Friday, October 13, 2006

18. The Face of Death: Part II

Note: This entry contains strong imagery that may make some readers uncomfortable.

This is a continuation of the previous post in which I was talking about spending time with Gregory’s body. This was at the behest of a friend who was a grief counselor. Although I resisted the idea at first, I finally relented, on the strength of my trust in her.

I brought Gregory’s favorite massage oil with me. His body was strapped to a gurney, and he was wrapped tightly in a sheet from the chest down. I had wanted his whole body so that I could anoint it slowly and methodically as I prayed, meditated and said goodbye. In so many traditions – Jewish, Hindu, early Christian – the body is ceremonially cleansed and dressed, often by those closest to the deceased.

I poured a little of the aromatic oil into my cupped hand. The scent of lavender, cypress and patchouli softened Gregory’s plastic odor. I rubbed the cupped hand with my other hand to spread a fine film of oil over my fingers and palms, just as I had done when I had massaged Gregory in life.

At those times, he would lie below me as I balanced lightly on his buttocks and worked the muscles of his back, shoulders and neck. I marveled at how supple his muscles were, even those where most of us hold tension in our backs and shoulders. It was like rubbing a cat, and I surmised then that either he really did easily throw off the stresses that got to the rest of us, or he buried them so deeply within his body that I could not reach them.

Poised again at the top of his head, I started with my thumbs on his forehead and used my thumbs and fingers to trace the outline of his face down to his chin. I caressed the planes of his cheeks, the bones around his eyes, the bridge of his nose, all the time talking softly to him and reciting a prayer we used to say in the church where I had first seen him.

Oh wonderful, beautiful kingdom of light, shed down upon these humble souls thy beam of cosmic consciousness.… I stroked his fine smooth neck, carefully avoiding the autopsy stitches at the back…. Reach down and touch the souls that wait, and stir our minds with thoughts divine…. I smoothed the oil along and under his strong shoulders, the shoulders that had borne so much…. Cast out all evil and all sin, and take unto the world of love our hearts and psychic selves, that thus merged, our selves shall be but self of God….

Gregory had been plunged into the frigid vault so quickly after death that his arms and fingers remained pliable. I drank in those sun-browned arms, the slack muscles, the wrists barely larger than my own…. Oh God, creator of the universe, from Whom all things proceed and to Whom all things return….

Using my thumbs, I first stroked the top, then the palm, of each hand, those gentle, sweet hands whose touch had thrilled, protected and comforted me. I slid my fingers down to the end of his fingertips…. Reveal to us now the face of the true spiritual sun, hid by the disk of golden light….

I lingered over each line, each delicate and hard-earned wrinkle. Then I moved my hands over the sheets, as if I were caressing the rest of his body…. That we may know the Truth and do our whole duty in the One work as we journey to Thy sacred feet….

Because Gregory was tightly covered, I would miss being able to touch his feet and his long, slender toes with their long, slender nails. One time we had gone to an Assyrian art exhibit and peered up at a massive wall relief of soldiers frozen in some forgotten battle thousands of years ago. There were dozens of toes just like Gregory’s.

The truth is, when you love someone, you do love their body. The body is the expression of the inner being, whether it’s the pillowlike comfort of a mother’s breasts or the sun-leathered creases of an old man’s smile. In my private farewell, I realized just how deeply I loved this body – its shape, its smell, the form of it – and how difficult it was to separate the body from what had once been the spirit within. I loved the way the man moved and animated this body. The two, body and spirit, blurred as one.

As I snapped the lid shut on the oil, lingering at Gregory’s side one last time, I was struck by the thought: The man I love is gone. Joy was right. Without his essence inside, the body is truly a shell. And strangely, this comforted me.

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