Monday, April 1, 2013

to do it justice

For as long as I can remember, I've felt an obligation to testify, in the most basic sense of the word: to make a statement based on personal knowledge or belief : to bear witness. When I was a little girl, I wrote poems about the things that happened in my small world—seasons, teachers I admired, friends and relatives who died, holidays. As a second grader, I composed a letter to my Aunt Sherry telling her about how my friend had gone to the doctor and found out her breast was growing. "And I found out I had the same thing!" I explained, as if the breast bud were a tumor or an infection. This was no coincidence; for weeks I'd noticed that I could no longer lean my chest against the dash of my mom's van without wincing, which I saw as a sure sign that something malignant was growing inside my body. Then, as now, I always assumed that it was only a matter of time before I contracted the terminal disease that was coming to me. When I got my first period, even as an eleven-year-old, my first thought ran like this: Of course. Cancer. Even though the secret ate me up, it still took a full 36 hours before I could tell my mom. I don't know why. I think I believed I was really dying this time, and I felt ashamed, because I knew I must have done something terrible to deserve it.

I suppose it's possible that church might have taught me this pervasive sense of iniquity—my family did begin re-attending around that time—but I think it's far more likely that I've always carried some uneasy suspicion of my unworthiness. In fact, to be fair, all I ever remember hearing from anyone I met at Powell Presbyterian was the encouraging message that everyone was included, everyone was loved, and we should celebrate our reprieve from death. It's only as an adult that I've looked more deeply into the underpinnings of Calvinist theology in general and seen some things that unsettle me.

Even though our specific church didn't put heavy emphasis on the five tenets of Calvinism, these ideas form much of the backbone of Presbyterian doctrine: total depravity (that we are born sinful), unconditional election (that God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will not), limited atonement (that Christ's sacrifice was only meant for the elect), irresistible grace (that God alone can overcome human resistance to salvation), and perseverance of the saints (that the elect, by definition, can never fall away from the faith, and that if they do so, they were never, in fact, part of the elect). I always had the most trouble with the middle two. It's hard for me to go there because it means not only that God has predestined a group for salvation, but also the reverse: that everyone else is foreordained to be damned. They (we?) have no choice because they are cosmically chained to their fate. This is what still bends my brain whenever I read Paradise Lost or Faustus: do Satan or the good doctor ever have any real chance of confessing their sins and being exonerated? Or are they always already condemned?

Last Sunday, D and I attended a church in a nearby town. I'm not sure what denomination it belonged to, but I would guess AME Zion. The service was a noisy, hands-on affair that lasted three and a half hours. We had been invited by a patient of D's, someone he snatched from the very jaws of death a few weeks ago. He had been attempting a routine intervention, and in the middle of it, miraculously, somehow this patient's body healed itself. D stood at the front of the sanctuary, admitting he couldn't explain just how and why things unfolded exactly as they did, as people yelled, "Talk!" and "Tell it!" and "Amen!" which means "so be it." Indeed, in this case, all D could tell was the inexplicable thing he saw happen. Afterwards, the bishop read a passage from the Old Testament, declaring more than once that he did not consider himself worthy on his own merit to stand before us, giving us the Word; he said he spoke on behalf of another, a worthier one.

As I listened to D and the bishop speaking, I glanced down at the bottle of oil just next to the pulpit, ready to anoint any of the sick who might be attending the service, and I thought of Rhea, who had been facing death in the summer of 1996. That summer, we attended the Christian Life Conference at Montreat-Anderson College. During a recess, a group of what even now I would call spiritual heavyweights encircled her in a back corner of the auditorium, anointed her with oil, laid hands on her, and said one of the more powerful intercessory prayers for healing that I've heard in my lifetime.

Rhea had been diagnosed two months earlier with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a cancer that usually only affects middle-aged or older people. The only established risk factor for CML is exposure to radiation, usually in the context of cancer treatments or nuclear bombings (for instance, a disproportionate number of cases were diagnosed in survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Rhea had never engaged in any behavior that might have caused this mutation. It just happened. Sometime after she was born, her body turned traitor; the timer started ticking, and she began to die.

