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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Why Don’t You Talk To Your Sister?

November 4, 2020
brother
By Irene Cooper
Some months after my brother dies, my mother tells me to call my sister. “She needs you,” my mother says. And, “Do it for me.” And then, “You know, you have no sense of family.”

I see a picture of my estranged sister, perhaps three, in sleeveless undershirt and panties, Debbie Harry blonde mop, doorknob knees stacked one behind the other, leaning against our brother, Bobby, who looks like a man, but can’t be more than fourteen. She’s not looking at him, in the way that a baby opossum looks out from and not at the adult she clings to. I am not in the picture, nor is our brother Bill, though it is perhaps he that attracts her attention. Bill was a clown, though at that point, not a professional.

Nearly a decade after Bobby’s death from bone cancer Bill lay in a hospital bed in our living room, framed by Gothic carved mahogany panels and a defunct red brick fireplace. My sister sat by his side, recreating a composition of our older brother’s death bed.

My brother Bill did not have either Ewing sarcoma or osteosarcoma, and he was not then dying. He’d herniated a disc, and then another, ending a tennis career that might have at least paid for college, if not taken him pro. He’d been playing for a small college in one of the Carolinas. And, as it turned out, drinking a lot. A small college in one of the Carolinas had not been the dream. At home recovering from surgery, he entertained the crowds from his bed. Friends smuggled vodka in two-liter 7-Up bottles to supplement the Percocet.

My brother, Bill, did not die of bone cancer at fifteen. He died of liver disease and kidney failure at 53 after his body rejected a liver transplant made imperative by alcoholism. In his early twenties, after his back operations, he maintained his athletic shape but walked with the stiffness of an old man, and then, at some unbearable moment, let go the tenuous hold he’d had on his own body. As if someone pulled the emergency cord, his body blew up like a life raft, like a parade float, no edges, hard to steer.

He remained hilarious, the life of the party, particularly to the older crowd, keeping the seasoned corporate execs laughing at expense account meetings in Manhattan over steaks and martinis—hold the steaks. If my parents worried about his drinking, which was alarming by any measuring stick, they didn’t express their concern while they were in the glow of his charm, so devoted as it was to their entertainment and happiness.

Growing up, Bill loved to eat. Our family meals had something of a performance quality— somewhere between Scheherazade’s 1,001 Nights and America’s Got Talent—but the food itself was no prop. We ate widely and well. As adults, Bill and I almost never saw one another, and rarely shared a meal. When I did see him eat, he chose party foods that induced pain—six-alarm chicken wings—the kind of food where you could witness the lips of the eater bead and blister halfway through the pile, food of unambiguous sensation. Otherwise, he followed the influencers’ diet typical of his colleagues, could be taken for one of the Four Fat Bastards referenced in Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for choucroute garnie (a steaming heap of pork)—an old-school player with a constitution too arrogant for anything but protein and liquor.

My brother visited San Francisco on a business trip while I was living there, shortly after I graduated from culinary school. He invited me to dinner.

“You pick the place. Anywhere you want,” he said with the philanthropic air of a railroad baron who’s brought a box of fancy chocolates and mittens to an orphanage. He was a man of means who would treat his little sister to a splendid meal he was sure she could not by other means afford.

I told him to make a reservation at STARS, an iconic hot spot owned by one of the more flamboyant founders of California cuisine, a late century vanguard of exploding food culture, and, true to its name, a rocket for upcoming talent in the industry. I didn’t tell him I worked there.

Upon arrival, and despite a line at the host stand, I, my brother, and a couple of his cronies were whisked to a large table in an elevated seating area, coveted for its panoramic view of the glittering clientele and open kitchen, a universe away from the dark paneled caves of my brother’s East coast haunts, where the kitchen might actually be in the basement. Before we could order a round of cocktails, a kick line of waiters straight out of Hello, Dolly! swooped onto the table with platters of iced oysters on the half shell and chilled flutes of Absolut. In between the Caesar salads and grilled meats my brother & co. ordered off the menu, we were served unsolicited little plates of shaved apple dotted with foie gras, fire-roasted scallops on a bed of preserved lemon, strewn with a spray of fresh borage, fragrant as a French meadow. Wine glasses were topped up, cocktails replenished. Dessert was offered and refused and brought anyway, a miracle of layered pastry and persimmon crowned by a shard of stained-glass sugar, accompanied  by slipper glasses of Port.

My brother was accustomed to obsequious service, but the red-carpet treatment from the gate confused him. He hadn’t yet had an opportunity to slip the maître-d’ a tip or authoritatively select an obnoxiously expensive California Cab from the wine list. Shortly after the oysters, of course, the truth came out.

“So, you work here! That’s…impressive.” He understood that his position at the helm of the evening had been usurped, and his response was complex, a mix of pride and consternation. On the one hand, he could take the staff’s attention as a gesture of family taking care of its own—and so, respect.

On the other hand, my sensitive brother labored to enjoy himself at this unexpected extravaganza. I don’t believe his inability to take pleasure from the meal was because he’d lost control of it, or because he wasn’t the center of attention. He was not a narcissist; he was, in fact, the complement to the narcissist—a serial provider, now deprived of his super power, his generosity cut off at the knees.

I believe, too, that my brother sensed a second agenda of the staff, and by extension, of me—a message about something other than stellar customer service.

Unbeknownst to Bill, I worked as a prep cook (out of sight, often in the basement, as it happened), a half rung up from dish pit in a strict hierarchy that spiraled up to Executive Chef through a dizzying gauntlet of positions. I’d worked there less than two months. That night, nearly every front house staff member visited the table and greeted me by name. I hadn’t even met most of them, and could not have returned the kindness. What I think my brother intuited beneath the show was resistance. Expense account diners were the bread and butter of high-end restaurants,  and roundly despised for it. Bourdain’s Fat Bastards didn’t know borage from Borax, in the opinion of the foot soldiers in the business, and threw money around like chimpanzees flinging feces. My brother, I think, picked up on the hostility inherent in the hospitality: We take care of ours, and she’s one of ours.

Somehow, between the aperitif and the after-dinner menthe, his and my family ties came undone. In cooking, when we speak of a sauce falling out of solution, we say it breaks. If he wasn’t exactly the enemy, it was also true I wasn’t exactly an ally, and we weren’t on the same side, after all. If this place and these people were my new family, then I had abandoned the old, and him. To say no to the narcissist is to throw their love back in their face like a frosty glass of ice water—shocking, but ultimately inconsequential. To say no to the giver is to pull him out of solution, to break him.

When there was nothing left on the table but the dregs of our espresso, my brother stood up, exhausted.

“Let’s find a good bar, get a drink. I guess you know a place, yeah?”

I told him I had to get home, had to get up early for work the next day, thanked him for dinner.

The next time we talked one-on-one was nearly twenty years later, after our father died, and he came to sleep on my mother’s couch, to organize her affairs. He’d had his first liver transplant.

When my husband got sober, my mother felt the need to tell me she thought he’d been a lot funnier when he was drinking. Her model was Bill, whom no one would have accused of dulling the blade of his schtick after he was forced to forsake the booze. What’s more, after the transplant, as his cells drained themselves of decades of poison, his body returned to its late adolescent form. For some months, despite the grey at the temples, Bill was nineteen again, tall as an oak, graceful as a willow, sharp as a switch. Sobriety, unchosen and unwelcome as it was, provided a rich cache of new material, and his patter took no prisoners. As at our childhood dinner table, Bill made whatever my other brother was drinking shoot out his nose as he comically admired the innovations of vodka tampons, butt chugging, eyeballing, and other collegiate practices designed to intoxicate while bypassing the liver. Now why didn’t I think of that? he mused as he spit tobacco juice into a Solo cup, sipped at his Diet Coke.

His humor at this stage was a relief, a kindness, but he wasn’t all punchline post-transplant. He didn’t joke when he spoke about the difficulties of parenting his elementary school-aged son and two high school-aged daughters, due to his debilitating ignorance of the protocols put in place while his alcoholism and workaholism kept him AWOL. He wasn’t cutting up when he tried to talk, whispered, really, about the challenges of his complicated drug regimen, of the pain he suffered constantly, of his loss of strength, of appetite, of his concerns about being able to do his job, his fear of being replaced by a new generation who had limited appreciation for his expertise, nearly none for his sense of humor. He struggled with the post-transplant revelation that his attempt at the world’s slowest suicide had failed, that he, in fact, wanted to live, if only to imperfectly parent a little longer.

Sober, my brother dragged the empty folds of his slackened skin with him everywhere, like Marley’s ghostly chains, a mortal rattle echoing from his plastic pill box, big as a carry-on.

The body contains its deep and secret pools of shame, until the body breaks and the murky reservoirs drain, to nowhere. My mother says, “You should talk to your sister.” But I can’t be heard over the spill.

