Spring 2008, Volume 4

Memoir by Amy Nolan


Tonight the moon is white and full against a pink and black sky as I drive west on reflector-lined Interstate 69, the less-traveled route between Detroit and Lansing, Michigan. It is one of several sticky evenings in late August, 2001. The temperate night-wind is the only relief from the wavy, metallic heat that left me feeling trapped inside the concrete maze of Detroit. I had to go through Detroit on my way back from Clinton Grove Cemetery in Mt. Clemens. My father is buried there, along with my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles I've never met. I had shaded my eyes against the flattening red sun and squinted into the fading name etched in stone. I concentrated on the two dates that seemed like book-ends: final, ordered, charged with untold stories and a sudden death. "1932-1972." Age forty now seems a lot younger to me. I had sat down heavily on the curved ground, which felt hard despite the grass. A calm began to slide below my sternum. I gingerly touched the rough stone that marks the modest space which is occupied by his body. As I looked around at the other stones standing around me, I wondered how we continue to go on, even though we all know it will end like this. It is miraculous, I thought, how brave we are to accept it and live with it, to go on waking up and letting ourselves be distracted from it, all the while knowing each day we come closer to it.

When it's not a "good death," a phrase that often puzzles me, people are more apt to want to forget. Two weeks after my father died of a heart attack at age forty, my mother gave birth to my brother. My father died during a Tupperware party; he had come home from teaching a catechism class; there had been a snowstorm; he had gone out to shovel; when he came in he said he didn't feel well. My mother says it was like losing a limb. I was two; I could hear crying and screaming. I remember the taste of wood; I'd been gnawing at the bars on my crib. After that night, my mother continued to go on, without the limb that was my father. I immersed myself in his absence. My mother tells me that I used to look in the closet, behind bookshelves, in empty corners. She says that I told her that he was "peeking at me." I longed to hear about the night of his death, and more, how my mother went on, how she didn't just stop. I accosted aunts, my grandmother—even my mother when I was desperate and only vaguely aware of the sometimes cruel-because-insistent honesty that can surface in a child.

Before I turned ten, I had been to five funerals of family members: two heart attacks, two cancers, one "old age." I remember the stone white mausoleum at Clinton Grove, where most of my maternal family is buried—where soft, slow voices echoed off the vaults, a pastor's white breath floating out the heavy, futile words. Funerals always seemed to be during the winter, or early spring, when snow still drifted and the sky was low and gray like the inside of an open casket. I breathed the smell of death in the wet, stale flowers, as I looked down at my scuffed shoes, too cold for this weather, rhythmically scraping the green Astroturf under my feet.

When I was nine, my grandpa died of cancer. I learned then what closed-casket meant. During the funeral service, the smooth, rounded oak casket sat up front, sealed shut, a calm, heavy presence. My mother didn't want me and my brothers to go up to it after the service, as my uncle did with his children. She didn't want us to remember grandpa that way, his body ravaged by cancer. My uncle had wanted my cousins to say good-bye one last time. As I watched him lift Beth, my youngest cousin, who was then three, up to the edge of the casket, I craned my neck so I could catch a glimpse. I thought, if I could see everything then I could maybe understand my fear. If I looked under every rock, dissected every thought, then I would have nothing to fear. If I spread loss across my mind like a gray blanket, then I would see it so often that it would cease to shock me.

Around the age of nine or ten I became interested in horror films, science fiction, the histories of war, serial killers, and the Mafia. I would go to the local library and browse books on these subjects, and if the books had photographs, I'd find a quiet corner on the green shag carpeting of the library and get comfortable. I remember picking up a book on the war criminals of the Civil War. The nineteenth-century, black and white photography somehow made the people look already dead, their faces pinched in what looked like pain or disapproval. I was especially drawn to the pictures of war criminals being hanged at the gallows. The bodies were stiff, grotesquely uniform, as if caught in involuntary motion: they appeared naked although they were clothed, their oddly misshapen heads covered with horrifying, canvas hoods. I wondered why they needed to be covered—what happened to their faces that they had to be masked by this unkind fabric. Of course, I knew, and I had stopped at the grisly vision in my mind's eye: the force of the rope—that mutilating moment—a trick photograph dissolving into the black sticky and severe against the white—the enduring violence of stubborn blood long since yanked from its veins.

