At the edges of the Earth was Lintukoto, the home of the water birds who brought souls to newly born humans and snatched them away at the moment of death. In ancient Finnish mythology those yellow and black-billed whoopers transported the deceased to an underground city, a dark and crowded place ruled by Tuoni, the spirit of death, where life went on the same as above ground.
At the age of thirteen, Hulda, my Finnish grandmother, arrived alone at Ellis Island. As the oldest of a dozen starving children, she’d been exiled to work as a maid for an American family. For over fifty years with two marriages, the birth of my father, and four grandchildren, she shipped bundles of clothes and food back to her homeland. I’d sit at her round kitchen table pressing my thumb onto twine as she tightened the knot on brown paper boxes stacked on a crocheted tablecloth. Her small apartment smelled of coffee and sugar covered donuts. Behind the panes of a small china cabinet, amber glass plates glittered. When she leaned forward to trim away the excess twine, her large breasts wobbled like lumps of gelatin under her thin, cotton dress. But that was long ago, and she’s no longer with us. If she’s waiting for me to join her in Tuonela, the land of the dead, she’ll be disappointed.
When the birds circle overhead during my final hour, I’ll be in my bedroom in this same Ikea bed with the purple and beige blankets, wrapped in my favorite pink velour robe and propped up by pillows. Only wisps of hair cover my balding head. Other than a slash of pink lipstick, my face is pale. My body has shriveled like a rotten potato, but my belly remains swollen with ovarian cancer cells. The sun glares through the open window, and the yellow window curtains flutter like wings. My bedroom door to the backyard patio is open, and I hear the songs of the sparrows and finches as they circle the hanging feeder. The squirrels utter ferocious chirping noises and scramble for the birdseed that falls to the ground. The dogs yelp and chase after them. My daughter Rani sits on the right side of my bed in front of the open door and my son Brian on the left near the window. When I start to drift off, Rani pinches my fingers to bring me back. She’d been only three-months-old when I adopted her from Calcutta, India. Now, she’s twenty-six but not ready to let me go. Other than her years in college, we’ve always lived together and shared our thoughts and plans. She’s looking for a job to advance her career goals. I’m lucky she’s had time off to take care of me so I can die at home. She spreads a hand over my chest to make sure I’m breathing.
Rani’s partner Sonia recently moved into our home and has become my second Indian daughter. Her scarves, belts, purses and hats are sorted and hung on pegs across one wall of their bedroom. She’s tall and athletic and has an Om tattoo on her right shoulder. She works with stroke patients in a local hospital and so she understands the anger and grief of those left behind. She sits at my bedside with her arm over Rani’s shoulder.
Brian taps furiously on his iPad. A 48-year-old engineer, a problem solver, he has difficulty being idle and knows there’s nothing more that can be done for me. At age seventy-one, my time has come. He’ll miss me but has a wife and child to worry about. When he and Rani huddle together, I’ll hear them asking. “How much longer?”
Watching me die will be difficult for my children, but for me, life has lost all meaning. Other than clinic appointments, I rarely leave the house. Rani drives my car each week to keep the battery charged. Looking around my room at the few possessions I haven’t yet given away—things I’d hoped to use including crochet hooks, and unread books—my heart aches. My garden full of tomato plants and the staghorn ferns on the patio trellis are a reminder that life will go on without me.
Pierre, my fluffy white pooch has been with me for ten years and naps on the end of my bed. Somehow, he knows that I’ll be leaving him behind on my journey. Zoe the young pug, sleeps with Rani and Sonia. I won’t be able to take care of her. I picture the dogs arching their necks and howling at the moment of my death.
My 14-year-old grandson, who refuses to allow his frizzy mass of hair to be trimmed, wanders in and out of the room clutching onto his Nintendo DS. If I blow a kiss, he’ll tell me that he loves me. I’ll miss his graduations and birthday celebrations and never know what kind of man he’ll be. My robust daughter-in-law likes to tell stories about her life and won’t expect me to respond. Friends wearing shorts and sandals drop by for a final visit, some rushing off quickly, not knowing what to say or fearful that I might die in their presence. All their cheerful words about getting better or waiting for a miracle have ended. Others chew their fingernails and chatter about the good times we’ve had together–kayaking in Catalina or bicycling at the marina– things I haven’t been able to do in years and barely remember. The recent events in their lives don’t interest me now that I can’t share them.
A hospice nurse arrives to check on my pain medication. My family will ask but she won’t be able to predict the hour of my death. The wait could be long, but my family won’t leave the room and risk missing the moment of my passing. My room becomes a busy place, a social place. Rani and Sonia order delivery of tandoori chicken, fried rice, eggplant buried in garlic and onions, and soft, but crispy naan. There’ll be spicy food and chai for everyone but me.
