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Authors: Eve Joseph

In the Slender Margin

BOOK: In the Slender Margin
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IN THE
SLENDER
MARGIN
The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying

EVE JOSEPH

Dedication

For Ian

Epigraph

On the night we die a thousand others go with us.

—D. J. ENRIGHT,
The Oxford Book of Death

ONE
The Basement

The Sun will die in its sleep beneath a bridge, and trailing westward like a winding-sheet—listen, my dear—how softly Night arrives.

—CHARLES BAUDELAIRE,
“Meditation”

 

A Forbidden Room

I had just turned twelve when my brother was killed in a car accident. In 1965, the year Allen Ginsberg coined the term
flower power
and Malcolm X was shot dead inside Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, the year T. S. Eliot died and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was on its way to becoming a new anthem, death was regarded as a taboo subject. Not a lot was known about what to do with a kid whose brother had suddenly died on the other side of the country.

It was late evening when the call came. The blinds were drawn against the dark of January and the dog lay sleeping in front of the fireplace. The phone, ringing, at the wrong time, sounded loud, as if ringing in an empty house. My mother’s face changed that night. One minute she was reading on the couch, the right side of her face bathed in lamplight, the left in shadow; the next, the phone was in her hand only she wasn’t talking into it, she was holding it away from her face and her words were not making sense. I sat sideways on a chair across from her, dangling my legs. My feet didn’t quite reach the floor and when she screamed I swung my legs faster as if I were on a swing. That night my mother rocked in a chair and I slept on the floor, curled at her feet. In his diary, Edvard
Munch wrote that he was inspired to paint
The Scream
when he saw the sky turn blood-red while walking along a path with two friends at sunset. “I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence—there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city—I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”

I grew up in a house of ghosts. My brother’s death followed the deaths of my mother’s mother, her father and her brother in the war. When a bomb hit my grandmother’s house in London, she was killed by falling debris just as she reached for the gin and tonic my mother was passing to her. Years after the war, a shell fragment pushed its way through my mother’s eyebrow; the entry wounds were invisible, but the evidence was compelling. Her stories were like that. It took the rescuers thirty hours to dig through the rubble. Emerging out of the dust like coal miners, they lifted her back into the light of an unrecognizable city. She never learned where they took her mother’s body. “None of my deaths,” she later told me, “have markers.”

My mother’s grief over my brother’s death reverberated through her nerve endings into the night sky. Inseparable from the infinite, it howled along a stretch of highway thousands of miles away and settled in the bones of her face like Dylan’s
ghost of electricity.
It entered her—and me too—like a permanent vibration.

By the 1960s it was generally believed that children needed to be protected and shielded from loss, but this had not always been the case. In the mid-1800s, children were given death kits, complete with miniature coffins and mourning clothes, to familiarize them with death. For girls in particular,
dressing their dolls in black and laying them out was a kind of rehearsal for participation in the death rituals of adulthood. Until the twentieth century the preparation of the bodies of the dead occurred mostly in people’s homes. In 1909, D. H. Lawrence laid the body of a miner out on the floor in his short story “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” Neither the wife nor the mother could forget, as they bathed him, that it was death they worked with: “he was heavy and inert, it was hard work to clothe him.” Death was an integrated part of life. People died at home rather than in institutions, infant death rates were high, and life expectancy was much shorter. It wasn’t until the 1920s, with breakthroughs in medical care and the rise of the funeral industry, that death and the subject of dying began to retreat into the shadows.

After the Second World War, the influx of women into the labour force and the migration from rural areas to urban centres for work made it increasingly difficult to care for the sick and elderly at home. More and more, the old were sent to nursing homes. With medical advances came the belief that death could be postponed almost indefinitely and was a battle to be fought and won at all costs. What couldn’t be fixed was removed from view, and along with what was removed from view, our memories of what to do and how to think about death began to fade as well. In the home I grew up in, death was a well-kept secret; for many years it felt as if I were standing on tiptoes, peeking into a forbidden room.

I spent the time between the phone call and my brother’s burial playing with my collection of small plastic horses in the basement. The poet Dorothy Livesay’s son, Peter, was attending university and living with us at the time, and it fell
to him to stay with me while the adults upstairs struggled over funeral arrangements. I had pintos, mustangs, Appaloosas and coal-black Arabians, and at one point, when the adults were agonizing over burial or cremation, I must have headed out on the dappled paint and made a beeline for the badlands, all of the horses following me, heading to a sheltered valley to set up camp and sleep beneath a million stars that sparkled like five-pointed sheriff’s badges.

It was raining the day Ian was buried. Memory is often deceptive; in my mind I was downstairs for days on end, but of course this can’t be true. More bewildered than sad, I did not know that grief had taken up permanent residence in our house on the corner of Sixth Street. I did not understand that I was being shaped not so much by grief as by the silence surrounding it. When I eventually surfaced, out of the basement, the funeral was over and everyone had gone home. I watched my mother gather armfuls of lilies and throw them in the trash can.

