We Carry Our Losses Inside

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sarah Meyer

The new Executive Director’s father is dying. Her name is Angela; she moved here from northern Virginia and has brought him with her. She holds his elbow, and together they learn this small town in North Carolina. They walk carefully over the cobblestones in the parts of downtown still cobbled. They examine the construction, having never seen the slender strip of grass that used to be where these cement blocks and this mound of dirt now sit. In a year or so the block extending east from the obelisk will be a bigger expanse of grass, a real park: with benches, one of those water spouts for kids in summer.

Her father is old and has dementia. She wears what she can of his condition inside her own body and it shows. She worries, calls her new rental house from the office throughout the day to make sure he answers. When he doesn’t, she drives home and back, reports that he was asleep. This is how she learns her way around.

The Asheville Citizen-Times and the free weekly run articles announcing her hiring. I watch her try to fix her hair for the photos: she stands in the gallery next to a banner I’ve never seen, retrieved from the basement. It has our logo on it. Asheville Area Arts Council: AAAC. Our town is glad she’s here. We shake her hand with both our hands. Sometimes we clasp her forearm. We nod our heads, tell each other Oh, her father. We say to ourselves, It’s so sad. We say, She has so much on her plate. So much to do. We’re a town of artists and college students and retirees, and we have been waiting for her. We radiate excitement to watch her try to live. We love seeing her walk her dad across the street from the office to get ice cream.

•••

In Florida, in the ’90s, families that we knew and did not know were buying tarps and specialty fencing and in other ways trying to prevent this thing that took over like a wave, like an accidental fad. It was the thing that kept happening: people’s children were drowning in their own pools. My dad, a pediatrician, was interviewed on the local news and my sister and I felt famous by extension.

One family we knew bought a pool fence to prevent this exact thing from happening, but their baby followed a cat through the crack between the latch and the rest of the nylon fencing. A grandparent was babysitting and had fallen asleep.

And another: my third grade classmate’s baby brother, a fat toddler who accompanied us on school trips when his parents chaperoned. He was famous for this wiggly dance, probably the product of just having learned to stand upright, that was like the chicken dance only shorter and unplanned. The memory I have, that I return to every few years, is of this baby wobbling around in a diaper outside the Arlington Street pool. We had gone on a field trip. My friend’s brother did his dance and our whole class stood around him, and his dad was there and we laughed.

These things did not happen in public pools, though, only in the carefully planned backyards of the people who loved their babies. And so, weeks or months later, my friend’s father fell asleep while his baby was awake and curious. It was the first funeral I ever attended. I sat with another classmate, and I don’t remember if my parents were even there. The baby’s dad stood at a podium and sobbed. He said he would miss that little dance so much. He held tight to the podium and we watched the rest of his body try to collapse and he shook. His hands were the only still parts.

•••

Four days after Ryane’s dad dies I email all of our friends. “I wanted to let you know that Ryane’s dad died on Monday morning. If you have a chance and are inclined to send her a note, I know she would appreciate it. We don’t yet have email at the house, but the physical address is…”

He died three weeks after his fifty-first birthday. Ryane was twenty-five. Three of our friends respond to my email, telling me to tell Ryane they are sorry. One person delivers Tupperware ravioli while we’re in Indiana for the funeral. One sends a note in the mail saying she wishes she could give Ryane a hug.

•••

At funerals, the idea is to look around: to see the group you’re given to grieve with. A temporary family, or an actual family. A room full of people with similar, complicated feelings.

The idea is once you walk out of that room, away from those people who understand what you feel because they also feel some version of it, subsequent acquaintances are less likely to understand. They might not understand at all.

A friend drops off a Tupperware of ravioli while you’re out, never to mention your loss again.

A friend asks, within months, why it’s still a topic of discussion.

People extend birthday party invitations, or they don’t extend them at all. Both situations feel the same.

No one mentions it.

Or a few people mention it, asking, How are you? when there is no answer. Thinking about you, xo.

I study the grief around me to understand my own, which technically hasn’t happened yet. I grieve a family that still exists, parents I can call on the phone today, who were always just themselves instead of the people I needed them to be.

Waiting to actually lose someone can become confused for actually having lost them, after a while. We humans float around each other in so many ways.

•••

Angela has moved her father back into his house in Florida. At first he manages with the help of nurses whom she pays to stop by. But he falls, forgets who they are, becomes upset when they unlock his front door one by one and enter as though it were their house. He calls her at work, and through the drywall separating her office from mine, I hear her whisper insistent Spanish into the receiver. Mira, Papi.

She has him transferred to an assisted living facility somewhere east of Orlando where he has limited telephone privileges but nurses sometimes call with updates. Every six weeks or so she flies on Allegiant air—tiny planes to tiny airports, something like $86 round-trip—to Sanford, rents a car and drives to visit him. She flies back frazzled, calls from the car on the way back from the airport, asks questions the answers to which she does not hear and says she’ll be in the office later.

