Q & A.

November 20, 2020

The stress is perfectly real, a buzzard bird at the throat, and if you sit here long enough, you will be scratched by rough-hewn talons.

Out of the corner of your eye, you intuit a mouse running near your chair, and swiftly move your head to spy it: It is not there. It is only a trick. A skitty-skatty hoax played on a pinned-and-needled mind.

Driving home, you grip the steering will, not trusting that you won’t make a stabbing, veering crank right off the bridge, or into oncoming traffic.

Tell yourself to breathe: breathe slowly, with measure. Calm down. You are fine.

Are you fine? The virus-y breath on the back of your neck whispers ‘sure you are.’ What is this feeling? (The professionals on the night’s news talked about fatigue, and fatigued, you cannot not watch – you flip to your favorite talking head.)

An alert on your phone coos a zzz-zzz, a vibration to let you know of another problem close by – the power is being turned off, there’s smoke drifting in from the fires. This part of town is closed due to protests. Someone is stealing BLM signs. And someone was conked over the head walking to work, for no apparent reason. The local news sighs and rolls over – make room, here comes the big stories, the day’s highlights:

There’s Russian interference. Do you think there’s voter fraud? Claims of USPS corruption. Hospital beds are filled again. The Dow Jones plummets. Hurricanes. Homeless. Relapse. Hoarding. Furlough.

A tickertape newsreel of misery unfurls, nightly at 7pm. Change the channel. Oh, misery there, too. Where to look now?

(On Facebook, a post by someone you don’t know very well, haven’t spoken to in 20 years, you can’t remember her face very well, even. Her uncle has died, she posts. You swallow, make a donation on GoFundMe.)

Bracing yourself for whatever the news is going to deliver next, you hear the same question over and over, it wants an answer, but you don’t know what it is. The question is unsatisfied, and it gets louder every time it is repeated: “Where is my country? Where is my country?”

###

I see smoke.

September 16, 2020

I always want the sun the most. And I smile when the weather is predicted to be scorching: I always want the sun the most.

A California girl to my core, I want the sun to heat me through and through—to bake my bones until they’re soft and mellow.

Yes, yes, I know, all the time, that fire is a heat-cousin. Fire is the warmth of the sun, melting and white, shimmering and yellow, unproportionate and squared a factor of one hundred times on earth. Fire is a torch from the devil, I believe, and the term “hell fire” is an apt one. Hell fire: the slow-mo liquification of all you hold secure, safe.

A recurring daymare we dream every fall. I stare at it via the newscast.

See, I always want the sun the most, but I want it for the pool, for the chaise, for the beach towel. Miss me with the scorched trees and the square number of acres that are blackened from the choked air and the exhaustion of the bodies who run toward it, while we flee, while we pack important papers and baby pictures and linens our grandmothers wove. Evacuate with what? The clothes on your back, the dream of an easy life left to steam in pools of the water we prayed would pour from the skies but came from helicopters, from trucks—all is waterlogged in the aftermath.

And we are told fire season is not upon us, as yet. This is the warm up. The arsonist’s lit match before the storm.

###

Blood loss in July.

July 17, 2020

The summer is bleeding and I can’t stop it.

It’s running down the legs of time and it’s pooling at the feet of life—the summer will perish and what will be left is a shell of this portion of 2020.

A translucence appears in the atmosphere when the soul leaves the body. In near-translucent outline I see tokens of a former time:  the summers within the memory of my history. Warm weather, County Fairs, beach vacations, the barbecues and roadtrips and happiness all shimmer above the dead summer.

A burial awaits. Summer wrapped in rags, embalmed in cancelled plans, it waits to be laid to rest. I turn the soil, folding in frustration, grief, despair, a cup of anxiety for what other little deaths wait in the future. (I stop mid-way to wonder, have I shaken the last hand I ever will, then? have I gone to my last concert?)

I gather the summer in my arms and pour it into the earth, I say goodbye and recite an Our Father. I look up past the translucence that is, after all, only tears. I see the cloudless sky, the pulsating blue and sunshine streaming forth, and I hear a hymn float on the breeze, I hear a hymn amid the birdsong. (An answer: I am at this concert, now, in this moment.)

###

One year: A ghost story.

January 4, 2020

###

When it is better.

August 2, 2019

It is seven months since I lost you.

Someone plunged into very-recent loss asked me when it began to feel easier, when the pain of the absence lost its swell and size, when pictures of the lost one incited more a sense of happiness and not the soreness of the dark, dreaded bruise that is heartbreak.

What I wish I could say: It took seven months.

I wish it were true to say that in seven months, it is much easier. But that would be a lie.

