Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Flood, a post about grief by @GiselleRenarde

I used to be an art snob. I never bought prints. Money’s a little tighter now than it was when I had a “real” job, so I can’t always afford to buy original pieces anymore. I still want to support artists, especially young ones and those just starting out, regardless of age. That’s why I don’t mind so much, buying a print.

Last month, I bought one that gripped my heart: it’s an image of a girl, a giant girl. She’s crying so hard that she’s flooded the streets. You can only see the tops of cars. That’s how many tears she’s shed. She’s drowning out vehicles.

The night before my cousin’s funeral, I flipped on the local news. Their breaking story was weather-related. A severe localized rainstorm had caused flooding in the downtown core. They had footage of cars stuck in underpasses. You could only see the roofs. The weather guy kept saying it reminded him of footage you see from other countries, not from here. We don’t get this kind of flooding in Canada.

Except we do, because we did.

It stopped raining during the night, but started up again the next morning. By the time I left my apartment for the visitation, which would precede my cousin’s funeral, the rain was hammering down. As I waited for my second of three buses, it started coming through my umbrella and dripping on my clothes. A lane blocked off for construction had flooded entirely. Rain water washed over the sidewalk.

My mother had phoned me before I left the house. She wanted to make sure I was out of bed. I don’t usually wake up in the morning. I work late, sometimes until 5 AM, and then sleep until noon. But I was up and dressed and ready to go. She said, “Bring an umbrella,” and I said, “I’m wearing my galoshes—the fancy European ones we found at that outlet store.” We’re bargain shoppers. It runs in the family. But she called me back the second she’d hung up and said, “Bring a change of shoes. It’s more… proper.”

When I arrived at the cemetery, there was a huge puddle blocking the entrance. I couldn’t tell how deep it was, and, anyway, I was lost in thought. The third of my bus drivers looked strikingly like my cousin. And he was nice to me. He was very sweet and kind. That’s what I was thinking about as I began wading through the lake that came up almost to my knees. Some Australian guy was astonished that I would put my boots through such trauma. But they’re galoshes. You can put them through anything. They only look fancy. They’re deceptive that way.

Indoors, staff at the funeral home was going nuts with the wet-dry vac. The building had flooded overnight. Of course it had. Of course.

The first mourner I saw was a woman I didn’t recognize. She was sobbing so hard two men were holding her upright. I’d never seen someone cry like that in public. I wasn’t even sure, at first, if we were there for the same funeral. It turns out we were, and that she’s my cousin’s cousin on his father’s side (so, my uncle’s niece). This was the woman who’d lost her own mother (my uncle’s sister) to pancreatic cancer a couple months ago. She’d taken her family on vacation to try to give her kids a sense of normalcy, and so my aunt and uncle decided not to call her to tell her about their son’s untimely death.

This sobbing woman only found out our cousin had died when she arrived back home—the night before the funeral.

No wonder she was such a mess. She just lost her mother. She just found out she’d lost a cousin.

Usually, I know in advance how a funeral’s going to feel: I’ll sit there, listening to happy stories from the life of the deceased, feeling strangled by tears and yet struggling not to cry.

From the moment I walked into our lovely funeral room, I knew this one would be different. My cousin was laid out in the steel casket his sister had chosen for him, but that isn’t what set me off. It was the picture boards, the photographs of my cousin as a little boy. When I knew him well. When he and my brother were like brothers. When they egged each other on into mischief. When my cousin shoved a slice of birthday cake down our heating vent and it took us weeks to figure out what smelled funny.

I used to be one of those people who never cried in public. My Grade 9 French teacher told my mother, “There’s steel in that girl,” and there was, back then. It’s liquid now. I’m more fluid than I used to be, in many respects. I didn’t feel awkward crying.

My brother hadn’t told me he was asked to be a pall-bearer. If you want someone who feels emotions very deeply, it’s my brother. I cried for him, because I can’t even begin to imagine how hard that was, for someone who already lives inside a well of sadness.

The funeral was family-only. My cousin’s parents and sister, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandmother. Nobody else. When I first arrived, my cousin’s sister hugged me and said, “I’m so glad you’ve come. I was afraid no one would be here. I thought we’d have a funeral for nobody.” There was no death notice in the paper. The service wasn’t even listed on the funeral home’s online roster.

But it led to the most honest funeral I’ve ever been to. The minister didn’t go on and on about my cousin’s good works. Part of me hoped he would. Something good. Something to latch on to. Instead, he focused on us, the grieving. The service wasn’t for my cousin. It was for us. The minister assured us there was nothing more we could have done. Perhaps his death was accidental. Perhaps it was suicide, the culmination of years spent struggling with depression. We’ll never know for sure.

Whatever the root cause, the minister said we should not blame ourselves, but rather turn to each other for support. Sure the funeral was family-only, but when you looked around that room, you realized this is a big family. We’re a lot of people. We can lean on each other and not fall down, like the lady I saw sobbing before the service. She had two family members by her side to hold her up.

Last night, I dreamed about the neighbourhood I lived in 15 years ago, down by the lake. In my dreams, the landscape is always different from reality, but I recognize it from other dreams. Last night, my dreamscape was flooded. In my dream, I was taking my cats for a walk, goodness knows why, and I didn’t have them on a leash. I kept having to pull them out of the deep water and hold them in my arms. It wasn’t easy. You know what cats are like. They squirm and try to escape.

As I walked along, I passed through a café, and my family was there. My aunt and uncle, the ones who just lost their son, were pushing a baby carriage. They were smiling and healthy, the way they looked thirty years ago. I was about to walk on by when my aunt stopped me. They had a little girl with them, a toddler, and my aunt asked me if the girl could pet my cats.

“This one’ll swat at you,” I said to the child, “but don’t worry—she has no claws. She can’t hurt you, even if she tries.”

Lhasa De Sela -- "I'm Going In"


  1. This is so sad and beautiful at the same time. May all heal. I've had a lot of loss as of late. My good friend just had 11 Golden Retriever puppies. Being around them for several hours, that new, precious, innocent life, it helps...

  2. Funerals are good for family bonding. I've been to many, and organized the one for my mother six years ago, keeping strong to support my father. But the older I get--the closer to being the oldest in my family when my father goes--the more I have funerals on my mind.

    I go in and out of a nursing home almost every day. Two of those days a week I'm taking my father to my home for lunch, and on the others I'm picking up or delivering his laundry or just visiting. He always asks when he'll see me again. Aging and death are very much on my mind, and it's not even just aging; one of the guys there is only about my age, which granted, is far from young, but he seems to have been permanently injured in some way. I've taken to stopping to chat casually with him, and he seems overjoyed to have someone see him as the normal person he is inside. Another, my dad's roommate, is a good deal younger, with some condition I don't ask about that leaves him almost okay at times and miserable and super medicated at others. He's one of the kindest, brightest people I know, watching out for my dad, and writing a book on poetry "to pass the time." He says he has no family. We chat and laugh and I wish I could do more for him than bring the occasional Stephen King book. Most of the people are quite old, though, and severely disabled. They get good care, better than some other places I've seen, but I always feels the weight of mortality there, theirs, and my own, and a degree of paranoia for my younger family members. Even working in my garden doesn't lift my mood very much. But a cardinal's mating call, presumably bent on starting a second brood of the summer as they often do, was like opening a window on the natural world and the natural course of things, on beginnings as well as endings.

  3. Water can mean so many things. It can bring life, or rob us of it.

    You've managed to expose the beauty and truth underneath loss in the wrenching post. Thank you for your honesty.

  4. Giselle, I hope you always have someone around to support you in your grief.


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