The Emily Dickinson poem, There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House, appearing in The Writer’s Almanac, pushed me over the line. I’ve been a spectator of death-wrestling for a few weeks. I learned over the holidays a childhood friend died last February. Her husband’s note on a return Christmas card was shocking because I couldn’t imagine that I would not have known, prepared, said goodbye. I’m trying to remember all the things we did together in our aspirations to become folksingers.
My old dog is dying of heart failure. Each time I pet her, her spiky fur and increasingly bony body demand notice. Her barking and refusal to come downstairs–where she has sat under my desk every day for seven years until her diagnosis in mid-December –is this a lack of oxygen to the brain, or is it her taking control to conserve her energy? I look into her eyes and wonder.
A great friend of mine is a palliative care doctor. When things are too much, we talk. Not about the patient, but about the circumstances of the death, the importance of getting everyone there to say goodbye, to say what they want before the opportunity is gone. Over the holidays, death seems worse, as if there were a more appropriate time.
Oddly, I can’t think of a short story I have written that doesn’t have death at its core. My favorite concerns a young cosmetologist who prepares her hero’s body for the grave. But there are others–the nun who commits murder to save Holy Mother Church’s reputation, the herbalist who provides a murderous tea for wives to use on their abusers, a pharmacist who assassinates one of his patients each year. This last one takes place in November.
Winter is, I guess, the quintessential time to contemplate death. (Leave it to a perfectionist German dog to do everything right.) On Saturday, a friend and I will dig the burial hole in the back yard. I’ll have to measure Onyx’s length, but I figure it will need to be about 4′ x 3′ x 4′. Her shroud will be a bamboo fiber sheet that I slept on until it had holes. Until it’s time, a tarpaulin will line the grave so that the sides don’t collapse in the rain. I don’t want to hurry Onyx’s death, but a terrible anxiety takes over when I think her grave will not be ready when the time comes for its need. I don’t want to put her body in my chest freezer until I can dig one, or be talked into cremating her. For some reason, I need to know where her body is, that she’s in a place that honors her body while she becomes part of the earth.
Writing stories about death must be a rehearsal, or a way for this writer to confront her deepest fears: the not knowing what’s on the other side or whether my life will have had any value. Accommodating Onyx’s new insistences–her refusal at the stairs, her need to eat many small meals, her eight trips outside each day, her wanting to sleep in a new location, her return to overzealous guarding behavior–both of us are preparing, rehearsing, seeing if we can “do this.” As in that first short story I wrote, maybe we learn who we are when we prepare a body for burial.
There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House
by Emily Dickinson
There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House,
As lately as Today –
I know it, by the numb look
Such Houses have — alway –
The Neighbors rustle in and out –
The Doctor — drives away –
A Window opens like a Pod –
Abrupt — mechanically –
Somebody flings a Mattress out –
The Children hurry by –
They wonder if it died — on that –
I used to — when a Boy –
The Minister — goes stiffly in –
As if the House were His –
And He owned all the Mourners — now –
And little Boys — besides –
And then the Milliner — and the Man
Of the Appalling Trade –
To take the measure of the House –
There’ll be that Dark Parade –
Of Tassels — and of Coaches — soon –
It’s easy as a Sign –
The Intuition of the News –
In just a Country Town –