Méi­ra Cook is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished nov­el Once More With Feel­ing. Ear­li­er this week, she wrote about learn­ing to mourn for her moth­er. She is blog­ging here all week as part of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

In the process of writ­ing a nov­el about fam­i­ly, I real­ized that all fam­i­lies have their secrets. I’m not refer­ring here to the Binder fam­i­ly, whose secrets I became aware of while liv­ing for so long inside the pages of Once More With Feel­ing, but to my own fam­i­ly of ori­gin whose secrets I knew so well that I had for­got­ten that oth­ers might find them interesting.

If, as I grew to sus­pect, all fam­i­lies have secrets, then ours was death. Although most of the old­er gen­er­a­tion passed away at an ear­ly age, I nev­er dis­cov­ered how any­one had died. They died, was the reply to all my ques­tions. How does a per­son die? This was always offered with a shrug and an elo­quent hand ges­ture meant to imply res­ig­na­tion: Well, how does any­body die?

Ever valiant, my father once explained to my sis­ter and me that the cause of death was when a person’s heart stopped beat­ing. This was always the case, no excep­tions. Even can­cer, he said, even old age or an auto­mo­bile acci­dent. If a man jumped out of an eleventh floor build­ing and was shot on his way past the ninth floor and choked on a pigeon as he passed the sev­enth floor and was decap­i­tat­ed by a fly­ing hatch­et as he plum­met­ed past the fifth floor, he still died of a not-beat­ing heart.

Dis­ease and acci­dent might set a per­son off on their mor­tal tra­jec­to­ry, he said, but it all came down to the heart in the end. The hour and minute and sec­ond hands on the old tick­er stop­ping, for want of a bet­ter word: dead.

Once a year, dur­ing the busy, God-both­er­ing, socia­ble days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur, my moth­er would vis­it her fam­i­ly, all of whom were domi­ciled in the near­by West­park Ceme­tery, although not in any par­tic­u­lar sec­tion because we were not the kind of fam­i­ly to admit to, let alone plan for, death, by way of advance book­ing and fam­i­ly plots. She would pass the day with her uncles, her grand­moth­er, and her moth­er, but it was at her father’s grave that she lin­gered. She missed him the most because she’d missed him the longest.

I used to ask my moth­er what she did in the ceme­tery because I want­ed to know what I might be expect­ed to do one day at my par­ents’ graves — although this was not a thought I could artic­u­late, even to myself. As she had once demon­strat­ed how to sep­a­rate whites from yolks, as she had once bought me tam­pons and explained how to use them, I want­ed her to show me how to mourn, even if the object of my mourn­ful­ness was the dis­tant van­ish­ing point of her some­day-nev­er dis­ap­pear­ance from the world.

She shrugged. I just catch him up on the fam­i­ly, she final­ly said. What you and your sis­ter are up to. A lot hap­pens in a year, she clar­i­fied. Babies and so forth.

Does he … I start­ed to ask but stopped because I couldn’t think how to finish.

Of course not, she snapped. Dead is dead, what can he say?

Dead! She had nev­er voiced that word before and it shocked me. Dead is dead, kid­do, don’t make me spell it out! My mother’s nihilism, even — espe­cial­ly — in the con­text of her sen­ti­men­tal attach­ment to the hos­pitable dead would be dev­as­tat­ing, I knew, at some future point of her not-there­ness when she could no longer be ques­tioned about mor­tal­i­ty because, like a drop of water falling into the ocean, she had become indi­vis­i­ble with her death. She was an elu­sive sil­ver fish, always swim­ming away, and water was her medi­um because it was flu­ent and mys­te­ri­ous and unlike­ly to be caught in a child’s imper­fect, sieve-like understanding.

But what are the lessons of water? That it takes the shape of the ves­sel into which it is poured? That it ris­es as steam and falls as rain, its mol­e­cules in con­stant motion as if agi­tat­ed by their own inde­ci­sive­ness? That it pro­vides the sol­vent for the ounce or so of human chem­i­cals from which we are made?

When I was lit­tle I didn’t like to be sep­a­rat­ed from her, so one day my moth­er sat me on the kitchen counter and poured a glass of water from the faucet. Then she insert­ed her pinky fin­ger in the water.

What hap­pens when you take out the fin­ger? she asked.

Noth­ing. Noth­ing happens.

This was how she taught me that no one is indis­pens­able, that water clos­es over what has dis­placed it, that loss finds its own level.

Meira Cook is the award-win­ning author of the nov­els Once More With Feel­ing; The House on Sug­ar­bush Road, which won the McNal­ly Robin­son Book of the Year Award; and Night­watch­ing, which won the Mar­garet Lau­rence Award for Fic­tion. She has also pub­lished five poet­ry col­lec­tions, most recent­ly Mono­logue Dogs, which was short­list­ed for the 2016 Lans­downe Prize for Poet­ry and for the 2016 McNal­ly Robin­son Book of the Year Award. She has served as Writer in Res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Manitoba’s Cen­tre for Cre­ative Writ­ing and Oral Cul­ture, and the Win­nipeg Pub­lic Library. Born and raised in Johan­nes­burg, South Africa, she now lives in Winnipeg.