There are deaths that you fear before they are even a remote possibility. There are names you whisper prayers for with more care than others. How could I live without this person, you ask yourself? How would I ever go on?
My grandmother, called Nanny, was magic.
She saw everything good. If there was an ounce of goodness to be found, no matter how much flesh or how many years of disappointment and weariness it was hidden beneath, she could find that light, and she did. Once found, she would study it shrewdly but briefly, take in its shapes and test the sturdiness of its walls. She learned its contours, and then, sometimes with great delicacy, and sometimes with a great reckless enthusiasm, she would stretch it until those whose eyes were less suited to light-catching could see it, as well, and bask in the warmth of its wholesomeness. She didn't believe in being selfish with goodness. She didn't believe in withholding light.
She sang "You Are My Sunshine" and set my heart's beats to the tsk, tsk of the rocking chair's tips brushing the cement patio. Her magic was the human kind.
Her husband, King, a solid, playful man whose vastness was outdone only by his generosity, was the mountain on which we all stood, our feet bare with toes eager to delight in the dirt of our joy. A trucker since he was seventeen, he was a gentle soul with an unshakeable compass for right and wrong. The sheer size of him demanded attention; rooms paused when he entered them until he put them at ease, loud and friendly and eager to let everyone in on the jokes and jolly wisdom permanently up his sleeves. His laughter bellowed forth, favoring gentle jokes, and he would laugh himself to tears every time his dearest buddy, his four-year-old great-granddaughter, would greet him with her favorite:
"How do ducks fly?"
With great solemnity, he would respond, "I don't know, how?"
And, if she could voice the words through her own giggles, she would reply, "They just wing it!" and there they would dissolve into happy, greedy hugs and sweet exchanges of wit and love.
I wondered privately, voicing the question only with my eyes: how long can joy this pure, refuge this absolute, last?
The grown women sat out on the patio, the sun beating down on our toes.
“You know we’ve been married fifty years,” Nanny said, smiling at me, “but that little girl is the love of his life.”
I returned the smile, looked out over the creek across from the house and wondered at the strength of the woman beside of me. I had been eighteen and terrified when the doctor pronounced me pregnant with Phoebe, and at twenty-two I was still winging so much of motherhood; I felt the failures of each day acutely and navigated the muddy waters of myself with little success, so unclear on who I should become or how I should manage to get there. But at eighteen, Nanny had been done birthing her three babies, and though I hadn’t been there to witness it, I knew without question she had been better at balancing her three than I was at mothering my one. Raising babies and keeping house came naturally to Nanny, and she was good down to her bones. She may have started young, but she had given them the right daddy from the beginning, and for all I knew Phoebe’s father was lying unconscious in a ditch somewhere, the high he so treasured chasing finally burying him for good.
King and his tiny buddy scrambled up over the hill and into sight, my daughter a few yards ahead of the old man. “Mom!” she shrieked, all curls and excitement, “Mom, I found a turtle!” Clutching a dark oval, she bounded over to Nanny and me and presented it to us with all the reverence due such a holy object.
I took it into my hands. An acrid smell emanated from the creature; a gentle prodding discreetly managed of its legs confirmed my suspicions. The turtle had not been dead long, but long enough to begin its decay. I ran my fingers over the tight, cold skin, and my daughter waited for the praise due her find.
“Did the little one show you her new pet?” King asked his women, finally catching up.
“I did! I gave it to Mom!” she said, pointedly looking at me with expectation. Would I deny her accolades now that King was here to bear witness?
“She did,” I acknowledged, “and I am very proud of her. So proud,” I looked emphatically at King and raised the corpse just enough to draw his eyes, “in fact, that I am going to go right now and try to find another like him to be his friend while you guys get ready for dinner.”
“What a wonderful idea,” Nanny exclaimed to the little one. “We better go wash our hands!” Spaghetti awaiting, distraction briefly successful, King and Nanny directed her thus, one at each of her sides swinging her to her destination.
I hurried down the bank as the three of them disappeared from sight, scanning the creek bed for any sign of movement. A turtle—live, this time—was desired, a snake would not be so welcome. Finding neither turtle nor snake after several minutes of wading through the stream, I sat down on the matted grasses beside the water and considered the tiny death I was in possession of. What was I to do with it? Damned thing. I could say it slipped away while I was looking for a mate, but I hated to take even this small thing from her. The departure of her drug-ridden father from our lives was still so fresh to us both, and her pain was my pain. I kept walking, eyes searching the creek’s path as the sun continued its slow descent over the hills.
The sky a few shades darker, I gave up my search; there was nothing left to do but tell her the truth.
“Baby?” I cracked open the door to the kitchen and called for her. “Come out here a minute.” Shutting the door behind me, I made my way across the cement and took the few steps to the place I had marked in the grass. I began digging with the small spade Nanny had stashed in her gardening shed while I waited for the plop, plop, plop of toddler feet making their way to where I kneeled. It wasn’t long before their sound hit my ears.
