Once I was involved in a political revolt. The situation leading up to the revolt was horrifying. I’ll just mention the worst of the atrocities. The dictator was sawing people in half at the waist. Led by a wise, bald man, we succeeded in overthrowing the autocracy. My personal heroism was as follows: I rescued a baby from a river, and after we restored a peaceful democracy I contacted a dentist, because many children had lost their retainers during the struggle for freedom.
This was a dream.
The only reason I can describe this dream, three years after it occurred, is because for one year I drew every one of my dreams in cartoon format. I’ve been asked why I did this, and I’m not sure why I started, but I continued because when I shared the first picture on Facebook, it got lots of likes and my friends said it was funny, and I will do almost anything for a laugh. So I created a Facebook page.
It turns out that I had very few dreams in which I was a hero. In fact, the dreams exposed the worst of myself. I did things that I wouldn’t do in real life but might think about. I cheated in sports and I called small children “bitches” (and then lied about it: “Tell their parents I called them ‘witches.’”) I went ape-shit on a college professor who said I wasn’t listening, throwing desks around the room in an uncontrollable rage.
In my dreams I examined what I would do if presented with situations I was unlikely to face in real life. I learned that if I were a soldier, I would avoid injury by finding hiding spots whenever the shooting started. Also, after a rampaging hippo at the zoo was shot and killed, I looted its cage and stole its toiletries. (“This shampoo looks good!”)
Everyone knows this about dreams: they’re fascinating for the dreamer to talk about but boring as hell for the people who have to listen. Try telling someone your dream from last night and watch for the exact point when the listener’s eyes glaze over. It won’t take long.
But that’s not because dreams are boring. It’s because our storytelling is boring. We don’t know where to start the story and we sure don’t know where to end it. The interesting parts are buried in mundane detail. If I were to describe the political revolt dream but started at the beginning of the dream, where a tour group was packing into a bus and the driver said something a little weird and I looked out the window and saw someone selling hats, nobody would be listening by the time I got to where the dictator was sawing people in half, and that’s when it started getting interesting.
If you were telling someone a story about a close call on the freeway in the afternoon you wouldn’t start out by describing brushing your teeth in the morning. You probably wouldn’t include what kind of shoes you were wearing. Just because something happened doesn’t make it a part of the story.
Because I was drawing the dreams, I was forced to boil each dream down to its essential elements, maybe five or six frames. It also helped that I can’t draw. So everything that happened had to be depicted in the simplest manner possible, which made it impossible to include extraneous details. The cartoon me had maybe three distinct facial expressions during the course of the year, but I learned to draw those three facial expressions convincingly. My “angry” expression was particularly iconic.
My poor drawing skills did occasionally call for some explanation, so there are a few notes here and there, like “Third arm is an accident,” “Not really this tall,” “This is not a penis,” etc.
The exercise of identifying the interesting elements of a story, and figuring out where a story begins and ends helped me in my other writing as well. I became more ruthless, slashing words, sentences, paragraphs. I think that drawing badly made me a better writer.
Drawing my dreams also made me work harder at the visual aspect of storytelling. Sometimes the dream could be told with hardly any words, just pictures. In one dream I had read a book on caring for chickens and it said that it was good for chicks’ social skills to spend some time every day with a rooster. So the picture consisted of several frames of little chickens climbing all over a rooster, and finally a close-up of the rooster with a pissed off look on his face and the words, “The rooster is not amused.”
And maybe being creative in a medium for which you have no skill or talent helps your creativity as a whole, because you can’t rely on any skill you might have developed. I don’t know the “rules” of drawing the way I know the “rules” of writing. If there’s a grammar to illustration I don’t know what it is. So I had no filter, and it felt good to create with no filter.
Sometimes I drew other people’s dreams as well. They’d tell me the long, boring version of the dream, and I’d boil it down to the essentials. Several times I drew my husband’s dreams. They were interesting to me because of what they said about our relationship. Like this one: We were climbing around on a cliff. We got to a dangerous part and Stan said, “We should stop,” but I said, “No! Let’s go!” Then I fell off the cliff into a body of water. Stan had to jump into the water to rescue me, risking his own life, but I was dead. Only I wasn’t dead! I jumped up and said, “That was fun!” What this dream says about our relationship is that I’m the fun one.
