Searching Through the Afterlife
by Vince Puzick
Through the darkness, we could see the red cherry of my mother’s cigarette make the arc from her hip to her lips and back again. Her white uniform, formal and translucent, almost glowed. My older siblings, Phil and Deb, and I watched from the back bedroom as she turned from our driveway to walk the mile to Penrose Hospital, the Catholic hospital “run by the nuns.” She had to hurry. The Sisters of Charity awaited her arrival in their black and white habits. She in her white nurse’s cap, dress, nylons, shoes. Angelic. Self-sacrificing. She disappeared into the night toward the graveyard shift.
In the mornings for as long as I can remember, she sat across the kitchen table and told stories of her night at work while I ate breakfast and skimmed the morning paper: Peanuts and Dennis the Menace, then the baseball box scores, Robert Kennedy’s assassination and, later, Nixon’s impeachment. One morning, she sat relieved. During the night, a steady stream of my high school friends flowed into the emergency room: punch, spiked with horse tranquilizer, at a party. She watched for me each time the ER doors slid open and the cold night air blew in. Another morning, she asked if I knew Tony Santis. I did. “He just got out of six hours of emergency surgery on his spine. Missed the turn on Fillmore hill. Rolled his car. 100 miles per hour. Broke his back.” What she didn’t mention out loud, the fragility of life, lingered longer.
Some of the stories weren’t quite so intensely immediate to my own life. Like when the nurses on the 4th floor dressed up the mannequin they used to teach CPR, “Resusci-Annie,” like a patient and sat the soulless body in a wheelchair by the elevator on Halloween to startle the night supervisor. She’d laugh in the retelling of some stories. “It might sound silly now, but at two in the morning it was funny.”
She told me a story from early in her career, a story from before I was born: a young girl, 9 or 10, gravely ill, asked for her mother at 4:30 in the morning. The girl had a vision. She reassured her mother that things will be fine, not to worry, it’s beautiful there. The little girl died before dawn. “I’ve always believed in some sort of afterlife,” my mother said. “There’s something beyond this.” I finished my toast.
The Catholic conception of the afterlife teaches that after the body dies, the soul is judged. Those free of sin enter Heaven, and those who die in unrepented mortal sin go to hell. As an Episcopalian working in a Catholic hospital, my mother’s vision of an “afterlife” may have been a very traditional one. Heaven and hell with a purgatory suspended somewhere in-between like a waiting room to eternity.
When I was twelve, and after we moved to the Victorian house one block from the hospital, my dad’s blue Ford station wagon idled at the curb in front of our house. He usually wasn’t home before I returned from my day at school. As I neared, he pulled away, maybe headed back to the factory. Or to the Star Club for a shot and a beer. I waved. He waved back with a flick of his right hand, a “be right back, see you in a few” gesture. He may have clicked his teeth, a habit that revealed his level of irritation.
When I went into the house, Mom sat on the sofa, her cigarette fuming in the ashtray. She gazed downward. Her body shook.
My sister called me upstairs to her room.
“Dad left,” Deb said. Conditioned by an alcoholic household to not talk about anything that carried much of an emotional load, she added, “Don’t talk to mom about it.”
Conditioned by that same household, I didn’t.
The premise of a “soul” is contrary to Buddhism, as is an “afterlife.” An afterlife is an impossibility. The Buddha taught that there is no permanent and enduring self, identity, or soul. We’re continually changing, and the physical body is the teacher of this impermanence. At twelve, I began to understand this, not with physical death but with impermanence punctuated by a wave.
I dig through the layers of photos packed in the white shirt-box I had pulled down from the top of the closet I shared with Phil before he left for college. A few weeks had passed since my father drove off and his promised phone calls faded. Summer stretched silently into fall, and I sat with the box of old photos in front of me. No chronology threads the pictures together. No attempt at order, no family history taped down in an album.
