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She’s ashes now, only ashes. She was burned and crumbled into a million tiny fragments and scattered on the wind. She’s clinging to trees and curling around bramble, hanging on like so many terrified gray butterflies, but not really frightened because she’s dead. She’s already dead.
And you’re upset, I remind myself. Your great-grandmother is dead and you are heartbroken. Inconsolable. Miserable.
It’s a lie and I know it.
People stand up around me, rising from the pews. I stand too, and the singing starts—everyone together like she would have wanted.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
Not listening, I sing along because I know the words by heart. Speaking of which, my heart seems to be malfunctioning. Why can’t I feel it? Why is there nothing there? I think I know the answer, but it’s much easier to pretend I don’t and just keep singing.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
I glance around for a moment and immediately regret it. The eyes are everywhere, some closed, some shiny and red, some so damaged they just look empty. Tears shine in the dim light, and they make me more angry than anything since my cheeks are dry as dust. Or ash. I look away from the eyes and stare straight ahead at the altar. I stare and stare without blinking until my eyes burn. Twin tears sear their way down my face. I hate them because they aren’t real, but I don’t wipe them away.
When did it become this difficult to do something as simple as crying, something everyone knows how to do? Since when is stabbing my soul with guilty shards of glass the only way to make it bleed?
Since about a week ago, I answer. Since I pulled my heart into pieces.
I knew what my mother was going to say before she got off the kitchen phone. When she said it, I responded only with “Oh,” a gusty, halfhearted noise like a flute. Great-grandmother had passed away. The blood in her brain from the fall had finally swollen into an inescapable pool, and even a much younger woman could not have escaped it. They say drowning is peaceful, though.
I heard three short breaths, one after the other, and I knew what was coming. My brother, my mother, and my father would cry. I’d never seen my father cry, and I didn’t want to, but I would have no choice but to grieve with him. No, I had one other choice, and I chose it. I left them before the tears started falling. A coward, I trudged up the stairs, forcing myself not to run. I entered my room, closed the door softly, and lay down on my bed.
For a while, I listened to my heartbeat. It was much too fast, like that of a tiny rodent locked in a maze. It was so fragile, so weak, that I suddenly despised it. I wanted to be strong, to feel nothing, to master my emotions and stop my frantic heart before it collapsed in agony like my father’s. So I began to tug at it. It was a tangled ball of yarn and my claws tore at it mercilessly. I shredded the fibers in all the wrong ways, making ends where there shouldn’t have been any. I unwound threads and flung them away, asking myself a question with each careless toss.
What are you feeling? Heat. A thousand suns bursting in my head.
Why are you feeling it? Because Great-grandmother is dead.
What do you need to make it stop? Something cold. Like ice. Like apathy.
Then I pulled much too hard, and I felt something give. Immediately, an inky calm washed over me, and I discovered something fascinating: I could reel my thoughts in and choose the ones I liked best. I threw the ones concerning the dead far away, into deeper water where they wouldn’t bother me. It didn’t matter that another person was gone, or that I would never again play in her creek or explore her basement or smell her perfume. It didn’t matter that she was dead because for the moment I was happy—at least, happy in the way a child is when he curls up in the snow to sleep. Like him, I mistook the numbness for warmth.
Of course, now I realize my mistake. You can’t go ripping your heart up and expect the rest of you to be fine. And I am anything but fine. I am shivering, my legs shaking like they’re the ones made of ash. I know I can’t go much longer without freezing to death. My sorrow is being crushed by the weight of my selfish despair, choking me.
Then my grandmother walks up to the altar. She speaks about her mother with words as delicate as crystal. They are magnificent crystals, though, glassy and glittering; I stop shivering to listen. I hear them ringing in my head: Beautiful southern lady. Adventurer. Mother and teacher. Friend.
My grandmother stops for a moment, recollecting herself, placing a shaking hand on the silvery necklace that was once her mother’s. I suddenly realize that she is just as fragile as I was a week ago, if not more so. After all, it was not my mother who died. It was not my mother who left me alone, speaking in front of a hundred guests when I am only a pillar of ash myself, ready to crumble under the weight of my grief.
We are all simply ash. It’s all we’ve ever been, just piles of centuries-old silt carrying around loads that are far too heavy. Emotions are a burden that everyone has to share, so it’s no use tearing your heart up because you’re only going to have to break it again to get it fixed. It’s not the dead ashes that matter; it’s the live ones in pain that are important. And that’s worth crying about.
So I do. This time, it’s real.