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death

Fiction, Grief, Guest Posts

Emergency Cigarette

June 25, 2021
barb

By Ellen Wade Beals

Barb thinks she’ll call out, “Hello,” but when the front door key sticks in the lock, she has a moment to realize that Bernadette, her mother, is gone. To call out seems kind of maudlin, but Barb does it anyway. That’s how she’s feeling. What better place than an empty house to show those feelings? Her “hello” sounds feeble.

The house smells fusty, which would have driven Bernadette crazy. She’d be opening windows. “Let’s get some fresh air in here.”

It’s been three days since the funeral. Barb had needed a break. Now she plans to start the first rash of cleaning out her mother’s home. She’s been dreading the task. Sifting through all her mother’s possessions—it’s like paring down a life. And so final.

Today’s goal:  tackle the top layer, the trash that can be safely tossed without regrets. The hard stuff—whatever was too good to toss but of no use to her; her mother’s personal items; the things Barb would look at for fifteen minutes and still not know what to do with—is for another day. This is the preliminary trash day, she told herself and Alec and Aunt Rosemarie who had offered to help, and she can handle it. She’ll get as many trash bags done as she could and that will be that.

Barb drops the box of giant plastic bags in the hallway and looks around. She slips off her shoes. Though the lady herself is gone this is still her mother’s house. Neat and tidy. But chilly. She goes to the thermostat to turn up the heat and then to the closet to hang up her jacket.

First order of business: her mother’s winter coat, the green one she’d bought new for Barb’s graduation and that was over 25 years ago. She checks the pockets (nothing but lint) and notices the sleeves, so worn the coat couldn’t go to charity. On the front collar of the coat is the Christmas wreath brooch Bernadette had bought at Woolworth’s and wore every holiday season for as long as Barb could remember. She unpins it and tucks it in her jeans pocket.

Barb puts her nose to the wool blend and recalls the afternoon they met on the Evanston corner before going to the movies. The cold air was so clear that Barb could smell the coffee on Bernadette’s breath when she spoke: “Lead the way.” They were going to see Philomena, about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby. That they chose the  movie without first reading the reviews was a mistake, it turned out, because it brought up issues. Barb had to bite her tongue lest she sputter that the Catholic church could be evil. Bernadette’s reaction was “At least the child wasn’t denied life.” Barb sensed Bernadette held back too. Though she was adamant about the mortal sin of abortion, the son in the movies had been gay, and Bernadette did not exactly denounce homosexuality. Instead she shook her head and summed it up as something she could not understand. At least they both liked Judi Dench

She slides the coat off the hanger, notices the label and  laughs. In marker are written the initials “B. S.” Bernadette always said one reason she named her daughter Barbara was so they’d share a monogram. That way if she ever had a mink with her initials embroidered on the silk lining, she could leave it to Barb and the monogram would still be right. The uneven block letters on the tag make Barb a little sadder–one of Bernadette’s ideas that never came to pass. When she billows the garbage bag to open it, the noise is so harsh it makes her grimace. In it goes.

She moves into the bedroom and opens the big dresser drawer. Beige and white, the bras and panties have that funky rubbery smell of old elastic. All sorts of cotton and rayon, no lace, no silk. Lots of Platex. Or ordered from an ad in Parade Magazine. She grabs handfuls to add to the trash bag. Secondhand underwear. Nobody wants that.

Beneath the underwear are cards and letters, but she dares not start with them lest she get waylaid. Her mother saved all the cards she ever received. She can see the corner of a pink envelope, knows it was from her father, and doesn’t have to pull it out to picture her Father’s perfect Palmer method handwriting. Ephemera, that’s what it’s called, but just seeing the envelope evokes her father. What if he were still alive?  How might their lives have been different? Maybe he would have softened Bernadette because sometimes she was hard. Especially on herself. On the dresser top is their wedding photo, black and white, Buddy was in a dark suit and Bernadette wore a lace mantilla veil.

Since his death in 1982, Buddy has gone on to sainthood. Bernadette idolized him. Countless times throughout her childhood and even more-so when her mother had grown infirm. Bernadette would proclaim, “My one and only” or “the love of my life,” and hold the framed photo to her heart. A rare moment of weakness and heartfelt emotion that Bernadette let show.

As she pushes the drawer shut with her hip, Barb tries to think whether she’d describe Alec as the love of her life. Maybe. But not in the same way Bernadette meant it. They were partners.

Especially as she got older and dated and moved out, Barbara wondered whether companionship wasn’t something Bernadette lacked. There was no one. No other. But it was not a subject her mother cared to discuss. Bernadette worked as a receptionist for a dentist, Dr. Ken, since 1986. For a while when Barb was in her teens, she entertained the idea that maybe he was her mother’s love interest. But that was not the case. Bernadette was loyal to the dentist and even protective of him, but it was just old-fashioned respect. He was a doctor and he was her boss. That was that.

“My one and only,” Barb says to herself. Her voice sounds tinny. Suppose her father had not died –what then? No matter how she thinks about the question, there is really no answer.

Barb drops the bag by the bedroom door and heads to the kitchen. The only male who sparked anything in Bernadette was Bill O’Reilly. She watched him every day. If Barb called while The O’Reilly Factor was on, Bernadette asked her to call back, she wanted to watch. When Barb asked what was so special about him, Bernadette would say, “He’s just so no-nonsense,” and “He’s easy on the eyes.”

“Anderson Cooper is handsome,” Barb had countered once but Bernadette wasn’t hearing it

“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”

Later when Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges and lost his show, Barbara didn’t want to bring it up. By then Bernadette was sick again.

Barb flicks on the kitchen light switch and the fluorescent fixture buzzes awake. If Barbara’s purging of the house goes okay, she’ll have to chalk that up to Bernadette. Her mother had a file folder “My Demise,” and it had all the necessary papers – the DNR and Living Will, the last Will and Testament, the contact info for the attorney, the numbers (and even PIN numbers) to Bernadette’s banking and credit accounts.

Barb hadn’t known how to go about selling the house but, on the refrigerator,  there was a magnet from a Realtor, Mike Toomey, who specialized in estate cases like this. Bernadette’s house will be listed in two weeks. It will sell pretty fast, he’s assured her. As is.

In the kitchen, the Formica is the same: boomerangs in grays and pink on an open field. The refrigerator’s been replaced over the years. It’s a bare bones side-by-side Kenmore, meticulously maintained by Bernadette. Just the other week Barb came across the wire brush contraption her mother used to dust the condensers.

A couple of weeks ago, when her mother was still in hospice, Barb gave the refrigerator a once-over, so today it does not contain much: a carton of creamer she doesn’t dare open, the green carboard can of Parmesan cheese, some other condiments, all of which she dumps. The freezer is more packed.

Barb pulls up a kitchen chair, slides the garbage can over to her side and sits in front of the open freezer compartment. There are two standard blue plastic ice cube trays. But typical Bernadette, there are also two of the old-fashioned aluminum kind that are louvered like window blinds. Bernadette never threw out anything that was still useful.

As Barb puts the trays in the sink for the ice to melt, she notices something stuck to the bottom of one of the aluminum trays. It’s a white envelope, labeled clearly: Emergency Cigarette. Barb stares at it. She touches the letters.

When Barbara was in fifth grade, she had her first health class and came home with handouts on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. It was obvious to both of them that  her mother should quit smoking. Bernadette made a promise to Barbara. She remembers it clearly. They were at the kitchen table. Barbara rested her head on her crossed arms. The Formica felt cool. No more, Bernadette told her, only maybe this one exception. Barbara watched side eyed as her mother took the last Kent from its pack and wrapped it in waxed paper, which she carefully creased into a rectangle that she then tucked into a small envelope. With a black felt-tip marker, she wrote on a white business-sized envelope: Emergency Cigarette. She put the smaller envelope into this, sealed it.

“I’ll feel better knowing it’s there if I ever need it,” Bernadette told Barb. “What if there were an emergency and I needed something to calm my nerves? The last thing I’d want to do is run out to buy a pack.” Then Bernadette walked to the fridge and stashed the envelope.

“Of course, I’m hoping we’ve had all the emergencies we’re going to.” Bernadette raised her eyes to heaven.

Her father Buddy had been a big man in every way. He was an ex-Marine who worked as a building engineer at the Standard Oil Building. He took the earliest train there every morning. He had a clunker car, Old Bess, a Ford Maverick, banana yellow, that he drove to their station and back.

Bernadette and Barbara were stumped when it was still in the lot, even after the later train. He wasn’t in the tavern across from the station. He wasn’t anywhere they looked that Friday night. They came home exasperated and could hear the phone ringing as Bernadette put the key in the lock, but it stuck when she turned it until finally the bolt released and Bernadette shoved open the door, “It’s bad news Barbie I just know it.”

She ran to the phone, but it had stopped ringing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.” The phone rang again. Buddy’d had a fatal heart attack on the 4:04. Her mother crumpled and then let out a cry that pierced Barb..

She feels the envelope; the cigarette’s still there but it seems different, shorter maybe. After that day so many years ago, Barb never saw her mother smoke again. She puts the envelope on the counter to deal with later and tries to resume her work, marveling at the thought Bernadette had kept that cigarette all these years.

Her mother’s ability to hang onto things seems impressive now. When she was a kid, Bernadette’s frugality only embarrassed her. She can still feel how the color rose in her cheeks. It was recess, sixth grade, always a fraught time, but she felt good, wearing the new sweater her mother had given her the night before–a Fair Isle pullover, off-white with forest green and purple accents; the label had a name she didn’t recognize.

