This was written April 12, 2004, the week after Easter. It's about the final disposition of my amputated remains. It might be funny for you, or you might just find it weird and gross. For me it's all three -- funny, weird and gross. You've been warned. It's up to you whether you read the rest.
On Easter Sunday 2003, I dropped down onto one knee to get a better angle for a photo. I forgot for an instant that I had a plum-sized melanoma tumor near the knee (another long story). I weigh about 200 lbs., and beach sand in New England is still almost rock hard in the early spring. So in that instant that I forgot about it, the tumor ruptured internally. My whole leg swelled up. Six months later, two-thirds of that leg had to be amputated.
While planning my amputation, I asked to have parts of my tumor cryogenically preserved in case they might be of use to me later for a vaccine or something. The rest of the leg I asked to have cremated. I asked that the ashes be returned to me so I could scatter them in my garden, in order to turn trash into flowers for maybe the hundredth, maybe the thousandth time in my life.
By Massachusetts law, for some unknown reason, the forensics lab was required to hold onto my amputated remains for sixty days before releasing them to a crematorium, which eventually sent the ashes back to my surgeon. I got a phone call from my surgeon's secretary in, I think, December. She was weirded out because, even though it's not really unusual for her boss to perform an amputation, and although he had even told me that lots of people ask to have their limbs saved for them, for burial with the rest of their bodies when they eventually die, apparently it's not a common thing for amputees to ask for the remains to be returned to them personally while they're still alive. So this poor woman had never had to make a call to anyone to come pick up a cremated limb before. We laughed hysterically about this for a few minutes, she said she was really glad that at least it was me she had to call and not someone who was going to take it badly, and then I made arrangements to pick up the package. I brought home a medium-sized paper bag, and it sat under my desk from that day until just this last Sunday, waiting.
This last Sunday, Easter Sunday, the ground was finally soft enough, there was no wind, and it was exactly a lunar year since I'd hurt myself, so it seemed like a good time to scatter the ashes. Though I'd sort of half planned it this way, I didn't mean to make it a ritual or anything; I just didn't want to keep the remains any longer than one lunar year. I have a horror of becoming a Miss Havisham type, unable to move forward from sadness or hurt or to let go of what was once mine but is no longer or should no longer be. So I had it in my head that I wouldn't keep my remains one day longer than necessary, and made Easter 2004 my personal deadline to get out there and scatter them.
My balance isn't everything I hope to make it someday, so I'm still at the point where I think about every step I take. I find it convenient to carry stuff in a small backpack in order to keep my hands free for balancing or holding my cane. It's a pale pink Hello, Kitty backpack from the children's department at Marshall's. Hello, Kitty dressed in a dainty hot pink muu muu, an icon of my personal mid-life crisis as well as every nice Japanese girl's sweetness and every American punk teenager's ironic rebellion, stares serenely from a large zippered pocket at the back, surrounded by appliqué daisies. I put my bag o' leg into the backpack and carried it outside. Arriving at the edge of my garden, I opened the pink backpack with its pink plastic zipper and took out the brown bag. I opened the brown bag. Inside the brown bag was a white cardboard box. Inside the white cardboard box was a black plastic box, sealed shut. It rattled rather loudly when I inadvertently shook it. I had to use a tool to pry it open. Inside that was a plastic bag tied with a twist-tie and filled with ashes and...
GIANT BONE CHUNKS.
Seriously. The amputated femoral head was practically intact, and there were huge, 3-4" long shards of tibia.
My femur, my tibia.
So much for "scattering" the ashes in the garden. So much for letting things go, willy nilly, into the air and soil without a trace, as I desired. Instead, I had to dig a big hole in the middle of a pathway where no perennials grow and bury them there. And before I covered them up, I had to mash them with a shovel.
It was somewhat therapeutic; I did have a little rage to get out. The reason I mashed my own bones, though, had nothing to do with emotions, but rather with the vision that flashed before my eyes of some pet or some child digging where they shouldn't, as is the wont of pets and children, and bringing home a giant chunk of readily identifiable human remains, and all the wonderful things that would bring to pass for everyone in my suburban neighborhood. There was also the possibility that years from now, I myself, after perhaps deciding to redesign the garden and plant something in that exact, unmarked spot, might unearth that femoral head all over again. Again, my femoral head. The one I had to give up to cancer. Ugh.