I also drew my friend Christie’s dream in which she and Stan were driving a truck through the mountains, hauling several refrigerators wrapped in towels. The interesting part of the dream is that Christie and Stan were flirting with each other. Later Christie claimed that I misinterpreted her dream and that they were not flirting, but when you ask someone to draw your dream, the artist gets to make the call.
My favorite dream I drew was one of Stan’s. It’s also probably the most offensive. In this dream we were browsing a catalogue of organic meat and we had this conversation.
Me: “I think I’ll get a midget.”
Stan: “What? Do you have any idea how big a midget is?”
Me: “I’ll cut it up and put it in the freezer.”
Stan: “I’m not eating some tough old midget!”
What I like about this dream is that on the surface it appears that he’s the virtuous one, rejecting the notion of cannibalism. But really his objections focus on the space the midget will take up and the quality of the meat. (Also, I know we don’t use the word “midget” anymore, but this wasn’t my dream.)
During the year I drew my dreams, I found that I remembered more of them, probably because the first thing I did each morning was recall them so that I could draw them. I also kept a notebook by my bed so if I woke up in the middle of the night I could write down a word or phrase to help me remember the dream I had before I woke. Sometimes the scribbled notes made me a little sad, like when I read “monster on house” but couldn’t remember the dream.
Reading notes about these lost dreams made me appreciate even more the staggering creativity that goes into dreaming. During the day, sometimes I stare at a blank Word document wondering if I’ll ever get another idea, and I hit “save” after writing just a couple sentences, afraid of losing even one word. But at nighttime ideas flow so freely. I tell stories, make jokes, invent things, and paint pictures with absolutely no effort at all, and then they’re simply released, like they’re nothing. If I don’t catch them as soon as I wake, they’re gone forever.
I rarely draw my dreams anymore, but I still look forward to sleeping every night and not just because I’m tired. Every night I anticipate the places my brain will take me, the surprising connections it will make, the unlikely storylines and the unselfconscious confessions. Every night I hope that when I wake, before I fully surrender to the morning, that I can grab a thread from a dream, give it a gentle tug, and bring that lovely diaphanous memory with me into the world of solid things.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.
We piled into a long, rented passenger van. Two of the juniors, Dan and Mike, had already claimed “driver” and “co” and instituted the rule that driver chooses music, setting us up for sixteen solid hours of Phish.
I crunched in next to a wiry kid with a mess of black hair.
“Benjamin.” He grinned, showing off a shiny retainer. “Freshman.”
I was a college sophomore headed out on a road trip from Boston to Savannah with a dozen kids I didn’t know. It was a Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip—not exactly MTV Spring Break. But, for me, that wasn’t really the noteworthy part.
I don’t need an introvert/extrovert quiz to know where I fall on the spectrum of personality types. I’ve always been a person who lingers most comfortably near the edges of things, enjoying the view from a distance. Even at nineteen years old, my ideal break would have looked more like a low-key trip with a good friend, or week at home in Buffalo with the people who knew me best.
But some small part of me had pushed to try it for once: fall fully and inescapably into the center of something unfamiliar, with a whole group of people I didn’t know pressed in close. And I’m being literal here, because, as I settled into my seat, Benjamin the freshman was making the case that he should be allowed to sleep on me.
“I know we just met,” he said. “But you’re going to know me really well by the end of the week. It’s a long drive. And if I can’t lean on you, I’ll never get any sleep.”
The drive was long. With Phish cranked up and Benjamin nuzzling my shoulder, sleep wasn’t really an option. So I spent the ride trying to catalog the other volunteers by the things they said, the way they interacted.
By virtue of being a senior, Cindy had earned some kind of a supervisory role on the trip, a designation quickly challenged by several of the boys. She was enthusiastic but wavering, an unforgivable combination among ruthless twenty-year-olds. But she had two smart, solid girlfriends with her, and they shored up her confidence. You could see they wanted her to succeed. Eventually, the rest of us would, too.
Anthony from Staten Island was an RA on campus. He had signed up with his friend Eileen and a kid from his floor named Rob. From the moment we all introduced ourselves, Rob began working the refrain, “Come on, Eileen,” a la Dexys Midnight Runners, into every conversation.