In October of that year she went into her transplant at Vanderbilt prepared, with about fifteen extra pounds of pure muscle insulating her body from its future ravages. When the chemo began to give her insomnia, my mother reported that, from her apartment three blocks down the street, she would wake in the middle of the night to see Rhea, framed by the window of her hospital room, relentlessly pedaling nowhere on her stationary bike. During the day, Rhea would stomp with purpose around and around the circular floor of the myelosuppression unit on 11 North, clutching her IV pole. The docs had told her 17 laps equaled a mile so that she could quantify her exertion more precisely.

Later, in a letter, she confided to me the terrible indignity of the whole process. "Nothing is mine, not even my poop," she wrote. The nurses measured everything that went into or out of her body and recorded it on the white board on her wall, down to the cc: the uncompromising scales of the bone marrow transplant.

Every time I recount Rhea's story, and I do it often, D shakes his head in disbelief and sadness and says again, "But she did everything right."

Twelve weeks later she was dead.

This is all I can tell you. What instruments I have agree: the day of her death was a dark cold day.

                                          *           *           *

During the time when we were both in college in different cities and writing letters to each other, D liked to read crime novels. In one of his letters, he suggested I buy Patricia Cornwell's book The Body Farm. In the novel, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner, is called in to help solve a case involving the murder of a young North Carolina girl. Then entertaining the possibility of becoming a forensic pathologist himself, D said the novel's murder plot was compelling, but he added that what I might find more uncanny, as he did, was the story's setting. How odd, we agreed, that Cornwell had chosen to locate her story both in Montreat, North Carolina, where I was enrolled at the tiny college (a place, as Cornwell puts it, that is "as Presbyterian as predestination"), as well as in our hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, where D was then attending the state university. It felt as though our two cities were connected in some fated way.

During the course of her investigations, Scarpetta visits the Body Farm, the macabre place to which Cornwell's title alludes, to consult with its forensic scientists about what might have physically befallen 11-year-old Emily Steiner before, during, and after her death. The infamous "Death's Acre" is tucked behind UT Medical Center and was created by anthropologist Dr. William Bass in the early 1970s, at which point it became the nation's first research facility devoted entirely to studying human decomposition. Donated by individuals and their families, the human remains at the Body Farm are subjected to various environmental conditions and left to decompose, allowing forensic researchers to understand more about the timing and circumstances of death, and giving law enforcement more information about how a crime might have unfolded and how long a body might have lain, either exposed to the elements or protected from them in some way, before it was found. It strikes me as a simultaneously noble yet ignominious way to spend one's posthumous existence: experimented upon, cut into pieces, beset with hungry insects, left to rot in the sun and rain, abused and afflicted in various ways that might retard or accelerate disintegration. But it's perhaps no less dignified than what happens to an embalmed body before it gets nestled into its casket in its underground cement cell.

Often in the first few years after Rhea died, I would go out to her grave and lie on my stomach on the lawn beside it, contemplating at eye level the dirt overlaying her vault. Grass didn't grow then, and has never grown, over the place where her body lies. To this day, that one grave remains a stubborn, conspicuous rectangle of dirt in a field of headstones whose corresponding plots, by contrast, were quickly reknit by new grass into a seamless field of limply waving silk flowers.

As I lay there in the Garden of Victory, I would try to imagine what Rhea looked like at that point in the decomposition process. The more gruesome and vivid my imaginings, the better. When I thought of her putrid body, I would feel afraid and disgusted, but it also brought some measure of relief from a persistent emotional numbness I had begun to live with and distrust.

Years before, I had read Jessica Mitford's acerbic "Embalming Mr. Jones," an excerpt from her longer work The American Way of Death, which exposes in grisly detail the uncomfortable realities of the funeral industry. I remembered that essay and thought of all the things the mortician had probably done to Rhea to make her look more presentable. Puncturing her abdomen with a trocar. Sewing her lips closed. Pumping her full of a combination of "about three to six gallons of a dyed and perfumed solution of formaldehyde, glycerin, borax, phenol, alcohol, and water." Swabbing every visible patch of skin with a thick pad of make-up. If she'd been buck-toothed, he might even have painted her exposed front teeth with clear fingernail polish so they'd have looked plausibly sheened with saliva.