Irene Cooper’s poems, reviews, and essays appear in print and online at The Feminist Wire, Phoebe, Utterance: A Journal, VoiceCatcher, The Rumpus, What Rough Beast by Indolent Books, and elsewhere. She is a freelance copywriter and editor, facilitates creative writing workshops in Central Oregon, and co-edits The Stay Project. Committal, a spyfy thriller and her first novel, is forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2020.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts

I’m Missing The Ritual of Funerals

October 8, 2020

By Dana Schneider

This essay is dedicated to my stunning, jewelry obsessed warrior of a woman cousin Ally.

I’ve always secretly thought that you could catch death.  I mean, not catch death, as in if it’s an actual thing you can physically grab and catch, more like, if death was a virus, if I was in the same room, I would catch it. Then mysteriously I’d be the next person that people would be coming to mourn.  I know how that must sound.  Childlike silliness. But when you have a true fear of something, it manifests itself in your brain in weird ways.  Funerals as we know them from when things were normal, popped up whenever and wherever.  No mental prep time.  When I had to go to a funeral, I would layer myself with my own protective shields of superstitious accessories, like wearing a red something to ward off evil, then pairing that with a good luck charm given to me by a friend, along with not looking directly at the casket, and sitting all the way in the back back back of the service room.  Somehow, this kept me feeling safer.  It was a layer of protection to cover my raw naked fears.

The morning of getting dressed for said funeral and making my way to the car and eventually walking into the funeral parlor, for me, is beyond draining, energy sucking and confrontational as hell. The day always ended by throwing my clothes directly into the laundry machine so as to wash off any death virus particles.  Fact. And if you really want to know the truth, I had a funeral outfit.  This was not to be worn at any other time, because, then while wearing it, I’d think of death.  I know.  Insert eye roll.

So, coming from this place of fear, I never thought I’d say this, at least say it out loud, but I’ve never wanted to go to a funeral more in my life than I do right now.

Turns out, this fear of death is real.  Can’t deny that.  I’m working on it, especially in the face of COVID-19.  But the act of attending a funeral to say goodbye to a loved one, is in fact, a ritual, that I never was able to understand, before this pandemic, as cathartic and necessary.

Dana and Ally

I lost my cousin a few weeks ago to COVID-19.  My exact age (late 40’s) with a husband, 2 children and 2 dogs.  She was a NYC school teacher for 20+ years, dedicated to the core daughter and daughter in law, collection of dear friends since elementary school, an avid community member, law abiding citizen and adored family member.   She was one of us.  There is nothing in her story that will make any sense as to why she was taken from us.  In the past, when someone died young and unexpectedly, that “out of nowhere” story, sometimes I would wonder, for my sanities sake, secretly look for a reason as to why the universe decided to take that person.  Thoughts like “I wonder if they did something to deserve this death” would cross my mind.  I used to believe that good things happened to good people and bad things happened to bad people.  It just made such clean good sense. I believe I thought this way to ward off the truth that we are all vulnerable at any given time.  Another false sense of security.  I’m working on that one too.

With this pandemic has come some of the most deeply disturbing and thought provoking times.  I find myself in deep thought about so many aspects of life from parenting, marriage, family relations, health, money and death.  What I can say for sure, through all these thoughts, is that I’m craving rituals.

I’m craving togetherness.  I’m craving hugs, tears, laughter through tears, funny stories, touching someone’s hands, heartbreaking memories, history of our family. I’m craving it all.  I’m desperately craving her funeral.

No news flash here, funerals have been cancelled.  Or at least no more than 10 people are allowed to attend the service and or burial.  In our almost 2 mos. home, we “attended” one funeral via Facetime and one was just a message sent out to let us know that the departed was comfortably laid to rest.  If you’ve been unlucky enough to lose someone during this pandemic, than you might understand what I’m feeling.

I have no proof that my cousin passed.  In my mature adult brain, I’m thinking that maybe they misidentified her body, it wasn’t her that died and she’s walking around the city with amnesia. Which means she will turn up on someone’s door step soon enough and this whole nightmare will be just that….a nightmare.   I’m sure this is one of the stages of grief?  Just not sure which one.  How many stages are there anyway?  But at the end of the day, there really is no closure without a funeral or service or something to recognize her beauty-full life.  This was taken from us.  Dying with dignity was taken from us.

The funeral allows us to say goodbye, to have that closure. To neatly wrap up death. Death hurts so damn badly, so at least let us wrap it up in a pretty bow and send the departed off with a beautiful good-bye.   She’s already gone.  We all know that.  But whether it’s religious or just ritual, saying goodbye allows us to move forward.  Not necessarily move on, just move forward.  One baby step at a time, one minute, hour, day at a time.

I want to be in a room of other people who adored her the way I did.  I want to hug them and cry on their shoulders.  They understand my ache.  They ache too.  I want to be able to share some funny stories about her that maybe she would have wanted to share with the world one day.  I want to say her name out loud.  She deserved to be loved out loud and talked about.  I want to be able to say good bye for goodness sake.  I miss her.

From my home base, in quarantine, I’m doing what I can to memorialize her.  Tears have been shed, pictures have been dug out of really loved brown-edged photo albums, jokes have been made of our teased and permed hair,  stories have been told. But I still need ritual of a funeral to say goodbye.  To know for sure she won’t be coming to knock on my door someday soon.  Until then, I can dream.

My name is Dana (rhymes with Banana)I’m a mama of three beautiful souls trying to figure out their way in this world.  As they wander and explore about, I find myself drawn to the computer to share our stories.  Turns out, walls can talk!  My hope is that you find comfort, relatability, tears and maybe some humor in my words.  I rely heavily on my friend squad to get me through the days.  If you need someone to get you through yours, I’d be happy to be that gal.  Lets connect.  Connection is everything.  When I’m not writing, parenting, wifing, daughtering and friending, you can find me decorating peoples homes.  danaschneiderdecor@gmail.com   or insta: @danaschneiderdecor. 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

I Made Peace With My Body And Found My Soul

December 15, 2019
body

 By Lisa Poulson

The house, above the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, is set on a hill overlooking the whole Luberon valley. Climbing roses cling to its traditional Provençal stone exterior. In California, a plant with just one or two flowers seems in ill health, but here a single blush rose on a vine by the front door feels like beautiful simplicity.

The chic and spare interior is layered with thick coats of pale plaster that curve around me as I walk up two flights of stairs to my room. It’s my first time in Provence, with six girlfriends in this wild, raw and beautiful part of France.

There are wide, cool terracotta tiles, a velvety duvet and no curtains in my bedroom, which is on the third floor of the house, facing the valley. After I settle in and unpack, my friends and I have our evening meal at a long, rough hewn dining table under a tree on the patio. It’s the first week of May. A hint of the Mistral rolls through the hills. I haven’t felt this peaceful in a long, long time.

The next morning, the barest hint of dawn through my uncovered windows wakes me. I smell the remnants of my Diptyque Pomander candle before I open my eyes. I turn my head toward the window and, drowsy and semi-conscious, am immersed in exquisite beauty.

It’s a little chilly as I sit up in bed to watch tender pink light emerge from a piercing bluish fuschia, to see the tall trees shift from shadowy black to darkest teal, to see the rows of lavender on the hill opposite our house emerge from the darkness. The mountains beyond the hills are a Pantone palette of dark to lighter slate blues. Birds are singing. The wind is soft. This dawn is as delicate and rich as Venetian velvet.

After several minutes of watching the colors change and the light bathe the whole scene, a voice, insistent and gentle at the same time, says, ‘If you didn’t have a body, you wouldn’t be able to experience any of this beauty. Not one bit.’

Sitting in my sleep-warm bed, bathed in this exquisite sunrise, I feel peaceful enough to simply accept this truth about my body without argument. As the sun’s light turns the trees green I roll this idea around in my head, thinking about what beauty means to me. Everything. Beauty means everything to me. I’m almost breathless as I absorb the blindingly simple truth that I can only experience beauty through and because of my body.

I am 56 years old. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my body since I was a tween. And yet, in this moment, seduced by the serene Provençal beauty all around me, I reorder what I feel and believe about my body, what it is for, what it has given me, why it’s a miracle.

 ***

It’s been a long and grinding road. I was 10 when I first doubled over with burning pain on both sides of my gut. It wasn’t until my twenties that I got a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me a name but not a solution for the boiling distress that turned my body into an incomprehensible ‘other’, a caustic alien that delighted in causing havoc on dates, before job interviews, at baseball games.

At 30, the man I loved was killed after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. Grief came in molten waves that would growl and stretch, enveloping every part of me. I never knew when my body would start sweating and shaking, drowning me in unbearable sorrow. When grief descend my only choice was to submit to being ravaged.

About a year after my fiancé died I went on a date, thinking it was time to “move on.” But at the end of the evening when he leaned in to kiss me I panicked. Another man having access to my delicate mouth was more than I could bear. I ran up to my apartment and burst into tears.

In the midst of this emotional disarray I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley. Just 15 months after my love died, I left New York City and all of my friends behind. In a strange place, with few friends, tons of work pressure, and carrying a mountain of grief, I turned to food, the most reliable and consistent comfort I knew, and buried myself. I gained 75 pounds in six months.