AmberLee Donovan practically announced, “Oh my god, my sister had that sweater and my mother just donated it to rummage sale at church. Where did you get it?” Barbara knew then where Bernadette had gotten it, but she had no answer for AmberLee. That night Bernadette had not understood why there was a problem. If AmberLee wanted to make fun of Barbara because she wore a perfectly good sweater, well, that was AmberLee’s problem. Bernadette, always big on the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, had admonished Barb, “Offer it up.”

Barb stands, shuts the freezer, walks to the counter, and picks up the white envelope to inspect it again. She presses it gently between her fingers. Had Bernadette smoked it, or had it shrunk from the cold?

Barb opens it carefully not wanting to rip her mother’s printing. A cigarette is there, but this one is wrapped in Saran.

She looks again at the envelope. This is a different Emergency Cigarette.

Sure enough, it’s a Marlboro Light, not a Kent. And the tip is gone. Bernadette must have had a drag or two and then put it out and snipped it with a scissors. But it’s been smoked because the filter is yellowed and there’s Bernadette’s lipstick, Tangerine Dream. Barb always urged her mother to change her lipstick color because it was far too orange for her rosy complexion. She even bought her a pink shade from Clinique but always Bernadette came back to Tangerine Dream.

She feels herself deflate. What? Did she expect her mother to never have smoked the Emergency Cigarette? Is she disappointed? Really? Get over yourself.

She’s not really mad at her mother for smoking. What hurts is that she didn’t know this about Bernadette. Maybe she would have seen her mother differently if she had known this vulnerability. Bernadette came across always so matter of fact, so certain.

When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?

Maybe when she got sick. After all, she kept it to herself. At first, she waited to see if the lump would go away. Then she kept the diagnosis quiet for at least a week. It was only after she made her first appointment to determine the course of her treatment that she called Barbara, asked if she would accompany her. Bernadette explained it was good to have another set of ears to hear everything the doctor said. Always practical.

At the appointment, when the nurse called her name, Bernadette started on her way to the examining room and Barb followed, but Bernadette halted in her steps, said, “I’ll have the nurse call you in when it’s time for the consultation.” For some reason that nearly brought Barb to tears right there in the waiting room. How stupid. Here she was crying when her mother was so strong.

Had Bernadette bought a pack of cigarettes during that time? Maybe she’d wanted one last smoke to steady her nerves. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t Barbara been at her side?

Barb always envied those close mothers and daughters who joked and teased. She and her mother had a strong connection, a reliance on one another– not a friendship. Now she had a sincere appreciation for Bernadette’s grit as a single mother. Growing up she hadn’t seen things so positively. She’d be the first to admit she’d been a haughty teenager who looked down on the life her mother wrought. Barb was going to accomplish something, not merely eke by. But after all those months of her mother’s being sick, of Barb coming up so often and sharing hours with her mother, they had come to a kind of ease with one another.

There was the circuit they did on Saturdays to the Greek diner and the grocery store and Dollar Tree, Bernadette’s favorite store. Some evenings they brought out the TV trays for dinner; Bernadette would say grace and they’d eat and watch the local news. Barb washed up and usually left when Wheel of Fortune was on. During the commercials Bernadette would switch to Special Report with Bret Bair.

How many times had her mother replaced the Emergency Cigarette? Barb shakes her head and takes her seat back at the open freezer.

Aside from a penchant for Fannie Mae candy, Bernadette didn’t have many bad habits. Butter was something she indulged in, stocked up on. And there it is: a one-pound brick, which hits the garbage bag solidly. Bernadette would kill her for throwing out good food, but there’s no going back.

Next in the trash is a bag of frozen peas, strictly used as an ice pack. Bernadette would drape a bag over her knee and settle into watch reruns of Law & Order, or NCIS, her favorite show, what with that Mark Harmon so handsome and so nice in real life—did Barb know he’d rescued someone from a burning car?

There are plastic containers (filled with what Barb doesn’t know, but suspects is cabbage soup). All of which she tosses without opening. She considers how she should really recycle them, but it’s garbage day tomorrow and everything must go. Clunk, clunk, clunk. A pint of Walgreen’s ice cream. Butter pecan. Clunk.

Between an olive green Tupperware and a butcher-wrapped chop, Barb finds another white envelope. This one is labeled “Emergency Cig, 2011,” so it has been in the freezer for seven years, for as long as Barb’s been married to Alec. Is that why her mother needed it? Bernadette and Alec never seemed to warm up to each other. “Your Alec is as smart as Alec Trebek,” Bernadette told Barb like it was a compliment, but Barb could decode it, knew it meant Bernadette felt intimidated. She didn’t correct her mother on the Jeopardy host’s first name.

Alec was raised a Catholic, so he had that going for him. His parents were from Cuba and he grew up in Miami. But like Barbara he was a lapsed Catholic. So, both of them disappointed their parents.  They managed to peeve everyone even more when they got married at the clerk’s office. Alec’s parents wanted to host a luncheon at their club to celebrate the nuptials. But Bernadette wouldn’t get on an airplane. So, to compensate Barb and Alec had a Chicago celebration; a brunch party at a nice restaurant. They invited their close friends along with Aunt Rosemarie, Bernadette’s priest friend Father Malec, and Dr. Ken and his wife. It hadn’t seemed stressful but maybe Bernadette had needed to light one up to get through it.

Barb puts this envelope on the counter next to the first one. She shuts the freezer, leans back in the chair, and closes her eyes.

How many cigarettes have there been? When had the first Kent been lit and when and how many Marlboros had she needed?

If her memory is correct and the first cigarette had been put away when she was in fifth grade, it was only a few years later that Barbara had changed, insisted on being called Barb or Barbara –she hated Barbie. The tweens. That was the start of when she could see only her mother’s shortcomings. Conformist. Boring. Barb had been such a handful, so strident, it was no wonder her mother hadn’t smoked carton after carton.

The heat comes on, and it makes a regular tick, once, twice, three times. Barb listens to the house; wonders if it will belong to someone loud after all these years of quiet.

She thought she might get teary when she cleaned out Bernadette’s dresser or smelled the White Shoulders perfume.  Instead, it’s here at the freezer where her feelings thaw.

Then it flashes to her, how egotistical she is to presume the reason her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette had anything to do with her. Didn’t her mother have a life of her own? Barb did not share with Bernadette, but maybe Bernadette didn’t share either. There could have been things she never mentioned. Worse even, it could be that something had upset her mother and she didn’t even know. And now would never know.

Or perhaps her mother, with her TV companions, poured herself a 7-Up and lit one up. She could picture it, maybe. Bernadette would take the time to arrange cheese and crackers on a plate and use cocktail napkins. She’d probably even used an ashtray, though it seemed the Emergency Cigarette was only smoked for a puff or two.

Barb would have known if her mother smoked then because she was around a lot; she came home to take care of her mother on those treatment days when the radiation and nausea sapped Bernadette’s strength. And most weekends. Barb had been a dutiful daughter, hadn’t she?

Come to think of it, with the world as crazy as it is, it could have been a news event that drove her mother to the white envelope in the freezer — 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? Surely the Emergency Cigarette was not from that long ago. Maybe it was when the classrooms of kindergartners were shot up?  Or something else. There were plenty of atrocities–there were many to choose from.

The freezer stands empty and the garbage bag sags like a heavy heart. Barb is ready to tie it up when she notices some items on the shelves of the door. Behind a sticky can of frozen orange juice concentrate, she finds another white envelope, this one with a plain face, no writing. How many emergency cigarettes had her mother needed?  And why did she save them? Had she lost count or forgotten them?  Was she further gone than Barb suspected?  Barb tosses the envelope on the counter.

Taking the full garbage bag to the can outside the kitchen door, Barb wonders how much she doesn’t know about her mother.

Back at the counter, the three cigarettes are lined up: a Marlboro Light, an Eve, and a Benson & Hedges, all partially smoked, each white filter ringed in faint tangerine. She gathers them all, brings them with her when she sits at the kitchen table.

Lately who hasn’t wanted to smoke and drink and tear their hair and jump off buildings?  Even Barb, Ms Health Consciousness, had been tempted to bum a smoke those weeks at the end of 2016, the situation so bleak with the election turning out as it did. And that was another thing that drove them apart. Really drove them apart.

“Even the Trib won’t endorse that woman,” Bernadette had told her when Barb brought up the election.

“But you’re going to vote for that man?”

“I’m voting for the Republican Party,” Bernadette said firmly. She never mentioned it again, but Barb thought about it a lot.

Such a disappointment. Barb could not come to terms with how Bernadette voted. It flabbergasted her. Of all the things she did not understand about her mother, this seemed the hardest for her to fathom. How could someone who valued decency vote for him? And now the cigarettes.

Her mother is dead and the man she voted for is the President and they are all left to deal with it. It’s a mess. The only mess Bernadette left behind.

They were getting to a good place with one another, she and her mother, where they understood and appreciated one another. But he ruined things between them just like he is ruining the nation. Everything tainted.

Here she is 46, the same age as Bernadette when she had her. She used to want a baby. But now she is glad she never conceived because the world is so screwed-up. When menopause started and the possibility of pregnancy diminished, Barb was relieved as well as disappointed, if that made any sense.