There was the soft-spoken, fair-minded guy who was treasurer of student government. The amazing pianist who would spend his junior year studying in South Africa. The pretty, smiling girl who was active in a Christian youth group on campus. There was Beth—alternately friendly and harsh, caught in the push-pull of wanting to fit in and pretending it didn’t matter.
And then there were Mike and Dan. Pushy, I thought. Kind of jerky. But they were the type of kids who pulled the outliers into their jokes instead of making them their (easy) targets. Also? They were really, really funny.
Along with being an introvert, I was a person known to develop crushes on smart, funny boys. Driving across those ten states, as we neared the end of our drive, I was falling hard for Mike.
Like the children we still were, we found ways to debate everything from seating arrangements to whether beef jerky was an acceptable snack choice. But there were long, quiet spells where no one said anything at all. And there were discussions about things that mattered, too, like the fact that we were getting a chance to help build a house that an actual family would live in.
A few hours into the drive, someone brought up the subject of abortion, and the exchange got heated, fast. Beth’s voice trembled. She seemed about to cry. Cindy and her friends exchanged a look, and stopped talking. The silence hovered there in the thick air of the van. Then, carefully, someone started a new thread—something light. And someone else picked it up. And just like that, we were a group of people who looked out for one another.
We passed a hand-lettered, misspelled sign on the road: “Acers of land for sale,” someone read. “Ace – ers of land.” And then someone screamed, “Yeah! We made it! We’re in the south!”
The house we were to stay in was a mustard-colored ranch set up with several rooms of bunks for Habitat volunteers. I was glad when Anthony called to me, “You wanna bunk with us?” He, Rob, and Eileen had kept up a steady stream of lighthearted bantering and bickering since we’d all met in the van. They were easy to be around. All I had to do was laugh.
The work would start Monday, but first we had the rest of the weekend, beginning with a night out in Savannah. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, so we planned to head downtown to a popular Irish bar. I was glad I’d packed a little makeup along with my work jeans and tee shirts.
“Is that my brush?” Eileen asked, as Rob checked his hair in the mirror over the bedroom’s one small dresser.
“Oh, come on, Eileen,” he shouted back.
We drove into the city and found parking; we weren’t even through the door of the bar when a beaming blond girl flew into Mike’s arms out of nowhere. A girlfriend. Of course. She—Amy—and her friend were sailing the friend’s dad’s boat (I know) down the coast for spring break. They had run into us coincidentally, we were assured, with no previous planning between Amy and Mike, on our one night out in Savannah.
“Man!” Mike said. “Can you believe this?”
No. I really couldn’t.
One night later in the year, my roommate Caroline went out to see a popular band—Living Proof—that was loved mightily for its covers of new wave songs. Disappointed she couldn’t convince me to join her and her new beau, Caroline went to the show dragging her feet a little. But she came home effervescent. Drunk on keg beer, she gushed about this beautiful nameless girl, who had spotted her not having fun and pulled her out on the dance floor, turning her night around.
Caroline called her The Living Proof Girl, which became shorthand for the enviable, carefree spirit who approached college—and life in general—with a seemingly effortless upbeat attitude. Be charming and pretty! Dance with strangers! Infect the world with your happiness!
Soon after we went to see the campus improv comedy group, My Mother’s Fleabag. Caroline said, “It’s her,” at the same moment I thought it. We both recognized the girl on stage for different reasons. The star of Fleabag was The Living Proof Girl. Who was Mike’s girlfriend. Who was Amy freaking Poehler.
(“You’re funnier then she is,” my friend Kim said recently when I told her this story. “But I think she’s got you beat in the tits department.”)
My heart sank a little as Mike melted into Amy’s hug. But I had only known him for a matter of hours. I swallowed my Guinness and made myself start conversations with the other volunteers. I even tapped my Irish American upbringing and requested songs from the band. The singer asked where I was from, then gave our group a shout-out into the microphone. I had fun.
The next day, Sunday, we had planned to drive to Hilton Head. But Anthony wanted to go to church first, and we had only one van.
“Guys, I haven’t missed Sunday Mass my whole life,” he said. “You can’t wait an hour?”
There was grumbling. Silence. He looked around at the group, pleadingly.