•••

“Thanks for coming,” Dad says to us at our gate, before we board. My sister and I are in the Montgomery airport. Because Mom and Dad flew up early, we’re on separate flights and they don’t leave until tomorrow. When he says, “Thanks for coming,” he refers to our attendance of his mother’s funeral. Breast cancer. “Thanks for coming”: we hadn’t thought it was optional. We board our plane and return to high school. Our friends say, “Sorry about your grandma,” and we say things like, “Thanks,” and “She was old,” because we don’t know how else to respond.

She’d been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital, and when my dad wasn’t addressing her by her first name in exasperated tones over the phone he was arguing with my mom about the money he was sending to his brother to care for her. This serves as a reminder to us that it is always possible to walk around something too vast, to fight about something like money instead.

•••

We’ve just moved into a new house and are sleeping on the floor, on a mattress exhumed from the pullout couch. It is seven-thirty in the morning and Ryane is dreaming that her father has died. In the dream, she’s misheard someone. At first she thinks her grandmother is dead. Then she realizes her grandmother is alive, that her father has died instead. She asks again to make sure. Yes, he’s dead, someone tells her. In the dream she cries and cries and cries, and when she wakes up she thinks she’s been crying in real life but hasn’t been. She wakes up because my cell phone is ringing. The light outside is lazy. Did we set an alarm? The phone is plugged in, ringing next to the bed on the floor. I look at the area code. It’s Bloomington, Indiana. I hand the little phone to her and know.

“Hello?” It’s her grandfather. Her phone is dead and he’s been calling it for hours. I watch her start to cry and I hold onto her shoulder. “This morning?” she asks into the phone.

When she hangs up she says, “I dreamed that he died!” She is wearing a white men’s undershirt and she sits upright in the bed, hunched over like another broken thing.

•••

There are the religious concepts. Let us confess the faith of our baptism as we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,

They do not help. Rather, I do not know whom they help. Rather, they do not help me.

At the funeral of a man who had waited for his wife and children to leave for work and school, walked to the shed, grabbed a shotgun and sat down under a tree in his backyard to shoot himself in the face, hundreds of us pour into a Western North Carolina hillside chapel to hear the minister say, If God is for us, who is against us?

This was when I dated Zoe. The dead man was her coworker. I had never met him or his wife or his children. The day before, after the body was removed and the grass under the tree was cleaned and the shotgun destroyed and the widow and her children had gone to her parents’, Zoe and her coworkers and I drove to the widow’s house with boxes and duct tape and markers. Into the boxes we put his clothes, their photo albums, framed images taken from the walls and coffee tables of their wedding, vacations. We took the sheets off the bed. We collected anything that seemed like his and wrote things on the full boxes like “clothes,” “photos.” Half the house went into storage for when she was ready to come back. She would look through the “clothes” and “photos” when she was ready.

That was over a decade years ago and I wonder how long it took her to be ready. Has she retrieved those boxes yet? Has she sold the house? Did she even ask for us to do that? All I remember is being invited to join.

If God is for us, who is against us? The packing day and the funeral day: one felt like prayer, the other just something to be done.

•••

After we found out Ryane’s dad had died, there were logistics. We needed to drive to Virginia to pick up her mom and youngest brother, and from there go to Indiana where her dad’s body and Ryane’s grandparents and middle brother were. But first I had to do two things.

When I called Angela to say I wouldn’t be coming to work for a few days she said, Oh my God I’m so sorry and Can you drop those prints at the framer’s before you leave? Ryane and I had been moving from the house on Arbutus to the one on Larchmont, and were supposed to finish cleaning out Arbutus that weekend. Instead we were driving to Indiana. After hanging up with Angela I called the Arbutus landlord and told him we needed more time. He said he had renters moving in on Thursday and couldn’t give us any. I told Ryane I had to run errands before we could leave and she said that was fine even though I knew it wasn’t. She sat very still in the deep-cushioned yellow chair I’d gotten at Goodwill the year before. “I’ll pack a bag,” she said, but she didn’t move.

During the drive to the framer’s I held two thoughts in my head: I’m doing the wrong thing by running this errand and This absolutely has to get done right now. The Arts Council had contracted with a new Hyatt to provide art for the walls, and it was a disaster. The artists were being underpaid for their work and asked to sign away rights of ownership. Because Asheville is a town of struggling artists, they all said yes but hated us for suggesting they do it. For the last week I’d been taking call after call from frustrated painters, trying to calm them and failing. And the framer, who’d agreed to take on the project at a significantly reduced rate, had been waiting for Angela to bring the prints all week. On Friday Angela had finally just stuffed them all in my car and told me to do it Monday morning.

“I have other customers, you know,” the framer said when I got there.

“Michelle, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why Angela didn’t drop these off.” I suspected she’d just forgotten. Sometimes grief takes over before the person you’re grieving has gone.

Afterward at Arbutus I stuffed everything I could from that house into my car. In the years that followed, every once in a while Ryane and I would realize something else left behind in that basement.

