Fried chicken, boiled potatoes, 1950s Appalachia, shotguns, tombstones, London, St. Paul’s, Galway, easyHotel, Yeats, Heathrow, Ireland & Elizabeth Arden Red perfume.
I watched the sycamore tree while the preacher said The Lord’s Prayer, an ancient, pleasing rhythm. I usually loved to say this prayer aloud but now I was silenced. I could not make words to perform the incantation. Instead of joining in with the prayer, I sang Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” to myself. I don’t know why.
I went out to the hazelwood
Our Father who art in heaven,
because a fire was in my head,
hallowed be thy name.
and cut and peeled a hazel wand
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
and hooked a berry to a thread;
on earth as it is in Heaven.
and when white moths were on the wing,
Give us this day our daily bread,
and moth-like stars were flickering out,
and forgive us our trespasses,
I dropped the berry in a stream
as we forgive those who trespass against us
and caught a little silver trout.
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
I watched the sky, the color of highway slush. I watched as redbirds flitted about on the snow down near the Laurel River. My beloved aunt, Sis, was dead, but she had loved redbirds, and red dresses and dancing. She had adored the music of Bob Seger, the taste of black coffee, the black shine of record albums. She had loved Elizabeth Arden Red perfume—a spray on the right wrist, then the rub of both wrists together, always bringing one up for a smell—and red nail polish (the tiny brush, careful strokes, holding the hand out in front of her, a puff of breath from her lungs to dry them). Fried chicken, boiled potatoes, biscuits, gravy, bacon, pinto beans, turnip greens, shuckey beans, fried potatoes, cornbread, the shine of butter on the cornbread, the mouth-watering white of a sweet onion. All of these things she had loved and would never taste again.
I watched the snow and the birds and the sky and the tree. There was nothing else.
Sis was more than an aunt to me. She was a grandmother, but more than that, too. She was a second mother. She saved my life, many times, many ways. And so, her death has gutted me, the way she used to cut open the bellies of trout—cigarette clenched tightly between her front teeth—to pluck out their gray and purple and veiny pink organs, slice along the tiny spine, and produce a snow-white piece of meat no bigger than half a deck of playing cards.
Her death has gutted me, the way she used to cut open the bellies of trout—cigarette clenched tightly between her front teeth—to pluck out their gray and purple and veiny pink organs, slice along the tiny spine, and produce a snow-white piece of meat no bigger than half a deck of playing cards.
She passed during the worst snowstorm in twenty years. Snow pecked at the hospital windows as she fought to breathe. What saved her from suffocating was her heart, that finally gave out from a lack of oxygen. After three days of intense suffering, she let out one final call—“O!”—as she thrust one hand forward, then collapsed against the hospital bed, eyes closed, peaceful. She had been such a beautiful smoker, and it had killed her now even though she quit fifteen years before.
The blizzard postponed the burial a week. When we arrived at the cemetery, gravediggers wrestled with a green tarp and hurried to cover the sump pump they used to drain snowmelt from her awaiting grave.
I have known the stretching sycamore near her grave all of my life. I used to play in this cemetery as a child. Had my first kiss here. Hide and seek among the tombstones. In the mountains where I’m from, people are not as suspicious of death as others are nowadays. We have held onto the old ways. Decoration Day is still a major holiday. Children play in graveyards. When I was little, people still displayed photographs of family members in their caskets, a holdover from days when people could only afford to have their picture made after they left this earth.
I mourned terribly and publicly at the funeral home, waves of grief bending me forward as I cried out to her in the name I called her as a little boy: “O Sissy! I loved you so much.” I couldn’t help it; the words burst out of me like birds. “Sissy—O God!—you were so good to me.” Later, I was embarrassed. But in the moment, to lament out loud felt as good as vomiting after days of dry heaving. At the gravesite, I stood silent, my head held high as I clenched my jaw and my eyes dry. I had the illogical thought that I would not weep because she was not able to.
The day after she is buried, today, my partner, Kyle, and I are to fly to London. We are scheduled to spend a couple of days in the city before taking a train to Scotland for three days. From there we will fly to Ireland, where I will give a lecture in Galway. We were supposed to leave for this trip two weeks ago, but we cut it down due to Sis’s passing.