“I don’t think we can make someone miss Mass for the beach,” I heard myself say. Anthony had pulled me into his little crew when I was apart from the crowd and I owed him one.
It turned out Anthony had gotten the time for the service wrong, so he would miss Mass after all. But he seemed grateful we’d made the effort, and I was glad I’d spoken up.
At the beach I sat taking in the view of the Atlantic, seeing it for the first time from a place other than from the New England Coast. It was chilly out, which didn’t stop some of the girls from peeling down to bikinis. People swam and screamed and splashed each other. I was happy to sit on the beach and watched, wiggling my toes in the sand, wondering what else the week held.
In the morning, the alarm sounded early.
“Ugh!” Rob groaned. “Come on, Eileen.”
We were putting up the framework of the house. When had I held a hammer before? To hang cheaply framed posters over my bed? The nails bent at odd angles or went in sideways. Wood splintered. I was sweating, and my shoulders ached. Jack, a guy who lived on the property in a trailer with his dog and managed the volunteers, walked around offering guidance. I swung the hammer. Thwack thwack thwack. When a nail bent or broke I wrenched it out again. Eventually, I could set those nails in perfectly and my beams came together, part of a wall that was part of a house that a family was going to live in.
Mike and Dan walked over with a sledgehammer.
“Ma’am, this wall is going to have to come down.”
“This is going to hurt us more than it hurts you.”
“Don’t laugh, ma’am. You should probably look away.”
We watched the walls go up. We filled them in. Jack handpicked the best workers to hang the drywall. We screamed and cheered because, at that age, when you accomplish something big, you can still do that.
One morning there were gnats—no see-ums, people called them. They descended on you and filled your nose and mouth. I was near tears. Bug spray didn’t work, the nets on your head helped but obscured your view, and no one else was wearing them. I snuck back to the house, made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and used the house phone to call my sister. “Why did I do this?”
I pulled myself together. Back outside, a little rain descended and drove the bugs away. We celebrated.
Another day, Beth cut her hand using the table saw and Jack had to take her for stitches and a tetanus shot. While they were gone, we lazed around a bit. There was chalk on the worksite and Mike splayed across the ground and had me trace his outline like a body at a crime scene. Then he called Jack’s dog and coaxed it to lie beside the tracing so that he could trace the dog too. Laughing, I took a picture of their two empty outlines.
Our last night in Georgia, Cindy hooked up with the freshman.
“Tell me you didn’t have sex with him,” one of her friends fumed.
“She would,” Beth said acidly.
And the confirmation was written in the grin on Benjamin’s face.
Mike gave me a wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of exaggerated shock and I had to leave the room and laugh.
Back at school, I mailed off my rolls of film and when they came back, I bored everyone I could with photos of the house going up. I slipped the crime scene picture into an envelope, carefully wrote out Mike’s address and dropped it in the mail. And soon after I got an envelope from him—an invitation to the party he’d promised us all he’d throw at his off-campus apartment.
I went alone. The Savannah group came, in pairs and with roommates or on their own.
“That picture was so great,” Mike said to me.
I walked around his apartment and saw a picture of him with Amy and then, eventually, the real Amy, hanging out and laughing in a hallway.
I stood next to Beth, watching Mike laugh with a group of his friends.
“I had such a crush on him,” I said.
“Who didn’t?” she answered dismissively.
There wasn’t a lot for us—any of us—to say to each other now that we were back on campus. But somehow, that seemed okay. It seemed, in fact, exactly right. The experiences we’d shared together, and whatever we’d learned about ourselves as individuals, weren’t the kind of things we needed to say out loud.
Content to leave it that way, I finished my drink and slipped out without saying goodbye.
Junior year at a football game, I was walking through the stadium with a boy when I saw Mike and Dan in the crowd, running toward me.
They spotted me, whooped, and each grabbed me in a hug, and I felt like my face would break from smiling. I introduced them to my boyfriend and they shook his hand because we were in that strange world where adulthood and childhood, job interviews and football tailgates, collide. Mike, who was then a senior, put his hands on my shoulders and leaned down.
“You’re good?” he asked, while the crowd roared around us. “You’re good?”
“I’m good!” I grinned back, and he squeezed me in a last hug.
“Good luck,” we called to each other, and laughed. And headed back toward our futures.