When I am driving I feel closer to death—but there is the firm pull of my heart: live, live. When I am driving I close my eyes for a second and trust the rushing movement beneath me, the strangeness of how we are able to move ourselves so seamlessly from one space to another. How can our bodies take it, all this swiftness? Irrationally, I wonder how our organs don't split in half, dissolve or detach from their niches. The numbing, yet soothing noise of the highway is a protective skin, the car a makeshift womb, yet possessing its terrible, jack-knife power to transform into a tomb with one impulsive turn of the wheel, lapse in fragile judgment. I remain drawn to this delicate rhythm which plays out in the contrasting containment and movement between destinations.

When I drive long distances, as I am today, I watch the landscape unfold as a film unfolds, and feel more vividly my place at an already-disappeared moment in time. In my car, I am at once a body operating a machine and a witness, a helplessly active participant in the destruction of that very landscape. The heat of the road rushes beneath my feet like a slate thread in an unraveling ball of hot twine. I feel death living under the road—animal bones, tree stumps, foundations of farm houses, all having long since given in to the relentless thrust of progress that shows no sign of ceasing. And yet, my heart keeps pumping and pulling and lifting with every curve, smooth hump in the road, as I speed up my car to keep up with the others.

I unroll my window and cup the fat white moon in my hand. My thoughts shift to Rose, who had been my teacher and senior thesis advisor in college. She was also my friend, even though I hadn't spoken with her often in the nine years since I graduated. Earlier this summer, she hanged herself. When I think about her I grow aware of a fatigue behind my eyes—the heaviness of tears unformed, and the knowledge of her passion and fierceness turned on itself. I think about my own passion, the way I struggle to let unspeakable desire flow into me, non-breaking: sun on my eyelids, music filling my ears and sending shivers down the backs of my knees, laughing stoned until I cry, the caress of cerulean pool water flowing over my skin as I glide in a curved line between depth and surface. I think of Rose's struggle to bridle her passion, her rage, her joy, her tears for a dying, plundered planet. How she just couldn't take it anymore.

In the weeks following Rose's suicide, I lay awake for long periods of time, thinking about my desire to become a professor of English, as she had been. She had given us so much, when she didn't have the energy to do so. She had poured all of herself into teaching, and this terrifies me. I look in the eye of my fear: that one day my passion will swallow me whole as it did my friend. I remember her laugh—it came from the throat and seemed to hinge on sobbing. I remember the haunted expression that often filled her heart-shaped face, how she was never the same, after her schizophrenic brother had been murdered by the police for misunderstanding and resisting arrest. She had a delicate, bird-like body; she reminded me a little of Debbie Allen from the TV show, Fame, with her colorful scarves, flowing skirts, dance tops, and shiny, olive skin. When I defended my thesis, she had stood up and exclaimed, "I'm so fuckin proud of her!" with tears in her eyes. I both envied and was embarrassed by her free-flowing emotion. At the modest Midwestern, liberal arts college from which I graduated, Rose never did fit in. She burned too brightly, flowed too furtively, spoke out too passionately, and her soul was so big, it overwhelmed all of us. Most of us loved her and wanted to be swept up by her energy; others, though, felt threatened, and instinctually tried to pull her back down to earth.