Her eyes are watery as she touches the cigarettes. She’ll smoke them all, one by one, just to imagine she is taking in some breath of her mother. But she can’t get up from the chair and she doesn’t have a match. All that’s in her pocket is that stupid Christmas brooch. Somewhere far down the street a car alarm starts up and then seems to fade away.

When Barb looks down at her hands, she finds that without thinking, she has broken the three half-cigarettes, crumbled them until the filters and paper and tobacco are in a pile on the table. Tears come. When she is done crying, she picks up the three tangerine-tinged filters, lines them up in the smoothed-out Saran, and carefully wraps them. This she puts in the smallest envelope, which she then tucks into next envelope, and then the last. She looks once again at the indelible printing: Emergency Cigarette. She brings the packet to her lips. Then she shifts in the chair to put it in her back pocket.

Only tobacco and paper shreds are left on the table. She brushes all the mess into her palm. Because the garbage can is empty, she doesn’t want to use it. Instead she opens the kitchen door and blows her hand clean, all the little bits flying this way and that.

Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland and the UK. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

death, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Bernoulli’s Heart

April 9, 2021
By Marco Etheridge

The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.

Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.

The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.

A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.

The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.

— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.

— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.

— What’s more redundant than a wake?

— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.

— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.

John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.

— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.

— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.

Staffen snorts, shakes his head.

— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.

— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.

He waves a dismissive hand.

— Are you living here in the old alma mater?

— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.

— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.

— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.

She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.

— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.

— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.

Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.

— Piss on them. A murder of crows.

He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.

— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.

— I hope so. Were you two still close?

— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?

— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.

— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.

— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.

Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.

— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.

Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.

— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.

— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.

— I know.

— Do you mind if I change the subject?

— Please do.

Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.

— How many funerals have you been to this year?

— That’s a morbid question.

— Humor me, you used to be good at it.

— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?

He nods, as if having something confirmed.

— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.

— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?

— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.

— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.

— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.

Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.

— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?

— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.

— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.

— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.

— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.

— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.

Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.

— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?

— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?

Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.

— Sorry, science and grief colliding.

— Which one of them is funny?

— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?

— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?

— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?

— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?

— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.

— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.

— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.

— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?

— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?

— No widows, no orphans. Why?

— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.

— Is this from first-hand experience?

— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.

Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.

— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?

— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.

Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.

— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?

He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.

— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.

— Something I’ll always be sorry about.

She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.

— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.

— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.

Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.

She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.

— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?

— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.

Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.

C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.

— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.

Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.

— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.

— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.

— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.

— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.

— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.

There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.

— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?

— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.

He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.

— What does happen next?

— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.

Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.

Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.

He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.

Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.

He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.

Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available now. Learn more about Marco at https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Transfer

February 5, 2021
tom

By Voyo Gabrilo

Little flecks of cheeseburger clung to Tom’s mustache as he stretched out, asleep, on the couch. The rest of the cheeseburger rested on his stomach, on top of the wrapper, and it fell to the floor once the phone rang.

“Y’ello,” he said, some of the cheeseburger sticking to the phone as he pressed it close to his mouth. “This is he… Of course, I understand… Thank you. I’m on my way… You have a good night as well.”

Tom was already half-dressed. His black slacks had a sandy appearance from the salty fries he had wolfed down on his way home earlier. He never cared for his cheeseburgers to be hot, but if the fries got cold, then they were history. He brushed his slacks until they recovered their blackness.

Before he made his way upstairs to get a clean shirt, he sat back on the couch. He picked up the cheeseburger from the floor, inspected it for hair or dust, then finished it. The cheese had hardened and got stuck in his throat. He needed something to drink.

On his way to the kitchen, Tom stepped on one of his kids’ nerf footballs and it caused him to lose balance and stub his toes on the piano. The piano had been there since before Tom’s wife, Peggy, moved out. It made itself house-inventory quietly.

There was not much left in the fridge. A couple of cans of beer. Tom reached for the last carton of milk instead. He stood a moment longer to see what he would need to buy on his way home, then went upstairs to get his clean shirt. He checked in on his twin boys, Rex and Royce, on his way back downstairs.

He looked around to see if he was missing anything when his eyes found the drink that came with his cheeseburger and fries. He rubbed his eyes, then took the drink with him and left, making sure to leave the sign on the inside door handle for the boys.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist at Regional Oaks Care asked Tom as he entered the facility.

“Yes, hello, I’m Tom Jacobs with Fitzgerald-Hill Funeral Homes,” Tom said.

“Oh, yes. Thank you for getting here so quickly. Ms. Hamps is in room G-11. So that’s this wing down this way. If you’d like to pull your car around that way, it’ll be easier access to her room.”

“Yes, thank you. Should I meet you…?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll call for someone to open the door and meet you outside there.”

“Thank you.”

The receptionist mimed ‘thank you’ with her lips and sat back down. Tom paused for a moment to get his bearings. He had been to Regional Oaks Care before, during the daytime. Now, at night, half the lights were turned off and the halls were empty.

Tom backed his van just up to the east entrance. The door was locked. He went back in the van to doze off before someone came and opened the door.

“Hello, sir,” a nurse said as Tom got out of the van.

“Hello. It’ll be just a moment.” Tom started getting out the cot from the back of the van. The nurse waited just inside the east entrance doors until Tom was ready, when she unlocked the doors and opened them.

“Thank you,” Tom said as he passed her, pushing the cart inside.

“You’ll turn left up ahead,” said the nurse, letting the doors close behind her as she followed Tom.

Room G-11 was four rooms down the hallway. Tom found the family inside, huddled together around the bed. One of the cot’s wheels squeaked as he brought it to a stop. The family turned and looked at Tom. The nurse made her way inside the room.

No one spoke for a couple of minutes. Tom bowed his head. He liked to give the families as much time as they needed. After some more time passed the family began to move slowly away from the bed. They whispered goodbye and some blew soft kisses to the newly departed.

They all left the room in single file, looking back at the bed. The nurse walked back in after having stepped out to let the family out. She asked Tom if he needed any assistance and left when he said no.

Tom paused to look at Ms. Hamps. She had a nightcap on top of her head that matched her beige gown. There were too many lines on her face to count and her neck had already turned grey. Tom unfolded the blanket from on top of Ms. Hamps and gently pushed her arms to her sides.

He moved the cot to the side of the bed. He looked over his shoulder and saw the family huddled together outside the door in the hallway. They peered into the room. Tom shuffled along the floor and closed the door, bowing his head to the family.

The cot had moved away from the bed while Tom went to close the door. The wheel that squeaked wasn’t locked properly and began to rattle as Tom moved it back to beside the bed. After another couple attempts, Tom took a tissue from the nightstand and placed it underneath the squeaky wheel that wouldn’t stay put.

Tom got Ms. Hamps onto the cot in one movement. He folded the blanket back over the now-empty bed and pushed the cot out of the room. The family inquired where Tom would be taking their loved one. Tom replied that she would be well taken care of at the chapel and that he would contact them in the morning after everyone’s had a night of rest.

“There Stands The Glass” was playing on the radio as Tom turned the van out of Regional Oaks Care and onto the road. Fitzgerald-Hill was a five-mile ride directly down the road. Tom looked out his rearview mirror to see if the family would follow him. When he saw that no one had followed him out of Regional Oaks Care, he turned the song louder.

He widened his eyes, lit a cigarette, and opened his window to let the early-morning breeze hit his face. It was still dark outside that headlights were needed. The road was uneven and Tom relied on his lights frequently so that he could swerve around a pothole or slow down when a squirrel presented herself in the van’s path.

Just as he pulled into the Fitzgerald-Hill parking lot, Tom lit a second cigarette. He parked the van in its spot, around the chapel’s entrance, let it idle, and continued to smoke. The sun faintly began its rise. Tom sat up straighter to look at himself in the rearview mirror. He played with the bags under his eyes, poking at them like they were filled with fluid. The smoke that emanated from his cigarette carried up to his eyes as he peered into the mirror and they began to redden; he squinted in order to continue to peer.

Checking his watch, Tom lit a third cigarette.

“You’re the lucky one,” Tom said. He looked into the rearview mirror once more, only this time his gaze was turned to the back.

He dropped the third cigarette into his drink and listened for the fizz. Then he got out of the van and wheeled the cot into the chapel.

~

Eight days after Tom did Ms. Hamps’s transfer, the family sent an eloquent letter to the funeral home relaying their gratitude for “the respectfulness that exuded from Mr. Jacobs.” When Louis Fitzgerald III, the grandson of the funeral home’s co-founder, read the letter aloud to everyone in the chapel—everyone being only Tom in addition to Nancy, the only other director besides Tom who was not an owner, and the receptionist—Tom didn’t move a muscle. Fitzgerald-Hill had received innumerable letters of the kind, and Tom was a non-fussy man.

“‘Furthermore,’” Louis continued reading, “‘we wish to request the services of Mr. Jacobs should our beloved father meet the same fate as our mother. He is, like our mother, ill and his time left with us is sadly coming to a close. We sincerely hope that Mr. Jacobs will endeavor to oblige us with his graceful attendance.’”

“Looks like you’ve got yourself a fan base,” Nancy said once Louis finished.

“Put it with the collection,” Louis said, handing Tom the letter.

Tom smiled and pocketed it. It would be shredded, like the rest of them, once he got home.

“You know, I’d really like to do a transfer with you one of these nights,” Nancy said. “All of your letters come from overnight transfers. You’re a real midnight magician. What do you do, make love to the bodies so that they look like they’ve had a good lay once they’re coffined?”