On my last trip to the car I stopped in the front yard. We’d planted sunflowers along the fencing and walkway that spring, and few had bloomed. The soil wasn’t very deep and elms shaded our corner of the neighborhood. But next to the mailbox a mammoth sunflower had been growing up and up. When we’d last left Arbutus, Ryane’s dad was alive and the mammoth’s face had appeared but not opened and Ryane was wondering whether she should go up to Indiana for a while to be with him. I stuffed some loose kitchen utensils in the trunk of the car and stood there. Ryane’s dad was dead. We would never live in east Asheville again. Peter was dead. Later I would see his body. I would need to know the correct things to do and say this whole week. I would need to say the soothing things and first I would need to think of what those things could be. And I would need to say goodbye to someone who had started to become a parent to me.

The sunflower had opened overnight. Half of its fingery petals extended from its face, and the other half still held to the big center circle. It was an eclipse. I convinced myself our one sunflower had opened part way because Peter had died. I texted Ryane a photo and left to pick her up for our drive to him.

•••

At a gallery opening Angela has one glass of red wine and yet appears to be deeply intoxicated.

“Have you seen The L Word?” she asks me, because I am a lesbian and the show is about lesbians and because she is newly brave and apparently has been waiting for the moment to ask. She leans across the sales counter behind which I stand. Patrons mingle around us. Here we are, the only two staff members left. Everyone else has quit.

“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not a very good show.” She agrees and then switches topics.

“Have I told you I have fibromyalgia?” she offers.

“No,” I say.

“For ten years. I’ve been to many doctors.”

What I know about fibromyalgia is that it’s contentious, that some doctors don’t even believe it to be an actual medical ailment, that rather some believe it to be a psychosomatic manifestation of emotional problems: physical repercussions to psychic issues. I know that it presents as a series of seemingly unrelated pains, sometimes diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, other times as the flu, other times as fibromyalgia, other times as depression. Fibromyalgia has no cure or known cause.

What I now know about Angela, as I stand at the sales counter watching the minglers adjacent to her slack body, is that she takes painkillers and occasionally mixes them with alcohol. What I know about Angela is that certain chemical reactions are happening in her bloodstream in possible parallel to the bodily emotional stress of preemptive grief. I know she is suffering in a number of ways.

•••

Of course it’s hard to know how to close the gaps between us. We spend the most trivial moments together: at work, in classrooms, splayed on couches talking on the phone, and when the inevitable happens we look each other in the face and don’t know what to say. We are suddenly strangers and this is how we lose each other in little bits. When my grandmother died, I wrote letters to my mother and her three siblings saying how sorry I was, that I couldn’t imagine their grief at losing their only mother, and none of them responded. I assumed writing the letters had been the wrong thing to do. When Peter died, our friends waited quietly at the edges of Ryane’s grief for her to return to real life. But the place she was in was also real life. Our friends were so patient with their furrowed brows and genuine concern, waiting. Eventually everyone forgot they were waiting. Eventually everyone but Ryane forgot that her father was dead. Inside our little house on the steep hill on Larchmont Road, inside her grief, Ryane and I talked about how what they were doing was the wrong thing.

But how do we do this?

What is supposed to help?

What is the right thing to do?

“Tell me how you’re feeling,” I say to Ryane as she sits upright in bed sometime later, after everything has been moved into the new house. She has tears on her face, but new ones have stopped coming. “You can just feel however you feel about this,” I say, because granting permission for the things I can’t control seems like a possibility somehow. She hears me, and doesn’t respond. She sits propped against two pillows, her shoulders tilted inward, and I rub her back as she looks out from opaque blue eyes toward nothing.

•••

SARAH MEYER is a writer and illustrator who lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in VICE Magazine, Paper Darts, and The Manifest-Station.

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Death and Dying, Or Laugh Until You Wet Your Pants

homeandcommunity
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.etsy.com/shop/ebethfuller

By Shaun Anzaldua

My brother Josh and I are walking through the cold San Francisco mist. It’s four in the morning and we have just left the ICU at University of San Francisco Hospital where our stepfather, David, lays unconscious. He has countless tubes being fed by drip bags filled with saline and medicines. He has tubes down his throat which push air into his lungs, and a dialysis machine which is filters his blood for his failing kidneys. Electrical sensors are attached to his skin and connected to machines by plastic coated cords. The outlets in the room look like plates of spaghetti, covered with twisted cords. The monitors by his bed have five rows of lines in different colors, each forming its own pattern as it moves across the screen. It looks like a child’s Spirograph with its red, blue, green, yellow, white designs.

Earlier that day, we got the call from our mother that it wasn’t looking good. David had been in ICU on an oxygen tank for a week while he tried to fight a mystery illness which had taken hold of his lungs, weaving spider webs throughout, making it impossible for him to get enough air on his own. Day by day, the opinions change as to what exactly is wrong and now to whether he will survive this. Today they fear the worst. Our sister has gone home for the night, exhausted by days at the hospital. Our brother is stuck in Houston; he and his wife are trying to get in by the next day. We all thought we had more time.

Back when death was theoretical, David told his doctor, wrote in his papers, that he did not want invasive procedures should he fall critically ill. No machines, no rib breaking electric paddles. But then the moment comes when his doctor presents him with a choice. He is not responding to treatment, his body is shutting down, and the oxygen tank alone cannot sustain him.

