The Water, the Grief
By Eileen Elizabeth WaggonerSeptember 27, 2020
I BEGIN WITH water.
I was baptized in the river some childhood June. My grandmother stood on the riverbank and sang with the others who gathered, a ragtag congregation of family and church strangers. And I swayed under the current, lifted up into air again by some kind hand. After, when we came home to the farm to catch the last of the daylight, grammy offers me a drink from the garden hose. We stood together in the red clay dirt, two women bound by holy water and Virginia summer heat.
Twenty some years later, when my grandmother died this February, I stood in the Pacific with my brothers and imagined how the horizon could hold us all. In the high tide, seafoam swirled about our ankles — a farewell embrace. I brought the ocean back to me, in salt, in reverence.
I returned to the ocean in May with a facemask made from a bathing suit. I considered how little elegance seems to remain in this new world, and how the water baptizes and embalms us anyway.
They say COVID-19 makes you drown in your own body. I think of how my grandmother’s lungs must have filled with water in her bed, how there was no foam about her ankles, but at the corners of her mouth. I imagine her carried by the currents, white sheets around her ankles.
In February, my maternal grandmother passed away in a retirement home from complications from the coronavirus. In West Virginia, where she lived, there were no documented cases of COVID-19 until March. At the time of her death, there was no testing available, only whispers of a pneumonia-like virus that was claiming most of the retirement homes and no one knew why. It was only in retrospect that her doctors were able to conclude what took her.
I couldn’t fly home to say goodbye to my grandmother. I was too late. The pandemic had taken root on the East Coast. But this was before masks, before lockdown. So I brought my grief to the ocean, and said goodbye to the waves instead.
There is no obituary for my grandmother. A deeply private person, her name appears only once in a local Michigan newspaper, announcing her wedding and honeymoon. No one in our family will write it for her, worried that she would not want it. But I have been writing this over in my mind most nights since she died. A prayer to sleep by. Sometimes it is full of dates, and sometimes memories. The baptism, the afternoons on the farm. Reimaginings of our last conversations.
She would hate to read it. But I suppose it would look like this:
Tobey Carol Hall was born in Ontario, Canada, on December 10, 1939, to Ruth and Jay Gordon Hall. A biologist, teacher, and painter, she believed the arts and sciences were intrinsically connected; they were the lens through which she saw the world. In her high school yearbook, Tobey described herself as jolly, fanciful, and sensible. Tobey spent her youth and early adulthood ranching and riding in the Teton Wilderness, where she would marry the love of her life. On June 18, 1966, at the Chapel of the Transfiguration in Moose, Wyoming, she married David Michael Ruhala of Flint, Michigan — the youngest son of Slovak immigrants. Tobey and David had one daughter by birth and adopted five children. We remember her for her curious spirit, her lifelong love for nature, and her warm, uproarious laugh. Cowboys, she said, never die.
I have stitched together this obituary for my grandmother from one newspaper clipping, a high school yearbook quote, and a precious archive of home videos and slides spanning from the 1940s to the 1970s. I have found solace in these archival images. A nightly ritual before bed, I watch scenes of her life, and find my face reflected in hers. We have the same round face, same almond eyes that turn skyward when we laugh.
In one home video, my grandmother is playing on Bayfield Beach, Ontario. From these videos, I learned that most summers of her childhood she returned there, to Lake Huron. In this video, it is August 1, 1948. She wears a white swimming costume and cap, her two braids blowing behind her with the breeze. She runs and jumps high into the air to crash into her brother’s sandcastle below. When she lands, she turns around, laughing defiantly to the camera. A destroyer of small worlds. Later with her feet in waves and her back to the water’s horizon, she holds a grasshopper in her palm, and reaches out to us, holding fledgling life above the waves.
The pastel gradients of water and sky, of white sand and rock that lead to gentle forest: this is how I remember her. In those frames, my grandmother is immortal. She will always be 10 years old on Bayfield Beach. The crackling archival videos, awash in soft vignettes, place me on the shores with her. I imagine us as friends, sitting at the lake shore, her explaining the local flora to me. She tells me about the grasshopper she found and I pretend to listen, eyes to the horizon instead.
My grandmother was cremated. Now that she is dust, I wonder who were the last to hold her body, or when I last held her. Did I embrace my grandmother when I was home in January, a month before she died? What did we speak about? My recent memories of her are ghosts already, and she is ash in my hands.
My mother says even if there wasn’t a pandemic, we wouldn’t have a traditional funeral anyway. In my family’s faith — Russian Orthodoxy — when someone dies, you cover your mirrors and stop all your clocks in reverence. The body is bathed and wrapped in white linen. We light incense to carry prayers, and triptychs of the saints and Jesus adorn the room of the dying — wooden icons bathed in gold.
Cremation is prohibited in the Orthodox church, but we do it anyway. We want our dead returned to the dirt. So instead of shrouds we make little islands of light, speckled across the continent. Now we make our vigils 3,000 miles apart.
I come to the bath in prayer. This is my birth and burial.
I pour the soap over the spout. The water churns into bubbles as the basin begins to fill with warm water. I untangle my wave of dark honey hair, matted just above my right ear, at the part I shaved away when the pandemic began. I step into the bath — a clawfoot relic of a tub that has been in my apartment since 1885. The antiquity feels rich to me — centuries of ritual and bathing.
I begin on my knees and lean toward the tap. A supplication. I unfold myself in the water. I keep my eyes to the window. I take a handful of suds and hold space and curiosity for the microcosm in my hand, a plasticine universe, temporary and beautiful and iridescent.
And when I bring the bubbles to my skin and crush their geometry, I dissolve a universe. A little death. A destroyer of worlds.
My body in water is a prayer. I don’t know the gospel but ache for holy language, for my grandparents’ language. I improvise rites. I make a triptych of water, grief, and flame. I have chosen for myself what is holy and made a new funeral.
The pandemic is an opportunity to create a new language of mourning. To forge new ritual. How can we honor the dead in the universe of ourselves, of our homes? When I draw the bath of grief, I stretch my toes to the green vines above me, my plants that hang from the rails of the bath, and I am tangled in life.
My chest floats above the bathwater and in perfect isolation, in this porcelain, I am held together by water and ritual and grief.
Eileen Elizabeth Waggoner is a queer Appalachian essayist and poet living in Southern California. She is the co-founder of Boshemia Magazine, a UK/US feminist arts and culture magazine, and a Nonfiction MFA candidate at University of California, Riverside.
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