I keep seeing labyrinths, or rather I am just noticing them. They have always been there. There is a sticker labyrinth on the stop sign near the funeral home four blocks from my house. One on the cashier's necklace. One in the bricks in front of my Monday night meeting. To walk a labyrinth is a meditation, perhaps even a prayer, so says The Wise Wiki. There are things I have forgotten, and this is one. My memory of labyrinths involve minotaurs, and Daedalus, and Ariadne. There wasn't a meditation there except do not let the bull-man eat your head.
When you go into a labyrinth, though it looks a tangle of confusing pathways, you always come out. I remember my natural birthing coach telling us this as she taught us to draw a labyrinth on cardstock. It was an exercise. Drag your finger around the path. You can't make a wrong turn. You can't get stuck in corners. You aren't in a maze. I like that there are no tricks. No cleverness here You are on one long path, spiraling to a center that turns around and spits you back out. She coached me to think of labor this way. I forgot, for obvious reasons, anything involving natural child birthing. It just was zapped out of my skull, like Attica Greek and the minutes before I found out she was dead. Wikipedia says the labyrinth is a symbol of our path to God, or the path to something else entirely. The beauty of that analogy sits in my brain for a moment. That is more comforting than minotaurs in the middle.
I dream of the dead. My grandfather and alcohol. They both smile and remind me of what I no longer have. I miss them both, separately, for their own reasons. And yet their absence is okay, they lived their lives.
My grandfather died in the same way that my grandmother died. She harbored an invisible and undetected cancer in her lungs, but still, they both died from pneumonia in hospital, eleven years apart. After my grandfather died, I found a notebook in his belongings. It was from the last days of my grandmother's life as the disease took residence in her lungs, ravaged her. She had a breathing tube in her throat and could not speak, so all their conversations were on this stenographer's tablet.
I can only read a page here and there. It is too overwhelming to read. Sometimes I wonder why I keep it, yet it seems too sacred to throw away. She writes, "It hurts, Michael. So much more than I can bear." And the next line, she asks if he found her socks. To read her suffering in her own handwriting on the page...I have often wondered if in his last days, he thought about that notebook. If he knew the pain that he would experience, the desperation that would be coming. I wonder if that death was something he feared, or more like the devil he knew. Pain I expect is always less than the pain of the unexpected.
The grief changed with the notebook. She suffered. I put that out of my mind, I suppose. I washed the death, because I was not there. It was a beautiful death in my mind's eye. She waited for my grandfather to come to the hospital. Then she let go in his arms. But this notebook reminds me that it hurt her. The illness wrenched the life out of her, squeezing her lung. This strong woman wept and begged for her life.
I never asked myself before if Lucy's death hurt her. Did she suffer? It is so easy to fall right into a maze of torturous grief thoughts. So easy, I didn't even realize I walked into the huge hedge maze with the sign in front that reads:
MAZE WITHOUT AN EXIT!
DO NOT ENTER!
The other day, we sat at the traffic light in front of Harleigh Cemetery, the one behind Dunkin Donuts, where Walt Whitman is buried. It is a few miles from my house. "A famous poet is buried there," I said to Beezus. I don't know why I mentioned it to a four-year old. In the moment, I suppose I thought if you bury me, bury me next to Walt Whitman.
Beezus didn't miss a beat. "Is Lucy with him?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is Lucy buried there?"
"No, honey. Lucy was not buried. She was cremated. Do you know what that means?"
"It means that after you die, when your soul leaves the body and that person no longer feels any pain and all the tests are done, they burn the body and make sacred ashes. We have her ashes in our house."
"In the living room."
"LUCY IS IN THE LIVING ROOM?!?!"
"I suppose in some ways she is, but in many others, the important ways, she is not."
But is she in the living room? It feels like a puzzle I cannot solve. And I felt like I had to say over and over, but she is not hurting. It didn't hurt her to be burned to ash and fit into the smallest jar in the world.
I saw this sign the other day and I can't shake it.
I do not have a soul, it read. I am a soul and I have a body.
Maybe the body is a labyrinth, our soul climbs in and travels about, like a corporeal pilgrimage. We think we are our thoughts. We think we are the body. We forget that there is a way out again. Like Icarus, the way out can be wax wings rising above the whole mess, or the way out is to go back the way we came, but the way of wisdom is to follow the path, wherever it goes, no matter how pointless it feels, because we know we get out somehow.
Grief, however, is a fucking maze. And there is a minotaur in it. The minotaur wants to eat your heart, and then have sex with your corpse. I know it is disgusting, but I am only telling you the truth of the matter. It's a goddamned minotaur. Awful oversexed beast. The maze is designed to catch you up. It looks straight forward, like a hedge path at times, but then it ends, abruptly. Straight up there is a green, dense bush. It can't even be called a bush, it is a wall of hedge. You turn and take another path, and there is another fucking minotaur. Except this minotaur has a concerned look and is asking you why you aren't over her death yet. She was so little, he says, and she hadn't even breathed yet. Maybe it was God's plan, and who are you, really, to question God's plan. You stammer. You scream at the minotaur, "THERE IS NOTHING TO 'GET OVER'! I JUST MISS HER, ASSHOLE!" The minotaur feels sorry for you, tries to eat your head, and you tell him you taste bitter and salty. Later, after walking for a few more years, it becomes something else, the maze, I mean, not the minotaur. You realize you are walking out of it. You no longer give a flying fuck what minotaurs say about grief. Maybe the maze is an illusion so convincing, it should just be called real. You get out of it, but you must find your own way out. You create the turns. You create the exits. You must believe this path has a way out, even when you don't believe it. It is a riddle. After you walk out of it, you realize grief was a labyrinth, not a maze.
Except maybe that is an illusion too. There is never a way out, but there is always a way in.
I am trying to figure out what I want to say about death and grief, but it is right there, stuck in this puzzle.
Walk forward. You already are in the maze. Walk deeper into the rocky maze to walk out. Trust that you will come out. Or don't. But you will.