The Grief Manual: The Photos

Image by Janeke88 from Pixabay

Warning: While not graphic, this post does contain description of deceased person shortly after their death.

Yesterday, as my mother and I sat in the police station, the detective slowly pushed the manilla folder across the table to us, saying, “We’ve never done anything like this before. We didn’t expect you to come back and want to see this after you’d asked about it in July.” He had been talking for 10 minutes while touching its cover, preparing and tacitly drawing for us the card that would give us a respectable and understandable “out” to walk away from opening this Pandora’s box.

But, over the past half year (and more), the want to lay our eyes on the crime scene photos — not of some anonymized stranger but of one of our own — had been teased, then gripped and raked over the washboard again and again. Would seeing these rip open slowly scarring wounds? Would it impregnate fright in the form of new visceral images to wake us up at 2am, unable to explain or wash them out and go back to sleep? Was it a stupid thing to want to see, or was it a painful way of walking through fire to achieve some semblance of closure? The thing is that Hannah is still dead, her cause of death still undetermined. We’re wrapping around two years since she died in February 2019, and the only time we said goodbye was when we touched her bloodless, plastic body at the funeral home.

I had initially thought if we could access these photos, we could sleuth through them and land on the “A-Ha!” piece of hard, non-circumstantial evidence that everyone else had missed or overlooked. We’d point with exacting finger and, in doing so, break the cycle of grief to corroborate what we had felt from the minute the police stood in my mother’s red sitting room and — with their very presence and then words — transmuted it into a vestibule to destabilizing horror we thought was only reserved for psychological thrillers and gore movies.

I sought to analyze everything to find the buried-treasure answers, when I suddenly realized there could be no epiphany. These photos would not be the bright light and stuff to finally wrench Hannah’s deserved justice and dislodge us from our collective purgatory. I wanted the damned conclusion so badly, but it took nearly 6 months since asking to see the photos to realize that I could not manifest salvation because I could not breathe into Hannah’s little gapped sleeping mouth and wind her again with the fire to lift her heavy lids, open her bright blue eyes, put her long-toed feet on the ground and walk towards us.

It feels like a sin to be so helpless. To feel your helplessness surround you and force you to capitulate by bowing and surrendering to whatever in the world this bereft feeling is. Looking through Hannah’s only journal we have from when she was in her teens, I found a story that she wrote after her French class dictation. It was about a couple in love where the boyfriend had enlisted in the army and then died in war after suffocating under a collapsed dirt pile formed when he was trying to save injured citizens. “’We tried to get him out, but he was barely breathing…his last words were, “Tell Ava I love her. I want her to be happy.” Ava didn’t believe what she’d just read. Her love was gone forever.”

Maybe it’s melodramatic, but I had the distinct feeling that perspective imbues into anything someone you loved who’s now dead has written: it feels prophetic. It feels like a message to us who are reading it in the now future-present. I know it’s not. Hannah couldn’t have known I would name her niece — my daughter — Ava. I hadn’t even considered that name a full 8 years before Ava even came into contemplation as a person. Hannah couldn’t have imagined then she would only get just under a doubling of her life on earth at that moment and then die at 28, or that we who were left behind would get down on our knees on concrete and scream until we saw black. She couldn’t have known that anything she wrote would later be viewed through the lens of her own too-young death, her words taking on a labored weight that couldn’t counter the chasm in space that was the emptiness of her corporeal body.

Back then, Hannah was just doing creative writing in her mid-teens, expecting all the joys and disappointments that early age could fathom — as projected onto the lives of an imaginary, older couple. She’d experienced young love and young heartbreak and was trying to make sense of it through stories. The same way we do now. The same I try to do now, coercing colorless words on my screen. Yanking, contorting and tugging at them like the corner of a too-tight fitted sheet, entreating them to lie still and hold so that they may make sense of all these emotions. I pervert and tear words and sentences so they surrender to my will, so at least I can make something yield where otherwise the evasive redress for Hannah’s death has not come.

