Dying doesn’t seem beautiful.
Death is hard— for the person dying, for the carers, for those left behind. Death can make us hard.
My Pawpaw died last night. It was hard.
It makes us raw.
Death wears down the careless callus we rub onto our heart.
With every new tragedy unfolding, our hearts build a callus, like hands rough from plowing the patch of ground my Pawpaw used to grow tomatoes in. (“Last year, we grew fifty tomatoes,” my Grandmother said, “the mites got them eventually, but before that, boy was he proud.”)
We can’t feel every hurt as deeply as our hearts want. It will break us if we do. So our hearts build a callus.
Death sloughs off the callus if we let it. Even if we don’t.
When I was younger, I climbed into the barn loft every Tuesday and Thursday. (Once my cousin and I got stuck— we screamed and screamed until Pawpaw came to rescue us. She asked him to get her down. I asked for an oatmeal cream pie and a soda. This memory defines us.)
The ladder to the loft is uneven planks nailed to the side of the barn. My hands wore calluses, but my heart was free of them and I was sensitive. So sensitive.
Every petty fight, every lost friendship, every lover who got away— these all made calluses. I was no longer so sensitive.
(I have a scar on my leg where something went through it. My cousin and I were trespassing and almost got caught. We ran back to the yard and Pawpaw was grilling burgers. He was so calm as I limped past with blood streaming down my leg. “Looks like that hurts,” he said.
My heart is like that puncture wound. It feels like it can bleed itself clean.)
Every sweet snap pea he ever grew me came from the dirt, and to the dirt we’ll all eventually return. In the process we sometimes find ourself faced with something so big, so scary, that we must face our own mortality.
(Pawpaw once filled the Little Room with boxes of out of date Keebler products he picked up while driving a route truck. “This is what heaven looks like,” I thought. “Heaven is full of Cheez-It’s.”)
When we face our mortality, or the mortality of those we love, those calluses come off our heart. It’s fresh, and soft, and raw.
Death can make us be hard, or death can make us soft. I will choose to be soft.
I will choose to be soft because I believe in life after death. I believe in Heaven, yes, but I believe in something more. I believe that I am the remaining breaths of those who came before. I believe that I am filled with all the love of all those who ever led to my creation— a million ancient love notes, secret kisses, and hands to hold. I carry in my DNA every kept promise and everything that has led to me being here on earth. I believe that my brain has created new circuits, new loops of thinking that mimic the people that I love. I carry their beliefs, their quirks, and their memories in my mind and heart.
As long as I’m here, the ones I love will never die— not really. They will be here in my breath, in my thoughts, and in all the things I’ve ever learned. And they’ll be waiting for me on the other side.
I didn’t say it nearly enough, but I love you Pawpaw. Thanks for getting me the good ice cream from the basement. I will always take care of your fish.