Now that we are in the airport, I wish I had cancelled it completely. I do not feel right about leaving home so burdened with grief. It’s not right to leave my mourning family. But I tell myself that I have a job to do. Secretly, I know that I am being selfish, that I could take the loss of cancelling the lecture. But I am suffocating in an America that is airless without my aunt’s presence. I want to run away. And some part of me wants to go for Sis. Because she never travelled. She never saw anywhere, really. She went to Ohio a few times. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to see the Smoky Mountains. Myrtle Beach, twice (her elegant feet on the sand, a little shivery cry as the cold water rushed around her ankles, a hand to her brow as she looked at the gray immensity of the Atlantic). She didn’t want to travel. She was never on an airplane. And so on this trip I will see with her eyes. I will see because she cannot. I will walk because she is no longer able. I will breathe and eat and live.
Sis worried terribly when I was on the road, especially when I was in the air. Some part of me feels released now that I can fly overseas knowing she is not grieving my departure, terrified by the prospect of plane crashes or terrorist attacks. Always, before my first call home, I contacted her so she knew I made it okay, that everything was alright, that I missed her. On every trip I sent her postcards, which she attached to her refrigerator with plastic fruit magnets. They are back into my possession after her death: cathedrals, skyscrapers, beaches, castles, battlefields. And so I am traveling this day, right or wrong, selfish or not, but absolutely undone in sadness. Thankfully, Kyle was able to come with me as I am in no shape to travel alone. I move as if in a daze and am certainly not capable of dealing with hateful airline clerks and bumbling tourists. Kyle is an expert traveler and London is his favorite city, so it’s a good place for us to start. He is my other half and in all instances we take care of each other. On this trip he will take care of me.
Still, Sis is everywhere. I hear her whispering in my ear.
She broke hearts up and down the pine-shadowy creeks. She held her red skirts balled into her hands while she danced to “Maybelline” in the local honky tonk.
Her death is so large because she was always so very alive. In her youth, she was known as the wildest woman in Leslie County, Kentucky. That’s saying something for one of the roughest and hardest-living places in 1950s Appalachia. She broke hearts up and down the pine-shadowy creeks. She held her red skirts balled into her hands while she danced to “Maybelline” in the local honky tonk. She threw back her head to laugh, showing her teeth, tongue and tonsils. I have a picture of her during that time. She is a glimmering girl in a white dress but even though the picture isn’t in color I can tell that the thin belt around her tiny waist was shiny red. So were her flats and her nail polish and her lipstick. One hand is perched in defiance on her hip. The other is clutching the tailgate of a Ford truck as she leans against it. Her face is beautiful, made more noticeable by the hardness of her square jaw, the firm set of her mouth. The look on her face tells you that she won’t take any shit off anybody. And she never did, although life threw plenty of it her way.
Heathrow. Customs. Walking for ages in the airport. The Tube. All the morningtime people on the train. A sleepy-eyed man beside me eats yogurt and granola sprinkled with blueberries. The scent explodes when he takes a bite. I watch through the windows as we ease into the city. Council houses stretch into the distance. A couple strolls through a wooded park. Sunlight touches brick houses near the tracks. There are red roofs and green roofs and a red roof speckled with pigeons. Green grass and bare winter trees. A bed of yellow geraniums are shocking to me in their beauty, having just left the thawing tundra of Kentucky only a few hours before. Earl’s Court station and “Mind the Gap” as we are thrust into the mild English air: a balmy fifty degrees, warm enough to feel actual sunshine on my face. I close my eyes to receive it, standing in the middle of the sidewalk as people hustle past.
In my mind I am singing the Yeats’ poem again. Sis never read Yeats. She never read poetry to my knowledge. Her taste ran more toward Gone With the Wind and Peyton Place, the only two books I remember her owning. But there is something in Yeats’ tale of epic longing that Sis might have identified with. And perhaps there is something about a perfect gathering of words that is a comfort, a prayer.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
but something rustled on the floor,
and someone called me by my name:
it had become a glimmering girl
with apple blossom in her hair
who called me by my name and ran
and faded through the brightening air.
