When I was eight, my favorite aunt died in a car/train collision. Oddly enough, I still remember what my mother told me.
“Your Auntie won’t be coming back,” she said. Her eyes were damp for days when she finally finished the statement. “She died violently, Sherrida. That’s the hard part.”
In time, I saw the car she died in. In fact, I’ve seen a picture in which my father and I were in the process of having it moved to a wrecking yard. There is only a remnant feeling left in me now — that of picking up on my father’s matter-of-factness, his very authentic stoicism to get the horrible job done. Unlike my mother, I don’t remember crying. But I do remember touching my aunt’s hair while she lay patched together in her casket. And knowing that without a doubt, without a good bye, without one more delicious moment together, I would never see her again.
I’ve heard it said that trauma draws lines and punctuations on parts of the human brain. When these new etchings happen, they seem to drive home a pattern. And that pattern often repeats itself. As I grew, my parents would take me to the local cemetery to see my aunt, to “visit” her. My job was to place flowers on her grave.
“Now, where is Aunt Elsie?” my mother would sometimes ask my father as we drove through unlimited rows of the dead. “We might’ve turned down the wrong lane.”
“No,” I would think. “My Aunt Elsie hasn’t been down the wrong lane since the moment she died.”
There was now a new etching in my brain — a belief system that had been tapped in by a train and a car. Life could be interrupted, side-lined in the middle of a sunny day. Death didn’t do well with an expected time line — in fact, I’d discovered the first and primary law of death. Unpredictability.
Sometime within the next couple years, my father, a World War II veteran, decided to part with what was once his identity. One evening my mother and I were in the basement with him. I’m not sure it was at his request, but my guess is there was a lesson to be learned, however voiceless. A wooden box had been opened. The furnace door was also open. Papers were being burned. And in the middle of his careful intent, my father lifted a bayonet out of the box. Nothing about it was familiar, but I sensed something in my dad I’d never experienced before — a kind of reverence for something inanimate. He held the weapon for several minutes while the fire blazed in front of him, then slowly pushed it into the furnace. Fire met steel, and for that moment, the one he wanted me to remember, death had symbolic dimension, a strange trickle-down effect that revealed his own brush with insanity. He lived with the remains of that bayonet the rest of his life. And I lived knowing that somewhere inside, someplace hardly intelligible, I would struggle to understand his understanding — in increments.
I’ve learned, if you’re lucky, there are interludes in death — small breaks that minimize its magnitude. However, in those periodic fasts there are reminders that can fixate the human imagination. In 1970, as a young mother with a baby to raise, I took my daughter on a trip to Nevada to visit relatives. Somehow we got off the track long enough to discover an old cemetery in Virginia City that included a lineage of respectable townsfolk. I wandered the orderly graveyard, my daughter on my hip. And then I saw something I’ve never forgotten — the solitary, fence-dominated grave of Julia Bulette.
She was said to have captured the hearts of more than one man in the region. And yet she was hardly the only woman to have lived at the end of town where mistakes were made and fortunes were spent as quickly as they were hacked out of the earth. Bulette was conspicuously generous, I found out. She didn’t live for the hunt — she lived to distribute the hunt. Fairly and with unharnessed devotion. Someone told me she repeatedly grubstaked miners, but that didn’t prevent her violent death at thirty-five, perhaps at the hand of one of them. And the good women of Virginia City couldn’t forgive her for doing so. Because, like they say, only the good die young.
Her grave, as I remember, was dominated by a rectangular iron fence, white, with absolutely no mention of her name. Well apart from the landscaped cemetery still tended in the unrelenting heat and wind of Nevada desert, her only memory was contained as an innocuous side show, quite literally, separated from the main graveyard by several yards. And yet she was all I wanted to explore. Within the grave’s fence line a bouquet of sunflowers had been collected in a tin can propped up by rocks. I was told the bouquet was changed daily. All this for a women scorned. In a place intended for obliteration.
Death, the loneliness of it, settled into my brain. Julia Bulette’s life, which had been outpaced by her death, would never touch mine — except in my slowly budding concept of death. I think it was here, on this wind-blown precipice above the town of Virginia City, Nevada, that I realized death in and of itself is something natural to grieve — or to celebrate. But the dying is separate from the way it occurs. My fascination with Bulette’s story became a revelation from some overriding intuition. That death is universally associated with disconnect. It marks the end of breath, of thought, of concept, of one person’s acquisition of life force. But it’s also woven into the fabric of loss — a web that suggests for every death there is the counterforce of who or what created it. A purpose beyond the pale surface of disappearance. A forgotten plan that moves silently through time.
Strange that it should have happened to me then — that kind of slowly accruing knowledge. A young mother with a husband in Vietnam, I was preparing for what might likely come. I was beefing up for death. There were times when I bowed my head as though pushing against a storm — of vigilant protests, anger, and personal loss. Getting ready. But the death of my husband didn’t happen. That’s how it is, you know. There is the element of surprise in death, even when it doesn’t occur. And that is probably the key that can drive you insane.