“Hey, kiddo,” I said, scooping her up into a hug. “We need to talk.”
“Where’s my turtle?” she demanded, extricating herself from my arms and crossing her own. Her knees were scraped, and her shorts were muddy, but she was no less commanding a presence for it. Some of that was our family, so loud and performative; some of it was the maturity of trauma that even I had been unable to protect her from. Quieter now, with only the slightest trace of fear in her voice, she asked, “Did he go away?”
I pulled her arms apart and held her small hands in mine. She didn’t fight me.
“He did go away, sweetheart,” I said gently, meeting her eyes with their mirrors, my own. “Do you know what it means for something to die?”
She looked down at our tangled hands. “It’s when someone goes away, and they never come back.”
“Yes, that’s right. When someone or something dies, their body can still be there, but who they are on the inside, what makes up their head and their heart, that goes away, and they aren’t themselves anymore. The turtle that you found, its body is still here, but who it was, the things it thought and felt, all that has gone away now, and we can’t do anything to help that.”
I pulled her into my lap, the distance between us one thing I could help. “And I know that might make you sad, and that’s okay; it’s right to be sad when someone dies, and it’s right to be sad that you can’t do anything to change that. But there is one last thing that we can do for them, and that is to have a funeral. Do you know what that means?” Her head shook no against my chest.
“That means we bury their body in a nice place, and we can put stones on top, and say some nice words about them. And then anytime we want to we can come visit them.”
She accepted this easily and without remark, and I regretted the ease of a life so young already ready to catch what life would throw at her. I showed her then the spade I had been working with and guided her hands through the work of displacing earth; she took the turtle, which had been wrapped in an old pillowcase and placed in a shoebox and secured it in its hole in the ground. We covered it with dirt and stones we had gathered from the river, and she carefully arranged the stones in a manner both purposeful and fluid. She spoke soberly about how sad she was that the turtle had to go, but she wished it a good death filled with peanut butter and rivers and windchimes. So simply death was processed, honored.
As we worked I wondered at her sweetness and purity, and at the cruelty of addiction, the monsters it creates. If only we could bury her father’s body, I thought, the heart and mind I had loved once so absent from its erstwhile home; that there could be stones strong and sturdy, immovable enough to keep what was left of him from crushing even another blade of grass beneath the weight of his greed.
Those stones were not within our reach but, I consoled myself, our family was, and their love was more tangible than anything he had ever given her. It was with joy that she and I walked hand in hand back into the house, King’s laughter spilling out onto us the moment we opened the door.
When my dryer broke, King had another for me within the week; when my water froze, he sent a man that day to sort it out. When the rain poured down and muddy floods came the likes of which our town hadn’t seen in twenty years, he and Nanny braved the roads to come get Phoebe to stay with them so I could finish up my final exams; their pride in me going to college was palpable. Nanny, who had been a school cook when her babies went to school, bought me cards on Mother’s Day from Phoebe and she addressed them “To the Best Mommie”; I hung the envelope and card on my wall and if I paused long enough to look at it, the love in that misspelled word and the profound inaccuracy of the word preceding it would drive me to weeping.
And so we went, one step after another through time, warmth in our smiles and gratefulness in our hands, until a bit of darkness slipped in unannounced, undetectable, unpreventable. Our great King lost the gleam in his eyes, and with every bit of dignity we were granted by the tumors that ravaged his brain, we led him tenderly to death. My last words to him imprinted on me forever: “I wish I’d done more things to make you proud.” He would’ve reassured me, but by that point he had lost his ability to speak or to understand, and it was because of that I had waited to voice the terrible truth of my shame; I didn’t deserve his reassurance; I should’ve been better like him, like Nanny, from the start.
And, under the weight of my own youth and desperation, that death was unbearable. That Phoebe could grow to forget the great love he bore her, to forget his very existence, was more than I could take; that I could have to continue on without the solid ground of him was unthinkable. I saw myself in a dream curled up in the damp green grass covering his grave, weeping. I clung to this image, but there was no grass there, only dirt and lovely dying flowers. The body of a mountain, the foundation of a family wrapped in the warm embrace of the earth where not four months ago a little girl had buried a turtle with such ease and grace. How easy it is to speak of death when it is not a piece of our own hearts we must bury; how arrogant adulthood is, and how resilient children are.
Phoebe is twelve now. She would carry no memory of him forward; stories and pictures are all that remain of him for her. That golden period of her life with King and Nanny would be eclipsed in memory by other happy times: a stepfather whose soul is gentle and solid and good as King was, little brothers as wild and playful as she once was.
I still reach for him every time I pass the little road that leads to the cemetery; I feel the cold of the windshield and know it is the cold of our King. In the ground we laid him, the same resting place as all other kings, and it is only this that brings me comfort: that no man better than he has lain in that rich soil; that we laid him down in no less precious a sepulcher than that which suited the kings of the earth, and he met them as equals.
Loring “Sky King” King, 1940-2010.