Since we’re only going to be in London one night we’ve booked a room at an easyHotel, home of the world’s smallest room. The windowless square is the size of an American walk-in closet, big enough for the bed and access—if one turns sideways—to a bathroom so tiny there is a drain in the floor because the shower hangs over the toilet and sink. We must not rest or we will never get back up. We’ve barely slept for the last twenty-four hours but to combat jet lag we know we must keep going until we are firmly on this-side-of-the-Atlantic time.
We go to St. Martin in the Fields, which is one of our favorite churches, and to its crypt which has a wonderful café. Whoever first lied that British food is bland and boring certainly never tasted the curried cauliflower-potato soup or the sweet-and-tart plum cobbler with custard here. Every bite makes me feel a pang of grief and guilt because Sis is unable to eat. This is how grief works.
I thought I knew something about grief, but I didn’t. I have never lost anyone so close to me before, and up until now I had not known that grief impacts everything, most of all one’s logic.
I admired Sis for many reasons, but I was endeared to her most of all for the most selfish of reasons: she saved me. I was raised in a Holiness family. No pants or makeup for my mother. No going to movies or carnivals or basketball games—all “wordly” activities, and we were not to be of the world, we were to exhibit Holiness—without the fear of eternal damnation. This was a completely fundamentalist Christian church. A literal reading of the Bible. Two sermons preached every Sunday with slight alterations: the Rapture this week and Everything Is a Sin next week, back and forth, back and forth, over and over.
My parents went to church three or four nights a week. Each service was two or three hours, sometimes longer. Sis often begged my mother to let me stay with her.
Sis married twice, divorced once, didn’t marry the father of one of her children, all during the Puritanical early 1950s in the conservative mountains of Eastern Kentucky. She lived the last forty years of her life alone in a house-trailer near the Laurel River, on whose banks she would eventually be buried. She worked as a waitress for most of her youth but by the time I was a child she had taken a job in the local yarn factory. Most of the time when she got home from work her hands were striped with thin, dried-bloody lines from the sizzling lines of yarn. As a child, I hated the thought of her going home alone. She didn’t like most people enough to live with them, but she was always lonesome. My mother had a hard time refusing her, even though she worried about the state of my soul, and often let me stay with Sis on church nights. We watched “Murder, She Wrote” and “Trapper John, MD”. We went to the movies (as long as I promised to not tell my mother what we actually saw). She loved horror movies and took me to see a re-release of The Exorcist when I was four years old, Alien when I was eight. All the Friday the 13th films. She let me stay up to watch Johnny Carson or reruns of “Gunsmoke,” even on school nights. We made chocolate fudge and drank black coffee. We played 45s and danced in the living room, me striving hard to impress her with the moves I learned from secret screenings of Grease and Footloose. She concentrated on moving every part of her body while she smoked with one hand and snapped her fingers with the other.
I relive all of this as we walk through London. What might Sis have made of these sights and sounds? In her youth she would have walked these streets with the grace of a screen star, a translucent pink scarf tied around her head, knotted at the side of her neck. Cigarette in hand, cat-eye sunglasses to add mystery, a red trench coat clenched tightly with its wide belt. She would have walked these streets like a queen. She would have stepped into its nightclubs to dance.
Leicester Square. Trafalgar Square. Piccadilly Circus. All the hurrying people, alive, breathing, smoking, eating, laughing, strutting, babies crying, parents comforting them, the rush of the Tube, the wind that precedes it, lifting skirts and combed hair, the hordes of teenaged tourists on their cell phones, the insufferable trio of young women obsessed with their selfie stick, all the different languages and smells and wonders. Everyone seems to have somewhere terribly important to go.
Our terribly important place is another church. It is a day for cathedrals. Once, on these islands, a hazel tree was church enough for some. Hazel trees guarded the holy wells of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Folks cut the branches and placed them in crocks of water near their windows and doors to ward off evil. Perhaps the first cathedral in London was a hazelwood.
