The Longest Saturday
Care for the bodies of our dead is an affirmation of our firm belief in the resurrection.
Saint Augustine, "On Caring for the Dead"
It is Good Friday, two springs after my mother's death, the first spring after my father's. Today I'm less aware of the Savior's torturous dying than of the cold death, the artists' visions of Mary cradling a man's corpse, believing his final phrase: "It is finished." With another woman's Joseph, she wrapped her son in swaddling cloths and laid him in a stone tomb because there was no room among the living. On Sunday morning other Marys carrying aromatic spices would hope to delay the decay, but they knew there was no real disguise. Flesh to dust.
This awareness is heightened, having two weeks ago read the March "assignment" for my book group, a short story, "Roof Work" by Joe Ashby Porter. The low-action plot goes something like this: While repairing a roof, 20-year-old Patrick listens to an older neighbor's childhood perception of altar-call manipulation. The self-absorbed tale explains why she as an adult has no Christian faith. Her story goes on for 11 pages, and then there's an abrupt shift to "four days later," when Patrick dreams of glimpsing his father's "rotting face," coffined now for three years. The memory of the dream changes him and his grief. "I had taken the death as a fact about me," now orphaned, "and strangely not taken it as what it was above all, a fact about Poppa."1
I read this story with dispassion, focusing on the editorial puzzle I couldn't figure out; what hinge connected the story on the roof and the dream underground? The Sunday-afternoon group discussion revolved around this question and landed on the limits of a self-referential view of life and death, humanity and God. Though it was Lent, I didn't immediately identify seasonal themes. Ash Wednesday's sober litany: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Or the Old Testament reading I'd heard that very morning: Ezekiel's vision of dry bones. When I left the hostess' condo, I tossed the anthology into the backseat and didn't give the story another thought. For a week I myopically focused on maintaining my standard of living long hours of editing under a tight deadline.
But ten days later, this past Tuesday, in Holy Week, I awoke, startled from a vivid dream about my mother. Since her death I'd dreamt of her several times; she was in her prime, walking, talking, cooking. In that dream-world I knew something wasn't right; I would challenge her: "What are you doing? You're not supposed to be here. You're dead." But in this latest dream, seeded by Porter's fiction, an oddly twisted reality struck: Untraditionally buried, my mother's casket sat at the bottom of a muddy pond. Drought a current local worry had lowered the water level. The hardwood, now exposed, had rotted through; inside the box I saw my mother's decomposing body.
The dream memory is not of her face as much as her blackened left thigh on which I used to lay my head during Sunday night sermons. A vaguely defined we, probably siblings, didn't repair the coffin; what more harm could nature work? With a crane, we moved the box to deeper water, where it dropped again to the depths as I shook myself awake, unsettled.
Once or twice a year, growing up, we drove three hours to my mother's sister's farm in northern Pennsylvania. To or from, the car stopped on a rural road, turned, and rolled under the wrought-iron arch that marked the entrance to what we called simply "the cemetery." At five miles an hour all passengers perfectly silent by now we rode to the far end of the short rutted road, then climbed out. We left, watered, or picked up a clay crock of red geraniums that seasonally attended the small gravestones of the two brothers I never knew. We pulled a few weeds. With a little pride that they'd taken care of this detail Mom or Dad pointed out their adjoining double headstone. "This is where we'll be buried." Years of birth etched in. Dates of death not. "And we bought three extra places here, in case … ." the sentence trailed off. We never stayed more than five minutes. We never said a prayer for the living or the dead.
As a child I did not connect "the cemetery" with particular people I had known and loved. I was nearly fifty before I felt the sting of being left behind by someone whose absence made a difference in how I viewed myself or the world. A family voice silenced. A familiar face stilled.
My older siblings, on the other hand, retain vivid memories of startling moments when they grasped the reality of the death of their eight-year-old brother, Jimmy.
For some reason Dad demanding one last good-bye? Jimmy's casket was opened at the cemetery. Brother Bud tells me this and ties it to his horror when he then peeked through a gap in the green tarp, saw the deep-dug hole, and suddenly understood Jimmy's confined physical fate.