Walking down that drab corridor, I saw the doorway ahead at the end of the hall and felt nothing. The gravity of the situation was apparent to me, but my body had forgotten to really feel what my mind knew. I already had my first confrontations with this situation; already screamed and cried and threw things. That was days ago, and we had traveled a long way since then. I didn’t quite know what the room would look like, and was only vaguely aware of the fact that it contained the purpose of our visit. The solemn faces and hunched-in-sorrow shoulders of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were all around, some ahead of me and many behind me. Unprepared, I went forward.
Then, as I barely crossed the threshold into the room, I saw it. A small corner of her face and nose peaked out above the edge of the coffin. In an instant, my chest was pierced with the tiniest slice of cold terror and I snapped around. Nope. I immediately began walking the opposite direction towards a nearby bench. I sat, and let my flash-frozen blood warm up.
“Are you OK?” my boyfriend asked. He had been walking beside me the entire time as my much-needed support, and he sat down next to me. He looked quite nice in his white pinstripe shirt, but I’m sure I barely looked at him. I mumbled some sort of response. I didn’t have the energy at that second to articulate a real reply, as I was spending it all to build the courage to get back up and approach my grandmother’s open casket.
My mother entered the corridor, herself on a journey to confront the same face that I had only glanced at for a half-second. The viewing held greater sorrow for her, though, because this was her mother in the coffin. They were close, and had lived together recently. While my own relationship with my mother is fairly (and sometimes purposely) distant, I felt in that moment that was the least I could do as a daughter to accompany her. So up I rose, and followed behind her.
At first I did not look directly at the casket, partly because I needed to do so quite slowly, and partly because a small group had formed directly in front of it, surrounding my mother as she wailed. A couple of my aunts, my uncles, and my cousin comforted each other. I sat on a nearby chair against the wall, next to my boyfriend and another family member. My boyfriend had little reason to view the body and chose not to, and while I sat next to him on the verge of tears I did not cry. I’m not sure why; I’m just like that sometimes. The gravest of situations won’t phase my composure, always at the oddest of times.
Soon, I had another chance. I quickly viewed her, and did not look for very long. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. Over the course of an hour, between pleasant conversations and solemn silence, I repeatedly approached her casket to look. Each time, I looked a little longer. I’ve never been able to view a dead body in films or pictures, so I never expected to be able to stand a foot and a half away from the dead body of my grandmother. But, somehow, I could do it now. Perhaps it was the oddly Plasticine condition of her skin, as if she were simply a statue from a wax museum. Perhaps it was that she only seemed like a dull impression of my grandmother, who always had such vibrancy in her expressions and demeanor. Perhaps it was that the corpse did not breath, though it looked as though she were simply peacefully sleeping. She did look peaceful – peaceful, and lifeless. She was cleaned and groomed, with a creamy gold-colored satin dress, her hands folded over her abdomen in the way that no one does naturally. It was certainly her body – skeleton, organs, elderly skin and feathery white hair – but there was no electricity in her brain, no blood pumping, no oxygen in her lungs. It was a wax museum statue. It was a strange monument to her, made of her, but it was not her. She was dead. Is dead.
The visitation room had a selection of photo albums and posters which celebrated her life. One album contained pictures of her from infancy in the 1930s up until her marriage in 1950. Other albums had scores of later pictures, but my cousin and I sat down and looked at this one. We studied each one of the black-and-white family photos from the first page to the last. With each old, small photo we watched a narrow glimpse of her life unfold. She was alive in these pictures – as if the thin, aging pieces of paper held all of the blood and electricity and oxygen that were now gone from that thin, 3-dimensional statue laying in a casket nearby. She was 3 years old, and 10, and 15, and 19. She was the child standing with her other young siblings, the teenager acting silly with her friends, the young adult posing like Marilyn Monroe in a 40’s bathing suit, lithe and beautiful. She was the young woman who had just met her soon-to-be husband, the young pianist who had a bright professional future ahead of her, and the person full of life and passion smiling into some long-gone camera that captured a fraction of a living moment.
She is the 6 children who outlive her, who brought their own children into the world. She is the hundreds of students that she taught during her tenure at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, the hundreds of piano recitals that she performed over the course of her career, and the hundreds of moments she experienced while traveling through Europe to spread her passion for music. She is the instruments that my aunts and uncles play, the dances and the writing and the drawings and adventures that her grandchildren make. She is each and every life to whom she gave her contagious smile and warm voice, and every note and key that her fingers magicked out of that old grand piano.
The body in the coffin was the summary of her, but it did not contain her. She is in a thousand places, in a hundred pictures, and in countless hearts.
When I looked into my grandmother’s open casket, I did not see her, or a dead body. Though lifeless, the body in the coffin was the seal on her life story. It was the closing statement, the last blank page after “The End,” the final note to an 83-year-long symphony. In that casket I saw one last picture of her, one in which she seemed to be nodding at the rest of room, and all of the people in it, and saying “that is where I am. Not in this box, but out there.” Her life is done, and complete, but it is not gone. It’s blended into the lives of others, whose own lives will eventually do the same. All we can do now is miss her, and cherish each memory – however detailed, or fleeting – and endeavor to live a life that embraces the passion, love, caring, and wisdom that she left with us.