I was told once, by a dubious and drunken ‘Buddhist’ in one of the dives off Elizabeth street, that with death comes metamorphosis. Not a figurative metamorphosis, mind you, but a bodily change where the skin pops, squeals, and writhes outward to reveal a living and many-hued larva, bound by the ribcage, in place of the heart. He saw this occur in a Bosnian morgue, and though I wanted to refute him immediately I had no experiential grounds so deferred instead, after a long slurp of jug-warm beer, to “That seems unlikely.”
A lady who I’ve never met was speaking at my aunt’s funeral, and it’s very hard to listen to a person you don’t know. So I stared at the casket, small and dimly-lit in the recession at the funeral parlour’s rear-wall. It was furnished with a propped picture frame and a careful bouquet and I wondered if the Buddhist’s process might be going on now, even as the room’s occupants sat, crying in their plastic chairs, preparing for the hard blow of another dully recited poem. What would happen to the larva, trapped after we left? I thought that the slow roll into the crematorium’s flaming chamber would interrupt its endless, cyclic future, unless perhaps the reborn creature could excrete a spore cloud before the pilot light struck, a green and noxious dissemination of the soul.
There was a great sense of relief at home afterwards, where our large family gathered to drink wine, talk quietly and eat hastily-arranged dips. I spent that time on the garden lawn, lying flat with my fingers in the dirt and grass and a baseball cap over my face to screen the sunlight. My cousin, Cath, was cross-legged beside me. She had just been to her mother’s funeral; I didn’t have much to say to her, certainly nothing about metamorphosis. But we had always been close and if she was even half as comforted by my presence as I was by hers then I was surely a useful part of the grieving ritual.
I was rubbing my sternum through the cotton of my t-shirt when Cath said she was moving to America.
“Since when?” I asked, trying not to sound saddened, but there was that constriction of the throat.
“Since now. Since this. It’s too much and it’s time to get away.”
“Is it right to just run away from it?”
“What else is there to do with it?” she asked and she was right, because I was rubbing harder and there was nothing moving beneath my sternum.
“I know a Buddhist,” I started.
“Spare me that bullshit,” she snapped.
“No, all I’m saying is it’s really easy to get rid of your stuff these days. EBay and that. If you go you should sell everything and just go, just go with your jeans and passport, you know? I’ve thought about that. Hell, if you do it like that, I’ll come.”
“Sure. Why not?”
Cath left two weeks later, overstuffed suitcase in tow. She said she’d be staying with a Facebook friend in Maine until she found work. I didn’t hear from her much at all until I came home one evening to find a Lincoln-stamped letter in the mailbox. I tore it open to read the two handwritten pages.
It’s Saturday and I saw mum in the street this morning. Emmie and I were drinking coffee and walking with the dogs when I saw her, leaning against a dressmaker’s bay window. I watched as I walked by but I didn’t stop or say anything. I raised my hand and she waved back and it felt real, Benj. It was a presence I’ve only felt in dreams since she died. I didn’t mention anything to Emmie but when we got home I said I was feeling unwell and cried for a while in the bathroom. These people are very religious, Emmie says prayers before dinner and that’s fine but I don’t want to talk about seeing mum with them. I haven’t been able to talk about mum at all.
Do you think I’m losing it? The job I have isn’t great and I’m probably coming home. I wake up and look through the curtains at the snow, at the grey streets and the behemoth cars and wonder what I’m doing here. I’ve stopped taking photographs already and I know this was never about a holiday. I said this wouldn’t be a holiday, but you were right, dickhead, when you said I was just running away. I realized that when I asked my boss if I could have a few days to see San Francisco, and almost choked on the lie because if I went I’d never return.
Please write back, Benj. Tell me that the family is good and they miss me and that I can come home to a big Sunday barbecue and sleep on the couch. That’s how it should work, right? I made a mistake. I know now why you’re there and Grandad’s there and Auntie Ada. I need that comfort. We need it.
At the beach I sat where the rocks meet the sand and, with my head wedged between my knees, dug a hole deep enough that salt-water filled it from invisible pores. I am drawn to the ocean at times of stress and uncertainty and I think it was only that day that I figured out why. I saw it in the salt-water, and in the rotting seaweed beside me. I saw it in the dead shells of crabs, emptied out to such a slim membrane that they tumbled across the dunes with the low wind. I saw it again in the sandfly bites I woke scratching in the morning.
Eventually I wrote to Cath that there’s no comfort back here; that we haven’t had a barbecue and that when the family is together at all they still speak in funeral tones. Cath, I wrote, when I said you were running away I wasn’t thinking and I wanted to take it back right away. That’s just something stupid I felt obliged to say in the circumstances. There is no running away just the same as there is no return. (I heavily crossed that last sentence out, so that you couldn’t read the letters under the black ink.)
Go to the cemetery where you are, in Maine. Listen. This isn’t about your mother. Go there because it’s a place where you can kneel by the headstone of someone you never knew. Put your hand against the earth and feel that there is life below. There are roots and grubs and I suppose the burrows of moles. There is always life below, Cath, even where someone might only see death. Right now it’s like that here and you made the right decision to get away from it.
I think you should buy a dress from the dressmaker. It will remind you always of two things: your new life in Maine, and your mother.
A month later I got a brief email from Cath saying she was coming home. She asked if I’d organize a barbecue and make sure there was a spot on the couch. I felt a bit awkward, and wondered if my letter had come unstuck somewhere in the vast and robotic conveyances of international postage, until I noticed the attached image of Cath waving at the camera in a new dress, beside a bay window in Maine.