What happens when we lose sight of anything that is worth living for in such a hopeless, fragile, mysterious, beautiful, terrifying world? All I know is that when enough-is-enough fills us up and pummels us with grief and anger—when this goes on for too long, we become so full we are empty inside. We forget that we all have a breaking point. I pull my hand back in from the rushing night air and roll up the car window as I drive past a smooth mound. Right next to the highway, it appears comically out of place against the shaggy, marsh-covered, Michigan basin landscape. In the dark, it gives the appearance of a sacred burial site. I detect a mixture of slight rancid decay, indiscernible chemicals, and see vent pipes sticking up on the sides of the mound. I see death all around me. I try the word in a whisper and it feels natural on my tongue and teeth. It feels old and wise, and for this, never completely earnest, but always true.

When my grandma died a few years ago, my mother and I walked into her house to pick out the clothes that she would wear in the casket. Grandma had been a closet smoker; even at eighty-two, when she died (and not of lung cancer), she'd been hiding cigarettes because my mother gave her so much shit about it. As we went through her closet, we found her favorite pant-suit. In the blazer pocket I found a half-smoked cigarette, the red lipstick still on it. When I showed it my mother, we both burst into laughter, which flowed into tears.

"I should've left her alone," mom wailed. "She was an old woman. Who cares if she smoked?"

Death at once brings heaviness and levity—it elicits the deepest, truest laughter, and the most visceral of tears. "Good" or "bad" death doesn't matter, really. Death gives life urgency, blood. The main character, Nate Fisher, from one of my favorite TV shows, "Six Feet Under," when asked why we have to die, says it best: "To make life important." I would add, though, that maybe life shouldn't be so important that it turns on us, as it did with Rose, or with my grandma, who felt she had to sneak to smoke behind buildings, like a teenager trying to evade her parents.

As I continue my drive home, I squint a little to change my perspective. I watch the moon blurring between my eyelids, and I cannot help but see the freefall of humanity's powerful presence on the planet. I dare myself to wonder why I am so arrogant as to assume I deserve to live. That there is some purpose for my existence. I remember the silence of the headstones at Clinton Grove, and wonder if I could break their images, and build a path with them, instead of ever more monuments to my fear. Maybe I could learn to just sit with my fear. To raise my face to the gentle sky, to feel its breath, its rush of broken stars. To find the ugly in the beautiful. To no longer see the difference between the two. No judgment.

I rarely admit to my fellow, ecologically concerned peers, that sometimes I think the highway is beautiful, that cars are beautiful. How my heart lifts at the rush of gazing beside me, en route, moving so fast, but at the same time sensing the harmony and melodic whoosh of being in sync with another vehicle as it glides past, my electronica music surrounding me like a cocoon, raising goosebumps on my skin, and giving the landscape a music-video surge of choreography. I notice that the road seems to move at a different pace than the trees in the distance, and the music rises and falls with the spin of tires, the reflection of my car's form on the side of a shiny semi-truck, thundering past. I smell the hot-sweet stench of a deer carcass, which gives way to the smell of alfalfa, milkweed, and farm dirt. I hear the high pitch of cicadas, crickets, and a crotch-rocket motorcycle just ahead of me.

For now, my heart beat is steady as it rides this smooth and cruel highway. I watch my fear of death rise again, and a second later, I lose sight of the fear as I focus on the other cars passing me: people driving furtively, talking on their cell phones, locked inside the illusion of these perfect rooms on wheels, which have become our own private universes. In this moment I am comforted by the fleeting aliveness of their movement around me. I don't know what else to do but keep riding this dark highway, and awkwardly receive its gifts: bugs exploding on my window, my hand arcing the cool air at seventy miles per hour, the motion and white noise rendering me at once tired and electric with anticipation, a sense of destination, and I dare say, hope. I hold the wheel firmly as the tires below me keep turning, as I drive ever deeper into the darkness, where the moon spreads and brightens over a breaking cloud.

BIO:  “I am an assistant professor who teaches writing, film, literature, and women's studies at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. This essay came from work that I did at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in 2001, where I began a memoir-in-progress called "Water Music." I am interested in subjects that concern the body, ecology, and myth.”