When I arrived at my friend's house for dinner last night, she was on the phone. “Do we bury it or bring it back to you?” she asked. I put the bottle of wine on the counter and shifted some strawberries in a bowl. “Ok," she continued. "So we don't have to bring back the body to prove that it's dead?” Her son Alex shuffled by with his head down. She hung up the phone. A rusty wheel squeaked under a lone rodent down the hallway. “His hamster died. We're not sure what to do with it.” This is the subject: what we do about our dead.
We poured some gin and tonics and talked about animals and memory–the textures of our first bedrooms, the way humidity may or may not make you remember things in a more saturated way, if it's easier to remember a place after you've left or to chronicle its attributes while you're still there. I don't see things as clearly until I've stepped away.
We talked about how many notes a writer should take, or if they should take any at all. I think we remember specifics for a reason without record-keeping, but a lot of reporters would disagree. Once I start taking notes, I can't stop, so I take them when a subject seems said and done. And I guess that's when the subject continues to unravel, when I think about what a particular detail gave to me. We talked about the Enneagram and what each of us would be. Each personality type on the Enneagram needs something:
1-The Need to Be Perfect 2-The Need to Be Needed 3-The Need to Succeed 4-The Need to Be Special 5-The Need to Perceive 6-The Need for Security 7-The Need to Avoid Pain 8-The Need to Be Against 9-The Need to Avoid
I bristled a bit at being pigeonholed by the system, but my friend says she uses it not to validate her instinctive reactions, but to catch herself before she makes them. The idea is that our needs are tethered to the needs of everyone else. Cut the strings and you fall.
My brother emailed me a living will this week with all the passwords to his documents so he doesn't leave behind a bad name. A teacher I worked with in Louisiana died when he slammed his car into the back of a semi. The newspaper story linked me to legacy.com, where I have the option of sending a message to his family or to him, if he's reading them, or to myself if that's who I'm writing for. Everything's up to me and my needs as soon as I turn on that screen.
I also heard a story on NPR about a 26-year old who monitors her deceased friend's facebook page like an attending keeping wake over a guestbook in the back of a church. There's something irreverent about this to me–how you can read everything on a site and then slink away. When you write a letter on a sheet of paper, there's a slant and a sleight of hand, your whole person pressing down onto the page. One of the first times I knew I was in love with Luke was when he told me he handwrites a letter every day.
At the funeral of a friend's brother recently, the first thing that happened after I went in the door was a man standing over the V of a wide white book handed me a heavy pen. I could not have walked away. I could not have read the whole thing. Too many strings.
Here's another option for the bereaved: if you die and your gmail account is locked down, your family can produce a death certificate and open your online vault. I understand my brother wants someone to access his business things. But what's in my emails that others need? Nothing. Everything. I don't know if I want anyone to read what I wrote or if I want everyone to read what I wrote. When anthologies are created of writers' letters to each other, the editor has to ask the family and the person who received that letter for the permission to publish, they don't just break down doors and shove papers in their pockets.
I'm afraid that with emailing and texting and our archived-online lives, what we'll find when those closest to us die aren't collections but secrets not meant to be spilled and meaningless lists of incidentals. Please don't open my inbox when I die. What you'll find are prices and pieces, a few of these : ) and a few of these :( but not me.
My inclination, of course, is to collect everything I can before those closest to me die, and I'm sure when someone very close to me dies, I'll be compelled to crawl over their emails and every word. I can investigate a subject or a person to shreds. I will try to remember what my friend said: that one of the tenets of the Enneagram is that while there's a brokenness to every person, there are also methods to redeem that void. The lesson is that excavating others' lives has its limits.
Frank O'Hara, author of one of my favorite lines (“Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! You really are beautiful!”), writes:
Some days I feel that I exude a fine dust... and it's because an excavationist has reached the inner chamber of my heart and rustled the paper bearing your name. I don't like that stranger sneezing over our love.
At the end of dinner, no one could find the hamster. Alex had buried it wordlessly and went to bed. Here is death, as it should be, under a small stone on the shady side of the house. A dusty secret, a snapped-shut suitcase of dirt and bones.