It’s a surreal morning. I had set the alarm on my cell phone for a seven o’clock wake up but forgot to turn up the volume. I hear pounding on the door and shoot out of bed confused.
“We need to leave in ten minutes!” My daughter yells through the door. This morning is the first in a series of physical therapy appointments she has, post-back surgery. “We can stop at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way. They have great breakfasts and awesome coffee.” This is a dig against her brother, my son who lives and breathes Starbucks.
I brush my teeth; throw on some clothes and stumble, still half-asleep into the hallway. She is standing by the front door with my purse in one hand and my keys in the other. I find my shoes and struggle to get them on my feet. She ushers me out the door.
We get into my mini-van and I’m seated in the driver’s seat. A revelation hits me, I’m awake and going somewhere. I slap my face a time of two and turn up the radio. Something has to wake me up. I’m driving for goodness sake!
“Dunkin’ Donuts is right around the corner. You can get a large coffee,” daughter tells me.
Before her surgery, my daughter was a three times a week Dunkin’ Donuts regular. We enter the coffee shop. She waves at the staff and rattles off what she calls her regular order. The counter person puts this into the register and looks at me.
I don’t have a clue what I want. Daughter and counter person spit out several adjectives describing food and beverage choices; eggs with bacon and toast, no toast, no egg, cheese, no cheese, bagels, coffee, iced, hot, latte, espresso, creamer, no creamer, mocha, mint, raspberry.
“Well?” Daughter asks.
I think I heard one of them say coffee, hot. I remember, the other day after daughter’s post neurology appointment we stopped at Sheetz, a regional gas, restaurant, and convenience store for coffee. That coffee, ordered for me by daughter, I really liked. “What was that?” I ask her.
“Iced, white-chocolate, raspberry with soy creamer,” daughter replies but for some reason I can’t wrap my head around all the words.
“Raspberry, chocolate,” I say. Miraculously, a breakfast and hot drink are handed to me and we head back to the car. I drop daughter at physical therapy and head back home.
Walking in the front door, I smell something dead and rotting. I check for the dog and cat. They are both accounted for and alive. Down on my hands and knees, I sniff the carpet, the couches and the afghans. Everything smells like it is supposed to. I’m stumped and tell myself I’ll deal with it later.
It’s been two weeks since I opened my mail or answered my business phone. Life literally has been at a stand-still. I leave the smell of the living room and head upstairs to my office. It’s a business disaster. Piles of paper and files have shifted around so many times in making room for extra, visiting family that I no longer know where anything is located.
I fire up the computer and find over three-hundred e-mails needing my attention. My office phone is blinking, ten missed messages. I’m so overwhelmed and exhausted I don’t know where to start or how to prioritize. This is grief and stress, I tell myself.
I sit in my office chair, close my eyes and do some deep breathing. I tell myself an altered mantra I learned at an acupressure seminar months ago. I have all the energy I need. My body is taking in the energy around me, re-filling where I am depleted. I refuse to let things or people take away my power or energy.
I open my eyes and see five minutes have gone by. That’s okay; I feel refreshed and know what direction to take with the clutter. The dog and cat get into a spit and I need to intervene. I can feel my energy draining and have to fall onto my office couch before I collapse. So much for the mantra working, I tell myself and cry.
Cried out, I lay there watching spider-webbing cracks in the ceiling paint. The house is so quiet. I didn’t realize how much the family being all-together helped keep each of us afloat through the past two weeks. I push myself to go back downstairs; I’ll deal with the office chaos later. I quickly move past the smell of death in the living room and back to the bedroom.
There are several beds we’d assembled for extended family. I decide there’s no time like the present to strip the sheets and start reversing the process I started two weeks ago. The beds come apart fairly easily and I’ve stowed them, for now, in the dining room next to the left-over paper plates, cups, napkins and plastic ware from the post-funeral get-together. I can’t deal with the things in this room right now. I’ll get to it later.
I have enough time to shower before returning to pick up my daughter. I grab some clothes from the laundry basket in the living room still waiting to be put away. What the hell is causing that smell?
I shower, pick up my daughter and head home. “There’s a smell,” I tell her. “When I open the front door, find it.”
We open the door and the smell is obnoxious. Again, I get on my hands and knees and feel more like a police dog looking for illegal contraband.
“This would be a good time for a picture,” daughter says. “Did you smell the fireplace? The other day we heard birds in there.”
Birds: Our chimney does not have an enclosed top. Every year starlings nest on top of our flue. When the eggs hatch, we have our own bird sanctuary. We can hear the parents fluttering up and down the chimney, baby birds chirping, singing and screeching. We can tell when a parent bird is bringing food back to the nest by the excitement coming from the behind the bricks. Eventually, the babies learn to fly and everything goes quiet until next spring. I don’t know why there would be a dead bird in our chimney in July.
I lean in the direction of the fireplace and don’t have to go any further. Sh-t, it is a dead bird in the fireplace above the flue. I open and close the flue several times hoping the bird body will fall and I can dispose it. Nothing happens.
A crazy thought, maybe I can smoke or incinerate the body with a fire. Okay, I know its July, but it is cool enough outside that I can turn off the air conditioner. I open the flue, turn off the air and toss a Duraflame log in the fireplace and set it ablaze.
My daughter and I sit on couches watching the dancing flames and my son comes in to join us.
“Reminds me of camping,” he says.
“Reminds me of my step-mom raising and killing her own chickens for food,” daughter replies.
“They’re making a new product called Soylent,” my son says. “It has all the nutrition anyone needs. Soon we won’t have to worry about food.”
Conversation lulls with the flames and both kids leave the room to live their lives. I’m alone with the cat nestled up beside me. The Duraflame log is half its original size but continues to deliver a calliope of blue, green, yellow and orange flames. The house is so quiet.
I realize what I’m really doing is cremating the bird and flash back two weeks ago. Corner’s reports, probable causes of death, cremation and internment paperwork, planning a get-together for everyone post funeral, setting up beds, buying and making food for everyone, military send-off with Taps and a tri-folded flag while we stare at Uncle’s portrait and the urn containing his ashes. It was almost one-hundred degrees that day and with high humidity. Everyone was drenched in a mixture of sweat and tears.
The fire is nearly out now. I don’t smell death anymore but it’s all around me. Every room in my house has at least a small remnant of the past two weeks. I can walk here or there and hear snippets of conversations between family members. I can smell the scent of various shampoos and soaps everyone used. My brother left some cigarette butts behind on the front porch. My mom left her ice pack in the freezer. Aunt Mary left her socks and my dad forgot his belated father’s day card. My uncle’s picture is on the mantel of my fireplace. He is smiling.
Maybe, death is not all around me but snippets of life. Sure, my alarm didn’t wake me up but I got up. I got to see my daughter blossom, knowing she is finally getting well enough to join society. Her car which has been dead since surgery, is going to be fixed free of charge. The smell in the chimney is gone and the method I used got two of my kids together for a nice conversation. I have remnants of the past two weeks all over my house but I got two weeks with people I love more than anything. We had a death to attend to, but in his passing, I reconnected with very close cousins I lost touch with over the years. We laughed, smiled, sang, told jokes and reminisced about my uncle and our entire family. I had expected people to stay maybe two hours at the get-together. Most stayed at least five.
My house is very quiet and I’m crying. But I realize, this is not the ending. This is just the beginning of a new chapter for all of us. I should- will embrace finding the how and where we go from here.