June 22, 2017 by The Citron Review
by Nathan Elliott
A couple of weeks ago, my son’s kindergarten teacher asked her class what the children aspired to be when they grew up. At his kindergarten graduation, the school principal announced the results: most of Sam’s classmates aspired to be veterinarians, nurses, doctors, police officers, transport-truck drivers. My son—the principal told the audience—looks forward to a time when he will become Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god of mummification.
I wasn’t surprised. This past Christmas, Sam and his grandmother—my mother—developed a favorite new game to play together: he would embalm her. The pretend ritual was based on the mummification rites of ancient Egypt. Sam instructed grandma to lay down on our ancient sofa. The boy carefully removed—and then stored in equally imagined canopic jars—my mother’s vital organs: brain, liver, and lungs came out, the heart left carefully intact in accordance with Egyptian rites. Then blankets that served to represent Egyptian linen strips were used to shroud my mother’s five foot nine, sixty-eight-year-old body. Small toys—stuffed animals, cars, action figures—were placed strategically around her body; they served both to make sure that the corpse was securely bound in its wrappings, but also gave her plenty of objects to play with in the rapidly approaching afterlife. Finally, Sam took one of his prized books—a Christmas gift—that featured King Tutankhamen’s famous headpiece on its cover, and placed it gently over my mother’s head.
Thus, as I was stacking firewood one December evening, I looked into our living room, the picture window providing a frame on a strange domestic scene. Here was my mother, playing a corpse; here was my son, darting around that imagined dead body with thoughtful deliberation. Samuel, since his birth, has often been described as ethereal, beatific, a god-ling. No doubt these are the usual descriptions of doting grandmothers and besotted aunts, but in this case it seemed especially true: a divine imp with a halo of reddish brown hair was getting my mother ready for her death.
My mother got to the point where she eagerly requested burial: there was no game with her grandson she liked better, and Sam enthusiastically complied with getting his grandmother ready for entombment.
After the holidays ended, and my mother left, I became the new subject for burial; I quickly came to see why my mother so enjoyed this odd game of death. The entire process was comforting, relaxing. My son takes care with the corpses of his loved ones; I could feel tension and anxiety easing out of my body. There were silly reasons for this, of course: on a winter day in Newfoundland, small, gentle hands were carefully arranging warm blankets over my entire body. If I moved, at all, I was urgently instructed to be still, to move not so much as one of my very dead eyelids. The ritual became increasingly elaborate: the period when my organs were removed took longer, and a pretend copy of The Book of the Dead appeared, and spells meant to help me on my journey through the underworld were incanted. Usually the ritual took place near our woodstove, or near the space heater in his bedroom, and as I eased into death, comforting blasts of warmth enfolded my body.
Yet, there is more to it than physical comfort: for twenty to thirty minutes, I know and embrace the fact that I will die, and that my strange, shy, intelligent child with the deific countenance will live on. Children play with dolls as they prepare to one day be parents in their own right, but it is also a fundamental employment of the living to prepare their fathers and grandmothers and uncles and mothers and aunts and grandfathers for their journeys into the undiscovered country. The pharaoh’s son was always the one who sealed the pyramid after his father had moved into that spectacular tomb.
One day my son’s game will no longer be a game; the kindergartner I helped bring into this world anticipates the moment when he will gently help me out of it.
Nathan Elliott is an American living on the west coast of Newfoundland with a poet and the collaborative project they call “Sam.” After a childhood spent in the mountains of North Idaho, he acquired a PhD in Victorian literature at the University of Notre Dame. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Tahoma Literary Review, and he is the 2016 winner of the Newfoundland and Labrador Art Council’s Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award.