Learning to Live as the Last of Five in Four/Four Time

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jessica Handler

Last winter, my friend Pete gave me a pair of Vic Firth 5A drumsticks. They were beginner’s sticks, but this would be my first drum lesson: he the teacher, me the novice. I was ready: I’d diligently watched You Tube videos demonstrating Ringo Starr’s and Stevie Wonder’s drumming and listened closely to the drum parts on my favorite CDs. The sticks were surprisingly light, awkward to hold, and pleasantly dinged up. They made me nervous.

I’d agreed to spend a weekend participating in a rock camp for women, a fundraiser for national group empowering teen girls through playing music. I’ve always been a music lover: my very first concert was The Beatles at Shea, even though I was five and the frustratingly sonically obscured objects of my adoration sang from my parents’ portable black and white Zenith television. My younger sister Susie and I listened to our recording of “Peter and The Wolf” on the turntable and acted out the roles. At six, I was the bassoon grandfather, and she, not quite two years younger, the clarinet cat. As I grew, I learned to lose myself in vocals; first John and Paul’s tricky harmonies and later, Mick Jagger’s sneering whine.

My youngest sister Sarah played Satie gymnopedies and Bach for four hands on the piano with Mom. Dad bellowed Dylan as he drove. As a teen, I played guitar reasonably well, piano terribly. I learned all the words to “Stairway to Heaven.” In my thirties, I auditioned once as a singer for a local band; I wiped out not because I couldn’t sing, but because I can’t read music.

And all along, I secretly banged on things. Hard. Usually myself. In elementary school, I beat my head on my bedroom floor until I was dizzy. I tore out handfuls of my hair to distract myself from the way my skin felt, rippling in anger. Enraged and inconsolable in my teens, I punched plaster walls and slammed car doors. In high school, I quietly broke my own finger in an effort to suppress boiling rage and brokenhearted sorrow. And no one ever knew.

My sisters were dying and then dead; first Susie, at eight from leukemia, and then, Sarah twenty-three years later, from an illness related to the rare blood disorder she’d been born with. Our father muted his sorrow with anger, drugs, and alcohol before he left for a job in another country and then a new life. Mom remained determined, loving, and honestly joyful about the best moments of our lives.

When I checked the box beside “drums” on the camp registration form, forty-four years had passed since Susie died, and twenty-two since Sarah’s death. Dad died in 2002, and Mom two years ago. That frantic and sudden need for a physical outlet for my pain and sorrow still lurked close to my surface. I know that self-harm, like hitting or, for others, cutting, is an attempt to seek relief for emotional pain: simple reading tells me that, but I sensed as much when I was ten. Now that I’m grown, reasonably competent, and happily married, my hitting myself until I bruised, or once, driving so fast that I pinned the red on my Honda’s speedometer, freaked my husband out. I didn’t blame him. My periods of desolation were awful for me to live with, too. But banging on drums in a band scared me almost as much. I worried about what I might unleash.

Mickey and I met and fell in love shortly after my sister Sarah died. I was working as a production manager for television programs, and he wrote and produced promos. We didn’t work together, so he only heard from me about the time I blew up and threw a stapler at an assistant. (I missed, thank heavens.) He already knew my reputation on the job as a screamer and a yeller. With him, I was never those things. He calmed me and made me feel safe and loved enough. Music mattered to him, too, even though he never remembered lyrics.

The camp took place over three days on a Valentine’s weekend. The schedule would be full, leaving no time for flowers or chocolates (neither of which I wanted) or a good dinner out (which I did.) My husband and I like Valentine’s Day, and I felt that I’d cheated us a little by the commitment I’d made to occupy myself without him that weekend.

In an empty middle school classroom, five other grown women and I met our loaner drum kits; bass drum and kick pedal, high-hats, snares, floor tom and rack toms, and our own sets of sticks. After running us through the basics of our grips, keeping time on pancake-sized practice pads, the instructor—a rock drummer with indie cred—put on a recording of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” We had to follow along in four/four time. The first two beats came from the bass drum. I stepped on the kick pedal, and the drum responded timidly. This irritated me, too, and the child who flailed in anger and sorrow rose up in me. With her foot, I stepped down hard twice, making two deep, satisfying thuds. With her hands, I snapped my right-hand stick onto the rack tom.

Some rhythms are as simple as breathing, but others require perception far beyond the usual. Children dying before their parents is a peculiar rhythm called reverse order of death. The terror and grief of the surviving sibling was rarely addressed when I was a child. As an adult, behind my first drum kit, I created a basic, steady pulse. Hitting the toms, the snare, stepping on the kick pedal, I pounded out a steady groove. I heard no sorrow; just myself, playing in time.

Camp ended with a raucous showcase at a neighborhood coffee house. While bands played, I slipped my arm through Mickey’s, and we drank our beer and bobbed along to the music. When the time came for my makeshift band to take the stage, I kissed my husband and clutched my drumsticks, fighting the urge to careen alone into the night. I’m ridiculous, I thought. I can’t really channel my thumping anger outward, make music with it, or learn to maintain an even pace on which I can rely. But I took the stage with my bandmates, and in the blinding candy-yellow of the spotlight, held my loaner sticks over my head and counted us in. The bass player responded in time, then the singer, then the two guitarists, just as we’d rehearsed. For about two and a half minutes, I hit and I kicked objects built for striking, and as terrible as I’m sure I sounded, I didn’t feel the way I usually did at a moment of impact. I didn’t feel like weeping. I wanted, instead, to shout with glee.

