Friday, December 24, 2010

Turning Points

You were having lunch yesterday in a courtyard venue with a large, running fountain as a centerpiece, comfortable metal chairs slightly off-balance on a stone floor, warmth coming from overhead heaters, and the appearance of warmth seeming to drip down from a noon sky cloudless for the first time in a week of steady rain.  Off behind you is a gallery of the paintings of various artists, one in particular a grouping of lemons in a still life, arranged and lighted as though by Rembrandt.  The price tag for the painting was $22000.  Across the room, a moody scape of green hills that seemed to undulate before you, painted by your hostess for Christmas dinner, the price on the painting somewhat less than the still life with lemons, a red dot indicating it had been sold.


The price tag on the sandwich you'd ordered--spicy, homemade Italian sausage, piquant pickles, a mound of slaw, and a lightly tossed salad--was $14, which added to the perspective of where you were and why you were at this particular restaurant:  to discuss the possibility of you and your literary agent becoming the principals in a television show to be called Agent and Editor, wherein actual writers would appear on camera with you to discuss their book project.  The conversation morphed into a discussion of the editorial work you believed necessary before an editor in one of the large or medium publishing houses could muster enough support to have a contract to publish offered for her novel.  

Landscape, a morphing, surreal sense of reality, and a growing awareness of a humorous-absurdist counterpoint to Joan Didion's stunning work, The Year of Magical Thinking, have been your psychical house guests for well over a month, exacerbated by the events of December 7 of this year at about 11:50 a.m., in which someone close to you moved from being a radiant, live person to being the radiant presence of a dead person.

When you first read the Didion work, you had experienced brushes with and actual encounters with death to the point where even your own life had been, you realized, at potential risk.  But as you read the Didion, you felt only marginally at risk; the threats you digested were hers, presented with a dazzle of exquisite presence.  You were transported to one of the most intense existential experiences of your own gallimaufry of experience.

Now that death has moved in about you, the work presents you with your own gallery-like display of pictures, events, possibilities, needs.

When you arrived at the mortuary this morning, your first task was to hold the paper cup of coffee and cell phone of the employee who was trying to fit the key into the lock of the door.  As he fiddled and your hand began to warm from the coffee, you noticed a discreet sign that asked of whomever should read it:  Please don't block the hearses.

Finally inside the office, you were able to deliver the coffee and cell phone while the employee excused himself before moving into the next room, where you heard drawers being slid open, papers shuffled, a plastic carrying bag being fluffed open before the employee returned, handing you the bag and a standard-sized manila folder in which were the official certifications and details of the death of the individual you had not all that long ago helped shift herself into a more comfortable position on the hospital bed facing east-to-west in your living room.

It is a disconnected feeling, driving through the city with such a package, particularly when, at the awareness of Sally shifting her own position on the hatchback platform that is her customary place, it occurs to you that you, wealthy as you are in a variety of frozen casseroles, have nothing for Sally's breakfast other than the one large bone-shaped biscuit you'd had as a leftover from your accustomed coffee shop.  The disconnectedness turned into purpose when you headed for your everyday supermarket, but it returned with immediacy when the first person you saw was a classmate from the elementary school you'd both attended in Providence, Rhode Island, lo those many years earlier.  She offered a warm clasp of hands.  You then saw emerging from the late morning shoppers T. Corragessan Boyle, who insisted on a hug.

It is simultaneously liberating and exhilarating to drive through a small city in a small car in which, in a small plastic container, are human remains.  You feel as though you have engineered some gigantic coup against large bureaucracies, not the least of which is the funeral industry itself.  An idiotic grin passes over your face as you pass other cars, laden with Christmas presents, groceries, youngsters and dogs, in one case a station wagon filled with surf boards.

You drive to the southern extreme of Summerland, the small enclave just below Santa Barbara, turning off toward a small park-like enclave among avocado groves and horse pastures.  The place is Sally's favorite because of its opportunities for running when she was younger, for the occasional deer, coyote, possum, and yes, those times when she approached skunks with insufficient wariness.  The area has become a comfort zone for Sally and for you and for she whose remains you now carry.

You suddenly understand you are here for more than a few moments to allow Sally to sniff and deliver herself of such bodily effluvia as she might wish.  Seated on a large rock, you carefully open the plastic container and marvel at what you see.  Once as a child, your curiosity got the better of you, causing you to spill a tin of tooth powder on the ledge of a sink.  The contents of the plastic bag had that same preternaturally white shade.  Interspersed in the fine granules were larger granules of what were surely traces of bone.

Toyon shrub, and as though you were composing a gift list, a number of yet other places occurred to you, places for the cup full here and there, in particular the garden of her last ten or twelve years, which was undoubtedly her most expansive gardening undertaking.

There is a strand of beach just south of the Big Sur, Garripata Beach, where surely a cup or two will be just the thing.  Then there is an enormous permanent planter outside the window of the museum in Los Angeles where your sister worked, and indeed where some of your sister's ashes were added to the conversation.  These two women were enormously close, your sister and this remarkable woman who was constantly reminding you to do nice things for dogs.  So yes, a visit south to the museum as well.

It felt expansive to let these bits of her spill from the bag, some of it rising as a tiny mist, some actually coming to rest on your shoe; you felt a richness beyond measure as you saw the way of giving the gifts of her to places and things she cared about.  As the notion for new places persists--Hale Park, for instance, where she walked with you and Sally, or Cold Springs Trail, where she hiked with her beloved Border Collie, Angus--there will be less of her to go around and your gestures--for they are mere gestures--will become less expansive.

But there always was more to her than met the eye, and even a little bit goes a long way.

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