More lies:

  • In seven months, a sense of normalcy, laughter and memories of the old times will have misted over the scorch of raw grief. (Not true. The fire still burns.)
  • In seven months, the grievers will have put enough space between the moment they heard the news (that never, ever will they talk again with their loved one), and the churn of their present lives, so much space that it seems like a lifetime ago, really. (Fallacy. Pain doesn’t watch a clock.)
  • In seven months, looking at pictures of the beloved who is now absent engenders a good feeling, a happy feeling. The two-dimensional gaze from a photo has lost the power to take away the breath of the living. (Incorrect. A picture is worth millions of words and we are not ready to hear them yet.)

Is it better to be honest? Is it better to explain that pain is one way of hanging on, that the wound is a memento in and of itself of the terrible, catastrophic, loss? Perhaps.

Perhaps.

Perhaps. But more than being an honest person, I am a kind person. And I say, “It has been seven months since I lost him, and it is much easier now.”

###

Writ in the clouds.

June 13, 2019

I fall without a parachute into this strange hurt, some days intentionally jumping from an aeroplane into it, and some days falling backward with an astonished gasp, falling off the cliff of the world and soaring head over feet to a crash I don’t really fear, because – can the pain of the crash be worse than the pain that caused the fall?

 (Am I wallowing in the pain? I wonder if the grief has become like a pillow, if it is where I rest my head when I am tired and when I no longer want to march on.) 

The sadness feels familiar, not strange now, it has become an uncommon friend. It rises up to embrace me and it calls me by the names you used to use. I look up and there it is, writ large in the clouds. I look down and there it is, written in the dust at my feet. It frames the pictures of the two of us, our heads bent together and it plays songs with choruses we sang together and discussed the meaning of. It is in my food, I eat it and it is in my drink, I drink it:  I consume it.  

I consume it before it consumes me, because this strange friend of mine is a comfort but it is a fickle one and I cannot forget it has teeth that tear their way into me when I do not expect. In the middle of the night, I lie awake watching the mouth of sadness open and bare its teeth, a spectacle I regard without real surprise. 

Grief, I tell you, is a strange, strange thing. But, strange as strange is, it is not a stranger. 

##$

Perpetual angel.

May 21, 2019

I watched over you for a long time.

I wanted to keep you close and I did it this way:

  • Love you.
  • Check on you.
  • Take care of you.
  • Catch you.

I put you in schools, in programs, in hospitals, in rentals, in rehabs. I made appointments for you, made phone calls for you, set up arrangements for you. I sat by your side – called by the hospital, called by a counselor, called by creditors and police officers and social workers and doctors and your children and your lovers and friends and your wife.

I did this for you, and I did it for me. I did it because your sweetness and your spirit were so dear to me, your faith in me so important, that when it came to the sibling transaction of how it just was, well – that’s how it just was.

I railed against those who looked at me sadly, who said, “sometimes, you’ve done all you can do. Sometimes you have to give up.” They thought decades were just too long to stand by you. I said, over and over, “I won’t let anyone, not even himself, hurt him.”

I could not give up.

And then I was forced to give up, because you left the world.

So I am astonished now. Because earth could not hold you, your wings had been engineered according to some heavenly blueprint. You flew into heaven and took seriously your newly minted angel eminence (how brightly your halo must shine above your dark hair). Your seraph self:

  • Loves me.
  • Checks on me.
  • Takes care of me.
  • Catches me.

You come to me in hard moments. You hold a sign in front of my crying eyes and you stay with me patiently until I read it: life is very short, Sis. Really – be happy. You shine a light so I can see the road and wander from my entrenched, safe paths, and never have I felt so certain that I am protected by a guardian angel who will not let me fall.

On earth, you thought I could do anything; you thought me smart and capable and strong and composed in grand measures I never felt myself. Your presence when you visit me from the perpetual state of your afterlife shows me a glimpse of these traits you believed me to have, because I recognize them in you. It is you who is the teacher, the guide, the wise one, the protector. Catch me, catch me, catch me, dear brother. Until again we meet, catch me.

###

The canyon.

February 5, 2019

They say you are not really gone.

I’m told I can see you in the trees or the snow or a mountain. But I think that is something well-meaning people say when they are out of words for a person who is now moving with a broken heart, one broken before and stitched up before because of people remembered, and people past, and people passed.

They say I cannot see you, but that you are here, in the beautiful things: the natural world, music, memories. That is a nice sentiment but can I say for the record, I prefer your body to be here. I prefer to look at your dear face when I look up, rather than the gray sky. I prefer to listen to your deep voice and your stories over hearing the inadequate tale narrarated in the music I suggested for your funeral. And more than all this, I would prefer to construct new memories for a few more years instead of playing old ones over like a sad reel in my mind.

They say you are not really gone. But I am here, and you are not, and the canyon in the middle of that divide is so very giant that I look at it from a distance with a sinking feeling. I look down at my feet where my little arsenal of tools sits—the songs and recollections and writings and pictures and clothing and momentos—all the small things that I have with me to build a long, long bridge to the person I do not.