My gut tormented me, I came down with mononucleosis, my head raged with migraines. I felt trapped inside a body that hurt and humiliated me daily. With bitter self-hatred, I told myself that this body, this alien saboteur, was a billboard for my weaknesses as a person. I didn’t deserve amity with my body, I wasn’t strong enough or good enough to be free.

By the time I was 35 I was emotionally numb, physically miserable and nearly 100 lbs overweight. I was in New York on an exhausting business trip. I stumbled into my hotel room and collapsed against the side of the bed in my underwear, my short legs splayed out in front of me. I stared at my undressed body in the wall of mirrors that were the closet doors. I watched my piles of flesh undulate as I breathed in and out. I forced myself to face everything in the mirror. My legs, my belly, my double chin. My lip curled in revulsion as I stared into deadened eyes. I hated everything about my life. My job. My body. Myself.

Eventually I lost the weight, but I couldn’t love and happily inhabit my complicated and demanding body, where the alien still reigned. In my 40s my career grew and grew, but inside my body was one long repressed scream of rage and frustration. I wanted to swear, to smash things, to scream and shake, to quiver and whimper with passion, to drown in and be intoxicated by love and lust. None of those things happened. Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a proper Mormon girl does not do these things.

I could have gone to the gym every day to expel that pent up desire, anxiety and anger. But a completely numb body is easier to manage than a body that is partially awake. A body that is awake and vibrant and beautiful wants things. Things a Mormon girl can’t have. So instead my weight yo-yoed. My gut burned. And then I got eczema – the skin on my palms became raw and started to peel off. My spirit was choked in a body I refused to love. I was a broken soul.

***

During the next decade I patronized several spas, worked with a cornucopia of health practitioners and healers, tried so many elimination diets. Sometimes I looked better, sometimes I felt better, sometimes I had beautiful moments of connection with my body, usually at an expensive spa after a luxurious treatment. But back in my real life, every time there was a new injury, every time my IBS flared up, every time I gained weight, I blamed the alien, the mute and malevolent force inside me who seemed determined to hurt and undermine my every effort to heal. I saw no way out.

But in late 2016 the movie Arrival hypnotized me. The heroine, a creative, accomplished linguist, was asked to interpret the language of aliens called heptapods. I drank the movie in, read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life on which the movie is based. I thought and thought. What if my body is like a heptapod, a benevolent and complex organism with miraculous gifts to give? Was it possible that within my body I’d find a wisdom that would transform me if I could just learn to speak and listen to its language?

***

That late spring morning in Provence, watching that glorious sunrise, was the first time I heard and understood a sentence in heptapod. ‘It’s your body that gives you the gift of all of this beauty.’

For decades, I had only seen what was wrong and broken – I thought my body was 90% a disaster. I did not see that the things I love – color, art, music, flowers, the scent of perfume, the feel of cashmere on my neck – only come to me because I have a body. My body isn’t a crucible of humiliation and frustration, it is a miracle.

I let the slow and pure beauty of Provence work on my nervous system. Everything there taught me the simple joy of living in a body in the world – fresh goat cheese drizzled with new olive oil and tiny flowers, earthenware vases filled with hardy irises, fields of red poppies shimmering in the breeze, baby green leaves on grape vines that aren’t manicured into antiseptic perfection.

At the end of a week there, after several more ravishing sunrises and sunsets, after living among a people whose lives are bound up in the beauty of the land, I came home to California with a changed heart.

There’s a calmness between my body and me now – the anger and shame have been replaced by a patient, warm affection for the wise heptapod who is teaching me a new way to live. I am learning what it feels like to move through the world with a partner – a wise and remarkable heptapod who has always been with me, every moment of my life. I am whole.

Lisa Poulson is a voice in favor of the complex beauty of female power. She is the descendent of fiercely resilient pioneer women who crossed the American plains with their children – even after their husbands died along the way. She is a successful Silicon Valley PR veteran and a woman who survived her the death of her fiancé four months before their wedding day. Lisa lives in San Francisco, where she spends her free time absorbing and creating as much beauty as possible.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief, Unfolding

December 5, 2019
gift

By Julia Dennis Car

“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”

My mom and her sister stood, broken, at the bedside of their father, my Granddaddy.  The cancer that started in his bladder had taken over his other systems; he “lived” mostly unconscious, thanks to morphine.

Mom couldn’t stand to see Granddaddy in such a way, and I know in her guts she would have done anything to separate him from his pain.  My aunt isn’t fiery like Mom, and she knew Mom had what it took to hold the pillow over Granddaddy’s face. She didn’t kill him; the cancer did, days later.

Now it’s my turn. I’m standing in her corner as she nears the end of her own battle with cancer. In the end, will I will have the same impulse to smother her?

Mom’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian carcinosarcoma delivered a sucker punch no one saw coming.  It’s incurable, and only about 25% of women live as long as five years. I imagine her little round body up against the ropes, her healthy tissue pummeled by disease and its treatment. If left untreated, her body’s systems will gradually succumb. They’ve already started.

They took the womb, ovaries, cervix, parts of her intestines, and the surface of her liver. Sewed her up tight.  My first home is gone.

With unbridled optimism, Mom trusted her doctor’s plan of care and faced off against her next enemy.  Chemotherapy. Can you imagine a more difficult choice? Don’t take chemo, and slowly die, or take chemo, and die slowly.

With fingers crossed, I watched Mom take the beating of her life and was lifted up by her light and positivity. After the months-long regimen, a scan found the stuff was no longer “active.” She got some time off for good behavior and slowly regained some strength and vitality.  Our family vowed to embrace each day, focus on the positive.

Mom is a feisty woman, a flaming introvert, but without a demure bone in her body. She’s crass, enjoys dark and twisted humor. Once, while visiting San Francisco, she high-fived a costumed Grim Reaper in a public park then insisted the image be framed on her gravestone.

Days after her diagnosis, Mom hung a set of pink boxing gloves on her front door to prove to the world that she intended to pummel her disease as Ali did Frasier.  In the oncologist’s office, two years into the bout, she laid some wit on the nurses. When they left the room, she told me “When I stop being funny, I’m done.”

She’s still funny, but her cheerfulness is waning.  The insidious fuck is still inside her, having its way with her, never really having gone.  It’s in her liver and her guts, probably other places too. She’s at the end of her second phase of chemotherapy.  The gnarly effects of the disease and the treatment are taking their toll, and she’s so, so tired.

Albert Einstein said, “human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust —we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”  As for my own part in this, I see myself dancing with grief and gratitude.  The maestro taps his baton, and I’m an accordion: bending, twisting, squeezing, breathing.  Some days the notes I play are fear, worry, sadness, regret.

I watch her struggle. And tire. Though outwardly I remain upright—strong in the face of this disease and her pain—the truth is at times there’s no air left in me, and I bend or lean into whatever will hold me up. I cry; wail the sharp notes away.

But soon enough, invisible hands unfold me, pulling and stretching me out as I fill with air.  Soon enough, I can breathe again. It’s not my cancer, but it’s changed me. It has wrung me out and left me raw. And I’m realizing that the painful stuff is a gift.

I’ve had this woman’s hand to hold for more than forty years. With unconditional love. Her illness and mortality have bitch-slapped me into understanding and appreciation.  My mother’s killer screams Wake up!  Don’t you realize the gift you’ve been given?  I do.

You see, in the midst of this pain and uncertainty and fear, beautiful things have happened.  These last two years have been the hardest, and best, of my life. I’ve been helpless, unable to affect change; therefore, I’ve had to let go.  I’ve unfolded. Aware and accepting of mortality—hers, mine—I’ve felt her love more deeply, tried to love her more deeply. I hope she’s felt it.

I’ve made two trips around the sun, and the days were full of love and light, opportunities and misfortunes, laughing and heartbreak. While holding the hand of impermanence, I’ve uncurled my fingers, loosened my grip on fear and insecurity. Wrapped myself in vulnerability.

I hiked for three days on the Appalachian Trail, confident and proud and strong. Crippled with despair, I limped into a therapist’s office, debilitated by depression. Swaddled with love of family and friends, I shaved my head and tattooed my arm and laughed till I cried and sobbed until I was at peace. I’ve said yes to more time by myself and prioritized more time with my family.  I’ve learned to say “no” to things that don’t nourish me. Except ice cream. I always say “yes” to ice cream.

I’ve asked hard questions and confessed hard truths.  Entering their adolescence, my kids broach topics Mom wasn’t comfortable delving into when I was their age:  illness and responsibility and death and sex. I answer with raw honesty. They’ve seen me in tears and I hug them to me and share my pain with them.  I think it’s wrong to pretend it’s not there.   I’m crying because I’m sad.  Yes, she’s slowly going to become sicker and sicker.  We aren’t going to the beach this year so we can spend time with her.  Yes, she’s going to be cremated. I want to be cremated, too. Regarding matters unrelated to Mom’s illness, but highly relevant to their curiosity and social understanding (and a disheartening example of the hyper-sexualized culture kids are growing up in) Yes, orgasm is “a really good feeling when you have sex,” but you can feel it by yourself too.  No, you don’t need to be watching porn.

