And below is an excerpt from the Bygones chapter in the book.
How does a big, drifty soul ever get inside a tiny baby body? Is it made dense and compact and squeezed like jelly into a doughnut? Does it grow with us? Or stay the same? And what happens when the body dies? Does the soul spring out of the skin saying, “Ahhhhh!” in its biggest, boldest, and most beautiful form? Free at last. Hallelujah. That is what I suspect.
One night during my junior year of college, I had a dream that I was riding in a big white van. It kept picking up speed. It was kamikaze, out of control, and the streets were like the tracks of a roller coaster. I was terrified. Then, we went over a hill, the van caught air, we flew, and the fear disappeared. It was replaced with the most lovely sense of peace. I felt giddy and free and knew that everything was going to be just fine.
The next morning, I learned Mammaw, my grandmother, had died overnight. Although I’m sure she would have preferred some kind of Lawrence Welk theme, I remain convinced that Mammaw visited me in that dream and told me she was having a swell time.
A kamikaze van that catches air—maybe that’s what it’s like the moment you die. Maybe there is struggle and fear, and then…snap. It releases, and away you twirl, giddy and free and full of joy.
Maybe in that moment, any thing that hurt any part of you—even the things you inflicted upon yourself—in any capacity, disappear into a bigger picture. Maybe that picture is so beautiful that we don’t even have a word for it.
When someone has struggled for some time, we call that takeoff moment a blessing. As the body lays empty, we say the soul is in a better place. We say we are happy for them.
We took in a friend’s old cat, Sebastian, many years ago when her family moved overseas. The cat was old and her health began to fail soon after she joined us. I’d never had a pet put to sleep. I had a talk with Sebastian and told her that when she was ready to go, she needed to let me know—that I would help her. The day I found her hiding under the bed between the springs and the ripped mattress lining, I figured she was ready.
In the vet’s exam room, I stroked her fur and told her she was a good cat. For as little time as we’d had her, the whole process made me bawl as if I were losing a dear friend. When it was done, the vet team gave me a few minutes alone with Sebastian. I studied her quietly and was struck by how changed a body is without its life force.
I knew this already. I haven’t stood over an open casket since a classmate died in a car accident in seventh grade. I still remember the smell of that church. Until Sebastian, I always reasoned that my discomfort with open caskets was because the body had been manipulated. Embalming, wiring, and posing seem sinister.
Some funeral homes do “extreme embalming.” They don’t just prepare bodies; they pose them in elaborate scenes—standing, sitting, playing instruments, riding motorcycles, and drinking cocktails. I respect the spirit of celebration and simultaneously feel a deep and psyche-piercing horror. The photographs unsettle me. [Note: If anyone has this done to my dead body, I will poltergeist you. Fact.]
Sebastian the Cat was newly gone, and without a single manipulative effect, the physical transformation happened in an instant.
The soul is invisible and weightless. Why should its absence impact what a body looks like? What happens in that specific moment to so visibly change us? ...
...I thought a lot about the phenomenon of dying after a long struggle and about the strange position of survivors. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs about where a person’s soul goes after death, whether or not they linger, whether or not they move into a luxurious mansion on a cloud, physically, here on Earth, they’re gone. They are not in the kitchen making a sandwich. They are not on vacation. They are not held up in traffic. It’s an observable, quantifiable, devastating hole. What is it to dread—really and truly dread—the grief you know is coming and still understand and celebrate the sweet reward for the one who leaves?