Tonight the moon is white and full against a pink-and-black sky as I drive west on reflector-lined Interstate 69, the less-traveled route between Detroit and Lansing, Michigan. It is one of several sticky evenings in late August, 2001. The temperate night-wind is the only relief from the wavy, metallic heat that had left me feeling trapped inside the concrete maze of Detroit. I had to go through Detroit on my way back from Clinton Grove Cemetery in Mt. Clemens. My father is buried there, along with my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, some I’d never met.
I had shaded my eyes against the flattening red sun and squinted into the fading name etched in stone. I concentrated on the two dates that seemed like book-ends: final, ordered, charged with untold stories and a sudden death. “1932-1972”. Age forty now seems a lot younger to me. I had sat down heavily on the curved ground, which felt hard despite the grass. A calm began to slide below my sternum. I gingerly touched the rough stone that marks the modest space which is occupied by his body. As I looked around at the other stones standing around me, I wondered how we continue to go on, even though we all know it will end like this. It is miraculous, I thought, how brave we are to accept it and live with it, to go on waking up and letting ourselves be distracted from it, all the while knowing each day we come closer to it.
When it’s not a “good death”, a phrase that often puzzles me, people are more apt to want to forget. Two weeks after my father died of a heart attack at age forty, my mother gave birth to my brother. My father died during a Tupperware party; he had come home from teaching a catechism class. There had been a snowstorm; he had gone out to shovel. When he came in he said he didn’t feel well.
My mother says it was like losing a limb. I was two; I could hear crying and screaming. I remember the taste of wood; I’d been gnawing at the bars on my crib. After that night, my mother continued to go on, without the limb that was my father. I immersed myself in his absence. My mother tells me that I used to look in the closet, behind bookshelves, in empty corners. She says that I told her that he was “peeking at me.” I longed to hear about the night of his death, and more, how my mother went on, how she didn’t just stop. I accosted aunts, my grandmother—even my mother when I was desperate and only vaguely aware of the sometimes cruel-because-insistent honesty that can surface in a child.
Before I turned ten, I had been to five funerals of family members: two heart attacks, two cancers, one “old age.” I remember the stone-white mausoleum at Clinton Grove, where most of my maternal family is buried—where soft, slow voices echoed off the vaults, a pastor’s white breath floating out the heavy, futile words. Funerals always seemed to be during the winter, or early spring, when snow still drifted and the sky was low and gray like the inside of an open casket. I breathed the smell of death in the wet, stale flowers as I looked down at my scuffed shoes, not warm enough for this weather, rhythmically scraping the green Astroturf under my feet.
When I was nine, my grandpa died of cancer. I learned then what “closed-casket” meant. During the funeral service, the smooth, rounded oak casket sat up front, sealed shut, a calm, heavy presence. My mother didn’t want me and my brothers to go up to it after the service, as my uncle did with his children. She didn’t want us to remember grandpa that way, his body ravaged by the disease. My uncle, however, had wanted my cousins to say good-bye one last time. As I watched him lift Beth, my youngest cousin, who was then three, up to the edge of the opened-up casket, I craned my neck to try to catch a glimpse. I thought, if I could see everything then I could maybe understand my fear. If I looked under every rock, dissected every thought, then I would have nothing to fear. If I spread loss across my mind like a gray blanket, then I would see it so often that it would cease to shock me.
Around the age of nine or ten I became interested in horror films, science fiction, the histories of war, serial killers, and the Mafia. I would go to the local library and browse books on these subjects, and if the books had photographs I’d find a quiet corner on the green shag carpeting of the library and get comfortable. I remember picking up a book on the war criminals of the Civil War. The nineteenth-century, black-and-white photography somehow made the people look already dead, their faces pinched in what looked like pain or disapproval. I was especially drawn to the pictures of war criminals being hanged at the gallows. The bodies were stiff, grotesquely uniform, as if caught in involuntary motion: they appeared naked although they were clothed, their oddly misshapen heads covered with horrifying canvas hoods. I wondered why they needed to be covered—what happened to their faces that they had to be masked by this unkind fabric. Of course, I knew, and I had stopped at the grisly vision in my mind’s eye: the force of the rope, that mutilating moment—a trick photograph dissolving into black, sticky and severe against the white—the enduring violence of stubborn blood long since yanked from its veins.
When I am driving I feel closer to death—but there is at the same time the firm pull of my heart: live, live! When I am driving I close my eyes for a second and trust the rushing movement beneath me, the strangeness of how we are able to move ourselves so seamlessly from one space to another. How can our bodies take it, all this swiftness? Irrationally, I wonder how our organs don’t split in half, dissolve or detach from their niches. The numbing yet soothing noise of the highway is a protective skin, the car a makeshift womb, yet possessing its terrible jack-knife power to transform into a tomb with one impulsive turn of the wheel or lapse in fragile judgment. I remain drawn to this delicate rhythm which plays out in the contrasting containment and movement between destinations.
Whenever I drive long distances, I watch the landscape unfold, as a film unfolds, and feel more vividly my place at an already-disappeared moment in time. In my car I am at once a body operating a machine and, also, a witness, a helplessly active participant in the destruction of that very landscape. The heat of the road rushes beneath my feet like a slate thread in an unraveling ball of hot twine. I feel death living under the road—animal bones, tree stumps, foundations of farm houses, all having long since given in to the relentless thrust of progress that shows no sign of ceasing. And yet, my heart keeps pumping and pulling and lifting with every curve and smooth hump in the road as I accelerate to keep up with the others.
fiction poetry "fact" photography