For many years, I struggled to understand Mom.  She wasn’t blessed with physical gifts like Laila Ali and has never had a green thumb.  On the contrary; her favorite quote is “Sweating is gross and fresh air makes me sick.” She stays inside, reading; I’ve run marathons. She’s quiet; I’m loud. I deep-dive into conversations; she’s more comfortable on the surface.  I lift up furniture and tend to plants and pour my heart out on the page. She’s there, watching all of it. Though she kills all things that conduct photosynthesis, Mom grew a beautiful family; planted roots that spread deep and wide.

Before Mom’s illness jabbed me in the heart, I didn’t value her quiet; rather, I doubted its power.  Mom has shown me that there are more ways to demonstrate strength than with vigor and brawn. She’s shown me that I don’t always have to do something; hers is a quiet persistence of being.

My connection to Mom is primal, deep.  In so many ways my opposite, I feel her pull as the force that keeps me balanced.  Her spiritual tether is met only by the one I share with my own children. She’s been there, ready, even when I didn’t even know I needed her—I hope to be for my kids all she’s been for me.   And these days, when I’m rolling around on the mat in a struggle to make sense of all this, I try to use her own words of wisdom to self-soothe: “When you give birth to a baby, you grow a new heart.”

See, in a macabre way, my grief is a baby.  Mom’s disease birthed this dark pit inside me.  I like to imagine that as I trudge through the progression of her illness (and, ultimately, her death) I’m cultivating space in my heart for my grief and gratitude to live harmoniously.  Like Yin and Yang, there is literally darkness and light in my little heart, all snuggled up tightly together and swirling around.

Maybe that’s what this is all about: vulnerability and strength, terror and comfort, distortion and balance, heartbreak and growth, dying and living. The cyclical, recursive nature of it all.

Allow me my suffering, so that hers may end.  Allow the pain to break me, so that I may put myself back together.  I’ll be stronger where the cracks mend, and softer in the more stubborn places.  Allow me the lessons to be learned in her absence. Allow me to experience her in new ways—ideas, smells, sounds, gestures.  Allow me to grow bigger; big enough to hold my grief and build a life that’s richer and more beautiful. I think I can hold it all.

About a year and a half into this journey, at a concert with my brothers and some dear friends, I passed out cold. Imagine a beach ball that’s been forcefully submerged under water. The pain and worry I’d managed to shove down demanded to surface. An anxiety attack hit like a ton of bricks. As I awoke, my two brothers literally holding me up, I remember my body heaving as I sobbed: “I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt.”

The ancient poet Hafiz wrote that “It helps to see the Creator’s kind face / before he rolls up his sleeves, / and starts pumping the bellows / and cleans off his wire brush / and works with his other tools / he eyes you up / knowing how much this is going to hurt / to make you perfect.”

Why are we here? To be made perfect? I don’t know much, but that I was given the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s my job to do the work: to pay attention to the Universe and embrace my place within it. To learn the lessons. That means with open arms I must greet the anguish and the pleasure. I’m willing.

Mom is in the final round of this slugfest. She’s losing stamina in her bob and weave. Soon enough, she’ll receive the final blow, or choose to throw in the towel. I’ll be rocked from my foundation. But I will be ok down here; I am rooted in her. I will remember her.  I will celebrate her. I will talk about her and laugh, curse and cry. Her influence is indelible.

For now, I will sit with her and hold her hand and just be. For the rest of forever, my dust and Mom’s dust will dance; her warm, loving hands guiding me and loving me and leading me as the piper plays on.

Julie Dennis-Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called Western North Carolina “home” since 2007. She is a writer by passion, and uses writing as therapy, though she is a speech-language pathologist by training. Julie fills her heart by reading, traveling, and playing in the dirt.

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death, Grief, Guest Posts

Breathwork

December 1, 2019
breathe breath

By Nicole Cooley

Now I say mom and I float to the ceiling.

Meaning “ability to breathe,” hence “life” is from c. 1300. Meaning “a single act of breathing” is from late 15c.; sense of “the duration of a breath, a moment, a short time” is from early 13c. Meaning “a breeze, a movement of free air” is from late 14c.

Five months ago in New Orleans my mother stopped breathing.

Now at yoga class in the final pose—savansana— pose I struggle with most because I must sink into stillness– I know it’s wrong but I imagine a lit cigarette between my fingers.

My mother was the first person to teach me to leave my body. She taught me well and carefully and with gifts. In high school, she bought me cigarettes so I would not eat, left cartons each week on my bed.

Breath: Old English bræð “odor, scent, stink, exhalation, vapor” Old English word for “air exhaled from the lungs,”

Now I mourn my mother through breath. Each morning I lie on a mat in a hot room and squeeze my eyes shut and breathe her in. Or breathe her out. Yes, breath is supposed to anchor me in my body but I use it to exit my body, just as my mother taught me. I rise to the celling of the yoga room, alone and untethered.

I lie on the levee in the dirt and gravel. I lie on the sticky mat miles away from the house where she died.

Drown smoke suffocate. What is the difference?

I close my eyes and in my dream my mother is drowning in the river two blocks from her house.

In the dream I shake my mother awake. I ask her, with frustration, if she will go on being dead.

I only practice hot yoga, infrared heat that spills from vents and warms the floor. I love the punishing heat. And the intense heat echoes a New Orleans levee walk, all stifling humidity. I lower my body into plank, crush my breasts to the ground. Think of my mother’s body,

Breath from Proto-Germanic *bræthaz “smell, exhalation” (source also of Old High German bradam, German Brodem “breath, steam).

As a teenager, I’d come home from school to find a carton of Benson and Hedges on my white bedspread. My mother saran-wrapped and labeled all my food with calorie counts. 25. 50. 75. I stood in the refrigerator’s wedge of light and counted. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes. It will keep you from being hungry, my mother explained. Celery. Grapefruit. Diet bread thin as dress fabric. A silver lighter she pressed into my hands.

Breath: an act of breathing: fought to the last breath

Yoga reminds me of the geometry of the body, the shape the body makes—So then what shape did my mother’s body make on the living room floor? What shape was her mouth when my father pressed his mouth to hers to perform useless CPR? What shape was she under the sheet on the stretcher at the Veterans Highway Funeral Home– who knew a funeral home has a stretcher but if you don’t pay for a coffin you get that? — when she looked so small and thin and what shape was she—altered?—when my sister and my father and I ran back to her to kiss her for a final time?

Drown suffocate smoke.

The irony is that after my mother dies, in the days after, in New Orleans, we eat. My father, my sister and me. And we eat very good food. Friends bring platters and trays and Tupperware, and it is delicious. The kind of meals I would not normally allow myself. The kind of food my mother would have forbidden me. Red beans and rice and sausage. Baked ziti. Cheesecake. Doughnuts. A half-bottle of wine.

Now at yoga class I fill my lungs with imaginary smoke. I imagine I flick a cigarette lighter over and over on and off till my thumb scrapes with ache.

Breath: opportunity or time to breathe; respite. Also, a slight breeze

I’m lying on the mat. I am under the heat vent. I am under the spell of yoga. Or I am just under— as grief’s water closes over my head.

My teenage daughters think the stories about my mother telling me to smoke are very strange. This was the eighties—a different time, I say.

Three days after she is dead, my sister and I clean out my mother’s closet and find 72 cartons of Salem 100s hidden – in boxes labeled “Taxes 2003” and “Family Medical 2010.” And yet my mother often told me, when we were alone: “I’ll never stop smoking.” Then why did she hide her cigarettes like contraband?

Breath—

Mother’s Day yoga is — as I know it would be — the worst. Why did I go? The teacher suggests we dedicate our practice to “your mother or a mother figure in your life” and I feel tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. Later she returns to it: “Think of the mother or mother figure and focus on a happy memory.” I want to ban this language. I want to run from the room. So instead I still just work hard as I can to no imagine it: the crematorium, my mother’s body on a shelf, flames, body who once housed my body, turning to nothing.

For so long I longed for another body—is this my mother’s fault? What could I tell you about my relationship to my body and my mother? What could she tell me now?

A different time, I tell my daughters.

Missing my mother is pain that though it can’t possibly be feels bone deep. My wrists are splintering. My hips lock shut. My jawbone burns.

My mother’s legacy: how I don’t want my daughters to long for another body.

After my mother dies, predictably, all I want is to smoke. Though I have not had a cigarette in more than twenty years. In my mother’s room, I suck on one of her old cigarette butts in the ashtray, set my mouth where hers imprinted, while my sister watches, alarmed.

I want to ban this language.

Putting my mouth where her mouth once was—

Do you want to go in and say goodbye to her feel free to take all the time you need to say goodbye to her—

What could my mother tell me now?

What can I tell my daughters?

Once, I remember my mother taking a photograph of me after a bad break up when I stopped eating, a photo at the edge of a pool while I posed in a blue striped bikini. As my sister and I finish cleaning out our mother’s study, I think about this bikini photo, and my sister and I toss the cigarette cartons in the trash, aware of the waste of money yet not wanting others to have them.