“David, you can remove the oxygen mask and die peacefully with your family around you,” the doctor tells him. “Otherwise we’ll have to sedate you so we can insert the necessary tubes down your throat and into your lungs to get oxygen in there. You may not survive the procedure. Even if you do, you’ll be unconscious and won’t be able to talk. And there’s still no guarantee.”

Given the choice of certain death or invasive procedures, David decides on the procedures. He doesn’t want to die. He dreams of the cushy retirement community where he and our mother are going to move, far away from the never-ending work of the ranch where they now live. He is ready, and has been for years, to while away the hours reading and playing music and never fixing another irrigation head, feeding another horse or mowing another lawn, even if it is on a riding lawn mower.

Now he lies in a room full electronics, looking gray and pale and thin, while our mother and his son speak quietly about how long they should let him linger if he doesn’t respond to the medicines. If his heart doesn’t give out, he might live for days on life support with no hope of regaining consciousness. When do they let go? They decide to give it a few more days, to pray for a miracle. David had made it clear he wants to fight.

•••

I shiver from the cold as Josh and I make our way to the parking lot to retrieve his cell phone from his car. I wish I’d brought a heavier sweater. The streets are empty of people and cars, and yet we pause automatically at the Do Not Walk sign blinking red in the dark. We are on automatic pilot.

“We don’t have a road map for this one, Sis. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to do it,” Josh says as we cross the deserted street. This six foot four man and me, both in our fifties, we feel like children. While we’ve lived through the death of our grandparents, being in the middle of the experience this way is new. We want to protect our mother, and we have only instinct to guide us. We’re exhausted and more than a little punch drunk. He’s just driven six hours from Los Angeles, his second trip down here in the last week. I’ve flown in from Houston and we have been up way too long now.

We reach his car and he hits the electronic car door opener on his new pimp-green Mercedes. The headlights flash their recognition.

“Nice!” I tell him. The interior is softly lit with an amber glow that reflects of the deep brown wood paneling. The soft-as-butter, tan leather seats are calling out to me to come: take a test sit, take a test sit.

“Let’s just lie down for a few minutes,” I say. “Just a few minutes.”

We lie there, reclined in the sumptuous bucket seats, and drift into our familiar combination of banter and revelation. He tells me about the drive up from LA, how the nice electronic lady in his car suggested several times that he might want to stop for a cup of coffee. We both think the warning system is sadly incomplete because while it cautions you that you may be sleepy because you are now driving erratically and so you just might want to pull over for a cup of coffee, not once does it offer to brew it for you. We laugh about how tired we are, we laugh about how two of my kids are in therapeutic boarding school, how he’s lost his job and his son is on the streets. How as a result we’ve had to learn to lower the bar to ground level with zero expectations. We laugh about how in the midst of our game of My Life Sucks More Than Yours, our mother has swooped in at the last minute to steal the prize by tossing down her “My Husband is in ICU and May Die” card. Competitive bitch. She always has to win.

“So, have I told you about my dog?” I ask Josh. He looks over at me with his bloodshot eyes half closed.

“Nah, what about your dog?”

“Well, she’s white, right, and when white dogs lick themselves a lot in one spot, the fur turns rust colored. So her fur was all rusty and yucky around her butt and she was always licking and when I really took a look at it, it looked like maybe something was wrong with her vajay-jay. So I took her to the vet. You’ll never guess what the vet told me.”

“What did the vet tell you, Shaunton?” Josh asks me.

“The vet says my dog has an enlarged clitoris and I need to rub steroid cream on it twice a day. So I asked her, like, with all this licking, is she, well, enjoying herself? The vet wasn’t sure. Don’t you think having to rub cream on a dog’s enlarged clitoris trumps losing your job?”

“I could have gone a lifetime without ever hearing about your dog’s clitoris.” he tells me, but I can see his chest heaving with suppressed giggles.

“Josh, you know how you said we don’t have a road map, any instructions on how to do this?” I ask him. “I’m pretty sure we aren’t supposed to be doing this.”

“Fuck it.” He says. “Guess we should go back in now.”

“Do you think there’s a chance he’ll make it?” he asks me.

“I don’t know.” I answer.

We walk slowly back the hospital and ride the empty elevator up to the ninth floor. There are people sleeping in the waiting room, curled up on chairs. A nurse pushes the button to let us into the ICU ward where all is quiet but the beeping of monitors. For what must be the tenth time, she has to tell me to step back, the doors open outwards! We make our way to David’s room. Our mother and David’s son and daughter look stricken. Mom is leaning over David and frantically gestures to us to come to her side.

“Oh god, he’s passing! His heart is stopping! “ she cries. We all watch the bright red line on the monitor which blips as his heart rate drops, beat by beat, 24, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 11, 10, 6, 3, until it finally stops all together. It is less than a minute since Josh and I walked into this room. Ten minutes ago we were laughing, gathering our strength in the soft leather seats of Josh’s car. Now we hold our mother as she sobs, her eighty-two-year-old body shaking. We’ve never seen her like this, never seen her look so lost. “But he was fine two weeks ago,” she keeps saying. “How did this happen?” We have no answer for her. We hold her close.

