The Old Room
Dying is an art, like everything else. –– Sylvia Plath
Finally I looked at her face. It was uncanny and bizarre. Her skin was as soft and puffy and pale as fresh white pillows with a balmy, almost plastic sheen. The eye-lids sunken and deep in the wells of their sockets; her lips thin and stretched and sewn shut. I thought of finding the courage to put my hand on top of hers.
Then a man behind me spoke.
“It’s okay, you can touch her, Gray,” he said with the deep husky voice of an older gentleman. I jumped, turned and looked in the direction of the sound. It was my great uncle Gabriel, my grandfather’s brother: a tall man, with wide shoulders, a coarse brown beard, and gentle eyes set behind rounded glasses.
“Oh, hi Gabriel, I didn’t realize you were in here. I’m sorry,” I told him. He walked up beside me and put a hand on my shoulder, then looked into the coffin at his mother. His eyes looked fragile and bloodshot, and I could see the tears hanging from his eye-lids.
“She looks strange, doesn’t she? It’s all very strange, isn’t it?” he admitted. “She made her will long before she was ever sick; I remember the first thing she put down was that she wanted to be buried in this dress. She also said she didn’t want any drinking at the wake.” He laughed softly to himself. “That was her idea of a joke. Could you imagine these lot without a pint in their hand?”
I put my hand onto her clasped fingers and was shocked by the ice of her. Her skin felt so delicate though. I looked to Gabriel and he was watching me, his soft eyes holding a warmth for my innocence.
“She’s so cold,” I said.
“When she died we . . . She had been asleep all day and then she opened her eyes, looked around the room at everyone, then closed her eyes again and died a few minutes later,” he said to me just as much as he was telling it to her, as if she might have forgotten. “It was a fine, fine way to die.”
I understood something then, in the pit of my beating heart and it was strong. My other great uncle, Gabriel’s younger brother, had died a few years ago. He had lived in England and we never really met, I only retain a faint memory of him standing in my grandparent’s house when I was a toddler. He had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and died within a year. My grandmother and grandfather flew over to be with him in his last moments and the tales of what happened were kept from me for several years. But I did hear eventually of how he had passed.
When they arrived they could hear him down the hospital hallway before they saw him; screaming and howling. He knew he was going to die and attempted to resist with all of the life left in him. No drug could dampen the pain, no affection could comfort the terror; he went into the great abyss hysterical and pleading for life. For days they sat with him and watched him writhe in agony, screaming and cursing the world for what it had done to him. The experience left a deep wound in my grandfather. He never spoke about it. I imagine the same wound had been cut into Gabriel.
The glass door opened again and my grandmother entered with another man. He had a big round stomach with a red face and mustache.
“Here she is,” my granny informed him, waving a hand towards the coffin nonchalantly. This wasn’t her first funeral.
“Ah Jesus, Evelyn. Look at yah in there. Aren’t you sight? I don’t believe it!” the round man said. He had already bent himself over, his face just above hers, “What happened to you? The years are never kind, are they, Evelyn?”
My grandmother and Gabriel exchanged a bemused smile. The round man turned and looked up to Gabriel as he moved around the coffin, extending his hand has he spoke.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a fine, fine woman your mother. I knew her well,” he said as he shook Gabriel’s hand.
“Thank you,” he replied. “Sure don’t I know, sure don’t I know.”
“But ninety, that’s a fine age, isn’t it? What a grand old age to reach,” he told Gabriel.
My grandmother decided to chime in at this point. “Ah, she looks lovely in her dress doesn’t she?” she said, looking at Evelyn in her box. “And her hair, I never realized her hair was that long. They did a wonderful job.” She looked at me, “I should have brought a camera!”
“Nan!” I blurted out, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“She almost looks better than she ever did alive,” she insisted.
Suddenly the round man was over Evelyn again, “She does look fabulous if I may say so; she hasn’t looked this good in years! You’re right there, Tess.”
And with that he attempted to hug her in the coffin, wrapping his fat arms around her shoulders and actually lifting her body up a little bit. I stepped back, my eyes widening. I could see my great-grandmother’s body wobbling slightly.
“We’ll miss you Eve, ah sure Jaysus it won’t be same down here without you.” A few watery tears rolled down his flushed cheeks.
“Be careful, or you’ll end up bringing her back to life,” Gabriel croaked.
“Oh Jesus! Could you feckin’ imagine? That would be a terror wouldn’t it?” he bellowed as he let her slip back down into her position as before. He turned to her again “I say wouldn’t that be awful?”
My grandmother had moved to be at my side; a hand clenched with tissues nudged me. “Did you bless her with the holy water?” she asked sternly, making firm eye contact.
