Part V: A Place Apart
“Tomorrow’s our last day,” Kristi said as she sat smoking on the balcony the night after our foray to Typhoon Lagoon. I wrapped my hair in a towel, and stepped out to join her. “We have to make tomorrow epic! Like, really take advantage of our last day.”
“This whole trip has been pretty epic.”
“But tomorrow, we’ve got to own it.”
We had talked on the shuttle back from the water park about the bittersweetness of the trip, about the unrest we both felt upon realizing we had to return[EB1] home, return to our normal lives, return to the absences that waited for us therein. Returning represented the deep emptiness after the ritual, the moment when “is” and “ought” split to reveal the immeasurable work ahead. The uncharted waters of grief waited on the other side of the plane’s door. And we would have to swim them alone.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, sipping a glass of wine she had poured for me.
She paused, and stared at the spires of Cinderella’s Castle, already illuminated with blue and white lights in the twilight.
“Let’s park hop!”
Park-hopping is Disney on steroids: Using your passes, you jump from park to park to go on all your favorite rides. It’s more of a tactical operation than a fun excursion. On many popular Disney vacation-planning boards, authors advise against park-hopping because it’s exhausting, because it’s nearly impossible to do with children, and because it’s ultimately a way to ensure you’ll hit a wall of insurmountable exhaustion half-way through. My father never attempted this with me, nor had Kristi’s with her. It wasn’t a memory being reclaimed; it was an experiment in functional insanity.
“Let’s do it!”
We celebrated our brilliant decision by running to the hotel bar and drinking strawberry daiquiris until they kicked us out at 2 in the morning.
Signs From Above
Our last day at Disney was a whirlwind, a self-styled highlights reel of the trip itself. We returned to Epcot in the morning to revisit my favorite rides, and rode the Monorail back to the hotel for afternoon swimming. As we walked out to the pool, a rainbow shimmered into view. Kristi ran back to the room to get her camera. We stood atop the massive back steps of the Contemporary taking photos of the rainbow that arced from the edge of Bay Lake to somewhere beyond Cinderella’s Castle.
“That’s them,” Kristi said, putting her camera away.
“I hope so.” I put my arm on her shoulder as we walked down to the pool we’d been to so many times before, in so many other lives.
An Atheist Narrative
At the start of this series, I promised I would tell a simple story: One about how atheists, agnostics, and humanists grieve apart from the familiar structure of religious rituals of loss. I’ve maintained that, even apart from a theological backing, ritual is central because—in the language of J.Z. Smith—it holds the world as it is to the world as it should be, the “is” and the “ought.”
Yet, even though this story is focused on the nuances of loss independent of a religious script to follow in its aftermath, the story of loss and grieving runs hauntingly similar across religious and non-religious lines. The centrality of ritual—of needing to hold the cleaved “before” and “after” in conscious comparison—and the dark waters we navigate after the ritual ends are perhaps less about atheists grieving and more truthfully about grieving as a human phenomenological experience.
There is no one way to codify the experience of loss for theists or atheists. But, bereft of a script to follow, I wrote my own, and in writing realized that the work of grief that comes after the ritual is simultaneously idiosyncratic and wholly ubiquitous. Our individual maps may have different monsters, but we must all wade into the waters to face them.
My father once told me that the worst part of grief comes after the funeral. After all the reminiscing has ended, after everyone has gone home, you still remain, alone with the unfathomable absence of someone you loved.
Years later, the band Arcade Fire released a conceptual album about the Orpheus myth. One song—“Afterlife”—seemed to reaffirm the same words my father had said years before he knew he was dying.
And after all this time, after all the ambulances go,
And after all the hangers on are done hanging on in the dead lights
Of the afterglow…
When love is gone, where does it go?
The Magic Hour
On our last day, the Magic Kingdom was open late for Magic Hours. Magic Hours are perks open to guests staying on Disney Property that allow those guests to stay at the parks much later than normal. While initially, I side-eyed this practice—clearly a ploy to get more people to spend more money by staying on-site—the sudden availability of the park long past when most guests would go to bed seemed nothing short of miraculous. Because we could stay at the Magic Kingdom until 1 in the morning, Kristi and I also decided it should be our last stop.
We tore into the park like we were about to lose it forever. We went on the Haunted Mansion ride twice. We went to Big Thunder Mountain, where Kristi recreated a picture her mother had taken there decades before. I waited in vain for a second shot at Space Mountain, but the ride shut down due to mechanical issues before I could get on.
After my failed attempt at Space Mountain, Kristi and I regrouped to plan our next move, mainly how we were going to get good seats for the nightly fireworks display.
“I know the perfect place!” Kristi said, taking me by the hand and weaving through the throngs of other guests. “You’ve never seen fireworks until you’ve seen them from this spot in Liberty Square.”
When I was little, I hated fireworks. More aptly, I hated the sound of fireworks, similarly to how I hated the sounds of balloons popping, or anything else that creates a sudden, loud noise. My father, on the other hand, loved them. It wasn’t until I was 8 that I realized he’d been deliberately leaving the Disney parks in advance of the fireworks to spare me (and likely himself) from the inevitable crying meltdown I would have when the noise became overwhelming.