###

The cliff of the world.

January 30, 2019

Today is Day 23 without you and the whole country is freezing. I know they aren’t related events, I know they can’t be, but maybe if I suffer and mourn enough, all the souls in every corner will feel the cold, too. Maybe I can share this white sense of feeling with the world.

I don’t want February to arrive. It feels indecent for time to move on and for the minutes and days to not abide the loss. How has the world not stopped? Everything must just stop. Everything must just freeze into that subzero embargo where the news came, “he passed away 10 mins ago.” The alternative is for Father Time to line up his minutes, and for these minutes to march on and on without anything happening, until they simply fall off the world’s cliff and are no longer here.

(What does it mean to get through a day without crying? Is this what forgetting feels like?)

Forty-four years of memories are now only embodied in me. I am the lone vessel, I carry our story on my own and it feels bigger than what one person can manage.

Can I whisper my memories into a balloon and send it to you? Can I drop them into a hole where your ashes lay and let them mingle and grow a seed into a monument? What can I do? I can freeze time, and I can freeze too…but what else? What else is there?

###

Not this.

January 25, 2019

“A cup of coffee,” is what I think after the first call. You are in the hospital, Becky calls to tell me, and pre-dawn calls and hospitals and all institutions, really, mean coffee. So I pad into the kitchen quietly and make a cup and pour in cream and sugar, and then feed the cat. I look at yesterday’s mail and the sink full of dishes from last night. I stare at my phone and then I stare at my reflection in the sliding glass door for a long time—outside, just pitch black.

It is just after 4 a.m., the first call.

And, you know how it is, you get a call and it’s scary but scary in a way that means something bad “might” happen “someday” and so I am accepting the way I always am when these calls come and I think to myself that I will pack a bag just in case you aren’t improving, and then I will leave right after work and come down to see you. We have done that before: (1) You go into the hospital; (2) I come swooping in. It’s a thing. It happens once a year, at least, sometimes more. It happens for different reasons. You have an infection, you are sick with something, you need surgery again, you have an infection, you are sick with something, you need surgery again, you have –

An infection.

Side note: I remember I called you Christmas Day. Your voice boomed at the answer, your nickname for me buoyant and loopy on your lips, “Monkey!” and I had said Merry Christmas and you had said Merry Christmas, but we only talked for a minute, for less than a minute. You were happy, on your way to a movie and running late. I heard it in your voice that you were healthy of mind, not white-knuckling the holidays this year. You sounded…what? What was it I heard? I try to remember and then I do: rich. You sounded rich. You were always broke, but rich is that sound you get when you are surrounded all the way, in every direction, with love. We had a quick conversation, just long enough to exchange a greeting and ‘I love you’ and for you to tell me not with words, but with an uncommonly relaxed, lovely tenor of voice, that you were content these holidays. That you were content. (You were content.)

(I scroll through my voicemails and find two you have left me. I do not know what I will hear when I replay them and so I do not replay them. I am afraid to. What if I hear fatigue, or frustration, or any of the million kinds of angst a person can feel, and what if that is what I hear instead of, “Monkey!” What if that is what gets imprinted into my memory when what I want is to hear only the happy ghost of you, rich?)

Coffee in hand, I finally go tell Shane that “my brother is sick, he’s in the hospital again.” He nods; he too has heard these words too many times. I go about my morning in the dark, still in my pjs, pulling down my overnight bag and packing a change of clothes and wondering if there are hotels near the hospital.

(I promise I was poised to swoop in, to do my part, my side of the story.)

I pick up my phone and send a text to your girlfriend. I’ve never met her and this is a lousy way to become introduced, but I do it. I text, “This is Mary, I’m 5 hours away. Can you ask doctor if I should come now?” A reply comes pinging, almost immediate, “I’m so sorry. He passed away 10 mins ago.”

You think I would fall down or smash the bathroom mirror with my phone. You think I would keen and scream. You think I would rip the hair from my head, but I do not. I think only, “no.” I think, “he is sick and has an infection.” My fingers shake violently as I pick up my overnight bag, lost as to what I should do next because you have changed the way it goes.

You had an infection and the hospital had put in the IV and the calls had been made and blood tests done, all rapidly. So now comes the part where I come in and they say, “He is very sick,” and I nod and they tell me what needs to be done and I take out a book to read and update family and friends and settle in and you smile at me and thank me and I say of course and we make small talk and then talk about our growing up years and we remember mom and dad, the good and the bad, and you tell me something about your kids and I tell you something about mine and I sneak you coffee from somewhere other than the cafeteria and you sleep and I watch and you mumble in your sleep and I keep constant vigil until you fucking get better.

That is how it works. Not this.

###