GeminiMAGAZINE
_____________
AUGUST 2015
1.

Nearly every day, I witness an animal’s death. I have
been a veterinary technician for twelve years and have been
present at the moment that hundreds of furry spirits slip the
surly bonds of their earthly lives, euphemistically referred to
as crossing the rainbow bridge. I have been with Chihuahuas
and Great Danes, Rottweilers and poodles, kittens with fatal
viruses and emaciated old cats in kidney failure, rats with
mammary tumors and guinea pigs with pneumonia, puppies
twitching with distemper and, most horribly of all, happy,
healthy, beloved pets who get hit by a car or attacked by a
coyote or decide to take a bite of that large white mushroom
growing under the oak tree. I try to offer what comfort I can,
and I feel I often fail. The animals look at me in the last
moment of their lives; as I hold their little paws and stroke
their heads and whisper that it’s going to be okay, they look
me right in the eye and see me for the liar that I am.

Hora mortis, the hour of death, is a sacred and blighted time.
The skies over Judea turned black when Jesus bowed his
head and took his last breath. Every euthanasia is
devastating, even when we all agree the time is long
overdue. In a small way, I feel the skies over our clinic
darken every time the life spirit leaves a furry little body
cradled in my arms.

This is in some ways the worst job to have, but I keep
showing up for it, week after week, death after death, trying
to be kind and offer comfort and respect long after it is too
late. It’s my obligation. It’s the only way I know how to
atone for the one death I will never get over: my mother’s.
She died alone and freezing, at the bottom of a snowy
ravine, calling for help with her very last breath, as the man
who had killed her climbed over her body and back up into
the world.

2.

At my mild Presbyterian church, we remember the death of
Jesus in a candlelit Good Friday service that is largely silent,
the organ playing mournful music as the evening fog billows
past the church’s stained glass windows and the parishioners
sit together in the pews, our heads bowed, and remember. It
is a melancholy service, but one that I find intensely peaceful
and comforting. For one evening, at least, I do not feel so
alone in my grief.

It was a shock to my Presbyterian sensibilities to see the
Baroque rituals re-enacted each Lenten season at the
parochial school where I sent my small daughters. There was
so much that I, a non-Catholic, initially loved about the
school. The unapologetic presence of God throughout the
school day was thrilling. I loved that my daughters were
taught that mercy and charity were moral imperatives, that
there was always hope and comfort to be found in faith, that
God loved and cared for them, and that they reflected God’s
love by caring for each other. Each morning assembly
concluded with a prayer: “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for
us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

One spring day when I picked them up from school, I was
surprised to see them both weeping in their car seats.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

They looked at each other for a moment, and then
responded, “Jesus fell three times.”

The school had begun to enact the Stations of the Cross.

These stations depict Jesus’s journey to the cross and
subsequent crucifixion in fourteen heartbreaking scenes. Each
day leading up to Holy Thursday, the school would go through
one of the stations (#1: Jesus is condemned to die, #10:
Jesus is stripped of his garments, #11: Jesus is nailed to the
cross), and for my uninitiated daughters, and for me, it was
very rough going. This was a far cry from the calm and gentle
Good Friday remembrances at my own church. Now, I wanted
to rage and weep and howl. It was hard for me to talk to
people; it seemed impossible to be in the world and to carry
this load. Some days I felt as if my body would crack open
with grief. This was a sorrow I knew all too well from my
mother’s death. Grief was a raging monster that roared up
from my belly and filled my throat. It boxed in my ears and
blackened my eyes. Holy Mary and all of Christendom seemed
to understand this sorrow, to know what it was like to live
beyond a death that felt like more than I could bear.

There was one station, however, that helped my daughters
and me. At Station Six, as Jesus is carrying his cross through
Jerusalem, a woman in the crowds is overcome with pity for
his suffering. She leaps up and offers her veil to wipe his
sweating face. Although she cannot stop this terrible
procession, she tries to offer comfort in the only way that she
can. Jesus is so grateful to her that when he hands back her
veil, he leaves an image of his face on the cloth. Later, the
woman comes to be known as Saint Veronica. Veronica: the
icon of truth. Maybe, I thought then, this was a way that I
could be in the world as well.

3.