I see now that our first experiences with loss shape us in ways we don’t understand at the time. The death of Sylvia Plath’s father when she was eight carved out a small space inside her where the idea of suicide could burrow. In
The Year of Magical Thinking
, Joan Didion writes that, with death, something inside us is dislodged, calved like a piece of sheer blue ice from a glacier. C. S. Lewis suggests that with death there are no lights on in the windows of the house, and we wonder, along with him, if it was ever inhabited.

The archetypal journey to the underworld is one in which the one who is left behind in this world follows the beloved to the land of no return. Orpheus travels to the underworld
to attempt to retrieve Eurydice; Hermes goes on behalf of Demeter to bring back her daughter Persephone. There are no maps, no compasses, no sextants with their plates of coloured glass by which to read the stars.

When Ian died, the door to the underworld swung open. I had no idea, when I first studied social work and then went to work for more than twenty years at a well-established hospice, that I was trying to sight the grief of my past experience through the scope of hospice work. To work with the dying is to step out of the known world into the unknown; it was as if death itself had an intimate knowledge of my brother that I could access only by becoming its confidante.

The lilies my mother threw out would have been
Lilium longiflorum—
trumpet-shaped lilies native to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, the lilies mentioned in the Bible as the white-robed apostles of hope found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s crucifixion. Lilies that were said to have sprung up where drops of blood fell.

 

The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski believes we have at least two kinds of memory: one that synthesizes and encompasses the large themes of our lives and one that he calls her “humbler sister,” the memory of little snapshots, quick associations and fleeting glimpses. I was seventeen years younger than my brother; my memories are those of the humbler sister—fleeting, few. Ian worked on the DEW Line in the far northern Arctic for a year when he was nineteen. My mother told me he was briefly a pilot until one time he flew five hundred miles off course and was sent home. By the
mid-1950s, jets routinely broke the sound barrier, and whenever a sonic boom hit—rattling our windows and shaking the clothesline—I would point to the sky and say, “E” “E” “E.” Sometimes a memory is no bigger than a vowel. A single sound and I see him—a nineteen-year-old god of thunder in his silver cockpit splitting open the skies. The same god who, on a trip south, blew all his wages on a Rolex watch and got briefly engaged to Miss Canada.

Twenty-eight when he died, thin and dark-haired with high cheekbones, he had a kind of rangy beauty—part Kerouac, part altar boy. He was beautiful, unfit, often drunk and blazingly intelligent. After completing his master’s thesis in English in 1962, he left for Toronto to study with Northrop Frye. He shone like the silver I took out of its red velvet case and polished every Sunday. As we have all aged, he has remained pinned in our imaginations as a young man with all the vitality and recklessness of youth—more alive in death than he ever could have been in life.

When I was a young girl, I fell in love with poetry one afternoon in grade five. My teacher, Mrs. Black, leaned back against her desk and read to us from Shelley, Keats, Byron and Blake. Time slowed, the way it slows when people describe an accident or trauma, and I remember thinking I could actually taste the words she was saying. After what was an archetypal thunderbolt experience, I wrote into my early twenties and then stopped for thirty years. When I returned to poetry, having worked with the dying for many years, I realized how the two things were twinned. I met my husband, Patrick, at the late poet Al Purdy’s eightieth birthday party. We stood in a doorway talking about death and poetry long after the last guest had left. The borders
between the two are blurred: the language of both is metaphor. Mythology, legend, imagination and poetry grow out of the same black soil as death. All exist beyond the frontiers of logic. It was to these things that I turned to try to find my way out of the basement.

 

THIRTY YEARS AFTER MY BROTHER DIED, I CAME ACROSS A POEM
by George Bowering, a friend of his, in which I learned that his body had been shipped across Canada by train in a blue casket. The train idled on the prairie four miles from where Bowering lay sleeping before it disappeared into the Rockies on its way to the West Coast.

Why this story stays with me I can’t fully explain. Until I read the poem, I had not known that Ian’s body was shipped across the country by rail. The last image I have of him in my imagination is of him lying on a road outside Toronto. It is quiet, and the smell of clover from a nearby ditch fills the night air. Of course, when I think about this, I know it is impossible. He died in January, in the heart of winter; there would have been snow and ice. Summer with its sweet smells was months away.

There was no meaning to be had in Ian’s death. It was not his time; it was not meant to be or a sign of God’s plan. It was an accident. A mishap. My mother’s hope was as thin as a Giacometti sculpture: from hoping he’d take his muddy shoes off in the hallway and sit down at the supper table, to hoping he’d go to school, get married, have babies—from her hopes and her dreams for him—in the end she hoped he had died quickly. When a friend called the coroner in Toronto and found out that he had been killed instantly, my mother was grateful. It is not possible to take in such a hope. Are we deepened by sorrow or depleted by it? We hope to be spared the knowledge; we never imagine that we will hope for the unthinkable.

There is a story about a tribe of nomads crossing the Sahara Desert who pause every few hours in order to let their spirits catch up with them. It seems right that it took my brother five days to arrive at the place he would be buried, right that he came across the country in a casket the colour of the sky.

BOOK: In the Slender Margin
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