One cluster of black and white images piques my 12-year-old curiosity. In one photo, six caskets of various sizes rest on metal scaffolding. In another, grim-faced men and veiled women in black dresses stand amidst a congregation of folding chairs at the graveside. I feel I should know some of the people in these pictures. My eyes linger on a photo of the six coffins taken from a different angle: three of them smaller than Aunt Mary’s cedar chest, two others a bit longer, and the last one, bigger yet, for an adult.
Folded flat on the bottom of the box is a copy of the Colorado Springs Free Press, our morning paper. Family photos scatter when I pull the dull brown paper from the box. It’s nearly 14 years old, Sunday, November 27, 1955, and tells another story from before I was born.
Springs Man, Five Children Killed
Six Die as Train Hits Auto /
Father, 3 of Children From One Family
A holiday trip to grandfather’s house near Matheson came to a tragic end Saturday afternoon. Six Colorado Springs residents — a father, three of his children, a niece and a nephew were killed by a speeding passenger train in the small Matheson community, 50 miles east of Colorado Springs.
Steve Puzich, 32, of 3101 Beacon Street
His children: Marilyn 6; Suzanne 4, and Cynthia 3.
Janie Puzich, 11, daughter of Eli Puzich, 3250 North Cascade Ave., brother of Steve
Eli White, son of Mrs. Mary Hicks, 3106 North Cascade Ave., a sister of Steve.
I pause then read on, my eyes clinging to phrases and fragments:
The automobile struck by the Rock Island Rocket
roaring at 55 to 65 miles an hour
through the small village.
Scattered bodies along the track
two of the children
the motor of the automobile
the front wheels sheared off
the interior of the vehicle ripped to shreds
nothing but a hollow shell.
The accident occurred at 1:50 p.m.
The lone witness at Matheson:
“the car went cartwheeling down the tracks.”
Steve Puzich …
the children …
lives … snuffed out
on a narrow country road.
I return to my sister’s name, my father’s, our old address:
Janie Puzich, 11,
daughter of Eli Puzich,
3250 North Cascade Ave.
I had heard Janie’s name before, in hushed voices, an aside, a nearly whispered mention in the fragments of stories. “Matheson … the accident….” By the time I was old enough to understand, longer family stories had fractured into shards of the whole.
With the passage of enough time, longer stories become an echo, quieting with each repetition. The listener, if familiar with the story, fills the empty space. I was too young, though. Didn’t know what details filled the gaps. When I found the photos and discovered the newspaper, I hadn’t heard complete versions. I didn’t know the people who were remembered at holiday gatherings, over meals, and I couldn’t know who was mourned at a funeral on a November day, didn’t know they were grieved with flowers left at the grave.
How does one understand family relationships when the people, unfamiliar, are missing? When do we come to understand the overlap of names: Uncle Steve and brother Steve; cousin Eli and my father, Eli? When do we begin to understand family ties beyond brother and sister, mother and father, the more nuanced “Aunt” and “Uncle” and the even more abstract, “cousin”? How do we come to know stories that are no longer told because the weight of them may be too much to bear?
Some of us gather our family stories, our histories, this way, through stained articles and black and white photos scattered on a bedroom floor.
I knew that down the hall from my bedroom, my mother had a copy of a book published earlier in 1969: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying. Kubler-Ross introduced the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. Groundbreaking, then, for her insights into the grieving process. Few in-depth studies had previously explored the ways in which people experience grief.
A second article, “Tragedy Bewilders A Family,” runs down the center of the front page:
A closely knit Austrian family sat stunned and helpless Saturday night, trying to fathom the stark tragedy that had wiped out the lives of six of its members….
Eli Puzich, who lost his ten-year old daughter Janie, was comforting the grandparents, endeavoring to forget his own loss….
His wife was home caring for the couple’s three other children, Steve, 8, Philip, 4, and Deborah, 2. The children played on, unaware of what had happened. Mrs. Puzich tried hard to carry on as a mother should….