“No,” I admitted. She pointed lazily again towards a stone basin in the corner with the same hand.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” she said and we moved over to the water. She stuffed the handful of tissues up her sleeve and quickly dipped the fingertips of her index and middle fingers into the water. Over at the coffin she made the sign of the cross with the holy water across her forehead, then leaned over and kissed the same spot. “That’s it,” she said as she stood lingering over Evelyn, shaking the excess water from her hand.
So I copied her and dipped my fingertips in the water, then ran it across her forehead in the sign of the cross. Then I kissed her forehead. It was cold and moist, the skull beneath her skin protruding with an icy dampness, the holy water salty and stagnant.
But it was fine really and then I stood in the corner of the room for some time as people came in and out and said goodbye to her for the last time. Finally the idea crossed my mind to find her old room over in her retirement home. I wondered if all her old things would still be there, it would be nice to look at them for the last time, too.
So I strolled over to my grandmother and told her I was going outside to get some air. She seemed fine with the idea and I walked back through the frozen glass doors, glancing at her in the coffin as I went. The light through the windows from the sun had intensified and her dress was radiating a blue hue cross the room.
I walked across the chapel, between the altar and the first row of pews, stepping across the coloured light from the stain-glass windows that was shining in long, horizontal strips along the floor. I watched my feet and saw them pass through the spectrum of colours, one by one, before I passed out of the light and through the main chapel doors into the reception area.
The light in there was dull and hollow. I walked straight towards the doors at the opposite side of the hall, smiling at the receptionist when she raised her head. She said nothing, only returning my smile as I walked through and closed the door behind me. As it had been a while since I had been there, I hoped I could still remember the way.
In front of me was a long, high-ceilinged corridor with cold pearl-marble floors that echoed each footstep. I recognized the hallway and began to walk towards the large wooden doors at the end. As I walked down a large religious painting loomed over me on one of the walls.
It was at least eight feet tall and five wide, minus the elaborate hand-carved wooden frame that would have added another half a foot on each side.
I stopped and looked up at the gigantic woman before me, her face was solemn, yet soft, unfurrowed by wrinkles. Her lips pursed together tight while still remaining light and relaxed. Her eyes too large and round, glancing down and to the side, the iris of each a dark unreflecting brown set deep in the symmetry of her face. Arms pointing outwards and away from her hips, her palms open and inviting. The blue in her dress was coated in various shades as shadow and light danced across the fabric, revealing and withholding her beauty.
At the bottom of her dress, from beneath rippled flowing ends a foot protruded. Her skin was as white as frozen milk. The toes curved and twisted violently around the head of a great green snake, trapped under her power like a mouse in the talons of an eagle. Its thin red tongue flapping out of its open mouth, its eyes wide and completely devoid of colour and emotion.
I pushed through the heavy doors and left the painting behind. Now I was in the retirement home complex, I could smell the musty food wafting through the air, stale cabbage and potatoes. As I walked down through the twisting and winding corridors I glanced into various rooms, seeing an elderly lady grip her cane firmly as a nurse helped her from her bed, and an old woman sitting in sofa chair knitting quietly by herself. They both reminded me of Evelyn and of how she spend her last years, both before and after the full onslaught of dementia took her mind.
After walking for several minutes I came across a very familiar living area: a gigantic old tube television with protruding backside was positioned against a wall, large leather sofa chairs surrounded the television set in rows of four and five, three rows deep. Only one person was watching the black and white film that was on; a man who looked a thousand years old.
His little sweet head bursting out from under a mountain of navy and grey blankets. His lack of dentures allowed this gaunt bottom jaw to protrude out from his hollowed face. His eyes flickered and snapped onto to me, they were bright blue and striking. The corners of his mouth bent and curved up towards his ears as he smiled at me, the raw pink gums of his mouth flashing proudly. His bony fingers straddled the corners of his arm rest tightly as I smiled back, but I kept walking, and as I passed through I could see the smile drop from his mouth. His faded liver spotted hands curled up and disappeared back into the many folds of the blankets as if they were never there.
I turned down a hallway directly behind him and knew I had found her room. Third door on the right, just before the nurses station. I approached the door and hesitated at the small vertical window, placed just above the handle. I could see that no one was inside.
A nurse stirred from the station and came out from behind the counter carrying a clipboard in her hand. I tensed and didn’t move. I was sure she would ask me why I was there, but she didn’t. She just smiled and continued down to the old man under the mountain. I wondered how unusual this scenario was for her; how often do the nurses find bereaved family members in the rooms of the departed?
As I gripped the handle, it was as if time itself had stopped in this place. Slowing and slowing and slowing down to a crawl that would stagnate upon the hour of death, and then existence would pass on and stretch out once again before us, like the blue of the sky and of the sea as they meet on the impenetrable line of the horizon. I stepped inside and closed the door softly behind myself. The room still smelt of her perfume.