My mom and I share a birthday. Every year, she would say that I was the best birthday present she ever received. We shared a cake. We shared a body. My mom is dead now; she’s been gone for five months. We still share a birthday. We still share a body… The earth? We all do. We are all always changing shape, along with our surroundings. Shelley would have turned 60 this year. Her body carried mine. Her body birthed me. She fed and nurtured me from her own body. I grew to become my own body. We orbited each other, living our lives in different places. Still connected. Shell got really sick at the end of last year with a terminal disease. I became the primary caregiver for her sick body as she was dying from sinus cancer. I held her body in my arms as she died by the hands of the MAiD nurses (Medical Assistance in Dying). At her request, we spent three days with her corpse before she was cremated. This specific request of hers ended up being SUCH A GIFT. I had never spent time with a dead body before.
For three days we care for my mum’s dead body. We are tasked as bodyguards. Shelley says that while the body remains in tact, her spirit will be able to tootle around and travel freely throughout the world. She also wants to be cremated, and only then will she be set fully free into whatever the afterlife is. We don’t know what the afterlife holds; we dream up many comforting things like meeting up with dead lovers or being greeted by deceased pets. We also suspect that this here and now is the afterlife somehow. Conversations about the afterlife with a dying person can be a grave topic; it’s also very whimsical and a lot like talking with a child about something curious. There is no true answer, only imaginings. My mum also jokingly tells several of her close family and friends that if it’s at all possible, she will definitely try to haunt them after death. They all welcome it. I don’t ask her to haunt me.
We can have some control over what happens to our physical body after death. A dead body always starts out alive; and when a person is still alive (and well!) is the best time to discuss what they want to have happen to their body after death. It’s a healthy conversation.
In the late spring of last year, my mom is diagnosed with a rare type of sinus cancer. The disease is terminal, and what starts out as a headache, soon grows into what she calls a monster/invader that steadily disfigures her face and creeps uninvited into every aspect of her life. A true test of her dignity and feats of strength unparalleled. All the changes are very visible and happen within a matter of months. I spend just over two full months as Shelley’s primary caregiver before she dies. I continue to care for her cremated ashes/remains and sort out all the possessions she leaves behind, all of which i consider to be extensions of her own body.
I spend everyday for those final months with my mom, caring for her. I stay up late with Shelley into the morning hours for the few nights before she passes. I sleep next to her in her bed the night before her death. She is so exhausted from the pain, and so ready for the weeks leading up to the death date (that her and I chose together). She calls me her pillar as I braid her hair on the morning of her death. Time bends and slows down especially around a terminal illness; and preparing for it is a very slowed, tedious and fast paced series of peak experiences. Strong body protecting soft vulnerable body. Pain full. Pain killers. Pain kills. Throughout the months that she is sick I know exactly what to do; I feel effective and sharp like a knife. I feel aware and at service to everything she asks and wishes for; knowing exactly where i have to cut away the brambles to continue with her down the path. The brambles are so obvious. Body based. I imagine that this is what a parent must feel like caring for a sick child.
Caring for my mom, I am the only one she will take the eye patch off for; I am the only one she shows the grotesque tumours to. It’s as if her body is alien to her and I am the only one she can trust as a witness to the bizarre metamorphosis it’s forcing her through. I cry everyday down on the beach with the rocks and waves lapping or crashing. Wailing. Nearing the end, Shelley couldn’t walk down to the beach (her favourite place) for many weeks. I bring soft well rounded beach rocks up from the shore for her to hold. The cancer spreads down from her face and skull through into her spine into her sciatica nerve. Everyday she sits and smokes her last cigarette.
The afternoon of her death, once we are all ready, my brother and I cozy up at either side of her, all three of us sitting leaning back on her bed. The MAiD nurse gets verbal consent from Shelley for the upteenth time, and then starts to administer a series of syringes. There is no going back. The body has surrendered. The body has given full consent. Shelley is calm and ready and seems to already be at peace in this moment. We watch through the windows as the clouds instantly begin to open up letting the sun sparkle and dance on the ocean waves. I feel the death serum pulse through into her arm on the side of her body i’m holding onto. Shelley starts snoring loudly within a minute, leans forwards, i place my hand on her forehead and guide her head back onto the pillow… deep sleep….then within two more minutes she stops breathing. Shelley dies in my arms. Limp innocent body. Tender death. Her heart stops beating at 3:43pm December 10th, 2018; but her body is still warm with a definite energy for up to eight hours afterwards.
The death itself and the three days we spend with Shell’s corpse before the cremation are like the calm eye inside of the storm.
Have you ever spent time with a dead body? It’s easy. Its practical. It’s therapeutic. This is important.
Right as Shelley dies I hold her, rocking her in my arms telling her how beautiful she is over and over, it’s all I can manage to say. Sean my brother leaves the scene then to go for a bike ride. While holding Shell I thank the two MAiD nurses so much, (THEY ARE SUPER! THE SERVICE THEY PROVIDE IS AMAZING!) they hand me the paperwork/death certificates, and ask if i need help. I say my friend is going to come help. The nurses leave. I text my partner Chloé. Chloé arrives and we care for the body together.