The room is quiet now. The endless beeping of the monitors, David’s labored breath as the oxygen pump fills his lungs and then releases, all of it is silent. His skin is still warm to the touch. The nurse asks us to leave the room so she can remove the tubes and clean him up so we can say a more natural good-bye. We wander out into the hallway. There are family members to be called, arrangements to be made. David wanted his body to be donated to science, but there is a possibility he had TB. We need to talk to patient services about this, speak with a funeral home, write an obituary, plan a memorial. We are given pamphlets, all neatly collected in a manila envelope labeled “Bereavement Papers.” It includes lists of helpful books for people who have lost a loved one, lists of important papers to file and agencies to contact. The detritus of death. We need to get our mother home to rest. She has not slept in almost two days and she looks frail.

Josh and I are alone in the hallway as the others go back into David’s room for a bit. I am as tired as I can remember being in a very long time. “Okay,” Josh says, “I know this is going to sound really bad. Really bad. It just tells you what a weird fuck I am. But you know when we were standing there in all of that craziness of machines and drips and pumps? I was thinking about when people talk about ‘pulling the plug.’ How do they know which plug? There were at least twenty plugs in there. What if you pull the wrong one? Do you just keep going, just keep pulling and pulling until you get the right one?”

He looks childlike at that moment. It’s more than gallows humor. He has a good point. Things often sound clear in theory, only to turn out to be quite different in reality. We can’t help ourselves; we laugh at the inappropriateness of our inappropriateness.

“You know I’m going to write that you said that, right?” I say.

“Whatever,” he tells me, “We’re both going to hell anyway.”

•••

The early morning blends in to the next day. Arrangements are made; David’s body can’t be donated and must be cremated instead. We separate; Josh takes care of our mother, and I go to the airport to pick up my teenage son, also named David, who has just missed being able to say goodbye to his grandfather. He’s devastated. We talk and talk as we make the long drive to mother’s ranch. He’s better by the time we get there, hoping to be helpful and supportive to his grandmother. My siblings fly and drive in. They have been on high alert for days, and the house quickly fills. Platters of food and comfort come from loving neighbors throughout the small farming community. Our mother finally lies down to sleep.

And we siblings and our spouses do what we always do. We laugh, delight in each other’s company, deliberately needle each other, tease relentlessly, and together we get the job done. We make the necessary arrangements, we write the obituary, we plan the memorial service and write the program. We find pictures of David and have them printed to make a memorial display. My brother’s wife, Jackie, my best of friends, cleans the house until it shines and smells like oatmeal cookies.

After lunch the next day, as she washes the dishes in the Martha Stewart mint green kitchen of the old farmhouse, Jackie looks across the kitchen at my mother and me and asks, “Where’s David?” My mother and I both look at her in shock. “He’s dead!” we say in unison. For just a moment there is complete silence. Jackie’s jaw drops. “I meant your son,” she says. Oh, well of course she did. We double up with laughter, all three of us, until the tears stream down our faces.

The memorial comes. It is sad and joyful and beautiful. The simple Grange Hall is decorated with flowers from nearby farms; David’s bass cello and his tuba sit at center stage in tribute to his deep love of music. It is clear that this is a man who was loved by many, a man who was an integral part of his community. The tears come and they flow, and a pile used tissues grows around the room. There are more than one hundred people in the Grange Hall, people from David’s church, from the homeless shelter where he volunteered much of his time and talent, and from the brass band in which he played the tuba while dressed in red regalia. People speak of his generosity and his humor and his deeply intellectual nature. We think he would be pleased.

“I think you and I better have private services when we die,” my sister Lisa says to me as we stand in line for food. The potluck table stretches the length of the room and it is piled deep with casseroles and salads and breads and desserts.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“To cover up the fact that no one would come!” she answers.

It’s true. We haven’t lived in the generous fashion of our mother or stepfather. We’ve been recluses, wrapped in our own worlds. Clearly it’s time to step up our game. At least if we want those we leave behind to be fed and cared for by our neighbors. At this point they’ll be lucky to get room temperature string cheese and a bowl of stale saltine crackers.

I watch my son David through all of this; watch him watching me with my siblings. I hope he is sees the love we feel for one another, the fun we have together, even in this time of sadness. He is loved by all of us, treasured by his grandmother. I hope that love will fill him up, help him to love himself a little more.

And then it’s over. The neighbors go home. The food gets eaten, the flowers begin to droop and drop their petals. After a couple of days we disperse, home to our own families. I stay a few more days with our mother to help tie up loose ends and to give the others reports on how she is doing. She and I talk long into the night, look at photographs, write to-do lists, cross off what we can. My mother rides the waves of feelings that go up and down. The tasks are like an inflatable life boat. If she lets go of all there is to do, she might sink beneath the waves. It is important to her to hold it together, and she does.

•••

My son David has gone back to his boarding school, and I have a conference call with my husband and David and his therapist.

“So David, how did your family deal with their grief? People have a lot of different ways of handling pain and stress. Could you relate to any of them?” his therapist asks.

“Well, they were all kind of laughing a lot. I don’t know. I didn’t really get it. It was weird,” he says.

“Were they laughing the whole time?” she asks.

“Yeah, pretty much. Up until the memorial. Then they got more serious and sad,” he says.