Breath: a spoken sound: utterance. Also, spirit, animation.

Nicole Cooly is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Feminist Wire and the Rumpus.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Compassion, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

I Didn’t Love Her Until The Day She Died

November 24, 2019

By Marie Prichard

Maura Anton, age 90, died September 6, 2009. Survivors include six children, 18 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren. Maura Anton was my grandma for over thirty years, but I wasn’t her granddaughter until the day she died.

I was eight years old when my father took my sister and me to meet his newest girlfriend, Rita. There had been so many girlfriends since my parents had divorced. But this one was different. She didn’t have any children; she was younger than him––fifteen years younger––and she was still in college.

I remember spending weekends with my dad and Rita in her tiny, college apartment. It felt like a dollhouse to me, and I pretended like everyone was playing house. Looking back, it was just like a teenager’s room, complete with stuffed animals, pink frilly things, and posters of her favorite bands.

I assumed Rita wouldn’t be around for very long, so I didn’t think much about their relationship, or about the fact that we hadn’t yet met her family. Girlfriends coming and going were a common theme with my dad. However, things changed, and I can still picture the specific visit when they sat my sister and me down and told us they were going to get married right after she graduated from college.

Our first introduction to the Anton family was at Rita’s college graduation. My sister and I stood there shyly in our––too small––Christmas dresses, and our tennis shoes because my dad hadn’t thought ahead about what we were going to wear. He never bothered to think about those kinds of things, and I believe that Rita was too young and self-absorbed to take our clothing into consideration. My mom didn’t have the money to buy us new dresses, nor was it her responsibility, so we wore those same outfits when they got married.

I can only imagine what they thought. My father, a Mexican man almost fifteen years older than their daughter, was standing there with his two young children, introduced as her fiancé and her soon-to-be daughters. Let’s just say; it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes to the family.

Rita came from a strict Catholic family. She was the youngest of 6 siblings who were all raised in the church. They had all graduated from Catholic schools, gone on to marry their high school sweethearts, and were doing what good Catholic families do: get married and quickly start a family. No one in Rita’s family had ever married a person outside their race or religion, and divorce? Well, that was a sin and was unacceptable. Rita had broken the unwritten rules, and they weren’t happy, especially her mother.

I remember many tears and angry voices before the actual wedding. Rita was not allowed to have a white wedding dress or a large church wedding. Her wedding was a quick, hushed affair in the retirement park in which her parents lived. I didn’t understand that marrying someone who had been divorced and had children from a previous marriage would be the cause of so much upset. I was just excited that I got to be a flower girl. It wasn’t until later that I realized Rita’s mother did not approve of her marrying my dad, nor did she want to add two little dark-skinned Mexican girls to their family. We were an embarrassment to her.

After my dad married Rita, we didn’t spend much time with his family because we were always at her parents’ house. When we were with them, we were expected to go to church and have Sunday dinner with her parents, siblings, and their children. In my eight-year-old mind, I thought once my dad and Rita were married, that meant I had a new grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I was wrong. During family dinners, my sister and I were always seated away from the rest of the family with our backs to the dinner table. Our newly acquired grandma would always make “tskking” noises when we referred to her as grandma, and she never––not once––said, “I love you.”

She didn’t want to introduce us to her friends, and when pressed, she would say, “Oh, these are my step-grandchildren. You know Rita married that man who was divorced. These are his children.”

Christmas was the worst. All the “real” grandchildren would be there, and there were so many presents for them. As we sat and watched them unwrapping all the gifts, my sister and I would each receive just one neatly wrapped gift. When we were younger, it was usually a knock-off Barbie doll. When we got older, the Barbie doll was replaced with a card signed, “Merry Christmas, the Antons” and enclosed would be a ten dollar bill.

As I got older, it became apparent that Maura Anton was incapable of loving us. I still called her grandma, and she still referred to me as her step-granddaughter, but I had stopped trying to love her. When I was made to go to their house, I would stay in the bedroom and read. I was tired of always feeling unloved by someone I desperately wanted to be loved by, so when I was old enough to have a say, I stopped going altogether.

The marriage between my dad and Rita ended when I was an adult. By this time, divorce wasn’t quite as taboo in Rita’s family. The Antons had already experienced other family members’ divorces, remarriages, and blended families. My sister and I still kept in contact with Rita and her family, but I always felt like I was still that little girl who was sat with her back to the family dinner table and introduced as “the step-granddaughter.”

Rita’s father passed away, and her mom moved in with her. She had suffered several small strokes and became mostly bed-ridden. I would stop by periodically to see how she was doing. She loved to have her fingernails painted, so I would always paint them her favorite color––light pink.

She had softened with age, but she still never referred to me as her granddaughter or said I love you. It was so hard to love this woman I called grandma, and I often wondered why I even bothered to try.

One day I received a call from Rita. She said, “Please come; my mom had another stroke and isn’t expected to make it.” So I went.

Most of the family was there: aunts, uncles, spouses, and grandchildren. She was lying in a hospital bed in the living room surrounded by her “real” family, yet no one was sitting next to her, holding her hand. They were all seated or standing along the walls or in the kitchen. She looked so alone in that bed in a roomful of people, so I sat next to her and picked up her hand.

Her breathing was labored, and she looked like she was in pain. I’m not sure if she was cognizant, but the moment I took her hand into mine, she appeared to relax. So I just sat there, holding her hand, speaking quietly to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my voice kept her calm.

I sat there for hours; I kept asking if anyone wanted to sit next to her, but everyone said no. They knew she was dying, and they didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t sit there because I loved her. I sat there because I didn’t want to watch her die alone in a room full of people who should have been there holding her hand.

I thought back on all those years of feeling unloved by this woman. I was just a little girl who wanted to be loved. How hard would it have been for her to have given me the same love she had given her grandchildren? All the pain I felt over the years came rushing through me: the hurt, confusion, sadness, and anger. I sat there with this woman, who was dying and felt nothing but an overwhelming sadness.

Her breathing began to become shallow and slow. The hospice nurse listened to her heart and said it wouldn’t be much longer. The sun had gone down, and almost everyone had gone home, and yet, I stayed. I couldn’t leave without someone else sitting next to her to help guide her from this life to the next.

I looked into the face of this woman who did not love me, and I realized it was the face of a woman who only knew how to live one kind of life; A life that did not include two little, Mexican girls calling her grandma. It was beyond her ability to move past the vision she held for herself and her family.

In…out…in…out. Her breath came slower and slower. With each exhalation, my anger dissipated. With each inhalation, the pain receded. I gained comfort knowing when she died so, too would my pain.

As she took her last breath in the wee hours of the morning, I felt an intense surge of vertigo and a vibrating upward pull; I had to close my eyes to keep from falling over. It was as though a part of me had joined with her spirit as she passed, and just as quickly as it happened, it ended. I opened my eyes, and a quiet calm came over me.

I sat there for a moment looking at her light pink polished fingernails trying to digest what had happened. I sensed that I had traveled a short distance with her spirit as she departed from this world. It was a surreal experience, and a rush of love coursed through my body. I had received a gift.

I gazed down at Maura Anton, this woman I had called grandma for over thirty years and whispered the words, “She’s gone,” but no one heard me. So I repeated it louder as I slowly stood up to walk away. But before I did, I leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Grandma, I love you.”

I like to think that maybe––this time––she would have said, “I love you too.”

 

Marie Prichard is a longtime writer and educator. She lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her wife, their two wiener dogs, and a Munchkin cat. She loves reading, writing, walking the beach, and filling her wife’s pockets with heart rocks.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Addiction, Grief, Guest Posts

What I Wanted To Say

November 22, 2019
need

By Lennlee Keep

We needed to start doing the things that separate days from one another. I knew my son Dashiell and I should probably start eating again. We only pretended to sleep. We acted like we knew what day of the week it was. It had been 10 days since my ex-husband Josh had been found dead in his apartment in Austin, Texas. It had hit us like a bomb that had not stopped exploding.

Dash and I flew from our new home in Berkeley to Austin to deal with the business of his father’s death. Dash said goodbye by contributing to his dad’s eulogy and letting a balloon go at the memorial. I let Josh go by packing his clothes and photographs and books, throwing away bottles, and solving the 1,000 problems he had left behind. In the process I tore myself to pieces like I was destroying evidence.

When it was all finished Dash and I returned to our new life in California. It was a daily struggle to mask the fact that I was raw and collapsing. But I had to function and carve a routine out of a loose collection of hours and dust.

I had to register my son for the new middle school he was starting the next morning.

***

I walked into the school office. A paper sign with the word REGISTRATION was taped next to an open door. A tall, thin, woman sat typing at her desk. I assumed she was in charge. She looked bored and regal. The entire room was lit only by a lamp on her desk. I felt like I was hiring a gumshoe to do some dirty work instead of getting my 6th

grader into the right math class. She didn’t acknowledge my presence, so I walked in and stood in front of her.

“Hi, I need to register my son for school.” I was trying to come across as friendly and competent but my voice sounded forced and tight. That, combined with my exhausted but smiling face just made me look crazy.

