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June 7th, 2012

I visited a dead woman today.

She lied there with her head propped too high on pillows and her body tucked restrictively into the sheets (as if she might try to escape at any moment).  Her cheeks were sunken deeply, the bones in her face protruding out in an unnatural way.  The cartilage of her nose was almost completely gone, exposing what resembled a skeleton’s nose.  I amusingly thought, the way Michael Jackson’s nose looked near his end.  She reminded me of Dracula.  I felt guilty for thinking such things as I glanced at the family members in the room: the daughter and two sons.

It smelled.  I hate nursing homes.  Even in the rooms where people are alive, it smells of death and urine.  How can one expect to heal or live in such a place?  On the contrary, it was a place to die.

She lied motionless.  Her skin the color of her hair: ashy grey.  I winced.  Her family sat on a couch near the opposite side of the room, chatting not just about “arrangements” but about grocery shopping, soccer games and other seemingly menial and inappropriate topics in the presence of a dead family member.  They did this quietly, almost in whispers, taking moments to pause only to control a swell of impending tears.  Distraction is powerful.  The nurses and I sat there, awkwardly, waiting for the coroner.

Not entirely listening but catching random phrases like “good weather” and “lovely party,” I stared at the dead woman.  She didn’t seem bothered one bit by her family’s apparent lack of interest toward her.  I wonder if this is what it’s like when we die.  I wonder if death, this horribly scary thing to the living, could be so passive to the dying.  Would I be lying there dead one day with a stranger looking at me, wondering who I am and what I’ve done in life, while my family chats away absent-mindedly on the side?  Once more, would I even care if they did?  Or would I just lie there.  Invisible.  Indifferent.

The hospice nurse told me later that white families are often like that at deaths: removed, nonchalant and calm.  Something about the propriety that runs rampant among WASPs; deaths were always a civilized affair.  It had nothing to do with their degree of love toward the deceased but more toward the importance they place on public dignity.  Only in the south would good manners take precedence over death.

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