“It’s interesting, David. People deal with stress in many different ways. It’s important to get to the underlying feelings, to process them. But as long as you do that, humor is considered one of the more mature ways of dealing with stress.”

None of the books on death told us to laugh until we cry or wet our pants, whichever comes first. But here we are. Sad, dealing with loss, worried for our mother. And laughing. Because we are, if nothing else, a very mature group of people. Particularly when we are stressed. Particularly when we are together, finding our way down a path without a map.

•••

SHAUN ANZALDUA has a graduate degree from the University of California at Davis. She is a writer, real estate agent, and licensed private investigator. Shaun currently lives in Houston with her three teenage children. She is a contributor to Brain, Child and is currently working on a collection of essays.

Soul Mate 101: Don’t Marry Him

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by Gina Kelly www.etsy.com/shop/ginalkelly

By Susan Kushner Resnick

My soul mate’s hand was warm, so I felt safe letting go for a few minutes.  I had calls to make, people to summon to his bedside. While I sat next to him and spoke to his only living relative, a nurse walked into the room.

“He’s gone,” she said almost in a whisper.

I put down the phone and lifted his big hand again.

Cold.

I kissed his forehead then immediately called my husband.

David had been supporting me for the entirety of the relationship that I’d just lost. He wasn’t threatened by Aron, a ninety-one-year-old Holocaust survivor, although he became appropriately alert when I’d announced our first rendezvous fourteen years earlier.

Aron had approached me in the lobby of a community center as I put my baby in a car seat.

“Vhat’s his name?” he had asked.

I summed him up as harmless. I figured he was approaching strange women and babies because he missed his own grandchildren. But a few more questions revealed how wrong that assumption had been. Aron didn’t have children or grandchildren. All but one of his family members had been killed by Hitler.

“I was in the camps,” he said. “All the camps.”

Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau. Places of infamy where he learned to sort the blouses of the dead and to witness a hanging without flinching. Yet his eyes sparkled during that first conversation and he delivered lines like a Borscht-belt comedian. The contrast—so seemingly jolly for a Holocaust survivor—hooked me. I asked him out for a coffee date.

“You buying?” he asked.

And so, for $1.25, a beautiful friendship began.

In the early days of our relationship, we flirted. He’d drive by my house to see if my car was in the driveway. I’d make sure my make-up was right before ringing his doorbell. He would regularly tease David about the potential for romance between us.

“If I was thirty years younger, you’d be in trouble,” he said over and over.

I even imagined romantic scenes starring Aron and me, circa 1946. In these fantasies, I played the strong American lass loving the young Polish survivor back to life. I would soothe him after he woke screaming from the nightmares that plagued him from the end of the war to the end of his real life: dreams of vicious dogs and men shooting at his father. He would be so grateful for my patience and tenderness that he would take me as his bride. And for the rest of our lives, he would never construct slag heaps of laundry in the corners of the bedroom or forget every logistical detail I ever told him, as my actual husband does.

I conjured those fantasies because like most humans, I was conditioned to associate strong attraction with romantic love. I was drawn to Aron, therefore I must have a crush on him, right? And though I always knew that wasn’t the course our relationship would take—he was forty-four years my senior and the picture of elderliness when we met—I had a hard time labeling our bond. I played with all kinds of combinations: grandfather and granddaughter; sister and brother; best friends. None of them fit.

•••

The soul mate, we’ve been taught in our rom-com culture, is the brass ring of romantic love. Find your other half and you can start searching for wedding caterers. A soul mate knows you and “gets” you and will never let you down. Therefore, you should marry him.

Don’t.

At least not if you believe in soul mate as mirror image. There’s an old myth that says humans started as four-limbed double creatures, but the gods worried that we’d take over, so they decided to split us in half. Ever since, we’ve been searching for our other halves so we can feel complete.

How marriage became part of the equation I’ve never understood. It seems as though marrying your twin would be exactly the wrong thing to do.

For four years, I dated my psychological echo. At first it was wonderful: so familiar, so comfortable. He got me. Then it turned disastrous. This nice guy and I, with our tendencies toward depression and inertia, were bringing each other down. Because we were so similar, we made the same mistakes. There was no counterbalance—no one to pull either of us back by the belt loops when we got too close to the edge.

In a pairing of opposites, there’s always someone to see how crazy you’re getting and metaphorically slap you straight. The boyfriend and I didn’t have this. Thankfully, we didn’t marry.

My husband, by contrast, can pull me back from the brink and I can do the same for him. We are not soul mates. We are complete individuals, not two halves of each other. He is science and I am art. He is awake and I am dreaming. He saves and I spend. I’m better at parallel parking, but only he can remember where we left the car. Of course, our differences can sometimes be infuriating, but our pairing has worked for twenty-one years. I like to think that’s because David is my intended: the best husband the universe could have picked for me. A unified soul has nothing to do with it.

Aron also ended up with a romantic opposite. His girlfriend, Nerry, was a highly educated Russian professor of foreign languages who never complained about her serious medical issues and who read poetry recreationally. Aron, by contrast, graduated from fifth grade, complained about every twinge, and watched pro-wrestling for escape. At their cores, he was sand and she was steel.

