States of Matter
I don’t know why the idea of dead bodies didn’t bother me. They never did. Maybe it was because I believed the resident was no longer home, had somewhere better to be, and what was left was delightfully quiet. We could respect each other and go about our business unbothered, theirs stationary, mine frenetic, different states of matter. Solid to liquid, liquid to gas.
There is this old cemetery in my home town where we would go as kids. It had alarming trees that would burst bright orange every October around my birthday, and my family referred to them as Pumpkin Trees. My friends and I would ride our bikes there, ditch them behind the first row of tombstones, and play hide-and-seek or house or whatever struck our fancy. It was on the way to the local ice cream place, so sometimes when we were on foot we’d be finishing our cones as we browsed the gravestones. I always wanted to go inside the lone mausoleum to see what it was like, but the gate was forever locked. The only tombstone that gave me pause was one for a young child, five years old, shaped like a lamb. It was in the oldest part, I think—the downhill side in the back where you couldn’t see the road, and there was moss growing on the lamb’s fleece that made it look green. I wondered how she died. It didn’t occur to me to wonder about any of the rest of them. I guess adults should just expect to be struck down at any time, part of the price of being able to drive and eat cake for dinner if you want.
Growing up, the only child I knew who died was briefly in our house. After death, I mean. My brother had been home alone during the week. I don’t know if he was home for break from college or what, but it was a week day and everyone else was at work or school. I got off the bus and was walking home, and there were ambulances and police cars outside my house and they wouldn’t let me inside until they left. I was upset because I didn’t know who was hurt, and because I had to go to the bathroom, and because it felt like I should have some sort of insider privilege since I lived there, but the police officer at our gate remained unmoved by any of these arguments. When it was over I found out that a two-year-old girl who lived down the block had crawled out of her crib during naptime. Her mom was napping too, and didn’t wake up when the girl unlocked the front door, toddled a block away and down our neighbor’s front lawn, and fell into the lake. When the police were called to look for a missing baby, they went to the water first. Always check water first. The officer who found her heard the mother coming down the hill behind him, so he called for help. When my brother showed up, the officer handed him the girl and told him to take her inside our house before the mother could see. But my brother had been trained as a lifeguard and couldn’t just do nothing, so he laid her down in the middle of the floor and did CPR until the ambulances arrived. Years later my parents rearranged the house, and what was the “music room” became the dining room, and I would think occasionally how there once was a dead girl right under where we were eating. My bare feet would rub on the carpet, and I’d wonder how old she’d be now. I hadn’t met her as a toddler, but I’d picture what she looked like as a kindergartener, in middle school, as a teenager. I never mentioned this to my parents, but I would think sadly of her mother, knowing that her heart would never have been the same after that day, that it would be forever beating in two worlds at once.
The summer before I left for college, I went out to see a movie with some coworkers. No one was sure whether it was supposed to be a date or just an outing; there were two guys and two girls, but it wasn’t really clear who was supposed to be paired with whom and we all had different ideas about it. The guys were 21, I was 17. The other girl was 18 or 19, I think. We saw whatever Nightmare on Elm Street movie was out that summer, the idea being that it would scare the girls into leaning in for protection or something like that. I’d never seen one before, but I thought it was intriguing. After, the guys offered to buy us wine coolers but we declined. So guy number one drove by the cemetery and slowed down, I think again in an effort to scare us? But this was my old haunt, where I’d dripped ice cream on my shirt and told secrets and stayed out until the street lights came on and I knew where everything was even in the dark, so I hopped out of the car and called over my shoulder, “Hey! Come see the lamb-shaped stone!” and started to run through the graveyard in the dark. They hollered after me to come back, panicked voices cracking, but I kept running. Finally the driver dispatched guy number two to fetch me. I thought he was coming to look (and he was the one I wanted to be paired with anyway) so I slowed down to give him a chance, but when he caught up he slung me over his shoulder like a little kid and marched me out of there. He twisted his ankle on the wet grass, and I admit I thought he deserved it.
I was pissed. For starters, his shoulder was bony and it dug uncomfortably into my stomach, making an undignified situation downright painful. He was also ranting about ghosts and freshly dug earth (the ground was soft because it had just rained), and it was obvious that a little trip through the graveyard had actually killed the mood. You take me to a gruesome movie to scare me on purpose, but you can’t handle wet grass and old stone? Go figure. They dropped me off first, and I called them babies. Oddly, we never did hook up.
My stomach still hurt the next morning, and it reminded me of the first time I went to a funeral. One of the elderly nuns at our church had died and she was laid out in an open casket. I was probably three years old, and when my dad took me up to see her I was utterly confused as to what we were supposed to do. She looked waxy, not like I remembered her, not real, so I reached out and pushed on her belly. It kind of caved in a bit like when you sit on a beanbag chair, and some air whooshed out between her closed lips. My dad quickly whisked my hand away and looked around to make sure no one else had seen. I felt bad later; the whoosh had sounded a bit like “ouch,” and I hoped I hadn’t sent her into eternity with a bruise on her belly.
Marybeth Chuey Bishop lives in Annapolis with her husband and five children, two dogs, and some scruffy plants. She’s pretty sure the hamster is gone for good. She likes to walk, wear socks with kraken or Poe on them, and check more books out of the library than she can possibly read. She’s a frequent contributor to Sick Pilgrim.
Read more from Marybeth at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sickpilgrim/2017/09/dark-devotional-thats-wrong-baby/#7QUuu2rCfKkTl5Mj.99
“Approaching Mystery” is a regular feature on Sick Pilgrim curated by Joanna Penn Cooper in which we post vignettes that dwell on the mystery of the everyday, that hang in an unresolved (and unresolvable) space of wonder and unknowability.