“I need your letter,” she said while staring intently at her screen. Her fingers flew across the keyboard.

“I don’t have a letter. Wait, um, I don’t think I do.” I nervously flipped through the pages in my hands. I had papers. Would papers work? I didn’t remember getting any letter. But I didn’t remember a lot of things.

She looked up me for the first time. “I need the letter we sent you about your school assignment.” She said this like she had said it to a hundred other stupid, irritating, letterless parents before me.

“I am sorry,” I said, “but I have no idea where the letter is. My son’s father died unexpectedly ten days ago and we just got back from his funeral. We moved here two weeks ago. Everything is a mess. Can you help me?”

“The letter was sent two weeks ago,” she said. She really punched that two weeks as if to drive home that this was something that could have been dealt with long before tragedy struck. Dead dad or no, I should have my letter. She rolled her eyes and pushed a copy of someone else’s letter across her desk to me.

I studied the letter and then said in a voice that sounded less feeble, “I will go look for it right now. I think I can find it.”

What I wanted to say was, I haven’t slept more than nine hours in five days.

***

I went home and looked everywhere. In the mess of our move tax returns were buried under towels and yo-yo’s, garbage cans stood empty next to boxes that overflowed with trash, but I found the letter. Small wins like this made me feel like the tide was turning, like this straw could still be spun into gold. It was a trick that I kept falling for.

I went back to the office and handed over the letter. I felt accomplished because I had done this one, right thing for my son. All of his other needs seemed immense and impossible but I could do this. He was twelve, he was starting a new school two days after his fathers memorial. He was anxiety and tears in skinny jeans and a sweatshirt. I could barely save myself and I had no idea how to handle him or help. I couldn’t reach him and I couldn’t honestly say I was trying. A good mother would be holding and reassuring her broken child, spending every waking moment trying to heal this deep wound. I hid in my room and stared at walls. Registering him for school proved I was still his mother. I had found the letter and he would have a school and that was proof that I could do something.

The admin took the letter from my hand and continued punishing her keyboard.

Shaking her head she said, “Nope. He’s been dropped from our rolls. You were supposed to register him last week.” She seemed disgusted by me. I was disgusted by me. “You need to go to the district and get your new assignment.”

This school and its proximity to the house and to the only kid Dash knew in the Bay Area was what I had built our entire move upon. Without this school every single thing would unravel.

My eyes welled with tears that didn’t roll down my cheeks. Sometimes crying feels good. This felt stupid and not grown up. I sucked them back into my eyes where they stayed and burned.

“Look,” I said, “I know your job is hard and it’s the first day of school and you are swamped, but is there anything you can do?”

What I wanted to say was, It’s really hard for me to deal with people right now. I spend a lot of time standing in the shower, talking to the tiles, practicing how to have interactions like this one so I don’t freak people out or start crying. How am I doing?

But instead I pleaded with her and again told her my story. My son’s father had died. I would have been here to register Dash for school, but his dad had died. And he was dead. I tried to pour words all over the problem to make her understand.

“I can’t help you,” she said. “You need to go to downtown to the district office and get a pink piece of paper.”

What I wanted to say was, It took him years to die overnight. He was an alcoholic. Drank himself to death at 47. I mean we don’t know for sure if it was alcohol poisoning, we won’t know that until we get the toxicology back. Toxicology! I know, right? I have a homicide detective assigned to me and everything. Her name is Denise and she came to his memorial. Isn’t that nice? I had to call the Medical Examiner and their hold music is awful. I don’t know how to live the next hour let alone the rest of my life ha ha ha ha.

I wanted to tell her all of it, just bleed it out all over her stupid tappy keyboard.

I wanted to say, Last night, instead of sleeping, I spent two hours screaming into different pillows and recording the sound on my phone. I was trying to find the one that muffled my sobs the best. Bed pillows were just too fluffy. A red felt accent pillow from the couch was the one that absorbed the most sound. I had to do this because my son asked me if I could please stop crying because it made him “uncomfortable.”

But I couldn’t say that. Because normal people don’t say things like that or do things like that. We don’t gut ourselves in front of strangers to show them what we had for lunch. We don’t do it because it’s shocking and gross but also because no one really cares what we had for lunch anyway.

All those words stayed trapped in my head and I only squeaked out a small “please.”

She resumed her typing. “I can’t help you. You need to go to the district and get a pink piece of paper.”

I wanted to say, I don’t think I want to die, but I am not sure I want to live either. How do I figure out if I want to live or die? Is there a Buzzfeed quiz or something because I can say with zero emotion that from here it looks like a toss up.

Instead I said, “Is there nothing else you can do for me?”

She turned her attention back to her screen and said, “Not without the pink piece of paper.”

I got into my filthy car to go downtown. It barely had any gas and my phone was almost dead. But driving to the school district office felt normal and that was rare. I thought if I did normal things that life would fall back into place. I would walk into a store and buy something and think, OK, this is a thing I did before what I am doing now. Look! I went to the grocery store and bought blueberries and detergent. Because I do things like this and this is what everything used to feel like.

And I would get home and discover that I had bought dishwasher pods instead of the laundry pods I needed and I would drop my head against the counter and sob and collapse under the notion that this will never stop. That these failures will be permanent and excruciating. From here on out I will get it all wrong and until the grave, I will have sparkling dishes and filthy socks.

***

As I drove to the district office I kept thinking that if Josh’s death had lost us the school the domino effect on my life was endless. I hadn’t registered Dash because I wasn’t here because Josh died. His drinking had laid waste to countless evenings, holidays, and birthdays, and our marriage. His dead hands reached out and threw cheap white wine into my face and all over my plan and our new life. Death by definition should stop you in your tracks. Josh was SUPPOSED TO NOT BE DEAD. He wasn’t supposed to be lying in a metal drawer waiting for the coroner to release his body. He was supposed to have gotten sober.

His death had ripped the tourniquet off the fury I had held back for years. Every word I could never shout at him bled from me in rivers. In my head, I beat him with words of rage, pummeled him to a pulp with my hate. But every once and a while the light of a sweet memory swept the darkness away. I remembered every flower he ever bought me. I repeated the Dorothy Parker poem that I had recited on the corner of Chattanooga and Church Street in San Francisco on the night that we met. I replayed the scene over and over. He kneels down on the ground and kisses my hand and says, “That’s for knowing who Dorothy Parker is.” I wanted to tell him I am sorry that I got mad and stayed that way. And I wanted to scream and scream because it was us and it was our story and important and how could it just not matter now?

***

In the district building several parents waited in the hallway for a change of school, word of a new teacher or a last minute immunization record. I was told to go in the office and get a number. The woman behind the counter looked up. “What do you need?”

I said, “My son’s father died unexpectedly, so we missed registration at our assigned school last week. I need to get back into that school.” I thought throwing “unexpectedly” in there would make her understand that this wasn’t cancer or a heart attack. There was no final, sweet handholding, morphine-dripping, hospital-jello-eating goodbye. This was a hunting knife splitting a sheet. It was an upending.

She stared at me blankly.

“I guess I need a number?” I said. As she walked across the room to the pile of numbers on her desk, I thought: ‘Take a number, any number!’

How about 0.0? That’s what he blew on the Breathalyzer in my kitchen before he was allowed to take Dash to dinner. It was the last time I saw him alive.

How about 12? Dashiell’s age when I sat him down on a Saturday morning to tell him his dad had died.

Or take 13, the number of years we were married.

Or 20, the number of years we were together.

“Here,” she said as she pushed a card across the counter. “Number 21.”

21! Our shared birthdate. Him April 21st; me November 21st. 21 was our lucky number.

***

A young woman walked through the fifteen seated parents checking numbers, following up with their issues. “You need this form. I need your ID.”

Finally, she called, “Number 21?”

I raised my hand.

“What do you need?”

What did I need? I needed for this to matter to someone other than me and if I had to burn the world to gain some camaraderie in my misery, so be it. My friendly voice was gone, replaced by a serious tone, that was loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Yes. You can help me. My 12-year old son’s father died last week and we missed registration because we were burying him. I was told we were dropped from the school we were assigned to, but that if I want to get in, I need a pink piece of paper. Can you give me the pink paper? I need to get my son back into the school we were assigned to. I need to talk to someone who can give me the pink paper.”

The other parents in the hallway turned to look. I officially had the worst problem in the room, and unless they were willing to produce a corpse themselves, I was the victor.

The woman said, “I am so sorry. I’ll be right back.”

I said, “Thank you” and fidgeted with the useless papers in my hands.

What I wanted to say, to the other parents who were so uncomfortable looking at me, was, If you think that makes you squirm, you have no idea the tidal wave I am holding back. I’m not very good at impressions, but Josh’s father made the strangest animal noise when I called him in London to tell him his son had died. Parents aren’t supposed to ever hear things like that and I am definitely not the person to say them. I want to show you a map of the stars I stare at every night while I scream into the red pillow. I am the woman who cries on BART every day. Can you please give me recipes for food that won’t turn into sand in my mouth? I have forgotten a lot of things, but I will always remember what it felt like scrubbing my ex’s dried brown blood out of the stone white sink in his apartment. I demand an apology and I am deeply sorry. He can never forgive me, but can my son? Can you? If you can’t grant me me absolution, then just give me a fucking break.