Both of our relationships worked fine when we met, though I was yearning for something I couldn’t name. David and I balanced each other, made each other laugh, and agreed on the big things. But he didn’t get me unless I explained myself because he didn’t see the world through the same lens. I missed that. Then I found Aron.

•••

He identified our similarities first. He had tumbled into an anxiety-depression hole that led to a hospitalization that brought me to the first of many uncomfortable chairs by many institutional beds. He’d been admitted for chest pains, but the doctors and I knew that cardiac weakness wasn’t causing his distress. PTSD from four years in the Nazi system was making him sick, but he refused to see that or to speak to the staff psychiatrist about treatment. It was my job to convince him to surrender to help. As the sunset turned the industrial rooftops outside his window into art, I told him my story. I’d been anxious for years until a case of postpartum depression forced me to face and treat my brain’s chemical inadequacies. I’d felt fine ever since. Accepting help didn’t have to be shameful.

“Nothing bothers Nerry,” he said.

“Same with David,” I said.

“Good thing we have them because we’re both nervous,” he said.

He looked at me and grinned. We were both nervous. We laughed at the same things. We interpreted the world in the same cynical way, spoke in the same blunt manner, even liked the same foods prepared the same quirky ways. Because he’d been raised in the days of privacy and dignity, our conversations didn’t involve dribbling our vulnerabilities all over each other. But we still knew what the other would say or how the other was feeling most of the time. We didn’t have to work at trust and love, or worry that either would fade. Neither of us could be described as easy-going, but even after he hung up on me during an argument or I scolded him for being so exceedingly stubborn, we didn’t have to apologize or explain ourselves. It was easy. It was not marriage.

We were, I believe, the purest of soul mates. There was no romance or sex. Just the deep comfort of being seen and known and accepted completely.  For a brief period in both of our lives, we got to feel whole.

•••

Then his hand went cold.

What’s it like to lose a soul mate? The saddest part is suspecting that such a relationship will never come again. I plan on having my husband around for many more years, and I will surely develop new life-changing friendships. But I don’t think we get more than one soul mate per life cycle. Who else on this earth will ever know me so well? It hurts to realize that particular luxury is probably over for me.

I used to panic, as Aron got older, about how I’d live in the world without him. But it’s turned out to be surprisingly painless. I take comfort in remembering how lucky I am to have found my other half. But I also don’t feel like he’s completely absent.

I talk to a lot of dead people in my head—my mother, dear friends who died young—but almost never to Aron. This makes sense to me. Where else would the rest of me go after death? Following my soul mate theory, he is I. To reach him, I only need to talk to myself.

•••

SUSAN KUSHNER RESNICKS’s latest book, You Saved Me, Too: What A Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish, was published in October 2012. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at Brown University.

On the Pain Scale

painchart
By hragv/ Flickr

by Jessica Handler

I have become, at fifty-three, a full-grown person.  Two years ago, I stepped into the role of midwife to my mother’s death. I chose it. She was with me when I began. I would be with her when she ended.

Lung cancer had colonized her brain, her spine, her right hip and shoulder. Where did this begin? My father smoked, a lot. My mother smoked, very little. My parents and little sister lived fewer than ten miles from the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station on the morning that the reactor experienced a meltdown in March, 1979; I was away at college. Mom refinished furniture for a hobby, breathed the fumes, handled the toxins. After my father was gone from her life, her late-in-life boyfriend smoked. Where did this begin? Everywhere and nowhere.

“So this is what happens when you have six kinds of cancer,” Mom said the first time she fell. She said it again the first time she couldn’t stand unaided, and the day she threw up the crème brûlêe.

“It’s just three kinds of cancer,” I said, bringing her ginger tea to the table. We laughed, a little. We are dark-humored, and fluent in the language of terminal illness.

My mother had three daughters, of whom I am first and last. Susie has been dead for forty-four years, Sarah for twenty-one. Susie developed leukemia when she was six. I was eight. She lived less than two years. Our little sister Sarah lived with a rare blood disorder and died as a young woman. Mom and I spoke of them often. Often we spoke of them without words.

I told my sisters’ names to Y., our favorite nurse’s aide. “In case she’s looking for them,” I said. For dying people, past and present run together like chalk drawings in the rain.  “She was calling for Susie yesterday,” Y. told me. I wondered aloud if Mom was troubled or frightened. “Not at all,” Y. said, relieved to know who my mother had been trying to find. “She was looking out the door, like she was calling in a child from playing.”

My heart broke.

•••

Some mornings I woke in my mother’s bed. Others I woke with my husband in my own bed, ninety-four miles from hers. There was a moment every morning when I didn’t know where I was.

Mom’s pain was usually a two or three. On the Wong-Baker FACES™ pain scale chart, that’s somewhere between a smiley-face with barely knit brows and a smiley-face that appears to have something serious on its mind. The zero quantity of pain-free is represented by an untroubled smiley face with a touch of crazy-eyes. Neither Mom nor I reached a ten, the greatest level of pain. Ten is a crumpled, desperate face shedding drops that could be sweat or tears. Or blood. Her oncologist told us we were lucky.