Twenty years later, I’ve discovered via the magic of the web that Mike is even handsomer than I remembered, with three equally photogenic kids hanging off of him in his Facebook picture. Dan is a New York Times bestselling author who has been interviewed on all the major news shows. Amy Poehler continued to pursue her interest in comedy. And the guy who shook hands with Mike and Dan at the game? He’s my husband, and we have two (adorable, hilarious, introverted) kids.
KAREN DEMPSEY has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at kdempseycreative.com or follow her @karenedempsey.
This is my sister Erin: As a child, she befriended the kids who were the outcasts so that they’d have at least one friend. In high school, we heard of a house fire; I donated some cast-off clothing, but Erin gathered up things that were still in rotation in her wardrobe. As an adult, she kept her door unlocked in case any of her friends dropped by and needed her. In the past couple of years, she has played host to a friend whose marriage needed some space, another friend going through detox, and another who was turned away from the psych ward although she was clearly in need some of mental health services. She stayed at Erin’s home, manic and wild, until her parents came to pick her up the next day.
Erin and I were born twenty-three months apart, summer babies, the children of school teachers. I’m older—I’m the oldest of the four of us sisters—but we each affected who the other became. As an adult, I’m expansive and generous and open to vulnerability; Erin taught me that. When I’m around her, though, I revert back to the same counter-balance that I’ve been all our lives: protective, suspicious of people who might take advantage of her giving nature, willing to fight her battles. I had a reputation, once, of someone not to fuck with, someone slightly crazy, aloof and unpredictable. I used to like that: it kept my sisters safe.
Krissy, the third of us, called me. “Jeff died,” she said.
She’d called Erin earlier. Erin was gulping against her tears, more upset than Krissy had ever heard her. Erin’s husband, Jeff, had stopped breathing. Jill, our youngest sister, was on her way to Erin’s house where paramedics were working on him. In the next hour, there was confusion on Krissy’s and my part whether Jeff was actually dead. Maybe Erin meant that he died … but then someone had revived him!
She called Mom at work. “I think Jeff died,” she said.
“Krissy,” Mom said. “Did he die or not?”
“I don’t know.”
We were hopeful and inadvertently passed along that small hope to Mom, too, but no. They tried to save him. They didn’t.
(This is the part where I’m not going to write about Jeff, my handsome brother-in-law whom I’ve known since I was fourteen, the guy with whom I’ve laughed and bickered and grieved. This is the part where I’m going to keep up my denial that we’ve lost him. This is the part where my denial allows me to stay strong.)
The next day, Krissy drove up from Charlotte and picked me up in Charlottesville before continuing on. We stopped at a gas station for her to fuel up the car and for me to buy beer because I would need something to numb me. We’d been slap-happy on the drive up, too many hours in the car, and I stepped away to smoke a cigarette. The November sky in late afternoon was brilliant, cirrus clouds lit up pinky-orange by the setting sun. I don’t know why the sky is always important after a death, but it is. I can remember every sky after a death. When I came back to the car, Krissy was sobbing.
We know how to get shit done.
Krissy and I got there too late to help make arrangements at the funeral home with Erin and their son Brit, but Mom and Andrew, Erin’s and Jeff’s friend, went; our Aunt Kathy met them up there. I was charged with writing Jeff’s obituary with heavy input from Erin and Brit. Jill took on making a playlist of songs to be played at the service. Krissy created a slide show that showed Jeff through the years, a slide show to which my eyes would wander the entire time at the funeral home.
Secretly, I had another mission: to determine who was a person there to surround Erin and Brit with support and love and who was a just a grief glommer.
The muscles of suspicion came back easily. After all, Erin was at the most vulnerable I’d ever seen her, lounging on the couch where Jeff slept, her big hazel eyes wet, veering wildly between intense grief and moments of okay. It was a testament to how open and welcoming Erin and Jeff were that so many people felt so close to them. Now, I eyed each one carefully.
In the aftermath of this tragedy—and this was a tragedy, Jeff only forty-two—our girl gang found the gamut. People are kind; people are misguided; people are completely inappropriate.
The first group was obvious. We found support in Erin and Jeff’s friends and our extended family, as well as in our own friends: food was brought, pictures were enlarged and framed, funeral deposits were made, alcohol was delivered.
