We weren’t extremely close, but we went back a long way and had many things in common: served on the same Board of Directors a decade and a half ago, shared a lot of music in ritual theatre productions along the way, and belonged in the same community with many close mutual friends. This past week, her dance with Cancer came to an end. She’d reached remission for a while and we were hopeful. And then a few months back the word came to keep her in our prayers and magick. Two weeks ago I was scheduled to go to her home and visit, help out, maybe clean a bit, bring groceries. But the day I was supposed to go was the day she returned to the hospital for more treatment. And then she came home. And then hospice came. And then I got word that she asked to have her spirit sisters singing around her when she passed. But of course how can we- or anyone-know exactly when that will happen? So when she took a steep turn for the worse early last week, we planned to go on Thursday and sing for her anyway. And then Wednesday the email came. Susan had died. We were told it was a peaceful death. Her husband was with her, and one of her dearest friends. They washed and oiled her body, they dressed her for viewing, they told us all to come and say goodbye. We kept the date we had made to sing.
It’s two days later and, still emotional, I can think of nothing better to do than cook and can. Now is the time to harvest the apples off the trees in my yard because it’s getting late in the season. Such pretty apples, bright red and beautiful, and I remember how sweet and crunchy their snow white flesh tastes. If I miss this bounty, it will be the first year in over a decade I will not have those tempting jars of apple sauce in my larder. Between the squirrels, crows, bees, and worms, the apples that have already fallen are now hollowed out mush. I am happy to share with these critters. But just share, not lose.
I hear singing as soon as I cross the threshold to Susan's home. Others are already there and have begun. I greet her husband with my condolences, put the food I’d brought in the fridge, fill a vase for the pink lilies I’d chosen for her, and find a little dish for under my votive candle. Entering the room where she is lying in state, I meet the sad eyes of each of my friends in greeting. The intimacy shared around a death is potent. So much said without being spoken. I place the lilies on the altar and light my candle for Susan’s spirit. The flame brightens her wedding picture. I turn to rest my eyes on her, to take her in. Even when you know it’s coming, the sight of the dead always shocks; the motionless form that once was a vibrant being. Even in death Susan is a beauty, a circlet of braided ribbon about her brow, like the Goddess Diana, a soft smile upon her still face.
I begin picking apples and find that many of them are already too far gone to use. I see wormholes. I manage to salvage a few and am grateful that the yield from another tree is better. I wave away spider webs in order to get to them and watch earwigs drop as I pluck. Compared to last years’ bags and bags of fruit, I end up with just one large bowl. Peeling and cutting the apples reveals even more I can’t use. Worms and black spots of rot. Good for the compost, where one thing will become another and nothing is wasted. I will title the finished jars “Small Batch Apple Sauce”.
We sang for about an hour, possibly more. The seven of us have been singing these songs together for years in worship, in circles of magick , in ritual theatre. Our voices know one another and we harmonize with ease. We are unafraid to sing, to sing fully and from the heart. We improvise, we riff, one takes the lead, others sing support until it shifts. We sing in rounds, we mesh songs with chants, we sing our own lyrics. We sing one of Susan’s own songs about surrender. The music swells and fills the space like a flowing river of love. I can feel Susan smiling at us from between the worlds, for what is more beautiful than a circle of open-hearted women singing together? We might have missed singing her through the portal into death, but it’s never too late to sing your love for a friend.
I add water, sugar, cinnamon, and fresh grated ginger to the apples in a large pot and begin to cook them down. A potato masher gets it going. Once it boils, I lower the heat and let it simmer so the flavors have time to meld. I stir every few minutes to keep it from burning on the bottom. The fresh fragrance of apple sweetness fills my kitchen. Jars and lids are boiling in preparation for canning.
When we pause, silence taking the lead, we spend a moment gazing at the body of our friend. I ask, “What would we do without music?” The question leads to a conversation about how it was Susan who brought us all together through music, how we have been sisters in song and spirit ever since. How grateful we are for this circle of friends who can comply with the wishes of the dying. Who show up and sing through our tears. Who let ourselves be wholly present for this solemn, poignant, and incredulous occasion. What a privilege it is to create this kind of magick at the end of precious life, with trust so solid it holds, not only Susan, but all of us.
When the apples become sauce, I ladle it into hot jars and seal them with sterilized lids. It’s more than just busy work that keeps me occupied, perhaps distracting me from my sorrow. I cook because the living need food. I preserve because it permits me the grace of believing that life continues and after all, Winter is coming and we will want to crack open a jar of apple sauce with some cozy future meal.
I imagine Susan, our Ancestor now, sitting at the base of a tree in the Summerland, munching away on a crisp, juicy apple, watching a monarch flutter by and humming along with us.