My relationship with my father did not survive my mother’s
death. He was a brilliant, scholarly, deeply generous, and
terrifying man—the rock star of my childhood, loved by me
above all others. Yet the sarcastic and emotional woman I
came to be was an endless affront and disappointment to his
sensibilities. I lumbered and crashed like a bull through his
carefully constructed life. My mother, on the other hand, had
been a classic beauty: lithe and graceful, charming and
incandescent, the belle of every ball. In the grief-fueled haze
after my mother’s death, I decided to challenge my father for
the first time ever over a ball gown of my mother’s that he
planned to give to a friend. I wanted to keep it for myself.
The ugly argument escalated until my father stood alone in
the center of the room screaming that I was the source of
every bad thing that had ever happened to him in his life,
words that could never be taken back, and which seemed to
me then, ultimately, to be true.

Why, oh why, I have asked myself ten million times, did I
choose the worst of all moments to dig in my heels? Why
didn’t I just let him have the ball gown? What I, what we
both ended up losing after that night was so much more than
a dress.

My father did not go back to work. Instead, he began
drinking, two bottles of wine at night and whiskey in the
afternoon until he passed out. Then whiskey at night and in
the morning too, when he got the shakes. Then two bottles a
day and then more and more until he believed there were
bugs crawling all over his body. When we put him in the
hospital, he had weeks of alcoholic seizures and then
delirium tremens until, when the seizures finally abated, he
had almost no brain function left, no capacity to swallow, and
almost no capacity to breathe.

* * *

I am alone with my father when he dies, in a Lutheran
hospice near the balmy Atlantic Ocean in Mt. Pleasant, South
Carolina. I have come to be with him from California. Death
is very close, the hospice nurses tell me, but probably not
tonight.

My sister has gone home, and I am staying on a cot in his
room. I play the lullabies he used to sing to me when I woke
up terrified as a little girl, “Scarlet Ribbons” and “Edelweiss,”
on his bedside CD player. His eyes are closed and he is
breathing quickly, an oxygen mask over his nose. Slowly, he
turns his head to look at me, a single tear rolls down his
cheek, and he breathes once, twice, and then no more.
“Dad?” I whisper. “Dad?” I’m on my knees now, kneeling over
his body, his small, smooth hands in mine, and I’m kissing
his broad forehead, the skin so unbelievably soft and warm,
kissing his cheeks, laying my head across his still chest and
never, ever, even for one minute letting go of his hands. This
is the first time I have ever touched my father like this. This
is the most intimate moment of our lives together. This is
the first moment that I know, absolutely, to the core of my
being, that my father loves me, with all his heart.

The nurse finds us like this an hour later, when she comes in
for her nightly checks, my head still on my father’s chest, our
hands clasped together. This is the first time a dead body
has become, to me, something holy, something full and
shining, resplendent with a love I couldn’t grasp when my
father was alive.

“It’s the horsemen that come at the moment of death,” the
hospice pastor tells me, when she comes to bless the body.
It is eleven o’clock at night, and she is a middle-aged woman
with her hair pinned up and cream on her face. She lives at
the hospice with the patients and comes to my father’s room
ten minutes after the nurse calls her.

“The horsemen bring the person who most needs to be here,
and then they send everyone else away,” she says, her hand
brushing the hair from my face. “Yours was the relationship
your father most needed to heal. Once you were here with
him, he could go. There’s no doubt he loved you. Absolutely
no doubt. The horsemen are never wrong.”

4.

There were no horsemen at my mother’s death, at least not
that I know. She died alone and freezing at the bottom of a
ravine near the reservoir in our Connecticut town. A man
came out of the woods and attacked her while she was
walking her puppy along an access road below the reservoir’s
dam, far away from help. He beat her, strangled her with the
puppy’s leash, stabbed her, and slit her throat. In his
confession, he told the state detectives that she was still
alive and crying for help when he climbed out of the ravine
and left her to die. I have heard slightly different versions of
this story from the detectives, the prosecutors, the
investigators, and the defendant himself, but every version is
horrible in its own way. Her suffering must have been
unimaginable. She was all alone and no help came. Though
she died in the middle of the day, her body was not found
until eleven o’clock that night, covered with snow. It wasn’t
removed from the reservoir until the following afternoon.

