I cannot comprehend non-existence. This has turned into an anxiety, a dread, which has kept me up every night since I was seven or eight years old. It used to come only at night, a slow burn beginning in my stomach. Breath coming in shallow gasps. But now it comes in the grocery store. On buses. While I’m washing the dishes.
I am alive.
But not for long.
I might as well be dead for all the worrying I seem to do about the inevitable.
What have I got, sixty years if I’m really, truly lucky? Forty years if I take after my grandmother? And then as quickly as I appeared, I will blink out of this world. I’m not sure how to manage the dread that comes with that.
I used to wonder if I could convince myself of some otherworldly intention for whatever it is that keeps me puttering along besides the heart, lungs, brain. If I were religious, maybe I might have been able to sleep more as a kid. I might be able to sleep more now.
When I was eleven, my cousin gave birth to a stillborn baby, a little boy she called Connor. This tiny baby, cradled in my own child arms, was the first lifeless body I’d ever seen. His skin was so red it was almost purple. There was nothing of him. I don’t know if he ever took a breath outside of his mother, but he may as well have lived an entire life for the way it touched our family, the way we grieved. His mother was little more than a child herself, sixteen years old when she fell pregnant, seventeen when she gave birth and experienced the death of her first child.
When I was fourteen my grandmother died. Hers is the one death I can never seem to find the words to talk about. She was here, and she was full of life, and then she was sick, dying, dead. The night she went into hospital for the last time, the doctor told us she would need to move into palliative care. She would have her own room, we could decorate it for Christmas, we could have a tree and maybe lights. We planned to bring food to the hospital in a few weeks’ time, celebrate Christmas right by her side, certainly for the final time. We had a few months, at most. I said goodbye, kissed her cheek, and woke up at five am the next morning to the phone ringing. She never left that room, never made it to palliative care, never saw another Christmas.
We rode in silence to the hospital. My grandfather never cried. He’d been cold, maybe even cruel, my entire life, there was no reason to expect her death to shake that composure. She was still in the bed where we had left her. The hospital was dark, cold for November. The light from outside filtered in so that the room was grey, made it feel colder. There was nothing that could warm that day, nothing to warm it in my memory a decade later, nothing to warm it in that moment.
My mum stood beside me as I touched her for the last time and I swear she was still warm. She could have been sleeping. But she wasn’t sleeping, her face fell in a strange way that showed be there was nothing left to hold it up, whatever it was that held it up, that held her up, had left her body as she lay in a hospital bed, drugged up on morphine and alone.
I keep coming back to the moments in my life, of which there are many, where I have sat quietly with the dead and they have not spoken to me. I have not felt their presence. I think that’s what scares me.
I have cried myself sick countless times in the decade since my grandmother passed. Her presence has never manifested anything. Not in the moments where I have, hands and knees pressed into the carpet, silently begged for comfort. Not ever.
I read a poem at her funeral, and I’m glad that funerals are for the living and not the dead because she didn’t end up having to suffer through the musings of a fourteen-year-old in the first throes of real grief. I put the only copy of it amongst hundreds of dollars’ worth of flowers, and all together, her body, the flowers, that crappy poem, they went into an incinerator and emerged as nothing more than a few cupsful of ash.
Everyone I’ve ever lost has been burned up.
Turned into dust and stored in an urn on a shelf in someone’s house. This hoarding of human remains once upset me. I wanted them to be free, to be returned to the earth or the stars or the sea. But just like funerals are for the living, so are whatever we choose to do with remains. Burying them or burning them, it doesn’t matter. There is nothing left inside a body. Whatever held them up, whatever kept their smiles in place or kept them dreaming and loving and imagining, it’s gone.
I am a really big fan of the dreaming and loving and imagining.
I am not afraid of my own death, whether it’s cancer, a car accident, the world finally ending. I’m scared of what happens when the dreaming and the loving and the imagining ends. I am scared that everything I am is going to disappear someday. That every time I have ever loved, and every feeling I have ever felt, every dream and every idea, will cease to be when the thing holding me up escapes my body. I am scared that when it happens, someone will be left with a warm hand on my cold skin, begging from some kind of sign that I loved them, and they will get nothing from me in return.
Samantha Dent is a Brisbane-based writer with a BFA in Creative Writing from QUT. Her writing has appeared in Woolf Pack, Daphne Magazine, and Pilcrow & Dagger. She was shortlisted for the Monash Undergraduate Writing Prize in 2017 and will begin a Master of Writing, Editing and Publishing at UQ next month.