“Sorry, Nancy,” Louis said, “but we don’t need two of you on overnights.”

“You’re more than welcome to take the overnights,” Tom said.

“And leave the busy daytime?” Nancy asked, spreading her arms out across the empty room.

“Tom, don’t even think like that,” Louis said, getting serious. “You’re my overnight man. That’s you, Tom.”

Tom smiled. His stomach began to rumble and he excused himself for lunch.

On his way to the diner that had the golden pancakes he liked, Tom’s phone rang. He almost capsized his car retrieving the phone from his breast pocket.

“Y’ello,” he said, managing to touch the button and put the phone on speaker just before it slipped from his hand and fell on the passenger’s seat. “This is Tom Jacobs … Who is this? … Oh, yes, yes. How are you? … She what? … I see … Yes, I will come immediately. Thank you for informing me.”

When he arrived at the hospital, he had to circle around a couple of times after forgetting he was not there on a transfer. He had to park in a spot and walk in through the entrance.

The emergency room was hardly occupied. A woman and her daughter sat in a corner, with the daughter’s arm in a makeshift sling. There was a man standing by the entrance, swaying back and forth as if in prayer. Tom sidestepped the praying man on his way to the desk.

“I’m here to see Peggy Jacobs,” he said to the man behind the desk.

“Relation?”

“I’m her husband,” Tom said, looking over the counter.

The man looked at his computer for a minute more before turning back to Tom.

“Please have a seat, sir. Someone will call you in a moment.”

Tom decided to stand, but away from the praying man. He moved across the waiting room, closer to the woman and her daughter.

When after ten minutes his name had not been called, Tom went back to the desk.

“Do you know how much longer it will be?” he asked.

But before the man could answer, the doors to the corridor opened and a woman came out in a hurry toward Tom.

“Dolores, where is she?” asked Tom.

“It’s okay, I can take him back with me,” Dolores said to the man behind the desk, before turning to Tom. She didn’t wait for an answer; she grabbed Tom by the arm and dragged him through the doors.

Tom had to pick his feet up quicker as Dolores clutched his arm and led him down the corridor. They mostly passed vacant rooms, save for one that had a man keeled over on the floor next to his bed. Tom slowed down a bit as they passed the man’s room to get a better look, but Dolores pulled him forward.

As they approached the second-to-last room on the left, Tom’s stomach rumbled like thunder. He had skipped breakfast when he discovered his sons had eaten the last of his favorite breakfast pastries. They had been out of eggs for days, and he hadn’t found the time to restock, so he allowed Rex and Royce to each have a pastry, which had quickly turned into them finishing the rest.

“Before we go in there,” Dolores said—she positioned herself in between Tom and the doorway—“I need you to be calm. She has been heavily sedated and is just coming back to, so arguments or the like won’t help her at all.”

“I understand.”

Dolores stepped to the side and let Tom go in first. He brushed past the curtain that was covering the doorway, followed by Dolores.

The room was cold and bare. There was a harsh white light that illuminated only half of the room. The bed was in the corner off from the door, and the machines next to it were all working rhythmically.

Tom walked to the bed. Peggy’s eyes were closed. Her stomach rose and fell with her breath, and Tom stared there for several minutes. Dolores stood by the door and watched.

“How did you get notified?” Tom asked Dolores, without looking away from Peggy’s stomach.

“The police picked her up. Luckily she hadn’t taken her wristband off yet and they were able to identify her and call us right away.”

“She still smells like alcohol,” Tom said, turning around and walking to the door.

“I heard that.”

Tom turned back round. Peggy had opened her eyes and was staring up at the ceiling.

“It’s fine. You can go,” Peggy said to the ceiling.

“I’m going to find the doctor,” Dolores said in a hushed voice to Tom.

After she disappeared behind the doorway curtain, Tom walked to the side of the bed. The machines were louder than before. Tom looked down at Peggy. The space around her eyes were a dull grey, and her short hair looked uneven to Tom.

“What happened to your hair?” he asked, still looking at it.

“Do you like it?” Peggy laughed which quickly turned into a cough. “I did it the other day. Was getting sick of my goldielocks.”

Tom looked at Peggy’s arm. The veins were all protruding and several of them were stuck with I.V.s.

“Okay, Tom. You can tell I’m fine. I didn’t die, yet. So will you just leave now. I’m pretty wiped out from all this.”

Peggy turned on her side away from Tom.

“Can’t you just tell me what happened?” he asked.

“What difference does it make?” Peggy responded, back still to Tom. “It’s the same song and dance anyway, Tom. Don’t worry, I’m going back to the center. It’s safest there anyway.”

“Safest there? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ll be safe from myself, you know.”

Tom almost walked around the bed to see if Peggy had rolled her eyes.

“Peggy,” Tom began, but Peggy had turned around and stopped him with a glare.

“Don’t you ‘Peggy’ me, Tom,” Peggy said with as much energy as one could muster after having been on a bender and having her stomach pumped clean. “I’m a grown woman. I can handle my mistakes on my own. I don’t need you condescending to help.”

“I’m not condescending. I care about you, Peggy. You’re Rex and Royce’s mother—”

“—Stop it! Don’t say their names. Don’t even bring them in here now.”

Peggy turned back around away from Tom. The mass of tubes that stemmed from her forearm turned with her, and Tom watched the machines slide across the floor.

“I just want you to get help,” Tom said and turned for the door. He waited a moment for Peggy to reply, but when she began to breathe heavily, he walked out.

~

Rex and Royce were playing shoot-em up games in the living room when Tom got the call. It was for a transfer up near the county border, about eighty miles. He told the boys he would be gone for several hours, and that they had better be asleep when he got home.

The transfer was for a Mr. Staed who had died while resting in his home. Tom had gone to school with a Jack Staed and wondered if that could be his father. But it was only a glancing thought.

Tom found out it was Jack Staed’s father. Jack came out to the van as Tom pulled into the driveway. They exchanged nods and Tom unloaded the cot. Jack went back inside and Tom followed.

The deceased’s wife was waiting for them inside. She was kneeling on the floor praying near Mr. Staed’s body, which was lying on the bed near the home’s central piece, the piano. Tom looked around momentarily. It seemed Mr. Staed had been dying for some time. Tom pushed the cot beside the bed.

Jack moved to help Tom, but Tom gestured that it was all under control. Tom saw that Jack’s eyes were bloodshot. Jack stepped back, almost bowing. Mrs. Staed got up from her knees gingerly. She leaned on the piano bench, rolled her torso with her straightening leg, then heaved to a stand. She disappeared into another room.

Tom hesitated another moment. He glanced from Mr. Staed to Jack. There was a resemblance but it wasn’t loud. Tom folded his arms in front of him. Jack bowed his head and left the room, following his mother. Tom unfolded the blanket from on top of Mr. Staed and gently pushed his arms to his sides.

Tom got Mr. Staed onto the cot in one movement. He folded the blanket back over the now-empty bed and pushed the cot out of the room, out of the house, and into the back of the van. Jack came outside. They shook hands.

On the way to the chapel, it crossed Tom’s mind whether Jack knew who he was or not. In the end, it mattered little. Tom’s stomach growled. He turned off the expressway when the sign showed a food stop. He had planned to buy the twins a treat since he knew they wouldn’t be asleep, but it was still too far away from home. But he could eat twice. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, which was only a granola bar.

He ordered a couple value meals. He finished the first one just as he arrived at the chapel. There were shreds of lettuce and some tomato seeds that fell from his pants as he got out of the van. He stopped in his tracks. There was a light on in the chapel.

Tom left Mr. Staed in the van and went in the chapel alone. Louis and Nancy were walking around the chapel. Louis was counting the chairs that were laid out for the next day’s service. Nancy was taking note of everything on a legal pad. Tom coughed audibly and Louis and Nancy froze.

“Oh. Tom,” Louis said.

Tom looked to Nancy. She looked back at him. Tom was immediately startled. Nancy’s eyes were bloodshot in the same way Jack’s had been earlier. Tom looked back to Louis. His eyes were white.

“I put a pot of coffee on. I think I hear it,” Nancy said.

Tom didn’t hear anything. He watched Nancy leave the chapel for the back office.

“I’ve got a transfer in the van,” Tom said.

“Bring it in. Bring it in. I’ll help you with it.” Louis shook his head vehemently.

Tom walked out of the chapel, turning his head a couple of times back at Louis. He unloaded the cot from the van and wheeled it in. Louis was waiting at the door. He held it open for Tom and nodded as Tom walked by into the chapel.

As soon as they were both inside, Tom stopped pushing the cot.

“Alright, what’s going on?” he asked Louis.

Louis closed his eyes for a long moment. Tom’s stomach growled, but Louis didn’t flinch. Tom wondered how he could still be hungry. He was about to go back to the van for his second value meal when Nancy came back into the chapel with the coffee on a tray.

“Great! The coffee!” Louis said. “Let’s have a seat and some coffee and talk.”

Nancy poured the three of them coffee.

“Look, Tom,” Louis said. He mixed some milk into his coffee and licked the stirrer before putting it down. “We just got a call for another transfer, but I’ve decided to call Nancy in to do this one.”

“Okay…” Tom looked to Mr. Staed. He should have put him away and not left him in the middle of the chapel.

Louis drank his coffee.

“I should get going on the…on the transfer,” Nancy said, standing.

