Monday, August 23, 2010

small village building itself

Seven years ago tomorrow, my mom passed away. I used to hate the phrase “passed away” because it seemed like a euphemism. (I also refused to refer to her as “dead.” I would say, “My mom died” but not “My mom is dead.” The former suggested she was a person who just happened to have died, the last in a long line of activities. In the latter, death superseded who she was—like referring to “the gays” as opposed to “gay people.”)

But then I heard someone—poet Imani Tolliver, maybe?—talk about how, in the African American community, passing on is understood as transitioning to another state, like passing through a toll booth. That seemed accurate, not euphemistic. So now I like it, as much as one can like a phrase that means death.

I also like this poem by Eloise Klein Healy. I don’t think anyone has summed up the predictable shock of parental death quite so well. Appropriately, it’s from her book Passing.

Living Here Now

My father’s dying
resembles nothing so much
as a small village
building itself
in the mind of a traveler
who reads about it
and thinks to go there.

The journey is imagined
in a way not even felt
as when years ago
I knew my father would die someday.

The idea came up as fast
as a curve in a road
which opens out
to an unexpected vista,

and now in this journey
the road gravel crunches
under my tires. I miss
some of the streets,
get lost, get lost.

I find I’m no tourist anymore
and settle into the oldest human assignment.
Bury your father and live forever
as a stranger in that town.

5 comments:

Claire said...

Language is an odd thing. My grandmother hated the word "blind." Didn't say it, didn't want to hear it. She'd "lost her sight." Somehow that meant something different to her.

Thinking of you and wishing you well.

Kat said...

Thank you for this reflection, Cheryl. I feel as if I know your mother so well from reading Family, Genus, Species, and I'm grateful for the story you wove with her in it. I have never liked "passed away" or "passed," but this explanation will make it easier for me not to sneer when I hear it.

Peace through this tough times.....

Sizzle said...

I can relate to how we use language to convey something as emotional and powerful as losing a parent. That poem does speak to it quite beautifully.

Peter Varvel said...

Thinking of you and your mom today.

Cheryl said...

C: I totally get that--I'm sure your grandmother experienced it primarily as a loss and didn't want to think of it as a state of being.

K: Thanks, Kathy--I know you're no tourist here either.

S: Eloise Klein Healy rocks in every way I can think of.

P: Thanks, Peter. It's nice to know some good thoughts are floating out there in the universe. I'm feeling like maybe I need to stop blogging about death because I'm actually in a pretty good mood. Life is weird.