I give up. Just sitting here. Can’t write. But I can’t ignore another school shooting. More brokenhearted parents. Devastated families. It’s too painful searching for words to describe having to face the rest of your life without the child who made your world shine. So I’m burying my sadness in Photoshop, where I can patch together a cozy nest to keep my memories of what kids’ high school days used to look like. Before.
I wish I’d made a death mask of my daughter seven years ago. Like the ones I found myself drawn to in Australia, at the Old Melbourne Gaol. The death masks of executed inmates. Especially that of Martha Needle, one of four women who had been hung there. The masks are true-to scale, three-dimensional representations of the deceased, in plaster or wax casts taken directly from the faces of the individuals right after their hangings. They capture light and shadows, and seem to still contain some spark of the prisoner’s unique character. Much more so than a photo.
The facial expressions seem to be devoid of emotion. Small signs of stress were visible in only a few. Mostly, the death masks radiated a serene peace. I think that’s what attracted me to them.
Before the widespread availability of photography, death masks were the only way to preserve the appearance of the departed. Death masks were made of the notable and the notorious. Royalty. The wealthy, and the famous. And criminals. Death masks were also made of the unknown, as in unidentified bodies, to permanently record and preserve the facial features of an unclaimed corpse, for future identification purposes.
Searching on Google, you can find many different sets of directions for making a death mask. Some tips: It has to be made in the first few hours after death so that bloat and decomposition do not alter the likeness of the subject. And you need to prop up the body into a sitting position so the weight of the plaster doesn’t distort the features. You smear grease over the face, including the individual’s eyebrows and hair, so the plaster won’t stick to it. You dip plaster strips into water and apply smoothly all over the head. The first layer will capture details like lines and wrinkles. Several subsequent layers reinforce the first. Let the plaster set until hardened and then cut through the mold to get two halves. Carefully remove the mold and paste it back together at the cut seam, and then pour melted wax into it. Remove the plaster mold from the wax impression, and behold.
A life mask is made the same way, but it is made from a live subject. Okay, this is one of my more weird posts. I’m just saying, if you love a living person dearly now, and find comfort in gazing at her face, and you dare to remember that death and grieving come to all of us sooner or later, maybe you want to consider making a mask. A life mask. Now. While she’s still here.
What favorite thing do you keep to remember someone you love?
“Missing my beautiful boy so much, I want to die.” “I don’t want to go on living without my baby girl.” This is what I hear so often from grieving parents. It’s a feeling I remember. Not quite seven years ago, the death of my own child just about crushed the life out of me.
What helped me was being mindful of my new mission in life, the special role of keeping a place for my daughter here on earth. I had to continue to live so she could be remembered. I would carry her, what was left of her, until I, myself, had to be carried out of this world. It would be hard. It is hard. When you can no longer wrap your arms around the one you love, or send her extravagant care packages, you end up with love that has no place to go. Leftover love.
It brings me quivering to my knees, to think of what love makes us feel and do. Remarkable things, both minuscule and monumental, have been accomplished in the name of love. Great monuments have been built, magnificent works of art produced, races won, foes conquered. Generous funds have been donated to humanitarian causes. Because of love, lives are created; lives are destroyed; lives are altered, for better or for worse.
Love makes us talk to ghosts and sing to the moon. It makes us write words that melt others’ hearts. It gets us sending long letters into cyberspace. Trying to express our love, we wring our hearts out baking a cake, making an exceptional meal, or rubbing someone’s feet. Love makes us come home; it makes us leave home. It keeps some returning again and again to the person who beats them. Love blinds us to what we don’t want to know; and allows us to see beauty where no one else can. It makes us live on the edge of a dare; it makes us want to die.
Look at all the energy gathered, even in the wake of love’s loss. What will you do with your leftover love?
Dragging and dropping an old photo of my daughter into Photoshop, I paste a bed of bright geraniums around her. And hug her image with ribbons and roses, and anything I can come up with that reminds me of how love feels during the best times. I’m holding on with all my might to whatever is left of my daughter, to my love for her. Through the whole spectrum of love’s emotions, from happiness to pain, from pain to happiness, I stop at a million points in between. I wish I knew how to help the ones who say they don’t want to live without their loved one. The only thing I know for sure is love can rip your reserves to shreds. Or it can fuel your most magnificent dreams.