My pain would hover at five, if pain scales measured the heart. I dreamed that it was me on the blue plastic draw sheet the nurses used to lift her. At the grocery store, I got lost. Which aisle has the cranberry juice? Does Mom have English muffins? This grocery store is in my city, not hers. I’m stocking my kitchen one week, hers another. I don’t want English muffins. I don’t want juice.  I have lost fourteen pounds in the last two months. My always-slender mother wasted away. She weighed so little that I could lift her like a toddler. From the bed to the portable toilet, to the wheelchair, to the piano, to the bed.

•••

When I was a little girl, I drew pictures of birds and of girls. I couldn’t draw faces, so I put bird heads on girl bodies and made bird girls. I concentrated while I drew, singing a two-note song to myself, sustaining what I’ve come to understand as a meditative state. What am I focused on now, watching my mother’s face and seeing my own in hers? The bird-girls of my childhood drawings never flew. They went to work and ate and played and smiled their giddy smiles with beaks. They had expressive eyes.

Before my mother flew, before she closed her eyes and dreamed morphine dreams, our eyes locked over the commotion; so much to say, and nothing to say. We spoke without opening our mouths. We spoke without words.

•••

Mom died in her bed at home. She was seventy-eight. Hers was what hospice will tell me is a good death. A great death, the social worker will call it.

Several weeks earlier, to a nurse, a visiting friend, a relative—I no longer knew, everyone seemed interchangeable but my mother and me—I spoke for Mom on her behalf, even though she was right there in the living room with us, in a wing chair reading about Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I spoke as if she weren’t there. “I don’t think Mom will want that,” I’d said, about a sandwich or a painkiller or someone’s insistence that she go outdoors in the wheelchair she loathed. Mom looked up from her reading.

“I can speak for myself.” She was smiling, but I’d hurt her feelings.

Drawing her out, I toyed with grammar, a subject that entertained us both.

“I’ve made you object and subject,” I said, “so what’s the verb?”

“Am,” my mother told me. “The verb is ‘I am.’”

•••

On what would be the last night of her life, I fell asleep just after midnight, curled up beside her. When the nurse woke me, I was surprised by my calm. But that night, we were doing nothing but waiting, my mother and I. She had been on morphine for two days, bitter pills the nurse slipped under her tongue. Mom winced when she tasted them. She hadn’t spoken for two days, and then only a whisper: “I love you,” to Y., who had been part of her life for nearly a year, who climbed into the bed with her that morning to hold her and weep. When I stood beside the bed and asked Mom to rest, to take it easy, she mouthed, “I will.” I told her she’s my favorite mother. She smiled. I’ve told her that for years. Two nurses rolled her like a log and changed the draw sheet. We had a hard night. The oxygen she never used, never needed, became urgent for the first time the night before when Mom suddenly couldn’t catch her breath. I rolled the blue O2 machine from where she’d secreted it behind a nightstand. The evening assistant helped her with the cannula. “Do you want me to call hospice?” I asked Mom. She nodded, taking in the canned air.

At one in the morning, I sat cross-legged on her bed, holding her cool hand. I thought about how death is the exact opposite of birth. An obvious cycle and a thought not original to me, but I’ve never had a child and never witnessed a human birth. There was no sweat, no blood, no sound but Mom’s subtle breathing, arrhythmic and gentle. Her bedroom smelled of lavender from the bushy plant on the patio and from her hand cream. I held one of her lavender sachets to her nose. She grimaced, then relaxed. “Tell her what you’re holding so she doesn’t startle,” the night nurse told me. I did, then held the sachet to Mom’s face again. This time, she was calm.

The night nurse had woken me, saying barely audibly, “It’s time.” Time for what, I wondered, thick with sleep, then saw where I was, that my mother’s hand was entwined with mine. I was neither anxious nor weeping, not begging Mom to try and live one more day. There’s a falsehood in that statement: I was anxious. I lived with a low frequency of anxious for two years. I didn’t want her to ever die, to leave me. There was not one thing that I could do to change our course.

I asked the nurse to tell my husband, dozing in the den. She vanished, returned with him, tucked a chair behind him. We focused only on Mom. Her breathing slowed; her apnea grew longer and longer. She stopped. I looked up, gestured to the nurse. I remembered her name: M., from the compassionate care team, the end-of-life, round-the-clock team. She held her stethoscope to my mother’s chest, my mother skinny and sleeping in her white waffle-knit long sleeved t-shirt. M. shook her head, told me she’s still with us. Mom took another short breath, shallow, a surprise to me, and then she was empty. As empty as an overturned glass. M. flicked her penlight on and leaned into Mom, lifting an eyelid. She shone the light, closed Mom’s eye, and said, “She’s gone.”

We took from Mom’s pinky finger the silver and jade ring that my grandfather made, and I put it on my own.

•••

Full grown comes and goes with me. I don’t feel grown, and then I do. There is no choice. I wear the ring, and I feel my mother holding my hand. I hear her voice, flying just outside the scrim of my world. “I am,” she says. You are.

•••

JESSICA HANDLER is the author of the forthcoming Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.