It would seem then that if death is presenting itself in increments a person can handle, almost as a teachable experience (as it was with me), then it is also capable of mentally decimating a normal life. We are submerged, all of us, in the implications of violent death. Media brings it full force into our homes while we build a skin, an exterior that feeds on daily routine. Years can go by with little preparation. But life is a crapshoot, and in that distribution there’s always room for chance — death’s ever-present ally. How am I going to react if I get slammed, I wonder? There are answers. And they are hidden in my own DNA. But as of this hour I have no knowledge of them, only because death hasn’t yet plotted to drive me insane. And, oddly enough, it may never. But I suspect insanity gripped my grandmother by the throat at one point in her life. And it was egged on by death.
In the fall of 1918, when she was barely twenty, my grandmother Mary was pregnant with my father. It hadn’t been a good year — full of a world war and a pandemic. Her lover desired her, she said. But he didn’t want the responsibility of a child, so he dodged both her and the draft and moved to Canada. In desperation, Mary moved to be with her sister in Mandan, North Dakota. It was the spring of 1919, a time that coincided with the third and last wave of the Spanish flu, and she revealed its overwhelming presence by writing her parents that there was death in the neighborhood — in the middle of her son’s birth.
“No place to bury the dead,” she wrote. “So they’ve been loading bodies up at night to lessen the panic, and taking them somewhere to bury under cover of darkness.” I wondered about her resilience. First, a rejection from her lover, then seeking a place away from home to have a child. And in the middle of that upheaval, pandemic death all around her. But that was only the beginning.
Fast forward to 1936, almost twenty years later. One-by-one, losses had come in waves to Mary, as if a pandemic left unfinished. It began with the 1918 flu and birth of my father, which forced her to return to her parents’ home just to survive. Then my missing grandfather returned, eventually marrying her, and they began life in a two-story clapboard dwelling built for harsh Midwest winters. They had two more children, also little boys, no more than eighteen months apart. Again, Mary had little help. Her husband would disappear for days finagling a deal somewhere. When he came home, he’d sleep with her a few nights, then ban her to the floor. She held to the marriage, perhaps because of her children. But when her mother died in the fall of 1935, my grandmother told a sister she was losing her mind. The dye was cast, only to be aggravated by one of the worst winters on record by the following February. And Mary’s agonizing mystery, over time, became mine to unravel and acknowledge.
She lost her life during that hard winter. Both she and her two baby boys. Descriptions ran wild in local newspapers about how she might have killed them, then herself. Or how my grandfather committed the crime of murder, then set the clapboard house on fire. Whatever happened, the bones of the dead were incinerated so badly that she was buried in a mass grave with her children. Together as one, perhaps as death wanted them to be. I’ve thought about her many times trying to fit together the circumstances building toward her end. And, as with so many other things about her that I can only guess, I realize she might have taken the worst punch for me.
Mary died long before I was born, but she left behind one son, my father. One remaining strand of life from her own, he made all the difference in mine. There can be no doubt — I am the random survivor of a survivor. And, so far, that’s kept insanity at bay. But the connection between death and insanity proves genuine and long-lived, and I’m reminded in this time of worldwide epidemic that the two conspire as they always have. Only those of us who are very fortunate won’t feel the sting of double loss. It may take the next generation or more to explain away the mental sorrow we’re feeling now. It may even take another pandemic.
As for myself, I’ve discovered one other thing about the link-up between insanity and death, especially pandemic death. When I was writing a novel of a pandemic, one character in particular seemed to reside on the edge of losing his mind. Martin Pritchard had lived through the Gulf War and carried within him toxic remnants of biochemical warfare. Whether this is what made him unstable, I guess I’ve never completely figured out. A character, as we know, is of a writer’s mind. But conversely, in some odd way he has coerced the writer into exploring his agenda, his problems, sometimes, even, his secrets. On multiple occasions, Pritchard, a pharmaceutical muscle-man, is put into a position of delivering an outdated anti-viral instead of an updated one. Entire populations worldwide depend on his follow-through. He lives around this never-ending guilt, this nonstop oncoming tide of human loss, knowing his compliance with a frustrated, corrupt employer is deciding the fate of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe Pritchard’s dilemma is that far from our own. This is the first viral pandemic of the modern world to spread rapidly, mysteriously, and with such far-flung success. We can be glad it is happening in this time of potential vaccines and disease-reducing methods. But, there is a likelihood that one vaccine, the right one, won’t hold us for long and will have to be provided in discretionary measure, much like the anti-viral in Quick Fall of Light. And in that mix, choices will have to be made. No matter the intent, men and women like Pritchard will be asked to forsake some humans for others. And, sadly, insanity may not be far behind.