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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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The Truth About the Fact: A Journal of Literary Nonfiction is an international journal committed to the idea that excellence in the art of letters can play a vital role in transforming the planet we share.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dusting off the Dead

As a curious, young kid, I posed the question—what happens to us after we die?—to my parents over and over again. Lacking a suitable answer for a girl with an insatiable curiosity, my parents often gave me the traditional Christian answer: your soul goes to Heaven and you live happily ever after. But for some reason, this explanation never made sense to me and still does not. Perhaps I'm too much of a contrarian and too grounded by the tangible realities of science.

But this past weekend, I saw an old picture of my dead step-mother Karen, and a chill traveled up my spine—not because I suddenly believe in a spiritual afterlife (to the contrary, I believe that we are destined to disintegrate into dust—our bodies, our minds, our emotions...everything), but because something about this picture of Karen made me realize how our memory of lost loved ones is the one true thing that perpetuates the "life" of the dead.

Karen was a controversial figure in the family and perpetually unhappy. She battled with a troubled childhood, psychological issues, and self-destructive behavior—from bulimia to alcoholism and drug addiction. She ended up killing herself in 2005 from an intentional overdose, and while I've had my own issues reconciling the dysfunction and drama that she exposed me to as a teenager, I have also come to terms with appreciating the complex and troubled human being that Karen was. For a few years now, her face and her memory have faded into the distance...until this weekend.

As I flipped through a photo album on Saturday, I was startled by a picture of Karen from Christmas Eve many years ago. With a bright smile on her face and a drink in her left hand, Karen looked happy! Once I saw that picture, I realize how heartbreaking her struggles were, how fondly I want to remember her, and how much experience and maturity change the way we feel about complex things. Although I don't believe the initial "chill up my spin" was some supernatural signal or spiritual awakening, it's interesting that people can fade out of and reenter a person's consciousness so abruptly after being gone for so long.

The chill could be due to my readjustment to the realities of her devastating and disturbing death. In fact, what is so strange, when I think about Karen now, is how her memory has completely disappeared from my family. There are no pictures of her (with the exception of this one, it seems), no positive stories are spoken about her, and no one even mentions her name. She's become the Lord Voldemort of the family: "she-who-must-not-be-named." Part of her disappearance is related to the emotional damage that Karen caused the family prior to and following her suicide; my father has remarried again (the new step-mother doesn't want to hear about the old step-mother); and people often push their most troubling feelings and experiences away in lieu of coping with them.

Although dusting off this picture of Karen doesn't change my view of the afterlife—she's simply bones now—it did make me realize that when people leave, however positive or troubling they were, they leave a void. For me, it's a void that can't be filled by religion. It must be filled by memory. After all, that's often why we take pictures in the first place—to freeze a moment in time, frame it for a while or stow it in an album, only to return to it years later to see a person in a picture that you did not expect...and to feel different because of it.

-Mikayla Galvin


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