I looked at the second group with some distance: the grief groupies. “I’m there for you,” although neither Erin for Jeff knew them, only knew of them. “If you need anything, call me—I’m not far away.” Yes, I thought at the time: Erin is going to call on near strangers to talk or maybe ask for help with the mortgage payment. Later, I could be more generous. I could see that these people were looking for a way to be important, looking for a way to make a difference. They were clumsy and maybe motivated by a hope that this was their chance to make a big impact on somebody’s world, but their impulses were benevolent. (Later still, some of these people would seem vaguely creepy to me, giving not only Erin but the rest of us too much personal attention.)
The last group, though, I still have nothing but disdain for. The grief looky-loos. They friend us on Facebook in the day or two Jeff’s death after not contacting us for twenty-some years without so much as an “I’m sorry for your loss,” and I have no idea why. You want to see what a family looks like when someone dies young? You want to see the face of raw mourning? You want to lick the salt of our tears? You want to see what Thanksgiving’s like this year? You want to hold my shuddering body as the baby-faced Army men fold a flag and present it to my sister? It’s not on Facebook. It’s here. Look close. You can call it schadenfreude, but it can happen to you.
There was another category, though, and I’ll call her Liz. Liz was the friend who Erin and Jeff took in when she was turned away from the psychiatric ward. She claims to be bi-polar, but I suspect she’s schizophrenic; she abuses her medication so her condition isn’t controlled. I have loads of empathy for her in normal circumstances. She absolutely cannot help that she’s been dealt this illness, as debilitating as invasive cancer. But these were not normal circumstances.
Erin gets a text from Liz. She’s on her way up, she writes. She’s going to stay with Erin—permanently, if Erin would like! Erin, obviously, can’t take care of anyone at this point. Krissy offers to text back from Erin’s phone, to take one more thing off Erin’s plate, and we confer on the wording. Erin has a full house, Krissy texts, but we’re looking forward to seeing her at the funeral. At the last minute, Krissy asks me if she can change “Hi Liz, this is Krissy” to “Hi Liz, this is Jenny,” and I agree because this is what this is what the oldest is, the spokesperson and executive branch of The Family, charged with approving and enforcing the laws.
This is the place where I come home as a grieving sister-in-law and leave as the most hated alumna of my high school.
We’re plagued with other people posing the question: what happened? They come in droves, over the phone, on Facebook, in person. That evening, Jill and I drive the five minutes back to the home she shares with Mom and her daughter, and Jill tells me that everyone—all the sisters—are getting worn down. “What the fuck are they thinking?” she asks. “It’s not like we owe them anything.”
That night, I post on Facebook, “I know this is a hard time for everyone, but it’s especially hard for Jeff’s family. Please, please stop asking us what happened. What we know is that Jeff took a nap and died in his sleep. It’s maddening for us not to have more answers, too.” I tag my sisters, and, like that, the questions stop.
I tell my friend Tracy about this later, and she tells me that she thinks that there’s some part of people that looks for reassurance that death can’t happen to them. I agree, I agree, I agree, but can’t these people talk amongst themselves?
The next day, I’m doing the day shift at Erin’s house. Our mom, Uncle Jimmy, and Grandma came by, but Erin fell asleep. Eventually, everyone leaves but Erin, Brit, and me, and, in the quiet, dim room, I watch her sleep while I read (not really, but it gives my eyes something to do) in the armchair.
The front door flies open. It seems unnaturally loud in the hush of the house. “Hello!”
A woman in sunglasses and a long, embroidered coat sweeps in the foyer. I get up from the armchair, and when she takes off her sunglasses, I see that it’s Liz.
“Liz!” I whisper. “So good to see you! Erin’s sleeping.”
“Oh, okay,” she says.
Brit comes in the room from upstairs, and she moves purposefully toward him, throws her arms around him, and cries, clinging to him, as if seeking comfort. Brit and I make eye contact.
She releases Brit, asks me a few questions. She plays with the dogs for a little while. Serendipitously, another friend of Erin’s comes by. In the same whisper, I explain that Erin is sleeping, something that doesn’t come easily to my sister now. Liz asks me if she can hang out for a while. Brit interjects that Erin just fell asleep. “I’ll tell her that you came by,” I say. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate it. We’ll see you on Saturday.”
