Laughing in a Waterfall
A Mother’s Memoir
Excerpt From LAUGHING IN A WATERFALL
Finally, after 8:00 pm, Stu, Dennis, and I went to the Elinson’s and found a house full of high school students waiting together. Flowers had already started arriving. We met many of Nina and Kirsten’s classmates and friends. Each one had something kind and endearing to say to us. Several mentioned Nina lending them money, and commented that she would have been quite a bit richer if everyone who owed her money had paid her back.
The small living room with a hardwood floor was cleared for the arrival of the honored guests. Cecelia and Bob had pushed their couch, a few chairs, and a low chest of drawers against the walls. They put the flowers, candles, and photos of Nina and Kirsten on the chest. The coffins would lay side by side in the middle of the room, with space in between and on the sides.
As we waited, some of the students played music. Dennis and I were inspired to lead all these young people in a spiraling song and dance that we had learned at Camphill. “Spiraling into the center, the center of the shield, I am the weaver, I am the woven one, I am the dreamer, I am the dream.” It was very late when the girls and the coffins finally arrived, perhaps around 11:00. The young people respectfully went upstairs before Nina and Kirsten were brought in. First, several local fathers carried in the coffins. Dennis met the father who made the coffins and offered to pay him something for them, but he would accept nothing. This kind of graciousness happened all that week and for many weeks to follow.
Dennis helped to carry Nina on a stretcher from the mortuary hearse into the house. It was important for him to feel the weight of her body. Cecelia brought blankets and quilts to line the pine boxes. The coffins, placed on gurneys, were so deep that she kept bringing more blankets so the bodies would rest high enough for people to see. Finally we laid Nina in her coffin. We arranged her as best we could. Her head was wobbly. We thought perhaps her neck had been broken in the accident, but perhaps that is just the way a lifeless body is.
Friends of Linda and Kirsten, who had come from Boston, took care of Kirsten. She was almost too long for the coffin, so her legs couldn’t quite be straightened out. This all sounds matter of fact, but that’s the way it felt. These were the physical circumstances we had to deal with. Our wills carried us in performing these duties, while our emotions were put on hold in this extraordinary situation.
We did not use any dry ice to preserve the girls’ bodies. The funeral director told us that because Nina and Kirsten were young and healthy, their bodies would not emit an odor during the three-day vigil. He recommended keeping the room temperature in the low 60s to help slow any decomposition. Nina was laid on a sky-blue quilt. With her blond hair and pale skin she looked heavenly against the blue. Karen had gone to Nina’s closet to choose clothes to dress her in. There hung the white skirt I had sewn for her birthday in October and an old white lacey peasant-style blouse of mine. Nina had evidently worn these two together on one occasion around her birthday. Karen felt these were the most fitting clothes to dress her in, which they were.
When I saw that skirt on Nina now, I was shocked by the realization that I had sewn the skirt that was to be part of her shroud. Her dress to lie in state in. Her death garment. Her burial clothes. It was as if I had sewn her bridal gown. Perhaps this was, indeed, the appropriate word for this outfit, for was this not, for Nina, like a wedding? Perhaps she had found her life’s fulfillment in her union with the Divine. This was only the first of many revelations, a hint of the great spiritual drama underlying Nina’s life and death.
Nina’s long hair was flowing freely, with the two thin, wispy braids starting at her forehead and going down each side from the middle part. You could barely tell the braids were there. Nina’s body was amazingly unscathed from the accident. She had a few small scratches and bruises on her face and arms. This was puzzling and hard to take. How could she have died such a violent death while her body remained whole and intact? She looked peaceful and radiant. Kirsten, on the other hand, was obviously scratched and bruised around her face, and wore an expression of sternness or defiance.
I stroked Nina’s hair, I stroked her face, I stroked her cold arms. Cecelia and I put a light blue sheet over her, up to her waist, so that she wouldn’t seem so cold. I talked to her and loved her silently as I gazed at her. Candles were burning. Friends began to come downstairs and take turns standing at the sides of the coffins, greeting the girls in reverence. Some left little tokens or gifts on the girls’ chests.
At 1:00 am, Dennis and I finally got a ride back to the Summer’s house. We left Kevin at the Elinson’s to stay with Zusha and the other young people. He slept in Zusha’s room upstairs, so felt like he was at the wake almost continuously. He probably got very little sleep or privacy, with people coming and going at all hours. A small group of friends sometimes went outside for time in the woods. For him and for all of us, this time had a dream-like quality, making it difficult to identify events and times exactly. Dennis, Kevin, and I were exhausted, but events far beyond our control carried our family through the next two days.