The death of a parent, he wrote, “despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections.”
My father was dead, my mother was dead, I would need for a while to watch for mines, but I would still get up in the morning and send out the laundry.Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (i)
There’s a quip I’ve made repeatedly at different points in my life. Life goes on, like taxes and laundry. The jibe infers that these are the unfortunate domain of the living, and once dead, there would be no need for these relentless, banal tasks.
I’d forgotten about the laundry for the dead. It’s the most ludicrous labour, knowing that the owner will not need these discarded garments again. Ever.
When death happens, we are in midst of living. Even the tidiest of us have no way of knowing, oh, I’m going to die later today. But please let me sort out my laundry before I go.
My mother was somewhat shy in disposition, and quiet by nature. But she was fond of blouses of different bright colours, textured and threads. She had so many they flocked out of her closets, and were perched haphazardly around her room, like an aviary of the vibrantly plumed perched on their hangers.
When she died, she had been in the midst of sorting out her old clothes for giving away. Big piles were heaped onto her bed, near where she had collapsed.
By the time the nursery rhyme of two paramedics, three policemen, one sardonic doctor, and four undertakers have made their way around the apartment and did what they had to do, chaos had churned the room in a cruel disarray of fallen birds.
In the midst of death, laundry matters. It was past midnight when before he left, the undertaker suddenly asked me to provide a selection of clothing for her.
Panicked scavenging of remains. Does it need to be clean? Preferably, right? It needs to fit? What’s appropriate? What would she have liked? Is there a dress code for the casket?
It reminded me of another moment of incongruity. Many years ago, at my father’s funeral, I wore a maxi black cotton empire-cut dress from Marks & Spencer. I didn’t buy it especially for the occasion, I just happened to have it. Auntie Flo (Third aunt-by-marriage on my mother’s side, who does, actually sign herself as Auntie Flo) pulled me aside to say, “Your dress is really appropriate.”
I would recall this moment many times over the years and feel quite savage. No, no, I’d rather be like Cassandra (ii): rend my garments, streak ash over my face, stomp around and gnash my teeth. But I did not even turn and bare my teeth.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.WH Auden (iii)
I always thought these lines in the poem by Auden, often read as being about mourning, are actually a command. That’s what they’re meant to do, right? If we were to say the words, “Stop all the clocks” with enough conviction – them like a spell, or a Marvel super hero, time would freeze.
And then, rewind. All the clothes would lift off and arrange themselves back on hangers, things would fly back to their spaces. Broken things would fix themselves.
A few weeks before she died, my mother had requested I help her buy a toenail clipper. I had bought an expensive Japanese one that promised sharpness and durability. I had delivered it with additional gifts of face cream and a bottle of body lotion, thinking that at some point, I would feel able to help wash and massage her aching legs.
Although she had protested at the creams, declaring that the aqueous cream prescribed by her doctor was just fine, she had taken to applying the face cream to her legs.
Hey, that’s meant for your face…I muttered. Oh well, it can be a luxurious body lotion too.
There’s a moment you know instinctively that a person is dead. The body is not the person. It has become a dead body, and our own body recoils as an abject reflex. A boundary has been crossed and there is no railing against it. But before we can find a way to recalibrate space in-between, all happens very quickly. People turn up. They’re whisked away and encased.
In the Iliad (iv) the ancient Greeks were quite adamant about washing and anointing their dead as part of their burial rituals. In Islamic Sharia, the dead are also washed and shrouded by family members. I found myself reading online community place where family members are taught how to perform these washing rites. There’s a bit about how you need to press repeatedly on the abdomen to ensure remnant bodily waste is excreted. The writer mentioned that after they had done it, it took them a week to recover. But I imagine, as hard as it is, the process allows one to come to terms with the permanent divide – this is living, this is not. This is me, this is you. This was you. This is my loss. This is your peace.
Water cleanses and forgives much. You can’t fight water either, as it dissolves all that is in the way.
It would take another three weeks before I could return to my mother’s flat. I had become anxious that we had left the window open to air the bedroom, and perhaps the room had been soaked by the frequent bouts of tropical rain. Perhaps, seeing an empty habitat, other creatures had made nests.
The terrifyingly mundane act of unlocking the grill and door. Just like that time. Once inside, I had to stop and try to breathe.
Everything was just as it was when I left in the wee hours of the night. A little dustier, perhaps.
Her clothes were strewn across furniture. Things knocked over. Fragments of a disintegrated plastic bag fluttered everywhere.
Despite the advice of the well-meaning, it’s not like I just could invite a troop of professionals to swoop in and dispose of her belongings.
So it’s taking a while.
Pick up each piece of clothing. Untangle twisted fabric.
Open machine. Put in clothes. Add detergent powder. Adjust settings. Press GO. It washes, rinses and spins.
Open machine. Find enough hangers. Hang clothes.
Collect clothes. Fold each piece. Sort into piles.
Laundry is exhausting. Is that why she lay down amidst it all?
(I) Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, Alfred A. Knopf 2005
(II) Euripedes, Women of Troy, produced in 415 BC.
(III) W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues” or “Stop all the clocks” first published in 1938.
(IV) Homer, Iliad, circa 8th Century BC.
Image credit: Min Yoongi, in “Spring Day,” 2017.