I think I was a lot clearer about Hannah’s future when she first died. All the things she had lost — all of the moments we would lose of her. I thought selfishly of her not being able to do my makeup again, to never again sit at one of many a fancy country club’s bathrooms, avoiding the wedding we were there for, while she looped sparkling blush over my eyelids, and the warmth of her palm above her wrist crease held my chin as her sylphlike fingers brushed quickly and precisely over my cheeks. But, see, now this is almost a disconnected thought. I can remember this, but it’s void of any emotional pull except some latent feeling of loss. Reality has taken its fat bottom and pushed out the way I used to loop my memories of the past to my reveries for Hannah’s future through the engine of my imagination and to the edge of possibility.

Hannah is dead. Present Hannah is gone. Future Hannah in the natural way she would age and find love and maybe have children and be beside us, most of that has dried up. She is moving and moving — or my mind is moving and moving — away from the place of the sacred fantasy of the early stages of mourning that tell you that enough want can reignite the future of the person we lost, even if only in the chillier landscape of our minds.

Hannah is dead. We haven’t found justice, and her phone number still rings two years later and presents her voice to us, like nothing bad or illogical has happened. What is fair and righteous to her life and at the moment of her death seems simply unachievable. The one thing we know is that we who love and need her still with a quiet but untamed ferocity, we were not with her when she died. Her body sat in her bed and grew cold and rigored as it drifted further from the last profound thwap of her beating heart and from the moment before that in which she could still safeguard the possibility of liberation.

Her body sat after the police came and later bagged her hands in shoe dustbags labeled L and R. She laid there alone before she went to the medical examiner’s office. While her spirit was in the liminal space between the living and the just-dead, her physical body was in purgatory, a place where we could not touch or see her after she died. At one moment in the early morning the day after she died, we were actually unable to locate it at all. We cannot unwind time to change circumstances. Is it cheap or self-indulgent to think that we can look at photos taken hours after the moment of her death and insert ourselves and our love into that place back where she had to face death head on?

The detective pushed that envelope across the table, and I put my left hand over it as though performing Reiki or a seance, the downward facing palm of my hand emanating some sort of invisible, performative energy reading or clearing. As though blessing or maybe erasing the images that were inside. I knew these images would be inexpungable — I knew I was walking into a place from which I couldn’t return or erase. I had declared again and again to my mother that I wanted to be here, I wanted to see these photos. I had reached out to the Chief multiple times myself to arrange this. I had talked to my mother and therapist about it. But, I couldn’t cross the threshold myself. My hand hovering but inert, my mother reached down and opened the folder to four color, laser-printed, letter-sized papers, selected by the police because they showed her face and were as minimally graphic as possible.

And there she was. Hannah. Beautiful, tall Hannah, now supine on a bed with head turned to the right, mouth partially open, nose ring, dark AF sweatpants and her shirt a little up so I could see the curly lines of the tattoos on and the softness of her lower stomach. Her right arm was long along the bed and her hand was slightly turned in. Her left elbow was on the heather grey sheets, and her forearm was up in the air with fingers curled in, the way she used to sleep when she was a baby in her wooden bassinet in my parents’ bedroom. I would watch her as a sleeping infant and wonder aloud to my mother why she always slept with her lower arms and hands up in the air, as though part of her was standing — or levitating. As though she were asleep, but not fully. As though her body could not totally be released before she tumbled into dreamland.

Her pointed, perfectly done, deep burnt coral acrylic nails in the photo surprised me. She had a tag on her right arm and two on her lower stomach like security devices where the EMTs had tested for a long-gone heartbeat. Her lanky legs were slightly frogged out. Her face was calm and still had the color that had been drained when we saw her embalmed in the funeral home.

