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  • Writer's pictureJuliane Bergmann

Speaking ill of the dead

Fairies definitely live here. Or maybe it is a scene from Jurassic Park. Or it's just an okay cell phone picture of one of the most magical places I've experienced in my entire life.

This summer I stared up at ancient Redwoods in awe, some charred from wildfires, some toppled over, their giant hole-y plant carcasses blocking the path. Out of the rotting tree flesh, all shades of green exploding, ferns and moss and saplings. I thought, ah yes, the circle of life! How profound! Out of decay and death, new things grow. Did you know that some trees can communicate with each other and that dying trees send all their nutrients to other trees close by that are most likely to survive? How fucking magical is this and what a heartrending movie ending scene this would be - the hero tree sacrificing itself for the younger generation. Well, not exactly, the tree is dying anyway, and saying, okay, fine, you guys over there can have the rest of my juice, I won't be able to use it. Anyway, this is a tangent and also a perfect example of the stories I tell myself about dying and death because I can't just let it be dying and death. I must ascribe meaning.

We say, if someone dies, they leave a hole. Our language says there is an emptiness, a blackness, a nothing. Because that somehow signifies that those people were important enough to leave an empty space in our lives, our metaphorical hearts. It supposedly is the proof of the intensity of our love, that if a person dies, emptiness in the shape of that person is what demonstrates the meaningfulness of the relationship.

When my mother died, at her funeral, one of her oldest friends came up to me and said now that she died, this freed up space in the universe. That her energy or whatever wasn't lost but was making room for something else in its place. I turned away and rolled my eyes all the way back into my head.

People act like they know shit about death. I act like I know shit about death. I do not. I know that my mother and father died, both alone, both sick. They were both burned. One's ashes live underground, one's ashes live on a shelf. Not livelive. But strange that I just accidentally used that word.

One of them left a discernible emptiness in my life and one did not. My father died a little over two years after my mother. They had lived thousands of miles apart for decades at that point but I still think they sort of loved each other. I think my father died because my mother did. Actually, he died because he slowly killed himself deliberately with alcohol and other things, but I secretly prefer the romantic notion of death due to a broken heart.

I'm glad my mother died well before Covid because she had COPD and getting Covid would have likely been a death sentence and she would have died alone and intubated looking at strangers in space suits. But then again, just a regular virus and pneumonia had already handed her a death sentence, and she did have to be intubated, and she already was scared all the time anyway. What would one more deadly virus have been to her? How much more scared of death can you be than she already was on a daily basis? When you have a disease that literally cuts off your breath, that has you living in fear of suffocating at all times?

My father, a knot of anxiety and conspiracy theories and cold hot fear would have been terrified during Covid too. His underlying health conditions, obesity, and the general disrepair of his lungs due to incessant smoking and his liver due to excessive drinking, would have made him a likely victim. He died shortly before nationwide lockdowns were announced and I had to cancel my flight to go survey what was left of him. I had not spoken to him since right before my mother died. Over two years of silence. He had not attempted to comfort me or talk with me or reach out in any meaningful way. He sent money and asked me to buy her all the red flowers I could find. I did this last thing for both of them and then I was done.

I could not be honest with my mother because she couldn't handle the truth. And also, I couldn't handle telling it. I could not be honest with my father because he didn't know me and I didn't know him and how can you be honest with a stranger who shouldn’t be a stranger? He told me he loved me on the phone the two times a year we spoke. The words were dead, beyond resuscitation.

It seems easy for some people to leave their families, to let those relationships die if they are rotten and poisonous. They create their own families, chosen, not assigned. It has never been that easy for me. I do feel the pull of blood and name and birthplace and biological family. I have always felt stuck in the Wanting-Things-To-Be-Different. Not even their deaths were proof enough to me that things would now never be, could never be, different. As it turns out, the grief over what I wanted and didn't have, what I wished to be true that I could never make true, didn't leave with their bodies. It was never even connected to them in the first place. It was always just this yearning inside of me to be safe, to be protected, to be cared for, to be loved.

Even as an adult I was still waiting for them to be the parents I needed when I was a child. I did not learn to give these things to myself as an adult, because I did not want to. I was angry I had to be something for myself that other people should have been. The anger kept me from being kind to myself and others. I tried to fill that hole with many things all the while cringing at my predictability and textbook behavior. My daddy issues. My mother wound. All the psychobabble made me gag. So I tried harder to cover up the hole to pretend it wasn't there.

I never learned to relate to my parents as a grown-up. I remained the angry child. I literally waited for them to die to admit some of these things, because I could not admit them while they were still alive: I really needed you and you left me. You left me for a different country, you left me for booze, you left me for romantic relationships, you left me for self-discovery. I didn't want you to know how hurt I still was.

And how could I have told you anyway?

One of you so emotionally and physically fragile that you would drown in your own tears literally struggling for breath every time I so much as mentioned that we, in fact, did not have the close relationship you imagined in your head.

The other so numb and disconnected from life and people, so busy with burying old pain, that the decades of alcohol made you forget how to spell my name and how many kids I had and where I lived.

How could I talk to either of you? I tell myself these things, because they make me feel better than admitting the biggest reason was that I knew I might be rejected again, dismissed, or manipulated into thinking that I actually misremembered things or that it really wasn't that bad, and don't I know you have always loved me and that you tried your best?

Quietly in my head today: no I didn't always know that you loved me and your best was not enough.

Speaking ill of the dead is not wrong. It is sometimes the only way to say what could not be said to the living.

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