I was quite shocked, having only ever seen the ashes of a pet cat before, with her very tiny bone fragments, none bigger than a dime. I have to admit that I was also transfixed. The bones were beautiful, especially that femoral head, fluidly rounded and irregularly stained orange -- from blood that used to nourish and surround it, or from the burning process, or from iodine swabbed around the wound or some other chemical, I'll probably never know. The insides were glittery spongiform, so dessicated that they easily crushed under pressure from my fingertip. I found myself staring into the plastic bag before releasing all that matter into the ground. It's something you don't get to see every day, what your own bones will look like after cremation, and I am a visual artist, and I have to look at stuff. Have to. Also, though, I was searching for some sign of the cancer, you know? I wanted to see something that would confirm for me that this tissue had been diseased, under an attack that it could not win. I wanted to see battle scars like you can still find in the French countryside from WWI and WWII. I wanted evidence. I didn't find any.
All I saw were greasy whitish ashes and large, stained pieces of bone that could have been anyone's. The organic curves and cellular forms were lovely and fragile. And then they were gone, smashed into the moist, dark earth and buried.
After that, I came inside, changed my clothes, balanced my checkbook, and went to work, just like any other Sunday. There was a brief moment when I almost cried. It was when I came inside and told my boyfriend about it while he cleaned his cereal bowl, when his eyes filled with tears as he said, "Of *course* the bones were beautiful," implying that they were beautiful because they were mine. He remarked that he was glad he missed this whole scene because "this was a leg [he] loved -- still love[s]." Seeing him fight tears, I felt pain for him, sadness for what loving me costs him. But I didn't really feel anything on my own, except a certain urgency to have it all over with, and irritation at the funeral home for not mashing up my bones for me, knowing that I meant to scatter the ashes. Sheesh, what if I'd dropped them out of an airplane, as people do with the ashes from whole bodies? Those shards were sharp; I could've severely injured someone!
I had a furious headache Monday and slept most of the day. Was it because of this strange interment? I don't know. Something still feels unresolved. I don't know what I was expecting, maybe just that by letting go of these ashes, freely, into a space which, over the course of years, I had designed myself expressly for life, beauty and sanctuary, all my troubles would be dissolved into water and air. Instead I ended up having to mutilate and conceal my own beautiful but discarded bones against discovery, to entrap them in a dark, wet space. And when I came inside, no problems had dissipated. My prosthetic still didn't fit quite right, and my bank account still only had $26.50 in it to last my household the whole week ahead until payday.
I know, I know. Freedom will come in increments, insofar as it comes at all, and no symbolic act, planned or unconscious, is going to catalyze it, only hard work and patience. And then of course there's the fact that we who love and are loved are never really free, nor do we really wish to be. I've known that all along. Still, I did think that opening up that box would open up something else for me, maybe just lighten my load in some indescribable but tangible way. Instead, it was kind of like when the groundhog sees his shadow and you hope it's a lie, but in your heart you know there will be six more weeks of winter, at least.
Don't ask me to explain this. It's just how I feel. And I'm surprised by it, and I don't have anything to do with this surprise except tell strangers about it. Go figure. Maybe telling you, maybe telling everyone is ultimately how I will scatter these ashes. I never did mean to bury them, you know.
I guess I had plans to publish this a year ago, but look, I never did. I guess I buried it all again.
Meanwhile, guess what the Easter bunny left me this year? Eviction. My landlord's parents sold their house, and somehow he was unable to refinance the one we live in, so now they have to come live here and we have to go live...somewhere else. Somewhere away from my garden of nearly ten years, where my leg and innumerable found wild corpses, baby robins and headless rodents, are buried.
I really hate Easter.
On the up side, though I still use that Hello, Kitty backpack just for kicks, I don't walk with a cane anymore. And of course Easter is over until next year. How comforting.