“No!” Louis nearly spilled his coffee. “I mean, um, you can’t leave just yet. Let’s finish the coffee you just made. The transfer is just across town.”

“If it’s local, why did you call Nancy in? I would’ve finished in time to get a second one done,” Tom asked.

Nancy sat back down. She looked at Louis as if she was waiting for him to speak. Louis was only interested in his coffee. Tom decided to put Mr. Staed away. Whatever was so secretive could wait just a little more to be told.

“Tom,” Louis put his coffee down and looked Tom in the eyes, “the reason Nancy is going to do this transfer is because I got a call earlier that something terrible happened to Peggy.”

Tom, who had been standing, nearly fell as his knees gave way. Nancy helped him back into his seat. She shook her head at Louis as Tom was staring at the velvet-covered bier at the front of the chapel.

“I understand,” Tom said. He stood, went to the cot, and pushed Mr. Staed out of the room.

“Where’d he go?” Louis asked, then got up to follow Tom, but Nancy grabbed him.

“Let him be for a minute, will you.” She shook her head again. “It can’t be easy for him to find out like this.”

“You think this is easy for me?” Louis asked.

“This isn’t about you, buddy,” Nancy said. She was about to say more, but Tom walked back into the room, pushing the cot.

“I’d like to do the transfer,” he said. Tom looked again at Nancy. Her eyes had cleared some, but not completely. Then, looking at Louis, who again had interested himself in his coffee, Tom said again, “I’d like to do the transfer.”

Louis looked up at Tom from his coffee and nodded slowly. Tom nodded back, then moved his nod across the room. The chapel felt dead for the first time.

~

Tom sat in the first row of the chapel for the first time at the service. Rex sat next to him, and next to Rex was Royce. Peggy’s parents sat behind them, and when it came time for anyone who had a remembrance of Peggy to speak, the parents of the deceased would mutter to themselves the question Tom had heard muttered during all the services he worked: why.

The cemetery was on the town’s west-end. They drove through town, and Tom looked at the back of the hearse. He tried to spot some scratches he knew to be on the bumper, but it was too far and moving.

The procession of cars didn’t take very long to all get into the cemetery. Peggy’s plot was on the second piece of land over from the entrance. Tom recalled Louis saying his family had plots on the same piece of land.

Tom stayed silent graveside, like everyone else. All was said that could be at the chapel. The opened earth, where Peggy would descend, was enough talking.

Voyo Gabrilo is a writer at the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and novellas.

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We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, pandemic, spirituality

Searching for Meaning in a Strange New Normal

November 1, 2020
condolences

By Robin Eileen Bernstein

I never thought an invisible cosmic force could pull our strings.
Then coronavirus came along.

On the last Wednesday of February, I awoke to an avalanche of condolences on the death of my mom.

Except my mom wasn’t dead. Not yet.

Surreal? Yes. But that morning in a pre-pandemic New York City, as I scrolled through my Twitter notifications, I didn’t know that surreal was about to become our new normal.

The tweets were mostly in Spanish. “Lo siento,” said one. For that I didn’t need Google Translate. But for the others I did, dozens that poured in that day and the next, all a variation of: Our deepest condolences to the distinguished ambassador Robin Bernstein and to her family for the death of her beloved mother…

Full disclosure: I’m not an ambassador, distinguished or otherwise. But I share a first and last name (and passing resemblance) with the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, so I’m often tagged by mistake. If that’s not enough, she’s a Trump-appointed Republican and I’m a lifelong Democrat who wants him booted from office. While this was a level of surreal I’d come to accept, the condolences were a bridge too far. Because my mom had been admitted to the hospital three days earlier and things didn’t look good.

It took but a minute to find the obituary in a Caribbean newspaper, which only deepened the eerie parallels. Both my doppelgänger’s mom, 93, and my mom, 91, had just celebrated birthdays in February, a week apart. The obit included an Alzheimer’s organization for donations; my mom had dementia.

I put down my phone and exhaled. Was this a sign? Even asking felt wrong, because it was acknowledgement that real condolences might soon come my way. I shook my head as if to reject what seemed preordained.

Three days later, my mom was dead, too.

~ ~ ~

I’m a skeptic at heart. When it comes to all things woo-woo, even one woo is too much for me. My philosophy on the supernatural and paranormal mirrors what doctors learn about making a diagnosis: when you hear hoofbeats, look for a horse, not a zebra, and definitely not a purple unicorn.

Yet if anything fell into purple unicorn territory, it was those condolence tweets. Was it synchronicity? That was the word Carl Jung, the 20th century psychoanalyst, used for weird and mysterious events that can’t otherwise be explained. The Police sang about it, twice.

I have a hard time believing that a cosmic force is pulling our strings. As someone who prefers the practical and predictable, I don’t leave much room for the mystical. But what if everyone from New York to New Zealand suddenly got sucked into an unforeseen vortex that marked the end of our old normal? Can something be freaky when nothing makes sense? “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” sang R.E.M., although unlike rest of the title, I don’t feel fine about it. So much happened in two weeks that by mid-March I could barely recognize my own life.

My mom’s passing, ironically, was my last brush with normalcy. Soon age-old customs would be kicked to the curb: sickness and death would be a solitary affair. Large funerals and rituals for the grieving? No more. I’ve read how some people are relieved their elderly parents had passed before this pandemic. It’s odd to be thankful for death. But like so much else previously unthinkable, it makes sense now.

“I’m dying,” my mom whispered to me her first night in the hospital. She knew before we did. “I want to go home,” she said. Five days later she went home to her own bed, where she smiled and blew kisses at me and the hospice nurse. She passed peacefully in her sleep the next morning.

What stops me cold is the what-if. What if she’d gotten sick two weeks later? I picture her in the hospital, allowed no visitors, her confusion and agitation mounting. She’d ask for me. And I wouldn’t be there. Yet this is exactly what so many have had to endure.

Is it normal to be grateful that she got sick sooner rather than later?

In our new normal, it is.

~ ~ ~

Everything was old normal on February 20, my mom’s 91st birthday. That afternoon I took a bus (like many New Yorkers, I don’t have a car) from Port Authority to her assisted living residence in New Jersey armed with cupcakes and a wrapped gift: a comfy nightgown. We sang Happy Birthday and she blew out a candle. Dementia was slowly robbing her mind and body, and I was determined to make it a good day.

Three days later, she spiked a fever and had trouble breathing. She ended up one step below the ICU with a wicked cough and pneumonia, symptoms that soon would scream Covid, except she tested positive for influenza. (She’d had a flu shot but I was told it may be less effective in the elderly.) I rented a car for the three-hour round trips to the hospital and back, and sometimes listened to all-news radio, where it seemed as if the only news was about the novel coronavirus. It was then that I felt the drumbeat of the approaching pandemic, faintly at first, then louder, the way the sky darkens before a storm.

I heard about towns in Italy on lock-down and a federal health official who said it’s not so much if it will spread, but when. On the day I got those bizarre condolences, I heard Trump’s bizarre prediction that our 15 U.S. cases would “within a couple of days…be down to close to zero.” The next day he said, “like a miracle, it will disappear.”

In the hospital, the drumbeat got louder, where lobby signs wanted to know if I’d recently traveled to China or had been in contact with anyone who’d been outside the U.S. A box of face masks and a shelf of latex gloves sat unattended near the nurses’ station; because she had the flu, anyone in her room had to wear them. “It’s upside down” said a nurse the first time I donned a blue surgical mask. The nose clip was by my chin. There was a nose clip? Yet soon I’d know all about masks—from N95s to handmade ones with a pocket for a filter. I’d wear one each time I left my apartment, not to mention buying them for my family, in tie-dye no less.

All those ominous warnings about coronavirus made me wonder, “Did mom have it?” But I never asked, and her doctors never raised it. It was possible; in one analysis, nearly nine percent of those who had respiratory illnesses also had Covid, and one in five who had Covid tested positive for viruses like influenza. Doctors now think some Covid deaths in February and early March were misidentified as flu or just pneumonia. Pneumonia was her official cause of death, along with cardiopulmonary arrest and multisystem organ failure. Far as I know, nobody in contact with her had Covid, unless we were asymptomatic. Regardless, I doubt she could’ve gotten a test back then. I may never have an answer. In our new normal, answers aren’t easy to come by.

Although eventually there’d be reports of a U.S. Covid fatality in early February, the first official reported U.S. death from coronavirus was on February 29—the same day my mom passed.

~ ~ ~

Within two weeks of those Twitter condolences, events in my life seemed to spin out of control so quickly I couldn’t catch my breath.

On Wednesday, March 11, after dinner with friends, I was on a train home trying to disinfect my seat with a Clorox wipe, which isn’t easy with your left arm in a cast and your fingers so bruised and swollen they barely move. What happened was that the previous Saturday, a week after my mom died, after I spent hours in her apartment boxing up photos inscribed with the handwriting of the dead, I tripped over a broken sidewalk and landed in the ER with a shattered wrist, and a week later in the OR to have it reassembled with a plate and screws.

The ER had not yet become pandemic central, although I recall positioning myself as far upwind as possible from a guy on a nearby stretcher whose cough was like a series of small explosions. One week I was a visitor. The next, a patient. Neither was an ideal time to be in a hospital. Might as well fly a kite in a thunderstorm.

