’tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch

My aunt writes me to fill me in on funeral service plans, on disbursement of the remains, on all of it. Bess was cremated, and we are having services in the spring. "Send us a vial," she tells me, "and we will fill it with her ashes." She directs me to shops, to eBay sellers and online stores where cremation jewelry can be found. I find the LifeGem website which seems a little shocking, although I can’t explain why: how is making a diamond out of your loved one worse than a stone, or an urn, or wearing a vial around your neck? I can’t put my finger on it, although I wonder if it doesn’t have to do with diamonds being such a symbol of wealth.

I select two small, black cylinders; simple, small. The black reminds me a little of Victorian mourning jewelry made out of jet, and it won’t stand out when I am in Afghanistan; I can hang this off my dog tag chain without worrying about it. One to stay here, in Baltimore; another to travel with me.

The idea of this: reducing this woman to dust, dividing the dust amongst ourselves, it is all so strange and the careful pragmatism of our arrangements makes it all too real. Bess is dead. Bess is ash, and those ashes will be spread all over the world. Bess is dead and she isn’t really in these ashes but definitely in some way of them (as in, possibly, free of them?) and we pass these ashes to each other, by hand, through the mail. We talk about the logistics of the thing: there must be enough to share with those who want them, there must be enough to spread in all these different locations. We part and parcel her remains out. I don’t know if there’s any meaning in the ashes, or in this doling out of them, but I don’t want to regret not asking for them, and so I do, which feels small and selfish and somehow very very sad, as though there were any of the real Bess in them, which I know there is not.

I imagine opening up the parcel that these filled vials will arrived in and cannot picture anything but being absolutely devastated. I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’m afraid of not doing it.

I miss her. I didn’t expect that. She died of Alzheimer’s; I haven’t really seen Bess in years. Over the years she has grown more and more distant, more remote, more a shade. In the end she was little more than meat, which seemed the worst part. Early on, she would forget who we were, and that was hard but manageable. She’d tell stories that were entirely inappropriate for granddaughters, thinking I was a cousin or a friend. It had it’s own charms, but it wasn’t the same as when she was well.

My point is, I thought I had stopped missing the core elements of her a long time ago- at least, I thought I had said goodbye to them when I gave goodbye to the hope that they would return. Maybe I never really said goodbye.

I miss her. She was brave and ballsy and crazy and utterly her own person. She ate life by the fistful. I wanted to be her. I still do.

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