This picture in the box, grainy and out of focus: Uncle Steve and my dad with eight children on the lawn taken just a few months before “the accident out in Matheson.” Aunt Mary’s apple trees are blossoming behind them. Deb sits in Janie’s lap, inseparable, the way sisters are. Four of the ten will mourn the others by year’s end.
This photo, taken seven months earlier, on a Sunday in April: Janie holds her little sister’s hand showing off their pretty dresses before they go to Easter services.
My mother may have leaned toward the Christian Science tenets, fascinated with their beliefs about Mind, and maybe she considered their concept of Eternal Life: “the allness of Soul, Spirit, and the nothingness of matter” .
The Greek Orthodox Church, my father’s side of the family, holds that the body and the soul are equally important and, in the afterlife, the body and soul reunite and we become complete .
I imagine what the newspaper stories cannot tell: Phil and Deb are with my mother in the kitchen. My mother prepares dinner to celebrate Deb’s second birthday –– this same day –– as soon as Janie returned. My mother checks the clock throughout the afternoon, calculating the time she will hear the car door slam and Janie will come through the back door, glad to be home, hungry for dinner, excited for her little sister’s birthday cake. But it was getting late. Mom must have wondered where they were.
My oldest brother, Steve, 13 (not eight as the newspaper reported), remembers the black car turning down our driveway. A woman – he doesn’t remember who she was, maybe didn’t even know then – emerged from the back of the car: “Where is your mother? Janie’s been killed!” Unlike what the newspaper reported, he was aware. He knew.
What time did my mother turn at the sound of the back door open and see the woman, instead of Janie, burst into the kitchen with the news?
My oldest brother, Janie’s big brother, remembers my mother’s shriek, “Not Janie! Not my Janie!”
In her book, Kubler-Ross says adolescents need to be allowed to express their feelings. “If we blame them for daring to ventilate their anger or guilt or sadness, we are blame-worthy for prolonging their grief, shame, and guilt.” Ventilate: examine, make known, air. My brother is angry for a long time. Years later he tells me the story, stoic as a cop, about how he was supposed to go with them that day but stayed home. He doesn’t say it, but he feels he should have protected her. Then, how the unknown woman showed up at the house. My mother’s scream. He doesn’t say it, but he feels he should have protected her, too.
I picture Phil, four years old, looking up at our mother in the airless kitchen. How often did he bear witness to mom’s cries of anguish, her sighs of grief?
I picture Deb, she’s two today, startled by my mother’s pain, recoiling, starting to cry, gulping air.
“The children are often the forgotten ones. Few people feel comfortable talking to a child about death,” Kubler-Ross writes. “Up to age three, the child is concerned only about separation.”
The sun sat behind Pikes Peak at 4:39 that day, the autumn chill shadowed the foothills, spread like a stain onto the eastern plains.
Mrs. Puzich tried hard to carry on as a mother should….
Later research on grief reveals that parents who have lost a child say their most overwhelming feeling is numbness . And the feeling can last for several months. Survivors move through the first year after the loss: Christmas, Easter, summers, Thanksgiving Dinner, birthdays, and private moments endured on the anniversary of the loss. I wonder what my mother missed most about Janie.
Imagine walking into a room just after this news has left each family member raw, vulnerable, and uncertain of next steps. The emotion hangs in the air, the room filled with tension and tears, distance, and then silence.
I was conceived eleven months after the accident out in Matheson. Where was my mother in her grieving? My father? The emotions are recursive, spiraling, relentless.
What would Kubler-Ross say for the child delivered into the space twenty months after this shared sorrow, into an atmosphere still heavy with loss, my parents’ hearts weighted with grief? It’s not linear, grieving.
Twelve years later, I sat stunned by the story unfolding through the black and white photos and newspaper clippings. It didn’t seem as if Janie’s story was a family secret kept from the youngest child in the family. Eventually, an echo fades and can no longer be heard. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to know this story.
When he was agitated, my father clicked his dentures with his tongue. Stopped at the light on our way to a late night meal, the click was rhythmic. I sat in anticipation of each click, like a turn signal, like enduring a dripping faucet while lying in bed. The red light glowed across the hood of the car.