Two days after I broke my wrist, which nobody saw and nobody reported, I took photos of the broken sidewalk, which was auspicious timing because the next morning, March 10, I woke up to the sound of jackhammers. That sidewalk, which I learned had been a hazard for years, was mysteriously being repaired three days after I tripped on it. I’d give that the same odds as getting condolences three days before my mom died.

The next day—when I met my friends for dinner—would be the last time I’d sit inside a crowded restaurant. Instead of hugging, we bumped elbows. Life felt crazy yet manageable, but by the time I left to catch my train home, the earth had teetered off its axis. There was a news alert on my phone about—what? A European travel ban? My daughter’s fiancé, a French citizen, was in France; his flight back to New York, where they shared an apartment a few blocks from me, was in three days.

Just like I did after reading those Twitter condolences, I put down my phone and exhaled. In a week’s time, I buried my mother and fractured my wrist. Now my future son-in-law might not be able to come home. I felt queasy, like I was standing on shifting sand.

The train was fairly empty, so I suspended my no-calls-on-mass-transit rule to check on my daughter, who was sobbing with gasps so wrenching she couldn’t speak. Clearly she’d heard the news. I overheard two passengers nearby; the words “Trump” and “Europe” came through loud and clear.

“Shh, it’ll be ok,” I whispered through her choked tears, as if she was still a little girl who skinned her knee. Except now I couldn’t stroke her hair and hold her close. I couldn’t promise that anything would be ok. I stared at my bloated purple fingers and a cold knot of fear lodged in the pit of my stomach. It dawned on me that I had absolutely no control over any of this, at all.

“I’m right here, sweetie,” I murmured into the phone. Soon I wouldn’t be allowed to get within six feet of her.

I went straight to her apartment and after an hour of frantic emails and texts and finally confirming that he’d be on a flight to New York, we sat silent and relieved. Finally, I asked the question we’d been dancing around for days.

“What do you want to do about your wedding?”

Her wedding was in May. In France.

She looked at me, one eyebrow arched, the answer obvious.

“What wedding?” she said dryly. As sad as a postponement would be, she now knew the date wasn’t what mattered. A crisis has a way of focusing you.

That Sunday, March 15, I was to attend another wedding, my cousin’s, in Brooklyn. Instead I and other would-be guests watched it via livestream, now de rigeur for pandemic celebrations. Then I went to New Jersey, where the assisted living residence had given me one hour to grab what I still wanted from my mom’s apartment before they went on lockdown. By then, it was virtually impossible to rent a car—everyone was getting the heck outta Dodge—so my boyfriend and I traveled there and back on a near empty bus. With my arm in a cast, I needed his help. I had wrist surgery the next day, and I’d recuperate and quarantine at home in Manhattan. He’d quarantine in Brooklyn, where he lived. When we finally saw each other again in person, ten weeks later, it was on what should have been my daughter’s wedding day.

There was one other event that weekend. On Saturday, March 14, my boyfriend and I celebrated my birthday in one of the few restaurants still open. There were very few diners besides us. I felt guilty, like we were doing something illicit. The waitress wore latex gloves and cheerfully placed four sugar-dusted chocolate cookies in front of me. I blew out a candle. As with my mom’s birthday three weeks earlier, we were determined to make it festive. I later learned that my birthday was the same day the governor of New York announced the state’s first Covid death.

~ ~ ~

We have no idea what our new normal will be like long-term. We’ve always been urged to “live in the moment” but what if that’s all there is? What if you can’t plan ahead because the future is just a flashing neon question mark?

Time has been warped. If you’re of a certain age or have a predilection for vinyl, imagine a 33 rpm record spinning at 78. Barry White sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Like a world on speed, stuff I never heard of in February erupted like weeds in March: Zooming, social distancing, 7 PM cheering. By April, the pandemic had generated record unemployment and one person who lost his job, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed in police custody in May, which sparked international protests in cities coast-to-coast, including mine. Yet while breaking news pelted us like hail, then and now, life feels lethargic. One day rolls into the next without the usual punctuation.

I’m thankful that I was able to hold my mom’s bare wrinkled hand in my latex-sheathed one and remind her what a wonderful mom she was and what a beautiful legacy she was leaving, and to see, not in pixels but in the flesh, her face soften with relief. I’m thankful for the comfort of those who came to pay condolences. Yet with each consoling unmasked hug, a deadly parasite may have been hitching a ride.

As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare in which I’d be watching our black-and-white Zenith with the rabbit ear antennae and I’d click the remote once to change the channel, but the channels wouldn’t stop changing. They’d flip by faster and faster, out of control, until smoke began pouring from the TV and I knew it would explode.

This spring when I’d hear the wail of ambulance sirens, my daily soundtrack, I might think for a moment it was coming from a TV show I was watching. But this was real, a mournful howl rising from a world changing faster and faster, out of control, spewing an acrid cloud of death. Unlike my childhood nightmare, there was no waking up from this.

It’s no surprise that a kid who dreams of exploding televisions grows into an adult who prioritizes control. But I no longer have the luxury, or delusion, of thinking I’m the puppeteer. On February 20 I had two intact hands, my daughter’s upcoming wedding, and my mother. Three weeks later: Bum hand. No wedding. No mom.

Adapting these days means accepting the inexplicable, embracing the unknowable and acknowledging that we have no clue what’s around the bend. Not surprisingly, more people are reporting paranormal activity; a New York Times article suggested that in uncertain times, there’s a motivation “to find meaning in chaos.” It’s the same impulse, by the way, that spurs the tinfoil-hat crowd to connect dots that ought not be connected, poisoning the air with viral conspiracies, taking the search for purple unicorns to frightening new dimensions.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find meaning—synchronicity, if you will—in chaos. I still don’t know what to make of absurdities that hit, bam-bam-bam, like falling dominoes: getting condolences three days too early, a broken sidewalk repaired three days too late, a travel ban three days before a loved one’s flight home. When life as we know it is suddenly and monumentally altered, it’s tempting to think that Hamlet had it right: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Maybe, but doubtful. I’m still a skeptic. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. When a very real pandemic can trip up an entire planet and bring it crashing to its knees, shattering norms as easily as the bones of a human wrist, well, that’s surreal enough for me, thank you. I suppose if you’re searching for synchronicity, or purple unicorns, or for an invisible force that’s controlling us in ways we can’t conceive, look no further than the brand new virus that upended the world.

Robin Eileen Bernstein is an essayist, feature writer and humorist with bylines in The New York Times, Salon, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Daily News, Newsday, Narratively, Ozy, Weekly Humorist, Next Avenue, Purple Clover and elsewhere. Her coming-of-age memoir-in-progress is about growing up in Far Rockaway, NY in the 1970s and her dream of being a drummer in a rock-n-roll band. More at robineileenbernstein.com.

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

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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. 

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Books, Guest Posts, healing, Young Voices

Inside Out

April 5, 2020
head

By Allison L. Palmer

I threw up in the bushes outside the hospital the day my sister was born. I didn’t stomp my feet and demand that my mom shove her back up there or refuse to go hold her. I didn’t hop up and down and beg my dad to bring me inside so I could kiss my brand-new best friend. No tantrums, no joy. Just vomit. I stopped right next to the E.R. entrance, put my hands on my dimpled kindergartener knees, and barfed. My dad looked down at me with a crease between his eyebrows as I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my sweater. He knelt next to me and patted my back, checking my forehead for fever. Yes, I feel better now. He shrugged and took my hand as we walked through the doors. Even then, my body knew the things my head didn’t. This is gateway love. My sister was my first. She will probably be my last. Maybe we have to empty out parts ourselves to make room for everything new.

My dad made space for us. Now that I’m older, I see that he was always up ahead of me. Carving away splinters, repainting colors, clearing cobwebs. He could blow clouds from the sky as easily as I could make a birthday wish. My childhood had soft edges. When I was ten and my sister was five, he took us on a trip to a small island off the coast of Canada. He drove us around in a red rental car with the windows down. July air rolled in off the St. Lawrence River, warm and light blue. He pulled the car off the road at the point of a finger. Anything we wanted. Waterfalls, homemade jam, sheep in a field. For me, we stopped at four used bookstores in a day. He popped sour cherries in my sisters’ mouth whenever she started to pipe up and spun her around in circles so I could empty the stacks into baskets with no limit. I wasn’t picky, not even a little bit. While I glossed over titles and artwork, I willed the piles to grow until they reached the ceiling and enclose me, unreachable, in a fortress that smelled of ink, where every wall and window would be made of paper and I would never run out words.

Growing up, I read the same books over and over until their covers fell off. I stole from libraries. I learned from The Lovely Bones that it’s easy to keep things that aren’t yours and make them yours, in more ways than one. I stuck V.C. Andrew’s Flowers In the Attic under my sweatshirt because at the time, it looked huge and menacing and exactly like something I shouldn’t be reading. I didn’t let that thing go until all 400 pages of arsenic and incest and locked doors and mothers who shouldn’t be mothers were branded on my brain. As Cathy and Chris descended their knotted sheet rope to the lawn of Foxworth Hall, I chewed gum and thought about evil. Then ordered the rest of the series on the internet along with the audiobook of Lolita because the jacket art, a girl in sunglasses sucking on a lollipop, seemed undeniably and captivatingly wrong. For days, I laid crumpled on my bed and cried to Jeremy Irons unidentifiable accent. I cried for Humbert Humbert and for the way people can’t fix their hearts, cried because I thought Dolores was undeserving. Cried because nymphets probably do exist. I filed away that word away under “L” for lust, love, lies and loneliness. All of the above. I took to organizing everything I read in books into neat boxes in my head.