Instead I stared at my hands. Almost as if on cue, everyone turned away and resumed their conversations.

I felt bad about telling people what happened to him and to us, almost embarrassed. Like it’s attention seeking. “Look at me and my sadness! Feel for me!”

She returned with the pink paper, and said, “I am so sorry he passed. Please accept my condolences.”

I think “passed” is a weird euphemism for death. As if death swings by and picks you up in some quiet luxury sedan and ferries you away from this world. Driving away, you pass your life and your family. You pass. But death isn’t a smooth ride and a leather interior. Death is a stick shift with a bad transmission. Death has teeth and purpose and every intention of sticking as close to you as it can for as long as it can. Death picks up its passenger, but it also takes everyone who loved that person and ties them tightly to the bumper, like cans on a newlyweds car. Sure they will eventually fall off, but brother, it’s gonna take a lot of miles.

Josh’s death had separated him from us, but not us from him, and now that we were back in California I realized that this feeling was not going anywhere. Registering Dash for 6th grade, opening the mail, talking to people he knew. It was all part of the same. They were all part of this thing. His death would keep stirring up the past and I had every confidence it was set to devour the future. Because death stays. Death rides the clutch.

Lennlee Keep is a nonfiction writer, filmmaker, storyteller and mother of a teenager. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Southeast Review, ESME and The Fix. Her films have been shown on PBS, A&E and the BBC. The ex-wife of a dead guy, she talks about grief and dying more than most people are comfortable with. She is much funnier than all of the above might lead you to believe. This piece was originally published in the Southeast Review.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Breeze

November 15, 2019
breeze

By Lisa Poulson

As I walked out of the grand lobby of the apartment building onto Riverside Drive, a soft, plangent breeze lilted across my face, swaying my hair. Equal parts summer humid and fall crisp, the breeze coming off of the river felt so delicious on my cheek that I had to stop, close my eyes and drink it in. For nineteen days, my skin hadn’t tasted a touch that delicate, that present, that sublime.

Nineteen days before I found my fiance in the ICU after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks.

As I walked into the hospital room he was still and barely breathing, his face so swollen and bloodied it was only his eyelashes I recognized, his body so broken it was only his fingertips I knew. No other fingertips traced my face the way his had.

Careful to avoid the IVs as I reached for his hand, I found that it was still warm. But the Coast Guard said he had been underwater for fifteen minutes. Was the soul I deeply and eternally loved still inside of that mashed and broken body? Would those fingertips ever come back to me?

Marc lay in the hospital bed, never opening his eyes, never parting his beautiful lips to say a word.

On the third day, the swelling from his injuries decreased enough for the doctors to do an EEG. When they said there was “no organized brain activity,” it was clear what that meant. Marc’s mind and soul were gone, even if his lungs were pushing air in and out on their own. I left the hospital with a leaden heart.

On the fourth day, his lungs stopped doing their work. He slipped away on his own, before dawn.

At the cemetery, when the hearse opened and I saw the coffin, I almost lost my capacity to stand. How could the strong, beautiful body I loved be in that box?

Two weeks after the funeral I was still in a stumbling, useless daze. Grief came in molten waves that flowed into my body with no warning, drowning my senses and suffocating my capacity to reason.

Sometimes it came when I woke in the morning and realized anew that he was gone. Sometimes it seized me in the middle of the afternoon at work, or in a restaurant, or on the train. When these waves overtook me, my mind and my senses would desert me as the heat rose from my gut or my heart. I would no longer be able to hear what people were saying to me, comprehend time or speak. The grief would growl and stretch, enveloping my whole body and subsuming my brain. I would shake, or sweat, or cry, or all of the above when it had possession of me.

***

I couldn’t be in my apartment because it was too full of his absence. He was not standing in the kitchen making us dinner, he was not sitting on the sofa inviting me to lay my head against his chest, he was not kneeling beside me to pray aloud with profound gratitude for our relationship at the end of the day. He was not there to nurture my quiet, budding hope of a life filled with love.

I did not go to work. I did not cook. I did not do laundry. I stayed with friends, barely able to breathe in and out. The competent 30-year-old I used to be was lost.

But there on Riverside Drive, nineteen days later, a moment of unexpected grace reached through my grief. I closed my eyes as the nerves under my skin awakened to the delicate sensation of the tender breeze.

My skin didn’t understand why it hadn’t been touched. I hadn’t realized how lost and hungry it was.

I opened my eyes to the afternoon sun glowing over the Hudson, my heart full of compassion for the mute grief of my body. I hear you, I said. I will care for you.

Lisa Poulson, is a San Francisco-based tech veteran. She has her own business as a communications coach and is reinventing herself as a writer. Lisa can be found on twitter as @thelisapoulson.

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Grief, Guest Posts, motherhood

What Grief May Come

October 4, 2019
dreams

By Becky Benson

Seven years on and the dreams keep coming.  Not with any discernable rhyme or reason; rather they enter my unconscious thought seemingly beholden to nothing other than their own unknowable will.  They’ve never been exactly alike, no repeating patterns, and for all other intense and purpose one would assume there was no connection between them at all.  It’s the underlying theme that connects them; one of grief and guilt.

It’s the details, so subtle they seem to play no real part in the story working itself out in my sleep-filled mind.  So trivial they are of no concern to plot of the wakeless movie my brain projects against the backs of my eyelids.  There’s never any alteration due to my actions.  After it happens a scene may simply stop, or the story moves along without addressing it again.  Only when I wake does the panic take the place of the air in my lungs.  And only in my wakeful mind does any of it make any sense.

It’s the only time I dream of her.  Never seeing her when I’m in a realm of happiness or a state of content.  The dreams themselves only ever spin a terrifying line of questioning that lacks rationale, but presents itself to me as unavoidable reality, nonetheless.  Dreams that ceaselessly rip open the innerworkings of my thoughts and force me to contemplate my deeply buried fears.

It could be hours, days or even weeks, and in my dreams I always forget.  It’s my fault, and I didn’t do enough.  She’s laid there, unable to move the slightest bit or cry out the smallest cry, for who knows how long before I realize I have to feed her.  I forget again and again.  I never give her enough.  I don’t give it to her often enough.  I try, but it never works.  She’s on the periphery of whatever else I’m doing, and by the time I realize it, it’s always too late.  She needed it long before.  And then she’s gone.

Over and over again it isn’t enough.  Over and over again in my dreams, as it was in life, I couldn’t save her.

Tay-Sachs disease is a genetic condition that is always fatal.  Infants who are born with the flawed recessive genes their parents passed on to them will suffer a relentless regression of their mental and physical abilities until death; usually by the age of four.  As their bodies shut down they will not develop the ability to walk or talk as typically growing children do, rather they will become paralyzed and blind, suffer seizures, and lose their ability to swallow, and all of their mental cognition.

Feeding was laborious and difficult.  Her inability to swallow well consumed my daily routine.  If liquids were too thin, she would choke, if her food was too thick, she couldn’t chew. I desperately fed her four ounces at a time, five times a day ensuring I maintained that perfect balance of nutrition, hydration, and caloric density that carried her body to the next morning.  Never more than four ounces at a time as she tired so quickly from the effort it took to consume even that small amount.  I blended in peanut butter, melted butter, bananas and heavy cream.  Scoops of formula and PediaSure accompanied strawberries or chocolate milk.  Baby food, step two, not three; three has chunks, were fortified with cereal flakes or Miralax, depending upon necessity.

Feeds could take up to half an hour each time, and even at that, she was lucky she was still highly functioning enough to eat by mouth at all.  Lucky she wasn’t aspirating her food, or her medication at that point.

I lived my life, day in and out for her.  I happily carved out a routine that was dedicated to her as the center of our world, and our every waking moment was spent making sure she had what she needed to survive for as long as she could.

It wasn’t long enough.  She died at the age of three years and four months, and even though I had known all along it was coming it’s something a mother can never truly prepare for.  It goes against everything we hold dear and that rings true in nature for a parent to lose a child.

I don’t remember when the dreams began, but they’ve haunted me since their inception.  I couldn’t fix her.  I couldn’t save her.  She was broken in this world.  I knew it.  It was biology.  I wasn’t afraid to confront the reality of it; I just despised the fact that it was our reality.  As a mother, facing the impending loss of your child is a soul crushing place to exist.

Grief and rationale rarely go hand in hand, so while I logically know that there was nothing I could do better, and nothing I did wrong, something inside always screams at me, clawing its way to the surface of my conscious thought that it was I who wasn’t enough.  I, her mother; the utter failure with the dead child.  We have one job as parents; it’s to keep them safe from harm.  One job.  I couldn’t do it.  And in the end, it’s true, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t stop Tay-Sachs from ravaging her body, and I couldn’t stop it from ripping her from this world and my arms.  Nothing I could have done better, or more, or different would have changed it, but still the dreams come.

