Death comes in a strange haze that is punctuated by a sudden snap and loss of all control. Rarely is it quiet, even when done in secret, and the meat will fight to stay alive as long as there is a soul fueling the heart that still refuses to stop beating. It is also intimate. Private. To look upon a dead body, to see the last moments of life and the first moments of death frozen in the muscles; it is seen almost too causally, and tossed aside as something normal.
Death isn’t normal, it’s inevitable. There’s a difference. To watch someone decline, point A to point B, and then be there, to stare at the body, to feel the loss. The gravity. There’s nothing normal about it. Last week, my grandfather finally died, and I say finally because he had severe dementia, and ultimately, it cost him his life. A grim blessing, truly.
Work doesn’t have time for death, so I was working like usual. The call I received was simple, gentle. He was gone, and it had been a long time coming. I’ve only seen a dead body once before, to be honest. For as much as I write about death and the consequences of it, I have little face to face experience with it. But like most things in life, one is often woefully prepared for grievous situations no matter how well adjusted they claim, or have tried, to be. I am no exception.
Walking into my grandfather’s room at home, I smelled…illness. Medicine, old sweat, piss, shit, sadness, impatience, boredom. I approached his form under the sheet, but his face wasn’t covered. He was on his side to alleviate the pain in his lung from the night before, still in the same position I had left him when I said goodnight to him. I remember holding his hand as he gripped the safety rail on the side of his bed. He still gripped that rail. I sat down beside him, and looked into his face. What I saw is now burned into my skull, my very godamn bones.
His skin was yellow and thick, like looking at candlewax covered in a thin, dessicated membrane. His mouth was slightly open, as were his eyes. They hadn’t closed them. I looked into those eyes, seeing a flicker of his iris. A clot of bright green mucus clung to his nose and upper lip, they had not cleared it. As I stared at him, I couldn’t help but feel…hate. Anger. Not at him, or my family, but unguided.
Touching him was a terrible mistake. His skin was freezing, slightly damp, and rigid. I tried to hold his hand, but it was resistant to movement thanks to rigor mortis. I had this maddening thought, this terrible thought, that I needed to wash my hands right away. I felt like I had taken some of that death. He lay there for several hours as we waited for the funeral home to take away his remains. Even though he was gone long before they took him, I never felt the void until he was no longer in the house.
Void. The perfect word.
My grandfather was dead, and I thought I was prepared for it. In truth, my experiences with death have never been normal, so I don’t understand why the subject is so simply dealt with by so many others. I feel that his death was a miserable, lingering experience that a man of his worth and caliber did not deserve. But, I am no god. I have no power here. I am merely another hunk of meat trying to make sense of more death in a world so alive.
I hate the casual way death is approached in modern times. Or disrespected. It is downplayed, accepted, spun, altered, hidden, applied, dictated, ordered, natural and forced, among other things, and it is the final answer to a question that was asked at birth, the question that burns inside every one of us until the day we blink when staring death in those empty, black sockets.
Death is not a stranger to me. I am surrounded by it, as all we are. And I can feel the clawing black sometimes. It’s like a rotted bridal veil that we all look at the world through. Death and I have a strange acceptance for one another. Well, at least an acceptance that a man and an intangible force of nature can have together. Death comes. Death is always coming, and we must all be ready for it. Even when we aren’t. Even when it’s our own.
The night before I left him, I could feel his beating heart and shallow breaths. Together, the sensation in the room felt like pleas, or prayer under the husk of death because he lost his power of speech a few days before he died. I watched him, laboring under his illness, and could only think to say, “…”