The two leave together.
But Liz comes back later that day, not on the day of Jeff’s funeral. She surprises us, showing up during the changing of the guard, when I’m going back to Mom’s, and Krissy and Jill are on their way over to spend the night with Erin.
In that time, Liz goes to the basement where Erin sits when she needs time to herself. I hear later that Erin talks to Liz, telling her how everyone has been so supportive: her family, Frank, Andrew… Liz starts arguing that she’s never heard of Andrew.
Really, she’s arguing for her own primacy in Erin’s life, which she cannot see simply doesn’t exist, although it’s no one’s fault.
Then Liz starts in on Erin’s decision to have an open casket. Erin tells her that she’s not going to argue about it, but Liz continues her rant. It finally falls on Brit—a man, but a young man, one who just lost his father—to stop her. “My aunts aren’t even here,” he says. “You need to leave.”
We drive to the funeral home mostly in silence. I’m in the backseat with Jill and my niece. At every turn, I slide on the leather seat against their hips. The last time I spent any time squished in the backseat with family, we were going from our grandfather’s viewing to get something to eat. Then, Jeff drove us in his big truck. Now, my niece’s dad is driving.
I stare out the window at this part of Virginia to which I haven’t been since I was a teenager. There’s the strip mall where my best friend served frozen yogurt. There’s where The Black-Eyed Pea used to be, back when it was a restaurant and not a band. “Here,” Jill says. “Mike, turn here.”
“Jill,” he says quietly. “This used to be my playground.”
A grand old house with a broad porch has been converted to the funeral home. We help carry in what will be displayed: Jeff’s bass guitar, photos of him, trophies. The home is quiet and the wide wooden boards of the floor creak as we enter.
The funeral director’s name is Chad. Chad! Like a guy you know who maybe was a lifeguard in his youth and likes to party. But this Chad is soft-spoken and radiates kindness. He leads Erin and Brit into the chapel, where they spend some time together, alone, the three of them, the two of them.
When the private family time is over, people start arriving. In droves. Chad tells us later that since Jeff’s death, the phone at the funeral home had been ringing near-constantly with people trying to make sure they had the right time and place and day.
The Niesslein sisters switch into full-on support mode.
Our parents’ divorce was a messy one, and although it’s been twenty-five years, some learned instinct—a prayer to no one: please keep it pleasant—kicks in for me when the two sides of the families come together—until now, just for graduations, marriages, and the births of grandchildren.
They’ve almost always kept it civil and sometimes downright pleasant, and they rise to the occasion again. I stand with my Dixie cup of water, wishing it were something stronger (a joke I’ll make a million times over the course of the day) and listen to chitchat between the two sides. Our cousin and his wife are wrangling their six-month-old son, a blue-eyed beauty whose heart belongs to anyone with a necklace to fiddle with. Our grandmother from the other side of the family notices him. “Bring me the baby,” she says from a wingback chair. She’s a little Godfather-like in her delivery, but this newest Niesslein brings both sides together in admiration of the little guy.
For the most part, Erin and Brit stay in the chapel, now crowded with people filling the pews, waiting in line to see Jeff’s body, wishing Erin and Brit their best. I look at Erin across the room, and I can’t even imagine how she’s still standing. I suppose that it’s a combination of denial and medication and the default mode of who she is: warm and loving.
As for the rest of us, we’re running around the place like the A.V. Club, asking Chad and his colleagues to turn off the music, turn up the mic, resume the music as people—Brit, Jeff’s friends, his musical buddies—give their tributes. People are spilling out of the rooms onto the porch, the driveway, the waiting room of the home’s office. Jeff and I graduated together, so his funeral is, in addition to being one of the most wrenching things we’ve ever gone through, an impromptu class reunion.
It’s crowded enough that we can quietly shun people who we know make Erin or Brit uncomfortable or who Jeff didn’t like. There is Liz, touching inside the coffin. There are a few other people who, when they look as if they might approach us, we busy ourselves, mostly by checking on one another. Occasionally, I sit down. I’m doing this when Jeff’s old bass teacher plays a lovely song as a tribute, and as I lean into the furniture, forgetting, I think, You know who’d like this? Jeff.
