A candid perspective of human transformation in “The Beauty of the Ugly,” from Emma Moser, about the summer of her grandfather’s death:
The Beauty of the Ugly
At my grandfather’s wake, my head didn’t gnaw itself from the inside out, as it had at the first sight of a stone face against white hair. The day he passed away, that image of him, pale and lifeless in bed, had left an eroded feeling in my stomach—the scandal of death in the familiar of home. I think it had been too close then, for me to understand or appreciate it. But here—here, strangely, with death on display, framed in flowers and a coffin—I could think nothing of my grandfather and his stone face except, “He’s so beautiful.”
People talk of the lovely peace in the faces of the departed, calling it the look of sleep. But sleep is a living action; the “look of sleep” is only a ruse, a mask we create to hide the truth from ourselves. We think the “look of death” is an ugly expression because we assume death itself must be ugly if it causes so much pain. But I am a heretic, a lunatic, an outcast—I see death as death, and call it lovely all the same.
The scandal: the beauty of death, the artistry and the allure of it.
How can I dare call this catastrophe, this chaos of death, something beautiful? How can I lie, though? I knew my grandfather was no longer living in his corpse, soul separated from flesh. Yet I sensed his essence, his self, his lifeness still present in this shell. I knew then why we insisted on calling it his body: his humanness still lingered there, making his death lovely.
Humanity is unique among earth’s creatures. We are imbued not just with biological life but spiritual lifeness. Our flesh is animated by our aches and impassioned breaths—the tears that stick to wrinkles, the raspy chuckles that greet the morning. Lifeness is a flame that can’t leave anything it touches unmarked (or unscathed, maybe). The traces of this mystery are what make the body of the deceased something to revere, something to display in a coffin and mark with a stone: Here lies a body that once had life in it. We must ask with Yann Martel, then, if it is any wonder, life being “so beautiful,” that “death has fallen in love with it.” Forgive me, environmentalists, animal lovers, advocates of creature equality: animal death is merely sad, but human death is sad and beautiful.
I never said it wasn’t painful, however.
“Behind every beautiful thing, there is some kind of pain.” ~ Bob Dylan
I became something of a cripple after my grandfather’s death. At eighteen, I was too soft, too spoiled by sweetness all my life, to cope with such a sharp and tragic welcome into adulthood. My family loved me, my friends loved me, my boyfriend of one year told me he loved me. But at eighteen, the pain of losing an uncle, then a grandfather within four short months—the pain of watching that pain in my family, the pain of questioning in angry prayers the fairness of that pain— left me stranded. I sank my heels into the mud, and didn’t move. I didn’t think I could move.
Moments, moments. Illustrate it with moments.
My mother crying at the mention of my grandfather’s name. Me sitting in corners, gagging on the words I keep buried in my throat.
Gorgeous, happy, sainted church girls, encircled by friends. Me sitting in corners, my head sagged and cramped under their light voices.
My boyfriend beside me, his brown eyes fraying from the strain to encourage and console and understand, again and again and again. Me sitting in corners, my arms clung too tightly around his neck.
People growing up and moving on. Me sitting in corners, quiet and convinced that I was shrinking.
I didn’t know then that my pain had a purpose, a potential, to make me beautiful. The pain felt ugly, so I believed I was, too. Perhaps I was letting it make me ugly. I didn’t know, as Dickens did, that a heart “bent and broken” could be the “better shape.”
The dilemma: to show you the beauty of pain, without being accused of masochism.
Have you ever considered for a moment the loveliness of scars, the art in bruises? David Lynch dubs them “little flowers,” and I see it too, heretic that I am. The strongest and most beautiful heart is the most pathetic. It’s misshapen. It has holes. It’s been torn and trampled, deformed by a lifetime of wounds that never quite heal. Who ever told us otherwise? Who told us that beauty is brawn and symmetry—the heart that has stepped over the obstacle of pain and come out whole and spotless? Is this beautiful? Beauty is the scars left by pain, the scars that we so often mistake for ugliness or defeat.
Understand that I am not a masochist or a sadist.
“My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” ~ Masahide
Moment, illustrate it with a moment.
Moonlight through the window in early hours. I am alone in the dark, leaning against the doorframe above the stairs. My mind scans through our medicine cabinet downstairs, trying to picture the bottles of pills. Does it matter what kind? How many does it take? After months of staring at bridges and tall buildings, wondering—just wondering—this seems the better way to do it, if I could do it at all. Simple, quiet, like falling asleep. Would it hurt? I didn’t even know why, except that the pain was heavy and I was stuck in mud, and I didn’t want it anymore.
You want an epiphany here, I think. You want a glorious triumph. You want that lovely heart stepping over the obstacle and coming out whole and spotless on the other side. It isn’t there. Beauty is what we make of pathetic and ugly things, remember?
The irony: the pathetic, ugly, beautiful resolve of, “Fine, I guess I’ll try.”
I stared out at the moon, still feeble and miserable. I had always believed that the resolve to change, the courage to be happy, must be accompanied by that grandeur and climatic height of heroes. I had fallen prey to the myth, that victory through pain must be glorious—that glory is beauty. But here I was, still as pitiful and frightened as before, yet asking, “What if I pretended my life was lovely?”
“Fine” is a beautiful triumph. “Okay” is a beautiful triumph. Who the hell told us it wasn’t? Why do we think the victory through pain must be a heroic, resounding “Yes!” and not a desperate, shabby prayer, whispered from the tiniest corner of our trampled heart? Small, pathetic, but victorious nevertheless. This is beautiful.
Broken and crooked, we are such lovely creatures.
Emma Moser is currently a senior at Westfield State University pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English writing. Her addictions include tea, Nutella, and stimulating conversations about art and philosophy. Her work has appeared in Westfield State’s Persona and will appear in the upcoming issue of Thoreau’s Rooster.