I’ll squeeze my children’s hands when I feel the moment of death approaching so they won’t miss the sight of my spirit flying free. I’ve been ready to give up for months, but they keep telling me how much I’ll be missed. At times I’ve wanted to die in my sleep, but then how could I be sure that my spirit won’t be lost and end up in the wrong place. I’ve asked Rani to find a Native American healer to be present and play a flute. He or she can intercede with the spirits for a safe journey out into the universe. I don’t want to be trapped in Tuonela with my Finnish ancestors.
Am I scared? Well, who wouldn’t be? I worry about the pain of dying and wonder what my final thoughts will be. Will I be grateful for the life I’ve lived or bitter at leaving? Will I look back on the good times or worry about things left undone? Those stories about near-death experiences seem to prove that our spirits live on in another place or time. I’ll try to visualize my passing as a transition to another realm. The idea of reincarnation once appealed to me, but no more. I’ve suffered too much in this earthly life and have no desire for another round. My body will be cremated and my spirit freed. I’ll float among the clouds and migrating birds.
But what will become of my memories? Will they attach to my spirit or be inherited by future generations and mistaken for their own past life experiences, or disappear? After my immediate family dies, will it be as if I never existed?
Before I reach my final destination, I’d like to let Rani know I’m safely on the other side, although human brains might be unable to grasp the existence of other realities. She and I have been sharing ideas on how to communicate as if it were possible. A picture falling off the wall or a light flashing on and off could alert her that I’m nearby. I might be able to open or close a special book, leave marks on her bedroom wall, or pull back her bedcovers to gain her attention.
“Mom, that’s creepy,” she says, grimacing as she sits on the side of my bed in her black spandex gym shorts, her hair pulled into a ponytail. She’s been losing weight and seems pleased with herself. “You’d be like a stalker in a psycho movie.”
“Any better ideas?” I ask, rubbing the shiny brown skin of her arm.
“You could refill the bird feeder or clean the kitchen floor like you used to do.”
“Would you notice if I did?”
She shrugs her shoulders. “Maybe.”
We’ll need to make another plan. In my next existence, I won’t be mopping floors.
I’ve read that gazing into a mirror allows contact with the spirits of the dead. It sounds easy enough. Just sit in a quiet, dark room and stare into the mirror until the image of a person emerges. But it could take hours, and anyone might show up. A deceased with unfinished business might confront you instead of the person you expected.
When I mention it to Rani, she jumps off my bed and shakes her head. “What about Bloody Mary?”
I hadn’t heard about Mary, a woman said to appear in a mirror if her name is called three times. Rani was told that Mary arrives covered in blood, or she’s a corpse, a witch, or a ghost. You never know what she’ll do. Rani says that Mary might steal your soul, curse you, or strangle you and drink your blood. I’m surprised to hear that she’s had this fear since third grade and hadn’t told me.
“I never do anything three times, just to be safe,” she says. “Not even checking if the doors are locked or saying I love you.”
I’ve also read that in most cultures, the living fear that the dead will return to seek vengeance and drag them into the netherworld. Hopefully, Rani will be spared from the wrath of my ancestors. But what of her own East Indian kin? Would her birth mother return to express regrets that she’d abandoned her? Or be angry that Rani hadn’t found a way to return to her homeland?
“You try it,” Rani says, “but don’t ask for Bloody Mary.”
If I stared in a mirror long enough, who in my family might pop up? Would it be my brother who died only days after his birth? Family rumor has it that baby Leo was born without eyes and smothered to death by Hulda who feared the cost of raising him would send her family into the poverty that she’d struggled to escape. Would Leo be angry that I came along next and replaced him? Or perhaps I’d be greeted by the spirit of the baby I aborted in Mexico City in the years before Roe vs. Wade. What could I say to that child?
Neither of us has the courage to try mirror gazing.
After a person died there was a 30-40 day transitional period while the soul searched Tuonela. During this time the soul could visit living relatives either as a ghost or an animal.
