Saturday, March 20, 2010

The New Black (1/2)

The smell of roses is the smell of death. It's the bittersweet scent—no, the foul odor of a white coffin being lowered into a rectangular hole, as people dressed in their Sunday clothes stand around on one sunny day. It’s the unsettling bouquet of a procession of cars making their way from the funeral home, up and around a paved road that leads through a grassy hill in almost a complete circle before stopping near the final resting spot. The smell of relatives from Texas sitting behind me at a place called Eternal Valley, a five-minute-drive away from my childhood home, and trying to manufacture a smile out of their disconsolate faces when I turn around to look at them during the funeral. It's the strange, disturbing aroma of a thirteen-year-old girl in a casket, and a boy not completely understanding the situation but sufficiently cognizant of a permanent loss. I could never figure out, or much thought of, my revulsion to this scent, a scent that was evidently, perplexingly, fragrant to others. On birthdays and anniversaries I’d get carnations or forget-me-nots or violets—not roses, anything but roses, apart from nowadays when I’ve ordered them online, well removed from the smell and the concomitant memories of pain and sorrow that they evoke.

My elder sister, Laura Lynn, died when I was five years old. In long and hard retrospect I see that her death altered the course of a family, though it did not destroy it. My brother was born two years after this event, and I suspect his arrival was an attempt to bring new life out of a tragic event. As the decade rolled on, we, a replenished family of five, eventually stopped going to church. I think my parents, and perhaps my mother in particular, had been struggling with theodicy, though of course she wouldn’t know the term; might I refer instead to C.S. Lewis’s oft-cited phrase, the problem of pain. The problem of suffering. The problem of evil. It’s all the same problem, particularly if you subscribe to a benevolent, providential and omniscient deity who stands at the helm of His creation. Why has something like this happened to a regular family who dutifully attends Baptist church and just trying to live up to the American dream? Why snuff out Laura’s short life?

It took me years to realize the source of my discomfort with roses. And at some point in my thirties I started to visit my sister’s grave whenever I visited my home town, at first attempting to recreate the images in my mind from the scenes of a funeral and then simply sitting silent next to the gravestone thinking about the sister who didn’t live into adulthood and my own impending mortality. Because I was so young at the time, the memory remained buried deep within my psyche. I’ve come to understand that Laura was my protector, the protector that I had lost mysteriously one day, as she succumbed to cancer. I base this on one vague memory I have of my sister, and it’s possible I’ve jumbled up two events into one single narrative. I think I got into a childish dispute with my sister Linda (one year younger than Laura) and her friends. I remember Laura sticking up for me and being concerned about me. This memory has lived on throughout my life. What I am about to write about is not a sob story, but an attempt at self-discovery.