After I’d finished gutting the bookstores and the sour cherries had dwindled to just pits and stems, we took a drive up the coast of Bas-Saint-Laurent to see the whales. We wrapped ourselves up in neon orange wind jackets with matching pants and climbed into an aluminum airboat, barely scraping 25 feet long. My dad sat in the middle and tucked my sister under one arm and me under the other. The guide alternated excitedly between English and French in the same breath. My dad kept his eyes on the horizon as the land behind us became nothing more than a thin green strip. I was watching the sun glint off his glasses when the guide began exclaiming things in Frenglish and making big gestures and everyone on the boat stood up. I gripped back of my seat and craned my head around their legs. My dad sat unmoving, but he had pushed his glasses up on his head. He took my face in his palms and turned it out to sea. The blue whale is the biggest living thing on the planet. 200 tons. Its body looked more silver than blue and it stretched an incomprehensible distance, rising in and out of the waves. I held my hands up to the sides of my eyes like blinders and worked my way down the length, head to tail, trying and failing to put boundaries on its existence. Its mouth was the size of the boat. If it opened its jaws, we might drift inside and float for an eternity along an endless shoreline of bones and blubber. I leaned closer into my dad’s side. There might be someone in there right now. We probably couldn’t hear the shouting.

I saw a dead whale about a year later. I could put limits on this one, easily. The three of us had just moved to a beach cottage in the wrong season, the middle of the winter. The ocean was our backyard and we talked there on weekends, down eleven flights of stairs worn splinterless by the saltwater and wind. Even in the frost, the rot smell was still strong enough to make my eyes water. I breathed exclusively through my mouth. Only a hulking skeleton was left, taller than me, with grey flesh still clinging on in some places. My sister was hardly a quarter of its pelvis, toddling around the perimeter like a lost duckling who has mistaken its mother for a corpse. I had never been that close to something so dead. I felt something next to sadness. In the backyard of reverence, but not quite. No one makes coffins that big. I stood in its ribcage and next its open eye sockets. Bizarrely inside and outside all at once. While we explored, we must have talked about how it ended up there, beached, alone, and now three quarters decayed. The likely death. I tried to chase away the gulls that hovered around the body, but more came. Before we left, I took off my gloves and bent at the edge of the waves to rinse my hands. The water was so cold it burned. I thought of the man sailing along the gut of the blue whale, calling out to empty, unforgiving waters and I felt small.

On the way back from the coast, we stopped at an antique-ish gallery surrounded by gardens. My dad admired its history. I’d been promised a stop at the bakery next door. The building was a refurbished barn made of smooth wood painted yellow with big windows. Windchimes tinkled and swayed around all the doors, betraying the way it had settled quietly into the background. I wondered if ghosts could make noise. Inside, the walls were cluttered with paintings of distorted faces and oversized clocks and sculptures made of things like obsidian and repurposed wire netting. I wandered absent-minded up and down the aisles, brushing my fingers along the eclectic treasures. My favorite bauble was a carving of a ballet dancer with movable parts. Her joints were set on loose hinges and splayed out in all directions around a fringe of white tool. I held her by her tiny wooden waist and rolled her head around between my fingers. The little dancer’s face was blank, expressionless. I imagined a soft smile should have been painted there, along with sleepy half-closed eyes. Something fuzzy, out of focus, and full of grace. I imagined she had a lot of secrets.

The thing about a body made of wood and set on hinges is that begins to stiffen. Arms that once stretched seamlessly through space now barely extend. Legs that once leapt and faltered without abandon start to creak. The thing about being afraid of your own body is that it becomes a stranger. I think this is what we think grace is, partly. Ethereal fear floating under your heart. We mistake it a lot of the time for beauty. As I learned to dance, my body lengthened and hollowed out right before my eyes. My teacher’s name was Ms. Mary. She sat always in the front, always in black, doling out critiques like sunshine and lightning. I remember we were practicing pirouettes for the fourth time that week. We practiced and practiced, with red cheeks and quick breaths until all of us turned together but we couldn’t stop because one girl in the back kept falling. Her name was Maggie. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, pulling herself off the floor, madly blinking back tears. Ms. Mary shook her head in slow motion, then called out my name. She instructed me to stand in front of Maggie, so she couldn’t see herself. She was getting in her own way. Stand there and don’t move. The other girls silently parted as I crossed the studio and aligned myself carefully in the mirror. The top of Maggie’s auburn bun was just visible above my head. She was taller than me. Keep going, Ms. Mary said. Until she gets it right. As she turned, I could sense every hot cheek in the room blistering until the heat fried away every nerve that said to scream, to run, to throw yourself on the floor along with her until we were all unmovable, peaceless, quiet. Lovely in our paralysis. I heard Maggie hiccup as she stumbled and hit the floor again and I retreated completely inside myself. I felt the grains of wood overtaking and splintering along my skin and straightening my spine, felt my face rounding out to nothing. Get up. My ribs began shrinking down onto my lungs and grasping hold of my throat. Her breath came faster and began breaking into sobs and the thing about being afraid of your own body is that you can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else to go.

There was a sharp smack on the window over my head. The figurine fell out of my hands and clattered onto the floor. I hadn’t even noticed that the sky had opened up and was now heaving down rain. I ran towards the noise and found my dad and sister kneeling just outside the door. I peeked around their shoulders and saw a bird half-limp in my dad’s hand, maybe six inches long, with black and white tipped wings. It was laying on its side, little legs outstretched and stiff. Poor thing got confused in this weather and flew straight into the window. Wispy noises came out its beak. It reminded me of my sister when she was a baby and how she cooed while she slept. I used to sneak into her room to run the tip of my pinky along her jaw until she would bat my hand away in her sleep. I dropped to the floor in front of her crib before she could wake up. Must be in shock. My dad shook his head and set the bird down gingerly under the edge of a bush. He took my sisters hand and reached for mine. Come on, let’s go. I was still looking down. Its black eyes were lolling around wildly in its skull and its body had started twitching. The muscles had nothing to hold on to, like a little girl who can’t stop falling long enough to stand.

In second grade, a boy I knew died. He stabbed me with pencils and tripped me on the basketball court at recess and I hated him. He gave me a scar, on my right knee. Shaped like a T. Then an ATV flipped over on top of him in the woods and he was brain-dead before my scab hadn’t even fallen off. My mom brought me to the funeral, and we sat in the last pew of the church waiting for a eulogy that no one managed to deliver. She handed me green and blue Sweetarts from her purse and I sucked on them until my tongue was numb. The casket was open, filled with stuffed animals and sports trophies and an entire embalmed life. I looked at my feet and fidgeted and tried to pray even though I had absolutely no idea how to. I am still uneasy in long lines and in silence. My knee itched and I could see the fresh pink skin peeking out from underneath the scab. I wondered what happened to cuts and scabs when you were dead. When I picked mine off eventually, it didn’t bleed. The skin was permanently puckered. I dug my nail into it, to no avail. A tiny spot of nothing. I remember I laid on the hillside outside the church with my mom after it was over and held her while she cried. Both of her parents died when she was 16. She likes to say that I saved her life. I wonder if now she loves less because I’m branded by a dead kid. The thought is fleeting. On the outside, my body is only 99% alive.

Before I could stop myself, I had reached out and taken the bird in my own two hands, cupping it against my t-shirt like a newborn. I laid down on the grass, tucking my knees up to my chin. The wet blades glued themselves to my limbs and cradled my head and left trails of goosebumps like comets on my exposed skin. I didn’t hear the hectic symphony of the windchimes clanging to a fever pitch. I think a small coffin must be much easier to build than a big one. If I could, I’d build one myself, from the softening wood of my body. This is close enough. Didn’t feel the icy rain drops that slid down my spine and under the rain coat my dad must have laid over me. For once, the cold was freeing, limitless. I could swim through it for an eternity. Didn’t notice when the storm had gone, and the sun lit the backs of my eyelids pink. My thoughts were replaced with all the words I’d ever read in books. It’s like when you drop something heavy on a floor covered in dust and the world goes away, just for a second, in the disarray. When it clears, I see my small sister’s face pressed into the grass in front of me. Her eyes are open, and calm. In them, are the parts of myself I thought had gone. When she places her hands over mine, I think about how hearts sound like they are gulping. Like they want to break out of your chest and drink in the air, how they crave leftover life, the 1%, and how there is nothing else like the impossibly tiny body underneath both sets of our fingers.

 

Allison Palmer is an undergraduate student and new writer. She studies Biology and English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her other work can be read online in Pithead Chapel and Eunoia Review. We are THRILLED to be featuring her work.

 

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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.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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

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

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…

Guest Posts, loss, Surviving

Cross Purposes

June 1, 2018
cross

By Aimee Ross

A cross has stood in that field for three years.

Three years since he smashed into me and the girls in my car that summer night. We were on our way home from dance camp.

The girls escaped the wreck with minor injuries. I barely survived.

He died.

Fifteen minutes from home. We were almost home.

Dear Zachary,

 I’m writing this letter to you because I feel like I have to, even though I don’t know you and never will. I can only know my version of you, and to be honest, it’s not good.

 I know you were the driver of the red Mini Cooper who ploughed recklessly into the side of my gray Saturn Aura that warm July night. I know you were only nineteen, and not one of my former students. And I know that doctors declared you “brain dead” the next day in a room near mine at Cleveland Metro Trauma Center.

