld would have comforted my mother. Maybe these dreams mean that I am afraid of dying.
The first two autumns after my mother died, I traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, for the Day of the Dead. I packed pictures of her and of Dan to place on the ofrenda where I would be staying, hoping for a visitation from either or both of them. “The spirits are coming,” people told me. “See how the air is thin—they can now come through!” It was the beginning of November, and in southern Mexico, the clear sky was like a blue balloon, stretched to the breaking point. But neither Dan nor my mother visited me in Oaxaca.
While attending the Día de los Muertos festivities at the cemetery where my hostess’s husband was buried, guests perched hip to hip on folding chairs, balancing plates of tamales on their laps. They stood in the shadows, chatting and drinking mescal. A large portrait of the deceased presided over the party, looking longingly, it seemed, at the favorite sweet pancakes his wife had bought from one of the many vendors on the way to the cemetery. Some guests hummed along with the trio who had been hired to play his favorite songs. If I narrowed my eyes in the flickering candlelight, the silhouette of the bass in the embrace of its player conjured memories of my own beloved, but I sensed more absence than presence.
Before I’d ever imagined traveling to Oaxaca, Dan and I visited an exhibit of Day of the Dead altars at the county art museum in Ventura, California. That night at dinner, Dan, my younger daughter, and I explained to my mother about Day of the Dead. “The skeletons are happy,” we said. “There are parties and food and drink in the cemeteries.”
“That sounds marvelous,” she said, raising her martini. But so often now, when I miss her and Dan, it’s as if their ghosts are lurking beyond the edges of my peripheral vision. They don’t join the party.
A decade earlier, before I met Dan and before my mother’s cancer came back — years before I would become a caregiver — I traveled to a village in southern Greece. Out for an evening stroll, my friends and I were drawn through the gates of a graveyard by the candles wavering in the dusk. Inside, we encountered a wailing woman in a black dress, clutching her husband’s framed photo to her breast. Nodding, we held our hands to our own hearts.
More women circled the graveyard in the shadows, while others arranged candles or swept the tops of graves. The All Souls Day festivities here were not celebrated with music and mescal, but the return of the dead felt imminent.
When family graves become too crowded, a friend who lives in Greece explained, the oldest bones are lifted out and boxed in the bone house. In a shadowy corner beyond the graves, we poked our heads inside the small structure and saw that some of the cartons, scrawled with names, were falling apart. Bones poked out as if they might be contemplating a return to the tombs they’d been taken from. Overcome with dread, I bolted from the cemetery alone.
An hour later, on the patio of our hotel, I sat drinking a beer, when my friends returned. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” one of them said.
Maybe the dead miss the living the way we miss them.
Ghosts abound in literature around the world, both ancient and contemporary. They move furniture and bump around on moonless nights; they call out political corruption, reform lives, beg favors, pursue murderers, and predict the future. I believe ghosts are simply the dead who will do anything in their struggle to cross the divide from their world to the world of the living. A final word, a last embrace, a longer look, a resolution, an apology, an answer, an affirmation — who knows what they are looking for, but whatever it is, it resides with the living, and they are determined to have it.
Some say the soul vacates the body at the moment of death — that it rises up to heaven or that it descends to receive its eternal punishment. Others say the soul wanders around for a while or that death is simply the end. Having held two people in my arms at the moment of death, I say the soul is breathed out in the final breath, and the living who are present breathe a bit of that soul in.
In the classic Greek myth, Eurydice dies twice: once on her wedding day when she is bitten by an adder, and again just as she is about to be released from the underworld to rejoin her grieving husband. In the contemporary Sarah Ruhl play of the same name, Eurydice’s return to the underworld is no accident. She longs to remain with her father, with whom she has become reacquainted in the afterlife.
“Hold your breath,” Eurydice’s father advises her as they discussed the mandatory dipping in the river between earthly life and the next. It’s the river that causes the dead to forget the living and much of what they knew aboveground.
Living with my mother, I often felt that she was already wading into the river of unknowing. Certain words escaped her. Sometimes, near dinnertime, when her tongue was wearing its fuzzy martini overcoat and my ears were full of wine, it seemed that we were speaking two different languages. Though my mother still resided in the land of the living, she was like Eurydice—unable to accomplish the tasks that had once come easily. Eurydice, who loved books and ideas, forgets how to read in the underworld and does not even recognize a book. My mother, once a devoted cook and baker, would try to pare an apple with a bread knife.
The place in California near the ocean where I lived with Dan and my mother is far away now. The Mississippi River threads through my new city. On my morning walk, I cross the river by one bridge and return home by another. “Bruges means ‘bridge,’” my friend said, but I wonder if Dan and my mother are finished crossing into this world to visit me.
It’s been months since my most recent dream of my mother. In it, she was younger and able-bodied and decided to drive herself back to her apartment rather than stay in the house where the rest of the family had gathered. Before she left, she grabbed my older daughter in a hug and told her she lived too far away and that she didn’t know when she’d see her again.
When I last dreamed of Dan, we were at a party. He pulled up a chair across from me, our knees nearly touching. “You’re back,” I said, setting down my drink. I took his face in my hands and our eyes locked. “You know I can’t stay,” he said.
Crossing and recrossing on each bridge, I stop for a minute and look down. The Mississippi here is a fraying ribbon, wild and bounding, and I think of how that other river’s rushing waters tear this life away and how the pain of leaving this world would be unbearable without dipping into the river of forgetfulness. Thus, the dead are required to forget. And so it is our job — the job of the living — to remember.
Originally published in the 2020 issue of Under the Sun. Brief excerpts appeared in The Language of Loss by Barbara Abercrombie, published by New World Press.