But when I was 8, I realized that my father loved them, and had been missing them for years. I decided that I was going to be brave, for him.
“Let’s stay for the fireworks, Daddy.”
He paused. “Are you sure, kiddo?”
We found a spot along a parade route, facing the castle, and waited for the show to begin. As the music swelled, and the first fiery trail shot into the sky, I winced. The first explosion made me jump, and I closed my eyes as I started shaking. Almost immediately, I felt my father’s hands cup around my ears. I looked at him. He was looking up at the fireworks, his great smile illuminated by flashes of pink and green.
I couldn’t stop my reactions, but my aversion shifted that day. I still hated the sound. But I could withstand it, so long as he was there to help.
Kristi led me to a small cluster of benches in Liberty Square. We chain-smoked as we waited. Other patrons began to gather around us in anticipation of the coming display.
All of Disney’s fireworks are choreographed to music. As the first notes blared through speakers hidden in trees and lamp posts, a haunting and miraculous hush fell over the park. Kristi and I fell silent. I cupped my hands over my ears. We hummed along to the familiar symphonic swell, and stared as the first fireworks shot into the sky behind the castle.
And as the display began, Kristi did the one thing neither of us had been able to do the entire trip: She cried. I removed my right hand from my ear and put my arm around her. And cried too.
At the time, it was easy to pretend that we were crying as a reaction to the day, to the park-hopping exhaustion, to the fatigue and the burning soles of our feet. But we weren’t. We were crying there, in the Happiest Place on Earth, because we both knew we had to return to our own oceans, to the navigations of grief that awaited us upon our return. Mourning in Disney World was possible because we’d made it that way. Mourning in the “is”—in the ordinariness of everyday life after the funeral—was the real task, the one we couldn’t plan over months on the phone, the one we couldn’t form into an itinerary, the one we had no choice but to go back to because incomprehensibly, our parents were dead and we were still, somehow, alive.
We cried through the fireworks, and laughed at how bloodshot our eyes looked after. We walked back to our hotel along salmon-colored brick paths, sharing our favorite parts of the day just to make the day last a little longer.
I can’t confirm there’s such a thing as heaven, but I can confirm there is such a thing as an afterlife. And the afterlife I can accept, because I have to.
Ritual marks the beginning of the mourning process, the placement on the monster-laden map of where we are in the aftermath of a loss. But building a map is not the same as traversing it, as filling in the tactile details of oceans and land. When I say that I have to accept the afterlife, I say it because what is this aftermath of loss other than an afterlife? Something so crystalline and so concrete crumbled around you, and in the ruins thereafter, you have to learn to live in impossible newness.
I say that I believe in an afterlife because I’m still in mine. Loss cleaves life—the ontological narratives we tell ourselves about it—into distinct “before’s” and “after’s,” into the bilocation of “is” and “ought.”
We want the “before” and the “ought” because the love we have for those we’ve lost is still there, still alive. Kristi and I went to Disney World because we needed a ritual to re-root ourselves in some kind of reciprocity of the relationships we still had with our fathers. But what we found there was perhaps more nuanced: The beginnings of internalization, of taking the love that had once been external and moving it inwards. Of cradling each other in the impossible guilt of affirming we were still alive and they were not. We had given each other 5 days of validation. We had the rest of our lives to learn to do it alone.
There is a tendency in personal essays to offer some kind of tactile closure, some kind of definitive ending that assures the readers that everything is, and will be, just fine. This is especially true of narratives of death and dying, regardless of religious affiliation. And perhaps this is because we all know, at some point, we will experience a loss this great, and we will have to navigate these waters ourselves.
But the neatly wrapped ending also does us a disservice. We live in a culture where death is both ubiquitous and silenced, where prolonged periods of grief are slowly morphing into accepted pathologies, and where protracted, vocal expression of loss is only tolerated in measurements of weeks.
But how we work through that grief—the messy, complicated, experimental, and even sometimes comical—and the ways we navigate the space of both ritual and what happens after have something vital to teach us. They are nothing short of miraculous in their own right, because they are the complete reconstructions of life from an afterlife. Someone vital died, and something vital was lost not just to, but in the living left behind. And whether those living identify as atheist or theist or somewhere in between, the very act of making one’s grief public and vulnerable is radical. There is no right approach beyond the approach that allows you to exist in your still-impossibly-living body another day. There is no ritual that will work for everyone. But there is power in affirming where you are before you wade into those unfathomably dark waters and all the monsters they contain.
And when you do, know this: Those waters may be the simple ontology of the “is,” of the “after.” But 8 years later, they’ve become shallower. And the rituals you build before submerging sustain you in the depths.
Meghan Guidry (Harvard University) Meghan is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where she studies bioethics, humanist philosophy, end-of-life care, and health policy. Her research focuses on the disconnection between ethics and technologies, assisted suicide, and other cheery subjects. Her interests include creative writing, swimming, language philosophy, medical sociology, and coffee. You can check out her books at Empty City Press, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @MeghanGuidry1.