And now, long after the artificer had finished with her, what would she look like? I'd always heard that fingernails and hair kept growing after a person died. Would she have long, rough nails now? And would the patchy velvet stubble furring her head the day she died (remnant of her defiant, impulsive decision to buzz everything off when she discovered that the chemo was indeed making her hair fall out) have sprouted into a fuller crew cut? She still wore the ivory satin evening gown we had fought over, an outfit she had specified in her will months earlier. Because her arms and chest were so bruised and wasted, the mortician had suggested that we layer a shirt or wrap under her dress, which was low-cut with spaghetti straps—so at the last minute I volunteered the ivory satin button-up shirt I often wore to work, unwashed and with deodorant stains under the arms, to prevent people from seeing the painful evidence of what she had endured. Hidden under the closed lid of the casket's bottom half were her feet, shod in her beaten-up soccer cleats. I wondered if, lying there wearing our clothes, she would still look turgid. Or, even with the aid of all those chemicals inside her, would her body instead have wilted and sunk into the velvet of the casket, like a Dali clock?

                                          *           *           *

Would you like to know my only regret from the funeral? I wish I'd taken a picture, several pictures, of her corpse. I remember that the mortician got it all wrong, but now I can't picture in just what precise way she looked off, not herself. Worse, after she died, everyone began to eulogize her. I found myself guilty of this, too. Arrested by death at nineteen, the height of her youth and her beauty (at least, for the majority, who hadn't seen her in the hospital, bald and atrophied), how could she not begin to develop a halo? But however natural this seemed, it terrified me. What if her real self was eventually forgotten, eclipsed by this angel? What if I became complicit in that illusion?

In one of my favorite films, Moonlight Mile, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Joe Nast, a young man whose fiancée Diana has recently died of a stray bullet wound in a restaurant shooting. Joe is staying with her parents, JoJo and Ben, whose responses to the loss of their daughter are, I think, some of the most authentic representations of grief I've seen in a long time (and I count myself as an aficionada of cinematic mourning). In the weeks after the funeral, Joe struggles with his knowledge that just before Diana died, the two had broken their engagement, having realized they were more friends than lovers. No one else knows this. Meanwhile, her father continues to do just what he's always done—putting together real estate deals and being the dutiful breadwinner—and clearly still thinks of Diana as the little girl that she has not been for years. Her mother, a recovering alcoholic, relapses. All three agonize as they await the trial in which Diana's shooter—a man whose bullet was intended for his wife, who was shot but survived—will be brought to justice, as if this will somehow give them recompense for their loss. Of course, it doesn't. For me, the best scene is late in the movie, when Joe wanders upstairs to find JoJo completely sober and typing absorbedly. Seeing him, she declares that she's "doing an accounting, the real her, the Diana facts." Then she yanks the sheet out of the typewriter and reads: "'Number 92. Laughed like a pig. Full-throated, nasal snorts.' Now you," she points at Joe. "Ew," he responds, "Those really ratty sandals she always loved to wear. They always made this incredible farting noise whenever she moved." JoJo laughs with delight: "I mean, this is the stuff! Fuck the perfume—give me the warts!"

I think I'm drawn to this scene because, paradoxically, there's something clean about it, the idea that the truth is something we can access if we just confess the dirty, smelly parts. In practical terms, it hasn't really been that simple for me, though.

For months after Rhea died, I would often grab my journal in a panic and write down memories as quickly as they came, having been warned that we always assume we'll remember everything but that these recollections slip away like water through our fingers. That fear was exacerbated by my certainty that I might also be losing my mind, my memory, or both. Often I would get on the interstate to drive to a long-standing appointment and then miss my exit. I'd be focused on my chore list and the next moment forget where I was going. Many days I would look at my gas gauge and think, "How can I only have half a tank left? When did that happen? Where did I drive? I can't remember what I did yesterday."

For a while it wasn't even like I was a detective piecing together the story of my sister. I was having trouble remembering the quotidian details in my own life.

Six months after Rhea died, on her birthday, my parents went out and bought a dozen tree and bush roses to plant in the flower bed in the front yard, a mulched area that was an attempt to disguise the ugly spot where an oak had once stood. When the tree began to die and hollow out with rot, we had it cut down, and though the workmen tried to dig up the stump, it had deep roots that they could never completely pull out. The rose plants for the new flower bed came with dangling tags on their branches indicating their names—Angel Face, Peace, Snowfire, Fragrant Memory—but my mom still insisted on rechristening one of them Little Shit, in memoriam.