Within weeks after mom died, I was standing in the kitchen washing greasy dishes in front of an open window looking out on poinsettias and ferns when I noticed a white, smoky vapor materialize into the image of a body in my living room near the Christmas tree. At the time I was sure it was Mom trying to contact me, but did I rush into the living room to greet her? No. I continued soaping up dishes. When I looked back a few minutes later, she was gone. Just like in her lifetime, I’d been afraid of what she’d say. Only two weeks before her death, we’d been sitting at the dining table in her apartment. She’d put her hand over mine and pleaded, “Don’t scatter my ashes in the ocean.” She and my Dad had sailed for over thirty years, back and forth to Catalina and the Ventura Islands and racing to Ensenada. I remembered her gleeful smile as she leapt from the deck of our boat and onto the wharf, her arms outstretched to catch the mooring line. Then she’d rush to wind it around the dock cleats before the boat slipped away. And now she hated the ocean? How could that be? And of her parents whom she’d appeared to idolize, she said, “Don’t bury me near them. They never loved me.” We placed her urn in a niche on the far side of the mausoleum, as far as possible from her parents.
After her death, I’d suffered from guilt and remorse for everything I could have or should have done, every unkind word I’d said. I hadn’t visited often enough or phoned to see if she needed help. I’d taken my young daughter to the hospital cafeteria for breakfast and been out of her room at the time of her passing. What terrible things would she have said about me? Mom never made another appearance. I never tried to call her spirit back. I’d been too fearful of dying myself. My need for a predictable, rational world conflicted with a belief in spirits. When she died from ovarian cancer at age seventy-two, I chose not to recognize it as an omen.
During one of my hospitalizations, a nurse told me that after a year of being depressed and sobbing everyday, her deceased seven-year-old daughter appeared at her bedside and said, “Mom, I’m okay. Go on with your life.” And she did, with a firm belief in the afterlife.
If my spirit body sat on the end of Rani’s bed, would she pull the covers over her head? Would she worry about how to get rid of me?
“What if I stood at the end of your bed?” I ask her in the morning when she sits in a wood chair beside my bed sipping a cup of hot tea. My bedroom window is open and the birds are singing. Maybe she won’t be as frightened.
She scowls. “I’d think it was a bad dream or seeing a ghost.”
Unlike the mother of the seven-year-old, Rani wouldn’t be crying everyday. Sonia would comfort her. I’d be interfering with their life together. Perhaps it’s only those who continue to grieve who welcome a visitor from the spirit world. Maybe it’s my need to communicate and not hers.
It was believed that a shaman had a special relationship with the spirit world and could enter Tuonela to talk with the deceased. However while in Tuonela the shaman had to be careful not to get caught. People who were not dead were not welcome. A shaman could die during the trance ritual.
I’ve thought about obtaining the services of a medium, someone with experience contacting the dead. I’ve met only one such person in my life, and she’d been terrified by her own powers which hadn’t come easily. After her son-in-law killed himself and her daughter, she’d tried to cross over the line and found that she could channel the words from the dead. When she put her pen on paper, the words that appeared were not her own. Many departed souls asked about loved ones, but she had no answers. She became fearful of being possessed and isolated herself. There are others who have used their gifts, but how will Rani find someone she can trust?
When I mention contacting a medium, Rani says, “No, I want to talk directly with you.”
The haltija was a creature that could take many forms including the spirits of Finnish ancestors. Each individual has his own protective haltija.
I’d like to protect Rani and warn her of dangers ahead, but if I slip a thought into her mind, how will she know it’s coming from me? We could work up code messages but I might not retain them once I’m on the other side. She spends so many hours on her iPhone, laptop and watching Netflix. The channels of her mind might be closed to receiving messages from the beyond.
I have no idea what my powers will be or if communication would be harmful for the living. Even premonitions are often ignored. The hand of the dead churning in your mind becomes a scary thought. “I’ll make my own decisions,” Rani says. She also worries an evil spirit might talk with her. “How will I know it’s you?” she asks.
Doesn’t seem like anything will work for us.
Rani has a friend whose mother recently died. A counselor told her to suspend reality and walk and talk with her mother as if she were alive. Her friend declined, saying she wasn’t ready and couldn’t imagine her mother being present. But Rani likes this idea. “You’ll be like a spiritual adviser. I’ll ask your opinion before I make my decision, just like now.”
She’d be in control and pretend that I was listening. I’d be there only when she conjured up my presence. This way she could comfort herself and not worry about the spirits of dead trying to claim her life. “We’ll walk in the nature park like we used to do,” she says.
I visualize the two of us wandering among the California black walnut trees and the bushy toyons with clusters of small, red berries, her hiking shoes treading over gopher holes as the squirrels and rabbits streak past—my feet never touching the ground. When we pass through the oak grove, she’ll wrap her arms around my favorite tree like I always did. I’ll hover over her as she presses her nose against the bark and stroke her dark, silky hair. She may not be able or willing to feel my arms around her, but as I edge closer to the spirit world, I have this feeling that someday she’ll know that we shared those few moments together.
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