I do not know what it looks like to die. I’ve seen it in movies. Death in the movies is the death I understand. A last breath forced out by an invisible gutpunch; bullets lifting the body up ever so slightly before it falls backward in a tumbling heap; the dimpled grin of an asphyxiation high as lungs overflow like bathtubs; the name of a loved one, one last time, then eyelids that are shut with a swoop of hand. But I don’t know if that’s what death truly looks like, away from the romantic sheen of film. No one really dies in my family. Not yet. A grandmother died, and an uncle, but I was too young. A grandfather died seven years ago; I wasn’t allowed to see his last moments. I remember his final weeks: hospice, jaundice, eyes, resignation. Jump-cut to the funeral home: yellow skin softened by the buttermilk interior of the casket, a suit that I didn’t know he owned, a pocket square like denim. The in-between, the dying. It happened, but I don’t know what happened. For my own good, I’m sure I was told. I don’t need to see that, I’m sure I was told. For my protection. I’ve come to learn that you’re haunted either way. I can’t relive those moments so I create retellings, possible outcomes. Did he stare out the window, hoping to catch sight of a white-tailed doe. Did he pray. Did he use his final second to look at the girl he loved most. Was that girl his wife or his daughter. Did dignity. Did scorn. Did desperation. Did anything. Anything can happen when you die. Or is it nothing. Nothing can happen. A seamless transition: he is alive and now I am in mourning. Now I am in a black Lincoln. Now I am uncommonly cold. Now I am in a procession. Now the new pastor is touching my shoulder. Then I was not crying. Now I am not crying. Later I will not cry. Now I put flowers in a ceramic vase. Later I will not visit in years. Then I did not know what death looks like. Now I do not know what death looks like. Time as montage. The camera zooms in on my face. A character study. These are subtitles. This is the director’s commentary. In forty years I will watch the special features. I will watch the making-of documentary. It will be titled “What Death Looks Like.” I will watch the menu become a blank screen for twelve seconds then become the menu again. Later I will live.
Barry Grass is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at The University of Alabama (Coming soon to a journal near you; RTR, here we are, holler at your lit group). His most recent work appears in Annalemma, Junk, Qarrtsiluni, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and For Every Year.