I have thought of and dreamed of my mother’s final moments
a million, a billion, a trillion times, always imagining that
somehow I am there at the reservoir along with the murderer,
that I attack him and save her, that I am Veronica and I wipe
her face and hold her head in my hands. Once, three months
after her death, I was alone in my apartment in San
Francisco, sobbing, overwhelmed with grief, unable to
imagine another moment of living with this sorrow,
exhausted beyond my capacity to speak. I was listening to
Celtic music, and all of a sudden I had what I can only
describe as a vision of my mother’s body at the bottom of the
ravine, the snow coming down all around her and angels
coming up from the bloody ground beneath her, cradling her
head and lifting her spirit up out of that place, up over the
trees, up to the heart of God. It’s the only vision I’ve ever
had, and while it was a great comfort to me at the time, in
retrospect it is just as likely to have been the product of my
extremis of grief. I still think about those angels, but since,
at the veterinary hospital, I have been present at hundreds
of deaths where there are no angels, there is only pain and
sickness and then the absence of life, that momentary vision
has not brought me any lasting peace.

Recently, for the first time, I went back to the reservoir
where my mother was killed. I had written to the police chief
in our town, a man with the very New England name of Lowell
Humphrey, and asked if I could talk to him about my mother’s
murder. He sent me back a four-page letter with all the
details he could remember, told me the murder had greatly
affected his life as well, and said that he would never forget
the statement I made in court at the defendant’s sentencing
four years after the crime. In that statement, I told the court
that I was glad the state prosecutors had decided to forgo
pursuing the death penalty and accept a plea agreement in
which the defendant would spend the rest of his life in
prison. My mother did not believe in the death penalty, I told
the court. I said I believed that this plea agreement did more
than just punish the defendant for my mother’s death; it also
honored my mother’s life.

Making that statement in court did help me, but it did not
relieve me of the one burning desire that would not abate: to
return to Connecticut and go to the spot in the reservoir
where my mother was killed. I thanked Lowell for his letter
and asked him if he would be willing to take me to the spot
where my mother’s body was found. He wrote back
immediately and said yes.

It was a beautiful fall day in Connecticut when we met, the
sky blue and the sun shining high in the sky. The path into
the reservoir was blanketed with leaves that had fallen from
the trees—sugar maple, elm, and oak, orange and gold and
crimson. As we walked along the path, leaves crunching
under our feet, Lowell talked about his life. He had been born
in this small town. His father ran the package store and his
wife’s family the town’s cider mill. Both families had many
sons who manned the town’s volunteer fire department.
Lowell had spent his entire career on the police force, fifteen
years as its chief. Now that he was retired, he was part of
the volunteer fire department again, on call 24/7 and paid
five dollars a call. The radio attached to his belt buckle
beeped and squawked as we walked.

When we got to the spot where my mother had been killed,
we stopped and stood silently for a moment. Lowell told me
that he had been the second person to arrive at my mother’s
body after she was found, and that he had stayed with her all
through that freezing night. He made sure that she was never
alone, even as a winter storm blew in and snow covered the
ground all around them. He answered every question I asked,
in a way that was thoughtful and kind and honest. How was
she lying? I asked. Could you see her face? Where were her
hands? What was she wearing? I felt that he would tell me
anything I wanted to know and that he wasn’t afraid of my
questions as almost everyone else had seemed to be. Lowell
had stood by my mother’s terrible death and looked squarely
at it. Now, years after the crime, he was trying to offer what
comfort he could to me. He became my Veronica, my icon of
truth, offering me his handkerchief to wipe the tears from my
cheeks. I felt calm and quiet in a way that was new to me,
almost happy to be standing in this beautiful place with this
kind and thoughtful man while the wind lifted my hair from
my shoulders and blew the leaves around our feet.

My mother was gone; there was no trace of her or of the evil
that had befallen her that snowy December day. Instead
what washed over me was the great decency of the man
standing beside me now, the man who had stayed with her
body, had protected her spirit as best he could, at that dark
hora mortis. At one point he told me to look up from the path
we were standing on to the dam far above us. The sun was
streaming down through the trees, and the dam seemed very
far away.

“There are people up on the bridge. Do you see them?” he
asked.

I looked and looked but I couldn’t make them out.

“They’re up there,” Lowell said, and smiled. “They’re waving
at you.”


Dolly Reynolds holds a JD from University of California Hastings, and
is currently an MFA student at San Francisco State. Her work has been
nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been published or is
forthcoming in journals such as decomP, Red Wheelbarrow, and North
American Review. She recently attended the Bread Loaf Writers’
Conference. She works as a veterinary technician and teaching
assistant, and resides in San Francisco with her wonderful family in a
tiny house next to the ocean.
PRAY FOR US SINNERS
by Dolly Reynolds