They’ve shifted, recently.  It isn’t always her any longer.  Sometimes it’s kittens.  In the dreams they live in our garage.  I never quite know where they came from, but sometimes I remember they’re there.  So small and unassuming, hiding in dark corners without sound or movement.  I realize it’s been weeks since I’ve fed them, given them water.  I’ve forgotten their existence altogether, all over again, and I search through the maze of boxes and overflowing items to find out if they’re still alive.

Waking I recognize the garage as the garage of my childhood home, but in the dream it’s the garage in my home of today.  It’s cluttered and cramped, and no place to keep a living animal.  I never know why they’re there, and I never think to bring them into the house.  I just remember, finally, after all seems lost that they need food and water.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine posted a question on Facebook asking about what recurring dreams people have.  I shared my experiences with this, and how logical me knows it all stems from emotional me’s irrational feelings of failure toward her.  I wrote on the thread that I didn’t think these dreams would be as impactful as they are if she were still here.  We as parents are given new opportunities each and every day to make more and more mistakes, but when we see our children living and thriving, we know it’s all ok.  Parents of loss don’t have the confirmation of their actions having been the correct choices.  We don’t have the luxury of tomorrow.  Our children are gone, and whether we attribute that to our own actions, or lack thereof, we will never be able to rectify their loss within our hearts.

Predictably, someone else, someone I don’t know chimed in on the thread with some unwanted advice for me.  He said, “Becky, I am sorry you are having those dreams.  I’m certain once you are able to let the guilt go those dreams will end.  Think of the great dreams you could be having about her.  Love and hugs”.

I was mildly irritated.  It was something so flippantly obviously that certainly shouldn’t deign to be pointed out, especially by someone who likely couldn’t relate on a personal level (I took the liberty of assuming he couldn’t relate first-hand since he didn’t state his own loss of a child).  “As if it’s just that easy”, I thought.  Of course I need to let the guilt go.  I have nothing to feel guilty about, this is just how my particular brand of grief seems to manifest, no matter my attempts to avoid it, or face it hear-on to change it in these last seven years.  I didn’t respond.  In the end, he was trying for kindness, and I should accept it for that.

I didn’t give the comment any more thought and went about my way.  Last night I dreamt that I was with her again.  My husband was with us.  We had somewhere to go, but I stopped us before we left.  Thinking that we’d be out a fair amount of time, I recognized that I should feed her then, before we left.  I filled her bottle, expertly mixing the correct proportions of the necessary ingredients and fed her smoothly and easily.  When I she was done, I began to mix up some food for her in a bowl.  It was soft, but chunky.  It needed to be mashed.  I mashed it by hand repeatedly, taking great care and concern to achieve the correct consistency.  I fed it to her gingerly spoonful by spoonful until she had eaten it all.  For the first time, I looked longingly at her and relished in the fact that she was well fed.  It felt like an accomplishment.  I remember smiling.  The was no more of the dream after that.  It vaporized like dew in the sunshine.

Perhaps I had sat with this form of grief, repeatedly emotionally beating myself down long enough.  Was finally speaking it aloud all I had to do?  Was hearing the validation that my guilt was unnecessary all I needed?  Will the dreams stop now?

Becky A. Benson lives in Washington State. Read her work on Modern Loss, Brain.Child, Modern Mom, The Manifest Station, her Three Short Years blog, and in the pages of Taylored Living Magazine. She has both written and Spoken for Soulumination, The National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association, and The Center for Jewish Genetics. Purchase a copy of her memoir, Three Short Years, based on the death of her daughter from Tay-Sachs disease, here or connect with her via Rise: A Community for Women.

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Grief, Guest Posts, self-loathing

From Cutter to Mother

August 16, 2019
writing

By Marni Berger

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy!
From “Letter to a Friend” by Fra Giovanni, 1513

When I was eighteen, my grief over the death of my grandmother, who was like a second mother to me, manifested in cutting. I began cutting my arms and legs and thinking of dying. I didn’t want to die, really, so I didn’t go too far, but I’d sit alone in my room and carve away with one of the dull steak knives we had in the drawer, or the Swiss Army Knife my oldest brother brought me from his first study abroad trip, whose adventures I remember made him so happy to retell. I’d watch the blood come out like beads, so small, but so clear that something was hurting me.

I had made friends, in high school and the summer after starting college, with other intense souls who did similar things to themselves, and we fell in love with each other in a friendship sort of way. There are two sweet friends who come to mind now, pale-faced, full of light. With one, I spent a summer drinking smoothies and iced coffee and imagining how the English language sounded to someone who didn’t speak it while cracking up on too much caffeine and dreaming of kissing boys; the other taught me to juggle with a few hacky sacks I kept in my room, and I dreamed of kissing him. No one understands me, we said to each other often. But you. They both died in the span of five years, one drowned, an accident. But I raged when my second friend died, when I found out she had hanged herself. I was living in New York City, not far from where her body had gone unnoticed for days, and bloodied myself worse than before, so now I have scars.

No one understands me, but you. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Absence

May 22, 2019
eyes

By Rachel Greenley

Green is the rarest of eye colors—only two percent of the world’s population. My children had a fifty-percent chance to be born with green eyes. When the twins were born with blue, I was blue. I lie in one hospital bed. My green-eyed husband, Jim, lie in another. We were thirteen miles apart. He was undergoing total body irradiation as I gave birth, his pale hospital gown tied in the back just like mine, his own plastic hospital bracelet around his wrist just like mine.

Melanin is pigment. It makes hair, skin, eyes light or dark. Absence of melanin is a palette devoid of color—a blank slate, an empty canvas, a hollow grief. Have you seen the eyes of someone grieving? They carry a particular look—as if pain’s sharp layers could live in an iris.

Stroma is a layer of tissue in the iris. The amount of melanin or pigment in one’s stroma creates eye color. Albino eyes lack pigment. Blue eyes have a touch. More melanin leads to green. A healthy dose delivers brown. From faint to blue to green to brown. Inherited from parents’ genes. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Letting Her Go

April 30, 2019
woman

By Jaz Taihreen

As I write this, I am watching my mother shrink.

I am in her hospital room, watching this mountain of a woman reduce to a pebble. The cancer is metastatic. Her brain is saturated in it. They say has 5-7 days left. Somewhere in my head, a clock has started. I cannot remember my thoughts for more than a few moments. I am trying to actively listen to my father as he tells stories about their past year after they received the initial diagnosis. Stage 4. Small C cell. Most aggressive.

She is 58.

I am sitting here watch a flurry of nurses come in and out. She is unresponsive until they wake her to do another test. Another vial of blood. Another blood pressure scan. Today I toured hospices because…5 to 7 days. That’s it. Her life reduced to days. Her moments can be counted like my fingers. I am watching her fade away, like the end of a song. I am scared of the silence.

Watching someone you love die is…for lack of a better term…fucked up. When my son died, it was sudden. I found him and it was already over. With my mother I am watching her slowly turn the corner to whatever is next. She is dreaming but she purses her lips the way she does when she doesn’t want to cry and it bring tears to mine, stinging the backs of them. I can’t bring myself to eat because she can’t. I’m sitting here trying to remember the good things like everyone is telling me to. To soak in any moments I can – but I don’t want to remember this. I don’t want to remember bearing witness to my mother’s disappearance from this world. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Surviving

Stonehenge, Survival, and Me

January 23, 2019

By Angela M Giles

Today is the day of my father’s death.  He was a successful suicide, which is to say my father failed at living. The loss of him, his choice not to stay with us, hurts, badly. This is something I have to carry, and it is a permanent wound that is deep and open. My body has been carrying so much, for so long.
 
I have been in London over the past days and it has been a satisfying and humbling trip. Satisfying because the time here has been utterly, fantastically delightful. Humbling, because this was a trip that was cancelled after a car accident that I was lucky to survive.

Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, loss

Dear Benjamin

May 13, 2018
boy

By Jennifer Roberts

My sweet boy,

I am sorry it took me so long to write to you. There’s so much I’ve wanted to say, but didn’t know where to start. How does a mommy write a letter to her baby that died? Mommies should never have to think about that at all. This is going to be full of words that are so different than what I would be saying to you if you were still here. I’m sure if you were here I wouldn’t feel the need to write you a letter at all, I would just tell you to your sweet little face how loved you are.

Next week you would be turning 20 months old. I can’t believe it’s been that long since I became your mom and since I last saw you.  I could have told you already that I’m sorry my body failed you and you had to be born 8 weeks early, but most likely I wouldn’t even be worried about that anymore. I might have told you that I am sorry for complaining about the heartburn and hip pain while you were growing inside me, but possibly I wouldn’t even feel bad about it now.

Since things turned out the way they did and you are not here, I have felt the need to let you know that I am sorry that I complained. I am sorry my body didn’t do what it was supposed to. I am sorry you were robbed of your life so early and never got to come home. I am sorry I needed a C-Section and you never got to be held until you were gone. I’m sorry that all you ever felt was the NICU bed and needles and stuff stuck to your skin. Continue Reading…