Today we are headed for St. Paul’s. This is my favorite place in London, and I have never been in the dome. In the past, the dome was closed due to heightened terrorism threats, which I knew about before ever reaching England because Sis would let me know from her tireless research on the subject anytime I was about to travel. Today, it is open.
St. Paul’s sits atop the highest point in the City of London, on Ludgate Hill, and its dome looms magnificently over the city. It is visible from almost anywhere along the Thames. People have worshipped on this site for a thousand years. The building itself was designed by Christopher Wren and built in the late 1600s. While London burned during the Blitz of WWII, St. Paul’s survived three direct hits. Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married here. Funerals for Churchill and many others were held here. Queens Victoria and Elizabeth have both walked these tiles. None of that matters to me. I’m interested in the normal people who worship here. I don’t believe that a church is any more holy than a field or a hazelwood or a birdhouse or a city street. But I do believe there must be a special kind of energy around a spot of land or a building where people have prayed for centuries. Where they’ve mourned and rejoiced and their deepest secrets and fears have trembled on silent lips. St. Paul’s is that kind of place.
A hushed murmur wends its way through the church, where tourists from all over the world come to marvel at its architecture and sense of holiness—or gawk at the spot where Princess Di must have stood when she said her vows.
Just inside the door is a rustic wooden cross set up in the middle of the floor, hemmed in by metal racks for dozens of candleholders. In a small tin there is a place to drop thirty pence in exchange for what appears to be a very thick birthday candle. There is something about fire that opens us to the holy, or at least the elemental. Fire, wind, earth, sea, sky.
I light the candle and the grief, which lives hidden somewhere just behind my stomach, rises up my throat, sizzles through my sinuses, and like the Wandering Aengus, I have a fire in my head. Instead of going into the hazelwood, I have come here. And now I will make my pilgrimage to the top. People have told me that I shouldn’t try it because I am afraid of heights, just as Sis was. But I must do it (because she cannot).
First there is a wide, wooden staircase—259 steps long. Murmurs of tourists sound like the whispers of monks from long ago. This is a modern tower of Babel with its many languages. Along the way, small square windows let in yellow light through iron grates. The steps lead to the Whispering Gallery, a walkway around the very base of the dome where one can look down at the cathedral floor from a dizzying height. A circular stone bench runs along the wall where people sit, couples on opposite sides of the dome, so they can whisper against the stone and listen to the other’s response. The effect is magical. Two teenaged boys murmur homophobic remarks to one another until a woman asks them to hush. They are stunned by her admonishment. A serious couple visiting from Germany whisper sweet nothings and giggle quietly, as if they are being naughty. Kyle and I are silent, taken aback by the beauty and grandeur of the place. There is art on every available surface. Lifesize statues stand around the top of the dome: seven saints, from St. Augustine to St. Basil. Below them, against a golden frieze, several prophets have been painted in brilliant blues and reds: Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah…
Kyle and I do not speak. We have been together nearly a decade and can read each other’s minds and bodies. We know what each other needs and he knows that right now I need to be inside my own head. He is there to pull me out if I go too deep. His green eyes know me. We sit for a time in this blessed silence that is so hard to find between two people, only our shoulders touching. We speak aloud only to voice our amazement at how the statues were placed up so high, how someone must have had to work like a trapeze artist to paint these murals. Perhaps some of them plummeted to the cathedral floor in a single crunch, dying for their art.
Sis was truly terrified of heights. For a couple years before her death, she was in bad shape. She had trouble walking after a broken hip and a horrific battle with shingles that left her back with raw, open wounds for a year. This time, questioned my faith, there was no reason for anyone to suffer in such a way. The biggest problem was that her lungs shriveled into raisins after all those years of smoking. She reluctantly moved in with her daughter, whose home had a lot of stairs. Often, I had to help her on the stairs, which were hard to navigate because of her breathing and weakness, but even moreso because she couldn’t stand to look down. My fear isn’t as bad as hers, but it’s terrible nonetheless. What people don’t understand about being afraid of heights is that the fear overtakes you so that you are in danger of falling even in situations that might be safe for those who are not afraid. A dizziness begins in your ankles and twirls itself around your body like a kudzu vine until the end prods the back of your neck, sending shots of paralyzing and nauseating electricity through your being. Knowing this kind of vertigo, I was patient with her on those stairs, and I recall those steps with her now, her arm around my neck, the smell of her—always warm, and green, like the inside of a hickory nut. The fear of hurting her gripped me, of letting her fall, of my hands digging into the wounds left by the shingles.
