by Amy McElroy
On the reality show “Survivor,” contestants are voted off with the ceremonial snuffing out of their torches, and host Jeff Probst’s constant reminder that, “In this game, fire represents your life.” There’s something primal to that metaphor, something deeper than a reality show gimmick, as I’ve learned over the past month.
First, my dog of seventeen years, München—who had gradually become more incontinent–stopped getting out of his bed over a matter of days. And when I took him to the vet, the news was grim: blood tests revealed kidney failure. While my family raced to meet me as his vital signs grew weaker, I was all alone with him as he quickly faded away.
In that last gasp, how fast he turned from München into a cold, empty body, as I waited through my own gasps and sobs for my family to arrive. After I calmed, I remained standing by München’s side at the table as if he might still need me to stroke him or catch him should he wiggle toward the edge. But, as the minutes stretched on, his absence within that familiar shape of fur weighed time down like several sets of shackles hanging from the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
Even once my two, sweet daughters and husband finally arrived, my silent tears reignited, I didn’t want to be in that room one more second than I had to be. I struggled to stay inside those walls, to remain present for my family, as they caressed his ears and told stories of his puppy days—of brighter times when he raced around the yard catching squirrels. Yet, my own, initial acceptance of München’s passing from this Earth had already happened alone in that room. The way he always nudged his velvet forehead into my hand to be pet, the frenetic circles he danced around the house his whole life in hopes of being fed, even the deep snores resonating from his bed. His essence, his fire, everything that made him special to me was gone.
Where did it go? I don’t pretend to know. After numerous attempts to follow various religions—and always feeling like a hypocrite for my lack of faith—I’ve accepted that what happens to our inner selves after death is one of those questions humans can’t answer. While others may find solace in faith or religion, I certainly don’t have a clue. In some way, I suppose I carry some of München’s fire within me as a memory. I am greater for having known him.
The same is true for my grandmother, who died less than a week later. (See, Make Time Stop). Though I wasn’t there when she died, I walked into Nana’s house and immediately felt a hollow coldness that no fire in her fireplace—or even my beloved uncle and his partner’s presence–could ever replace.
Because I’ve never met anyone like her, her loss is difficult to capture. People speak of gravitas, but they typically use the word when they speak of men. People speak of matriarchs, but the word conjures a large woman in a chair. Instead, imagine an eighty-three year-old, 95 pound woman taking her hacksaw to the fallen branch that got left on the sidewalk of her condominium sidewalk for three days, in her designer sweatpants. Then, envision her remembering the name and family tree of everyone she ever met, and continuing written correspondence by “snail” or email with half of them. Finally, know that this Southern Lady carried herself with such grace that she retained the position of matriarch without ever having to display her gravitas. Like a smolder under a strong foundation, ready to ignite at a moment’s notice. How can that kind of fire vanish from a home without leaving me cold?
In one of my final visits with Nana, my father retold the story of the ball of lightning that once exploded right outside his office window. My father, a renowned and stubborn workaholic, had an attic office when we lived in Virginia, in a house atop a hill with lighting rods all over the roof, which only seemed to attract lightning more.
Nana tilted her chin just so, and asked in her delicate, East Texas rhythm, “So, honey, did you go down and join the family after that, or did you just keep right on working?”
My uncle and I failed to hide our wide-mouthed laughs, and even my dad had to chuckle at himself.
Supposedly, matter cannot be destroyed, but only changed from one form to another. Both the bodies of my dog and my grandmother were cremated, but what about their inner blaze?
People fear death, if not their own, then someone else’s; perhaps it’s because of the cold of the empty body. Surely—no matter how strong one’s faith– it’s because of the unknown destiny of that inner flame.
About a week after my grandmother died, my ten year old, “Emma,” walked up to me in the kitchen and threw her arms around my waist. “I miss Nana.” She had said the same thing about München several times, both to my husband and me, in the preceding weeks.
I bent over deep to bury my face in her soft, light brown curls. “I know, sweetheart. I do, too.” She hadn’t seen her great-grandmother that often; we had seen Nana at her home in Las Vegas at Thanksgiving, but before that, not for almost six months. Yet, all the way from California, Emma felt the absence of the flame.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jennifer Barney