The cross was first pushed into the earth less than two weeks after the accident. My mom, who drove past the site twice daily on her way to and from the hospital, was infuriated by it. She thought it was made of Bud Light boxes. I’d been past the site since then a few times, but I had never stopped. I never wanted to be in that space long enough to think.

Until now.

After the accident, visitors told me rumors about you. Even my own daughters. They knew people you partied with. They also warned me of your Facebook memorial page, but I didn’t listen.

I looked too soon.

You—the party boy with swag—were loved, and by many. They called you Zach. Throwing bangers, getting baked, and blowing smoke at the camera consumed the posted memories and fuzzy photos.

 Something kept telling me to visit the scene.

And I needed closure.

So, armed with notebook and pen and ready to record the epiphany I was sure to have, I drove there alone one mid-summer afternoon. I expected to cry, feel relief, be cleansed. The trauma would finally make sense.

As I approached the busy state route’s intersection, I noticed the warning signs of road construction—at least I wouldn’t have to worry about traffic. I parked along the berm across from the site, realizing I had no intention of leaving my vehicle anyway. I would just be here, feel here.

A friend of your mother’s told me you had trouble with the law, and I know your driver’s license had been suspended at least twice before. You even spent time in a detention home. I wonder if other rumors about you and your buddies playing a very dangerous driving game to earn points for traffic violations were true.

Beyond the intersection, a cross made of two perpendicular skateboards—not beer boxes—jutted crookedly out of a grassy slope. The ground climbing from the ditch to the tilted cross was still scarred. Dry brown gashes in the earth, like my three-year-old wounds, littered the rise where energy from an inelastic collision was absorbed. The scars, evidence of an outside force. Inertia disrupted.

 And then there’s your family. Good people, I heard. I know you had dinner at home with them that evening. You asked your dad for the car, the one titled to him but given to you, so you could go to a friend’s house. You were on your way when you crashed into us. I also know your family loved you. Just moments after finding out you had passed—after being asked about donating your organs—your father and sister hugged my brother. They cried, said they hoped I would “pull through.” I imagine your mother was broken in a corner, lost in a sea of tears. I know your parents—an older, more settled couple—adopted you and your sister from another country far away. Maybe they couldn’t have their own children. Now they can’t even have you.

Why did he run the stop sign? How fast was his car moving?

 The most devastating thing I know about you, however, isn’t that you disregarded a stop sign or might have been speeding that night. What’s most devastating is that you were driving under the influence. The highway patrol officer who came to inform me I was the “victim of a crime” said so. They don’t know how fast you were going, but they do know that you had marijuana and benzodiazepine in your bloodstream.

And then the toxicology report. I researched. Benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety medication, can induce everything from euphoria to a hypnotic state, just like the recreational drug marijuana. Together, the two would have produced an amplified high, as well as an amplified tranquilizer effect. He might have been so high he didn’t know what he was doing. He could have been asleep at the wheel.

Why did you do that, Zach? Why?

Did you smoke pot and do drugs so often you drove stoned all the time?

Did you forget you had family and friends who loved you, a whole life ahead of you?

Did you think you were invincible, maybe even above the law?

But none of that matters. The outcome is the same.

Three beautiful girls, teenagers on the dance team I advised, were riding with me on the way back from dance camp that evening. I couldn’t protect them from you. You could have killed them. You almost killed me. I believed my daughter, also on the team, had left ahead of us, but in fact, she was only moments behind in a different car. You could have killed her that night. The thought makes me sick. I love her, just like your parents loved you. Our worst fear as parents happened to them: you didn’t come home.

I stared at the cross, thinking about what onlookers would have witnessed that July evening. A car shooting from the darkness and crashing into another. Impact in the intersection. Crunching metal, shattering glass. A body catapulted through a car’s sunroof and against the unforgiving road, as momentum propels both vehicles over a ditch to rest less than twenty feet apart. Airbags deployed, windshields buckled, a smoking engine. Four trapped inside mangled metal. Passersby stop, phone calls are made, and moments later, the chaos to save lives ensues. The scene is flooded with light, engulfed in disembodied voices, and swarming with firemen, ambulances, and highway patrol.

 Your parents must miss you desperately. I imagine they didn’t know about your regular drug use. I wonder if they were shocked, horrified maybe, to find out. I’m sure they have forgiven you by now, though—you were their only son.

 It is quiet here today at this place. Peaceful, even. Bright sunshine, a gentle breeze, midsummer warmth. The perfect setting for something—anything—to offer understanding. Redemption maybe. A setting to offer forgiveness.

But I am finding it difficult to do.

I am alive, but another mother’s son never went home.

We all make mistakes and poor choices. I know this. And if you had lived through the accident, maybe you would have apologized. You probably would have been sorry, too. If you had lived through the accident, maybe you even would have changed. You probably would have stopped being reckless, too. But maybe your life ended because of how you chose to live it. Maybe change would not have been possible for you. I don’t know.

I wait.

I don’t want to hate you, Zach.And I don’t want to be so angry . . . still. I even want to try to forgive you.

Nothing happens. I don’t even cry. I slide the pen back in my purse, toss the notebook to the front passenger seat, and head home. If only the intersection had been closed three years ago. If only we had taken another way home. If only he had been sober. If only he had stopped at the intersection’s sign. Then we would not have had our path crossed. T-boned. Crushed.

But I just can’t yet.

 Four lives altered forever, another life lost.

Sincerely, Aimee, the woman whose life you changed

A cross marks the spot.

Aimee Ross is a nationally award-winning educator who’s been teaching high school English at her alma mater in Loudonville, Ohio, for the past twenty-six years and an aspiring writer for as long as she can remember. Her first book, Permanent Marker: A Memoir, was just published in March 2018 (KiCam Projects). She has also had her writing published on NextAvenue.orgwww.lifein10minutes.com, and www.SixHens.Com, as well as in Beauty around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2017); Scars: An Anthology (Et Alia Press, 2015); Today I Made a Difference: A Collection of Inspirational Stories from America’s Top Educators (Adams Media, 2009); and Teaching Tolerance magazine. You can find Aimee online at www.theaimeeross.com.

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aging, death, Guest Posts

Threshold

May 17, 2018
assisted

By Deborah Sosin

“It’s a funny thing. You’re just not prepared for how the mind goes. It’s not something they ever tell you about.” Eda says this every time I visit her, in the same way, with the same inflection—more revelatory than bitter or sad.

Eda, who is ninety-four, is tired of waiting to die. Every night, she prays she won’t wake up in the morning. “I have no purpose. How am I contributing to society? I’ve had my life.”

When her husband, Howard, died a few years ago, after sixty-six years of marriage, Eda moved to a retirement village near Boston to be closer to her daughter. Growing up, I knew the Goldmans—another erudite, witty Jewish couple in my parents’ large circle of friends. My father and Howard had met at the Navy’s Japanese Language School, right after Pearl Harbor.

At first, Eda lived in one of the independent townhouses, a charming two-bedroom dwelling facing a wooded patch of land. I’d visit every month or so, gifts in hand—Hershey Kisses or daisies for her; tuna Whiskas for her tiger cat, Beau. I often brought her to my choral concerts until she could no longer hear the music. Sometimes we’d get lunch—“off campus,” we’d joke—but mostly we’d grab a bite in the facility’s café or formal dining room. “They cook for the aged people,” she’d say. “No salt and no flavor!” Continue Reading…

aging, Guest Posts, parents

The Wild Green

May 9, 2018
green

By Zahie El Kouri

Less than a year before my father’s diagnosis, my parents bought their burial plots. They announced this when I came home to visit them in May.

“There is nothing wrong with your father,” my mother said. “It was The Greek Physician’s idea.”

“He wanted to buy his plots, and I guess he likes us, so he wants us to be near them.”

He shrugged, with a small, satisfied smile on his face, like he was talking about seats at the theater.

This was certainly not the first time my parents had discussed their deaths with me. Every year, my mother pulled out a yellow legal pad that listed all the details I would need to know, the combination to the safe, the location of a power of attorney, the man to contact about the life insurance payout.  Every year, on one of my visits home, we would sit around the kitchen table with the white marble floors and the view of the green lawn and the murky lagoon and we would go through the yellow list.

But this year, after we did this, the three of us got in my parents’ new dark grey Lexus and drove to the cemetery. As usual, my father drove, my mother sat next to him, and I sat in the back seat, just like a million car trips in the past. We passed the manicured lawns, whitish driveways, and big, new-money homes, always set back about the same distance from the street. Out of deference to me, my father turned off Rush Limbaugh, so there was silence in the car. It was a happy silence. Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, healing

Dance of the Not Dead

April 18, 2018
funerals

By Elizabeth Fournier

As long as I can remember, I was always dancing around the house. Mom and I were fans of Donny & Marie, so I always got up and danced when they came on TV. My mother would be lying on the couch because she was always sick, but my dancing would make her smile. I danced my heart out for her.

One time, I shook, shook, shook my booty and Mom’s smile disappeared for a moment.

“Good girls don’t do that,” she warned.

What! It seemed so natural to move my butt when I was dancing. Why not? I tried not to do that move any more, but it was hard.

My formal dance training in tap, jazz, and ballet started at age four. Dance class was super fun because I had a natural talent for it. When the music started, most of the girls hung back, uncertain. Not me; I pushed to the front, eager to perform. Having practiced all week, I could execute every move with confidence. Continue Reading…