A small door leads us to 117 more stone steps, narrow hallways going up and up until we are outside on a clear London day. Then a set of 166 cast iron steps on a treacherous spiral staircase. People stop to rest along the way, but I won’t rest. I won’t stop despite the fact that my head is swimming. I want to suffer. I want my legs to hurt. This pain is so small. After you’ve watched someone die, you know something new about suffering. The last day of her life, Sis’s mouth became so dry that her tongue flaked, yellow and crusty, like cornflakes caked around the edges of a cereal bowl.
This is the thing that haunts me the most.
(Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
and kiss her lips and take her hands;
and walk among long dappled grass,
and pluck till time and times are done,
the silver apples of the moon,
the golden apples of the sun.)
They tried to swab her mouth with lollipop sponges, but she fought them away. This was around the time she began to call out for her own mother—Mommy!—dead some sixty years. And her grandmother. There were other garbled names but we’re not sure who all she called out for. Perhaps her infant son, who died when she was twenty-one and he was six months. At one point she became alert enough to look at each of us gathered around her bed and tell us that she loved us. She was a woman of few words, but she always articulated that, never holding back.
Once, when I was little, I was playing Sis’s 45s. Her taste was so eclectic and always au courant. She must have been in her late-fifties but her stack of records included Madonna, U2, Prince, Crowded House and John Mellencamp. I had been absorbed in sorting the music; I liked putting things in alphabetical order and listing them in notebooks. So I had been inside my own head for awhile and was surprised to see Sis was sitting on the couch, crying. Fat tears ran down her face and dripped off her chin. I asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t say. I was nine or ten, I suppose, and didn’t know how to respond. As a child, something in me knew what to do. I wrapped my arms around her neck and lay my face against hers. She held me very tightly, spreading her hand—I always loved her hands, beautiful in their roughness—on my back. Then she broke down, sobbing. I had never seen her like this before. It didn’t last long. She was a woman who rallied. She fumbled for a Kleenex from the coffee table and I pulled back, sitting beside her on the couch. After she blew her nose, she wadded up the tissue and blotted the corners of her eyes. She patted my knee. “What would I do without my Little Man?” she said. “Promise me you’ll do everything you can.”
I nodded, not quite sure what I was promising.
“That you’ll see it all. The whole world.”
I said yes, I would. Then we sat there in silence for a long while.
Many years later, when I came out to my father, he chased me down the country road near my parents’ home, firing a shotgun at me as I ran away.
Many years later, when I came out to my father, he chased me down the country road near my parents’ home, firing a shotgun at me as I ran away. I was hidden in a ditch near a grove of gnarled trees before I realized that I had my cell phone in my pocket. There was no hesitation as to whom I should call. Sis arrived five minutes later and when I scurried into her truck I saw her shiny .38 pistol lying on the seat beside her. For the rest of the night we sat in her living room, expecting my father to track me down to her trailer. I leaned forward and wept. Sis kept one hand on my back, moving it in a perfect circle, and the other on the pistol. My father never came, but if he had, she was ready.
We have climbed 528 steps and are almost four hundred feet above London. The view from the top…Birds…Tower Bridge…The Eye…The Globe Theatre…Millennium Bridge. Sis never saw this. She never will. She will never do this, never do that. I should have taken her. But who needs England or Ireland or hotels or cathedrals when you have all that she had? Fishing for bluegill and trout. Records and black coffee and a bird feeder near the window where she could watch cardinals and blue jays. A comfortable couch where she could place her feet on the heater vent in the winter. She was always cold. Always.