Can stinkbugs be signs from The Other Side? The psychic medium told me to watch for hearts. Hearts would be signs from my daughter who died. But I’ve had no sightings of hearts since the conversation with the medium. And I’ve looked.
In fact, I went looking for some sign of hearts in Marika’s old bedroom. The only ones I found were on an ancient mug of mine that was holding up Marika’s prom bouquet of silk roses. I lightly stroked the fake flowers, and a dried-up stinkbug fell on my hand. Shortly after, I found another dead stinkbug lying belly up in the dog’s bed (Marika’s beloved dog that I inherited). And just a few nights ago, I was reading on the couch when one landed in my hair. I was so shaken and disgusted, I quickly captured it in a glass, ran outdoors, and shook it out into the snow. Finding them dead is a lot easier on my karma. The DustBuster is full of dead stinkbugs.
With temperatures hovering around zero, the house has been inundated with them. Yes, they’re just trying to escape the cold, but it wouldn’t be so unimaginable to think of these icky things as gifts from Marika. Who on several occasions told me she hoped I’d fall off a mountain. Told me to go f— myself. She was never going to send me roses.
Maybe I should look up and say, Thank you Marika, every time I encounter one of these hideously ugly bugs. It might make me feel more hospitable to them. Always opposing my sentiments on everything, Marika would probably insist, Mom, I think they’re cute.
In the two months since I spoke with the medium, I’ve spotted rainbows, feathers, ladybugs, cardinals, and dropped coins. Things others count as signs from their deceased loved ones. Things Marika might just as easily have considered sending me. None of these ever smacked of Marika though. Not like this spate of stinkbugs. Dead and alive. Lots. Still, no hearts.
Valentines Day is coming up. The holiday that makes me want to hide under the bed. Marika loved that day. The time when sweethearts send flowers and chocolates, and friends show off the new jewels they received from their husbands. In the stores, red hearts are pasted all over everything. But that doesn’t count as a sign.
What signs have you received from deceased loved ones? What signs would you like to receive? If you could, what would you send to someone you loved who died?
On one of the coldest days of the year I declared a snow day for myself. I stayed at home in warm woolly long johns and decided I wouldn’t work. But I would still do the daily ritual of saying good morning to my ever-growing list of departed souls. And I still had to tend to the routines of feeding and walking the dog, dealing with meals and vitamin regimens, checking the water chlorination system, fetching and sorting mail, paying the multitude of monthly bills, phoning to check on various people in my life, and figuring out which appointments I could cancel from this one day of the tightly-scheduled week. Life is complicated. Crammed. It’s filled with routines and responsibilities. Whether or not I work, my time is consumed.
Space is consumed as well. The piles of possessions, books and papers, the wardrobes of my own and my dog’s, the pillows all over the house for bolstering my bad back, the leftover belongings of my daughter who died and my son who now has his own home, the parts and pieces of projects that beg to be completed… the accumulation of stuff.
Maybe that’s why I like to travel. Leaving home, I pack only what can fit into one rolling suitcase and one carry-on bag. Traveling limits the amount of physical things I have to contend with. And it detangles my time. During vacations, my life is deconstructed, like the salads I make for my friends, with just a few delectable items carefully splayed out on a white plate.
Back in November, on my first full day in Australia, I followed my tour group to the Old Melbourne Gaol where there were rows and rows of inmates’ cells. I stepped into one empty cell and shut the door on the noise of life. Squatting on the floor, I tried to imagine sleeping there countless cold damp nights with only a thin horsehair mat and scratchy blanket. This was once some criminal’s home, I reminded myself. Someone lived here, sandwiching his weary bones between a mat and a blanket. Life beyond that had to be drawn from whatever warm thoughts the prisoner had stockpiled in the depths of his mind.
Alone in the cell, my thoughts wandered to the peeling paint on the walls. Which made me remember my bathroom project that needed patching. Which took me back home to the dog, the bills that would not be paid while I was traveling, the people waiting for my calls, …the friends eating salad without me. And the ones I love.
What makes life complicated? Is travel an escape from routines and responsibilities?