This morning I am walking the dogs. I take a different route, just a small deviation from my regular lopsided figure eight, a short trip down a side street. I want to walk past the house where the murder took place last week.
We’re all rubber neckers, I think as I wind my way down the mossy sidewalk beside the pink and white oleanders that bloom in front of the house. These are actually their oleanders, trimmed before it happened. There is a crime scene inside, and outside the grass is cut and the sprinklers are going on timers. As if its inhabitants went to the store, or to the lake for a day of boating.
I question my own motives – why do I detour down the street to see the quiet house where something awful happened? Will someone notice me strolling by, a way I usually don’t go? People might think I have an unnatural interest in the misfortune of others. Do I?
I don’t think so. I think I’m like everyone else, wanting to catch of glimpse of that place. It is the place where what we think we know and what we believe we understand meets the unknown, the unfamiliar. It’s the departure point, the place where the ocean meets the sand. There’s some overlap in that moment when the surf slides up the beach, some commingling. A little sand gets caught up in the ocean; a little salt water sinks into the sand. But then the ocean retracts, pulls back into itself. The beach is still there, but it’s different. It looks the same, but microscopically it’s changed.
That’s how it is with a murder, or a car accident, or someone who has fallen grievously ill. They are on that shore, touching that deep unknown. It’s lapping at their feet, or maybe they’re already deep in it, caught in the undertow. And we want to see it, as if witnessing their struggle, their transition could help us understand.
It doesn’t. What we are left with are only our perceptions, which defy understanding and utterly confound us when we try to express them with language. The house looks the same, but it isn’t. How can that be? We are left saying absurd, typical things like, “I just can’t believe it,” and, “How can things like that happen to such nice people?” As if there is some moral balance sheet in the universe; I have decided that if there is, it doesn’t follow our logic.
My mom recently died. I feel the urge to attenuate that statement because it seems to shock people. They want to hear softer terms, like “she passed away,” or my least favorite, “she passed.” The truth, to me, is better, however stark it sounds. She died. She was alive, and now she isn’t.
The first thing I wanted after my mother’s death was the shirt she was wearing when she died, soft and worn like only an old T-shirt can be. It had been washed along with the bedclothes. I found it and brought it home. First I put it on, but that didn’t feel right, either. I just wanted to be close to where she is now, wherever that is. The shirt held her body as she made that transition. Maybe somewhere in that shirt, I felt, was the answer. That place we want to witness. That empty house with blooming oleanders, sprinklers ticking in the yard.
Mom’s shirt hangs in my closet. I don’t want to wear it, but I do want to see it. “Mom died in that shirt,” I tell myself when I look at it. It’s still just a shirt, just like the murder house is still just a house. I could give that shirt to someone and they could wear it, never knowing it held her last breaths, never knowing that shirt is my shore, beyond it the ocean, never knowing that is the shirt that bore her out on heaving waves.
I don’t know where she is, but I know where she departed from. I guess that’ll have to be enough.