“God damn it.” His words snapped into the space between us, his palm slapped the steering wheel. “When Janie died, they said she’d be much happier now.”
His hands squeezed the wheel. “Why’d they say that? She was happy here.”
My heart pounded. I discovered the box of family artifacts not long after he had driven off. We had never spoken of his loss before he left or in the three years of sporadic and unpredictable contact since. If I hadn’t discovered Janie’s story, my father’s outburst would have been without any context at all.
At 15, startled by his outburst, I had no words to offer. No consoling, no understanding. Could I even offer empathy or compassion?
“Endeavoring to forget his own loss….” The newspaper’s words still hung in the air 17 years later. And the reporters’ comment that he tried to “comfort the grandparents” is an impossibility. They could not comfort each other, having experienced the same loss. It would be impossible to comfort while, at the same time, needing to be comforted.
Had my father searched all these years for an elixir that would ease any guilt he carried? Was he angry at his brother with the same heart with which he grieved the loss? Did he pray to God for comfort, or understanding, or had he given up on God so many years ago? Did he endeavor to forget his own loss or commit to never forget, to always remember? He held onto that comment, “she’d be much happier now,” like we hold on to a clipping from the paper or an old photo tucked into a wallet.
When I was twelve, I discovered Janie. While my father’s abandonment of our family impacted our life, I had not experienced a loss of the same magnitude that Janie’s death had on my family. A few years before finding Janie’s story, I remember my mother crying, her face in her hands, after the phone call saying that her father had died. I had never seen my mother cry. I had never experienced a family member dying. My grandfather was a distant figure, though, geographically as well as emotionally. I didn’t spend much time with him, didn’t really know him beyond a handful of interactions when I was a child. What impacted me most about his death was witnessing my mother’s grief spill out on a Saturday afternoon in September not long after I turned eight.
Many years later, I asked my mother what she did after Janie died. I didn’t want my question, motivated out of curiosity about our family story, to resurface her pain. It was a naïve question. I could hardly bring myself to ask. It probably shouldn’t have been asked. My discovery of the story had been so long ago. Her loss stretched even further back in physical time, but maybe not so long in the emotional trajectory of grief. She paused for several seconds. “I went back to work. We didn’t know, then, what we know now. And I had to go back to work.”
I think of that newspaper clipping from the Sunday paper in 1955. My father “endeavoring to forget his own loss” and my mother “carrying on as a mother should.”
“Grief” is a noun. Our loss, inevitably, hands us grief. We possess it. It is intimate to each of us. Because their relationship to Janie was individual, so was her death, the loss, unique to them. And to my brothers and sister. My father carried his grief differently than my mother bore hers.
“Grieve,” the verb, comes from the Latin, gravare, meaning “to burden” and extends from an adjective, gravis, meaning “heavy” or “grave.” When I asked my mother what she did after Janie died, I wanted to know how she grieved, what she did with this immense loss, impossible to carry on one’s own.
Today, we tend to lean into a “celebration of life” after a person passes. The “celebration” is public, honors the deceased, provides a send-off into the next world, says to the afterlife, “here is the beauty you are to receive.”
Grieving the loss, immersing into the sorrow, is necessary, more private, for those who remain here: our hearts broken open to the fragility of life, our feet heavy on the earth because of the gravity of the loss. We carry it, our grief, sometimes not even aware of the weight.
In discovering Janie, I inherited a “grief” from a loss that I didn’t directly experience and, of course, never grieved. I didn’t know what to do with either the discovery of the photos or the impact of the newspaper articles. I layered them back in the box and slid the box onto the shelf at the top of the closet.
Vince Puzick is a writer living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with his wife, daughter, and two stepdaughters. He writes nonfiction about family, maleness, nature, work, and recovery. When he is not at his writing desk, he can probably be found fly fishing one of Colorado’s many rivers and streams.