But the woman does: on death, wills, and our times

What girl doesn’t write a last will and testament when she is young?  I recently thought to myself.  Most likely, most girls don’t do this.  I did, though.  I suppose that it was my familiarity with death.  By the time, I was 15, I had been to as many funerals:  one friend, one mentor, mostly family.

I had been surrounded by far more death.  There was the boy who died in elementary school after stealing a car over one weekend.  I remember him, though I didn’t know him well, because he said he had voted for me in the 8th grade election for class president.  Grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, etc.

Funerals and wakes and memorials.  I had a standard dress for them.  For a while, it was a black dress, then a high-collared blue one with white lace appliques. To one, I was supposed to wear my Easter dress with all the flowers, but my mother left me behind to sleep while the others went to mourn my great-grandmother, because I had said the night before, that I didn’t want to go to the wake.  I was angry for a very long time about that.  She was a kind woman to me, and her house always smelled like good food.  She also grumbled and told stories and was complicated and beautiful in a house dress.

Thinking back, all of those dresses were Easter dresses.  Since I went to Catholic school (uniforms) and had mostly older girl cousins (hand-me-downs), I rarely got new clothes except when something absolutely had to be replaced.  New shoes, new uniforms, new stockings and socks with the new school year.  A dress for Easter and new shoes then, too, and maybe some other pieces, too.

Mortality.  I thought of it often, though, whether in the Easter rites and Catholic prayers and Mass or just in the gift of being a member of a long-lived and wide-reaching family.  By 13, I had a detailed will … as if I owned anything.  I gave away my stereo, among other things, to my brother.  Considering that was my most prized possession, with its record player, double tape deck, 3-tray CD player, and radio, it was pretty remarkable to me.

On occasion, over the years, I write a new will.  I don’t think I wrote one in high school.  I can’t recall one in college, though by then I was very clear and communicative about my wishes to be cremated.  By graduate school, it was also a Do Not Resuscitate order, but I have rethought that considering the conspiracy theory/truth that the organs of Black people are harvested more easily.  It’s why Black people are generally not organ donors:  because we believe that in choosing between our care or our organs for someone else (especially white), our care will lose.  Though I want to believe differently, my distrust of the system also pushes me.  I am not an organ donor; I will probably never be one.  Still, if there is a chance for high quality of life, then I want care.

I write all this, because recently, I was having a conversation with my husband about wills and insurance and wishes.  I want to be cremated and my ashes tilled into a garden with a big sign that says my name, my dates, and “Eat me”.  It’s part nurture and part “Simpson generation” homage.  I recognize that this is a somewhat twisted humor, but hey, that’s me. Matteo didn’t want to talk about death, eventually noting his own thought of being cremated and maybe his ashes brought to sea.

Given the mental space and time, I would be the one to craft my memorial.  I already know a poem from Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria and that Auden’s “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone” would be lovely to be read, though I disagree that “nothing now can ever come to any good” after a death.  Death is a part of life, we know.  Perhaps that good could start immediately with a jubilant song, some Rebirth Brass Band or something like that.  At my memorial, I would like for people to wear all the colors except for black and that they be bright as flowers in full bloom.  I would like there to be song and celebration and storytelling and story-sharing.  I would like for children to run and play.  I would like people to read my work, maybe even go away with a little broadside or chapbook of my work.  I don’t want to fade away as a writer, because I am dead.  Maybe this is a vanity.

It is important to say what one wishes.  These days, so many like to avoid death, but there are differences in death, too.  Death as marker in a cycle or a path reaching from the ancestors and into the futures we cannot imagine or death as oblivion.  Oblivion is alive within these times.  I look at the news and I see erasure and fascism, control into death, the upheaval temptation of oblivion.  I think of The Fifth Element and that terrible moving destruction that threatens to steal all life.  It exists in science fiction on a massive scale and diffused among us, massive in its reach and mob movement, and yet a tiny call within us all.  I wish for a future, that does not avoid death, that instead celebrates it as a part of life.  I wish for life and I see my part of it.

I don’t think the girl who wrote her will at 13 would have written all this – she was not at peace, or as much as you can be, with death – but the woman does.



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