I kept looking and looking at the photos — one of the side of her face, lips parted, slightly mascara’ed lashes closed gently on her sweet face. If the photo could have gained dimension and space, then it was as if her face lifted from the flat page and drew closer to me. I look at her all the time since she died. I keep her photos on my desk, in my bedroom, in my dining room and kitchen. Often, she ends up on my phone’s screensaver. But, I must have forgotten what she looked like unposed. How real she was to me and how she felt in the tender, uncomposed moments when we just sat on her bed and talked.

The longer I looked at her, the more warmth I felt, the more I could swear she was right there with us, in the detective’s large and abstractly-shaped beige-blue corner office, with its hopper windows scrunched between the top of the wall and the ceiling. She was here again, here with us. We were with her. Maybe it should have been sickly macabre, but instead it felt slightly magical. Hannah was gaining substance and flesh — rising from the photograph — the more we looked at her. I had forgotten so, so much of her. These photos weren’t gruesome: they were of my sister — that once little baby I had spent so many hours guarding in sleep.

After a long time, my mother said it was time to go and that I needed to put the pictures down. “I just can’t leave her”, I said, in what was either a statement or a pleading, still unable to take my eyes off Hannah. We had her back, for a minute, even though her once-white t-shirt with “JUST A PHASE” written on it, with the sliver moon turned on its side so it was holding the words like a smile and little black stars all around it, was now blood-stained with a hole at the heart. ‘Just a phase’ — when I pieced together what her shirt said, it knocked the air from my chest, and limp tears fell from my eyes and squeaked under the top metal fold of my black facemask.

I wish everything of these two years could be taken back. I wish the ‘phase’ had been a knee-scraping scuffle and that she was never taken. Of course. I wish and wish and wish.

That detective gave us back, for some long minutes, Hannah. A little piece of me felt healed, the way flesh is cauterized to forestall infection. The night before we went to see Hannah’s photos, I had stood at my kitchen sink and felt a kind of giddy excitement that scared me. What was this emotion fluttering out? Intellectually, it felt sick or wrong. But the next day, when I still had it, I recognized it instead as excitement that I was going to see Hannah. I dressed up for her. I blew out and pinned up my hair. I put on fancy necklaces, and I did my makeup for her. Then I became increasingly more nervous as my Mom drove us to the police station, the way you feel when you’ve exhaustingly prepared for a test, but you still get the deep drop flips in your lower stomach as the teacher opens the door and you pass under the doorframe into the classroom.

I am still so far away from Hannah. We are aging and getting older and patting up our wrinkled eyes and sobbing at moments when we thought we were more “recovered”, and Hannah is endlessly stuck back in February 2019. Seeing her photos again was like bringing her forward, calling her into our own time again.

As I typed this at my parents’ kitchen island, I saw a large white-brown something dash in the corner of my eye. I went to the sunroom and saw a huge hawk walking around in front of the red door to my mother’s chicken coop. That coop Hannah would go to and pick-up Buddy, her very tame small rooster which she would sometimes carry in the house. I don’t know anymore what’s a vision or what’s an unusual moment in which we create meaning to patch the agony of our aloneness. I don’t know that I can read life emerging again from a photo of my dead or from the hoppy lilt of a huge hawk that is stomping around on the sacrosanct ground where my sister once, years ago, had placed her long feet. Where I once kicked at the cold hand of reality, though, do I now, in inevitable resignation, lift the ends of my fingers around his ice hand and walk with him?

Why did I really see Hannah’s crime scene photos? Months ago, in the thralls of grief over my sister, I had a vision of outstretched hands in front of me (mine or someone else’s — I’m not sure), and facing me in large block letters was the word “V O I C E.” It’s the only offering I can any longer give my sister. I can only prostrate myself now to be her advocate, her ambassador, her acolyte. I can only seek to remember her in the most full way she was when she was breathing next to us.

It’s not the fear her death was in vain; of course it was in vain. It’s that she was and would be the voice for me, and we must now be her remaining voice.

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