I won’t think of the cold grave, the water seeping in, the foot of snow above, the frozen ground, the frozen river.
Writing that is a knife in my belly. It bends me over with mourning.
That evening, we eat at a counter in Covent Garden. Battersea Pie Station. I have a chicken and mushroom pie with waves of beautiful mashed potatoes and gravy. Despite it being delicious, I have to force every bite into my mouth. My beloved aunt has been in the ground two nights now, and I am eating in one of the most amazing cities in the world. I’m alive. Some three thousand miles away, my daughters are alive, too. Grieving alone. I have left them to come to England, Scotland and Ireland, where the hazeltree was once revered as a protective force. But I could have been home. I would have been able to go to Sis’s house and sit for awhile, freezing on her little porch where she stood when my car pulled away, waving, watching until I drove out of sight. I left because I could. Because I thought the grief would be made better by busyness. But nothing works, and now I suffer the added element of guilt, of abandoning those who need me in this terrible time.
I went to the hazelwood because I had a fire in my head.
It is Friday night. Revelers are out in terrible outfits, skin-tight dresses, teetering high heels (women walking elegantly in them, women clomping like newborn cattle in them), all the men are dressed alike. There is a hen party of women clad in Disney princess costumes. Snow White holds back the hair of The Little Mermaid while she releases a torrent of multi-colored vomit onto the sidewalk. In the course of five or six blocks we see three different people throwing up on the street. One young woman is barely able to walk as her friends struggle to keep her upright. Another boy, all alone, perhaps deserted by his heartier friends, is curled in the corner of a bus stop, dry-heaving. We walk past him as if in a dream because something about a huge city on a festive Friday night is a dream. We should have stopped to ask if he was all right.
As we near the hotel with the miniature rooms, I don’t believe I can bear to go in. I’ll suffocate. It is too much like a coffin. I’ll start screaming and won’t be able to stop.
I think: I can’t stand it. I can’t bear it. I have thought this many, many times since her death. But I know that there is nothing I can do but bear it. And so I have to go on eating plum cobbler with custard. I must climb to the top of cathedrals. I have to carry the grief behind me and travel on. I’ll ride a train the length of England, passing through Lancashire where my paternal ancestors lived for centuries. I’ll try to choke down a cup of Earl Grey and some biscuits bought from the trolley-café, but every bite will be a reminder that her mouth has been sewn shut by a mortician.
In Scotland I’ll stand atop Edinburgh’s highest point to look out at the mountains and water as a gray drizzle falls slantwise from the low sky and think of her. I’ll light candles for Sis in St. Giles Cathedral at Edinburgh while a choir practices “All Creatures of Our God and King” in a back room, out of sight, their voices carrying like ghosts.
In Ireland I’ll ride a ferry into the Atlantic toward Inis Mor and the sea spray hitting my face will make me think of her. In Ireland I’ll stand on the very edge of a cliff that plummets hundreds of feet at Dun Aengus, a place so old and powerful the weather is different there than anywhere else on the Aran Islands. I’ll have supper with friends in Salt Hill and nearly break down in front of all of them for no reason, grief passing through me like an ocean wind honing in on an island. I’ll ride a train past the town of Bray where my mother’s and Sis’s ancestors lived for hundreds of years before making the trek to America. I’ll walk along the River Corrib in Galway and the River Liffey in Dublin and I’ll think of her, dead on the banks of the Laurel River. I will light candles for her in churches and cathedrals.
I’ll ride the train across Ireland and wonder how many hazeltrees we are passing, hidden and holy, forgotten by the people. Except a few who seek them out, lay their hands on them and remember that trees used to be cathedrals. That they still can be if we think of them that way.
I’ll live. That’s all I can do. Walking, climbing, praying, lighting candles, eating, drinking, vomiting, weeping, kissing, counting the steps as I go. That is the only solution to grief, to realize that there is no solution, to see that we must feel it and must be thankful for the ability and wonder of the grieving, beautiful in its horror.
Silas House is the bestselling author of six books. His work often appears in The New York Times, Salon, and other publications. He teaches at Berea College and in the MFA in Creative Writing at Spalding University.