Photo by Loren Rhoads. Mourner in Cypress Lawn.
by Tanya Monier
It’s spring break of my senior year of high school and, for the second time, I am at the end of my pilgrimage. Mom let me drive down here after I swore I’d get back in time for Easter Mass and not try to skip out by complaining I was tired. I’m staying at Sarah’s — she’s a friend who moved to Irvine when we were 12 — and she drove me here today. She remembered how to get here from a year and a half ago.
Ocean View. The first time Jessica told me that Michelle was at Ocean View, I thought it sounded like a suburban apartment complex. I asked her to repeat herself. Stupid name for a cemetery, but here we are on prime oceanfront real estate, looking down at the hazy blue Pacific. We the living, of course. The ones whose families paid so much money to put them to rest here can’t see a fucking thing any more.
From up here, I can see a few skateboarders, pinwheels someone stuck into the ground, and some people who look like they’re having a picnic. The land is unbelievably smooth: thick, plush, well-tended grass. I’m almost surprised that I don’t see golfers. This place is big. Really big. The first time we came here, Sarah and I got lost, despite the map we picked up at the office. We parked the car in the right area, on Hillcrest Lane, but I couldn’t find Michelle. I thought she was in the wall — coffin high-rise, space-saver — and I just about got frantic looking for her. When I found her grave, I dropped to the ground and started sobbing. I was so relieved.
“Loving daughter,” that’s all it says on the bronze plate in the ground, other than her name and the dates; I guess it’s too expensive to get a good quote. I had Sarah get out of the car and take pictures of me looking at the grave. I took a couple of the bronze plate. When I got back home, the others all wanted copies, because no one else could afford to get down here and see her for themselves. Relics: we were all pretty morbid back then. We kept any tangible objects connected to her that her mom didn’t demand we return, even the little plastic dinosaurs she used to collect. I got the comedy/tragedy hologram pendant she always used to wear. I’m wearing it today. It’s become my trademark. I hold on to it like a talisman during tests, because Michelle was brilliant.
Michelle killed herself when I was fourteen and a half. She was eighteen. It was a failed cry for help. The afternoon before her high school graduation, her mom found her dead on her bedroom floor. This was two hours after they’d had a fight which ended with Michelle screaming, “I wish I was dead!” Her mom just walked out of the house.
Asphyxiation: Michelle wrapped a pair of pantyhose twice around her neck, twice around each wrist, knelt on the floor, and pulled down until she passed out. There weren’t any knots in the nylons. She just held the ends in her hands. She wasn’t stupid: she knew that when she blacked out, her grip would relax. Some time during the struggle to choke herself into unconsciousness, she must have shoved her fists under her ankles. When she passed out, she fell backward. The nylons stayed taut.
The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Photo by Loren Rhoads.
I met Michelle through Jessica, a friend in “The Scene,” during one of our weekly trips to go dancing downtown. We were all “Gothics” or “death rockers” with black hair, black clothes, black attitudes, and white skin (by natural or artificial means — I had to use a little white clown makeup as a base). Our theme was “Every Day is Halloween.” Michelle wasn’t really part of The Scene, but she and Jessica had just started renting a place downtown, so we all went over there whenever we could. Everyone else would drop acid or snort crank, but Michelle and I would get drunk and sit in the corner, talking and rolling our eyes ironically at the others. She understood me. She even listened to me complain about my nonexistent love life. I never knew her stories until Jessica let me read Michelle’s diaries on the way to the funeral.
The funeral was packed. I don’t know what got into Michelle’s mom, but she wouldn’t let Jessica play the tape she’d made for the service. Michelle’s mom only brought one song — “Michelle” by the Beatles — which she had played over and over again. Fourteen times before the eulogy: I counted each time it started again. One of the girls with me had been frying the night before and she was freaking out so bad from that damned song that the others had to take her to the bathroom, where she threw up until she calmed down a little. But we couldn’t get them to stop playing it. I think it was a vindictive thing on her mom’s part. That song used to be a favorite. Three years later, I still can’t stay in a room where it’s played. I never realized how often they play it in department stores and dentist offices.
I held Michelle’s boyfriend Mark while we walked up to the open coffin. I had to force him to look at her, because he was trying to convince himself that she was alive, lying there. One look and you knew she wasn’t. Whoever did her makeup obviously didn’t know her. They had glued her eyelids and mouth shut. I could actually see the glue shining under her eyelashes. Her face looked collapsed, like a frog’s.
What followed for me was predictable enough, I guess: the guilt of surviving, an almost accidental alcohol and downer overdose on the four-month anniversary of her death, months of counseling. First my parents took me to a hospital psychiatrist. At our only meeting, he sang all of “Rocky Raccoon” to me — more than three minutes — just so he could point out the significance of the line “I’ll be better just as soon as I am able.”
The original Angel of Grief, English Cemetery, Florence. Photo by Loren Rhoads.
The counselor I stuck with, Michele (an ugly coincidence that almost kept me out of her office), helped me deal with the guilt. She laughed at my jokes like I was a real person, not a patient. Michele was also the first one to agree with me when I started saying that I wanted to see Michelle’s grave. I think she was kind of concerned, though. She told me about the Cult of Saints, some early Christian tradition of going on pilgrimages to visit the graves of saints and martyrs. The pilgrims thought that they could be healed by kissing the bones of the dead. Michele didn’t want me to expect too much, I guess, but it didn’t sound any different than my mom keeping holy water in the fridge for us to drink when we got sick.
I don’t know when, but at some point, love-of-life started to outweigh fear-of-death as my reason for staying alive.
I come to Michelle at Ocean View to thank her, to let her know that I never forget her. This time, I don’t need to go over the old stuff. I just tell her about stuff she missed, like the new Love and Rockets album. I tell her about Adam, too, and my now-existent love life. I don’t talk loud. I just kneel beside her and kind of mutter, just loud enough to get the vibrations into the air. If the dead can hear, that should be enough.
There’s a hole at the top of the bronze marker. I guess that’s how people get their flowers to stand up if they don’t bring a vase. Flowers. I never brought flowers, never thought about it. Anyway, the hole at Michelle’s place is empty. I reminds me of a periscope. I frighten myself by wondering how far I’d have to dig my hand into the hole before I’d touch the top of her casket. Finally, I look down the hole and see that it’s a metal cylinder with a base, so I relax. I don’t even have to think about testing it for depth.
By now I’m leaning on my arms in the grass beside Michelle. I notice that there are a hell of a lot of ants running on her marker. Then I see something that will make me sick for a long time: a thick green worm hauling itself straight up out of the grass. It stands up at the base of the marker and waves a little, getting taller and taller until it gets top-heavy and curls like a fishhook. I know she’s down there, where it came from, and I think of what worms do… I want to make sure they burn me, don’t dare put me down there like her. I can’t touch the worm or knock it away. I just jump up to go. Sarah’s still waiting in the car.
This essay originally appeared in the original volume of Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries.
Tanya Monier is a teacher, a storyteller, a blogger (the-happy-badger.blogspot.com) a crafter, a mother, a wife…not necessarily in that order. All her tattoos are on the inside.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am getting ready to finish the Death’s Garden project. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch SOON. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.