I think Rhea would have smirked at this, though she had announced ahead of time that she wanted us to say nice things after she died. On the bright August day when she wrote her last will and testament, divvying up her heartbreakingly modest assets, she also planned her own funeral. With the exceptions of Jeff and our male cousins, her list of pallbearers was composed almost entirely of ex-boyfriends whose hearts she had broken. After the funeral, she specified that she wanted a party—"a big party," she said—"where crying is allowed, laughter is encouraged, and compliments of Rhea are mandatory."

                                           *           *           *

I've remained convinced of one thing: Rhea did nothing to deserve death, and I did nothing to deserve survival. When I consider my golden-haired sister, I wonder what it means that I am still alive. I lie in bed and notice the rise and fall of my chest. I think of my heart inside its jail of ribs, its pumping regular and inexorable, sending oxygen to my cells and pink to my cheeks that is real, unlike the mortician's rouge and colored lights.

Recently, after many years of graduate work spent consuming only canonical literature, I picked up a crime novel again, Tana French's In the Woods. In it, we find out that the narrator Rob Ryan, a detective investigating the murder of a young girl, is himself the secret survivor of a murder case. The summer he was twelve, two of his dearest friends were snatched away right in front of him by something or someone, yet he cannot summon a single memory of the experience to help investigators solve the crime. Instantly, I was intrigued by the novel's premise. On the second page, Ryan cautions readers bluntly: "What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie." As we find out later in the novel, his lies stem from what he calls "his most closely guarded secret":

I think the truth is this: I have always wondered whether this was the reason I was left behind, that day in the wood. Because I was fat; because I couldn't run fast enough; because, newly heavy and awkward, my balance shattered, I was afraid to jump off the castle wall. Sometimes I think about the sly, flickering line that separates being spared from being rejected. Sometimes I think of the ancient gods who demanded that their sacrifices be fearless and without blemish, and I wonder whether, whoever or whatever took Peter and Jamie away, it decided I wasn't good enough.

Do I trust him here? I think so. After I read this paragraph, I had to put down the book for a few minutes. Because suddenly, there they were: the real questions whose answers I feared.

What if they're all sorry I'm the one who survived? What if they'd rather have her?

I don't know why I was spared to live to at least thirty-eight, while my sister died at half my age. Is there any justice in this? I most often chalk it up to cosmic oversight, some bureaucratic snafu that will eventually be remedied when it is discovered that there was a mix-up and I somehow escaped. So I brace myself for test results. I flinch at noises, at near misses, at mysterious pangs in my midsection.

And I willfully ignore the actual truth: that the body's decay commences, not at the moment of death, but at the moment we take our first breath. I began to die even as I emerged from the birth canal, shiny and red and squalling, just as surely as Rhea did. And you. And you.

If I've made it this far, I can only know I was spared for now, not for good. And my tale of reprieve demands a single, relentless thing. ("Testify! Talk!" shouted the congregants last Sunday, as D puzzled over a body's healing.) That the truth will out. That what I have in me emerges, quid pro quo, in so many words: as poems, as letters, as stories, as confessions.

That I tell it again.

All right. Now here's a delicious salad. The only way I can think of to fit it in here is to describe it like a complicated murder mystery: there are a lot of tiny, disconnected pieces that, perhaps counterintuitively, come together to make a coherent (and in this case delicious) whole.

As a bonus, if you're anything like me, you welcome a chance to just chop things into little bite-sized bits and let your mind drift. You'll have plenty of time for that if you make this.

kitchen sink salad
1 cup grape tomatoes, quartered
2 green onions, minced
5 or 6 cerignola olives, pitted and chopped
2 or 3 black cerignola olives, pitted and chopped
1 serrano pepper, seeded and finely chopped
3 ears of yellow corn (boil them for 3 minutes and then cut kernels off the cob)
1/4 cup crumbled tomato-basil feta
3 large radishes, finely diced
1 medium stalk of celery heart, minced
small bunch of basil, finely chopped
small handful of marinated artichoke hearts, chopped (I like Reese brand)
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 1/2 tbsp. sherry vinegar (or more to taste)
2 tbsp. very good olive oil
salt and pepper

Gently toss everything together and serve. Yep, that's it.

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