There is so much life that stays inside a body after the regular circulation stops. The body is still warm and becomes so loosened and vulnerable. At this point I did hug my mom’s dead corpse a little too hard a couple of times and some air did croak out of her mouth. This was funny to me. She became almost like a puppet.
Body washing: I gladly clean the fuzz from Shell’s teeth with q-tips, holding her head while babbling non-stop to her about how strong she is; and this is when I finally really get to actually feel how firm and prominent all the tumours are in her face. Dead bodies feel no pain. Dead bodies are so innocent.
We did our research and read up about rigor mortis beforehand; sometimes stiffness sets in within two hours so you have to arrange the corpse in the position you want it to stay in if you are going have it lingering in space. (We did discuss some creative body positions that we could potentially set her into. Should she have one hand propped up with cigarette between the fingers? no.) We opt for the simplest position. We lay Shell out comfortably on the bed; laying her on her back flat with arms at the sides. One hand resting gently atop a firm beach stone.
All the muscles become totally relaxed as soon as you die. I sit on the bed beside her and it seems like she is still moving because my movement on the mattress ripples out and effects her body. I laugh at being spooked by the fact that she still seems to have movement in her. My body still effects her body….
A couple other simple body parts to consider: the jaw releases all it’s tension after death. It hangs right open. (What a relief for those who live all their lives with clenched jaws) We tie her jaw closed with a scarf, wrap it tightly around the sides of her head to the top like a cute little bonnet covering her ears. We had also heard about corpse’s eyes potentially popping open post-mortem, so i did have some small beach stones at the ready to place upon her eyelids to keep them from opening just in case; but her green eyes stayed closed (thankfully) on their own.
I would have liked to wash her dead feet. I enjoy giving foot massages. But Shelley’s feet were so ticklish in her waking life, so I decided not to take liberties; as I was afraid i might bring her spirit back if i touched her feet too much at this moment!
Fashion in the afterlife? Dead bodies are wearing whatever they are wearing at the time of death. Changing clothes on a corpse is a hefty task that we avoided because we talked to Shelley all about what she was going to wear. Shelley chose a nice blouse to wear and dressed herself that morning.
Dead bodies might leak? so it’s best to put a plastic sheet under them. We took this precaution, but didn’t need to. Over the three days Shell did not drip or smell or do anything surprising. She wasn’t eating much of anything for weeks beforehand. Shell was a perfect corpse. She even seemed to develop a cute little smirk as her facial muscles tightened on the second day.
Dead bodies need to be kept cool. That’s really the only important thing anyone needs to know. We keep her body cool by replacing flat ice packs under her every few hours, keeping all the windows in her room open, turning off the heat, closing the door. We could hear the ocean crashing on the beach through the open windows. We are grateful it’s wintertime.
I experienced the time spent with my mom’s corpse to be so worthwhile. I would visit her room often over the three days, hourly, to talk to her and lay beside her and tell her things that i wasn’t able to say to her while she was sick. Because of the location of the cancer being in the front of her face and in the bone of her skull, she was so so sensitive, and wasn’t really able to laugh or cry fully freely without being in so much more pain; so i had become uber aware of not triggering strong emotions while she was alive. What a relief to be able to spend time with her still form without worry of upsetting her. Shell was still there, but her personality was free. Her arms and fingers were soft for about half a day; then they became more rigid and like tree branches. On the second day, when I touched her face and kissed her cheek, she felt cold and firm to me as if she had transformed into one of the beach rocks that i had been grieving with all throughout. Shell became a rock! I feel so strong and supported by that notion. I referred to her as the ice queen.
On the morning of the third day (the day of her cremation) i woke up early to spend time with Shell to play some ukulele to her and to pull tarot cards to guide her into the afterlife (her and I had been pulling cards daily together throughout her illness). I guided her stiff branchlike hand over the cards (!) and she chose “the moon” and “the wheel of time”. That seemed so fitting. I recorded some of the tarot reading that morning onto cassette and have since made some collage sound art from the experience:::: https://tayploops.bandcamp.com/album/ta-rot
We painted onto Shell’s cardboard coffin during the three days her corpse was present in the next room. The art saved me… https://jessicagabriel.ca/2018/12/17/coffin-painting/
Shell transformed yet again on Dec 13th when her body was cremated inside that art coffin. There are way more details i could share about that part of the death/body experience; but I’ll save the body burning stories for a future post.
In the depths of her battle with cancer, Shelley described feeling like she was a performer tap-dancing on stage…. with that giant ominous hook hovering nearby. The cancer is the hook that swoops in abruptly from the wings without warning to take her away; she was being dragged off stage against her will so fast.
Shelley was so powerful; Shelley is still my touchstone as I continue to interact with her death in a very active way.
I can’t help but parallel her cancer with the current mass extinction of species and ecosystem collapse taking place on this planet in realtime. The death of the mother. The death of the lover. The death of the familiar sustaining body. The death of nature as we know it.
This is active grief.
love to shell.