Like my other sisters, I usher Erin through the crowd to have a cigarette, take a break, abandon her smiling façade for a moment. I notice a crowd of our high school alumni gathered out front, talking and laughing. I can’t hold it against them—I’d done the same throughout the day. But looking at them, I realize that this is their final goodbye; they’d file Jeff away in their memories soon, a guy that they’d known and liked who died too soon. We were different. We—the people who loved and supported Erin and Brit—would be the Sherpas across their long chasm of grief, descending into it with them and climbing up, step by steep step.
After the funeral, we head back to Mom’s and Jill’s house. Our extended family is already there, quietly providing a spread of food and drink. Erin and Brit had invited close friends and family to join us in the celebration of Jeff’s life, and soon the house is crowded.
I let down my guard and crack open a beer. I take off my boots and put on slippers. I hug—long, lingering hugs, inhaling nosefuls of scent—my husband and our son for whom I was so homesick the night before. I survey the group. This is the love and support that Erin and Brit deserve right now.
I use the bathroom off of Mom’s room, and when I come out, Grandma and our cousin Jordy are searching for Gram’s purse that she ferreted away somewhere deep in Mom’s closet. Jordy’s using his cell phone as a flashlight, and I’m clicking through the hangars when Jill bursts in.
“Liz is here,” she says.
I pause. Am I the person who’s going to bounce a deeply sick woman from the house? Yes, it turns out. Yes, I am.
In the living room, Liz is standing in bare feet, looking at the baby. “Liz,” I say. “Can I talk to you outside for a minute?”
Although the day had been warm, it’s freezing outside now, and I lead her to a place down the sidewalk, away from the people lingering with their cigarettes.
“I heard you weren’t very supportive of Erin last night,” I say. “I think you need to leave.”
“I respect that,” she says. She stares into my eyes for a long time without blinking. I’ve been drinking, but even I can see that she’s trying to intimidate me; we’re down to our most animal selves here. I stare back.
“I can’t believe after such a good friend I’ve been to Erin and Brit and Jeff that you’re asking me to leave—”
“I appreciate that, Liz.” No, I don’t—they’ve been good, amazing friends to her, but it hasn’t been, couldn’t be, completely reciprocal. “But that’s not my job here. My role is to make sure that they’re surrounded with love and support.”
She stares at me for another long time, and I don’t break her gaze. “Let’s go,” I say.
I head toward the front door as Grandma’s leaving. I make way for her and her walker. Liz, not seeing, tries to push past. I put my hand on her shoulder. “You need to wait. Our grandma’s leaving.” My tone is sharper than I intend, but maybe that comes with the territory of being a bouncer.
Eventually she locates the guy she came with, and they leave. I crack open another beer. The five of us—four sisters and our mom—find ourselves in the foyer sometime later, hugging each other in a circle, like a coven. Our cousin Mike snaps a picture, and that’s how I like to remember that night, each of us supported by the collective strength.
It’s three weeks after Jeff’s death. I’ve been calling Erin every other day, Brit once in a while. Today, I’d gotten Erin’s voice mail, and she calls me back. She’s crying. “I just miss him so much,” she says. “It’s only been three weeks, and I have a lifetime of this.”
“Just an hour at a time, baby,” I say.
For the first time in my life, it hits me: I really can’t protect her. I can write this stupid, fucking, whiny essay in which I paint myself as some kind of hero, but it’s a distraction from what’s really going on. Jeff’s gone, and as much as I want to snatch the pain away from Erin and Brit, I can’t. I can steer away people who aren’t helpful, but I can’t alleviate this ache, this loss, one tiny bit. I don’t know what to do with this impotence.
When we were little, I’d ride my bike with my sisters, Erin in the banana seat in front of me, Krissy on the handlebars with her feet in the basket. There was a family down the street who kept a pack of dogs, half-crazy mutts, and when I saw the pack coming, I’d tell my sisters to get off the bike and get behind me. I’d walk the bike to our house, its shiny pink aluminum the shield between us and the Big, Terrible Thing.
I was wrong to say that we’re Sherpas. All of us will have to descend into that chasm of grief, alone, together, and climb out, alone, together. When the Big, Terrible Thing happens, it doesn’t matter that you’re the big sister. The shield is flimsy, and you are, despite your best hopes, simply a familiar body to cling to. You have to start believing that that is enough.