When we finished, the applause was loud and not unexpected—everyone there was friends or family with someone in a band—and from behind the drum kit, I searched the audience for Mickey. He was at the lip of the stage, his hands raised in victory.

Six months have gone by, with me occasionally practicing to videos, my loaner drum sticks beating couch cushions. This year, I turn fifty-five, and I’ve promised myself to keep my hands and heart away from my own skin during my dissonant outbursts of grief. Mickey bought me a birthday present. I’m starting drum lessons. With Pete, who says it’s time for me to keep those drumsticks he loaned me last winter.


JESSICA HANDLER is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) was named by the Georgia Center for the Book one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Atlanta Magazine called it the “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Brevity.com, Newsweek, The Washington Post, More Magazine, and elsewhere. Honors include a 2011 and 2012 residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. www.jessicahandler.com.

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The Marriage Plate

By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com


By Jessica Handler

The auctioneer’s receipt for my mother’s tableware reads, 78 pieces Rogers ‘First Love.’ $150.00. I put the receipt in a green plastic file marked “estate.” The hundred and fifty dollars I put in a household checking account.

Copious, easily tarnished silverware with extravagant names was a standard wedding gift in the fifties, when marriages were copious.

Salad forks, dinner forks, olive and pickle forks. Knives for checking for food between your teeth by eyeing the slim mirror of the blades. Soup spoons, dessert spoons, serrated grapefruit spoons, nestled large protecting small and smaller.

Marriages are easily tarnished.

I doubt that my father was my mother’s first love, despite the brightly named wedding silver. When she was fourteen, she held an unfulfilled crush on her cousin. His name was Paul, and he was sixteen. He could play the hell out of the piano: he rolled through some boogie-woogie. She never mastered boogie-woogie, but she played the hell out of Chopin.

At twenty-three, my father appeared to be a good catch.

I have a blurry memory of going fishing with my father, of gray predawn light, of mist, of trying to bait a hook.

My father was no outdoorsman: how could it be possible that we went fishing? Squinting at the narrow mirror of my mind’s blade, I can’t find an answer.

I have a memory of failing to catch anything.

A few years ago, a student told me he knew the guy who’d whistled the Andy Griffith theme for the TV show soundtrack. You know it: someone whistles a hearty tune while Opie and Andy amble to the fishing hole.

They appear to love each other.

I borrowed the idea in another classroom. I explained to my students how, when writing a screenplay based on a novel, a writer needs to show what’s inside a character. How to show closeness? Opie and Andy, walkin’ to the fishin’ hole.

It’s kind of a dumb example of depicting physical representation of the unspoken.

Try showing this in a screenplay: my husband laughing at a video on his computer of a mud-soaked hippo letting loose a blast of farts. My husband is in tears from laughter.

He’s a very funny guy.

I shine from the inside when I can make him laugh. I see him bent large in the blade, and I see myself small, barely a fleck. Turn the blade and I loom, large eyed and small mouthed, and he tightens to a speck.

That’s easy to show, but not this. Sometimes we don’t have anything to say to one another.

A colleague once told my husband to warn her if he planned to employ humor in conversation.

We think that’s very, very funny.

We didn’t register for silver when we married. We got beautiful dessert plates from Tiffany’s and a hideous, sharp-cornered crystal bowl that I wish now I’d had the sense to return. I lost it, buried it in the basement or a closet.

You could put your eye out with that thing—it’s worse than with a knife.

We came to the marriage with our own flatware from brand-name discount stores. The forks and knives, the soup spoons and those other spoons for what—yogurt? cereal?—cohabitated nicely.

Someone bought that fancy silver as a wedding gift for my mother and father. My father’s parents, most likely. They had money. My mother’s parents might have scrimped and saved for it. They loved her more than silver.

I polished that silver after Thanksgiving dinners, after the Seders over which my father intoned, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” I appreciated the diligence required to wash, dry, polish, wrap, settle. Salad forks, dinner forks, olive and pickle forks. Knives and soup spoons and dessert spoons and serrated grapefruit spoons. A silver claw with four retractable prongs for sugar cubes. An archly modern Georg Jensen cheese knife, adopted by this silverware family.

You had to wash the silver in warm water, dry it, then dull each piece with a menacing-smelling cream from a plastic jar, polish it with a soft gray cloth, then put it to bed like dressed-up kittens in perfectly shaped red velvet forms inside a walnut case.

And I sold it all, earning less than the cost of a week’s groceries. One hundred and fifty dollars is padding, polish, a sliver of safety money.

I baited the hook: the silver had become small fish in the estate world.

The auctioneer took the heavy walnut box (heavier than I remembered) along with a quality but faux Mission desk, a cedar-lined blanket chest (I kept the linens), boxes of various “smalls.”

My own first love wasn’t a cousin, but a good looking boy in my high school whose parents had emigrated to Georgia from South America. He taught me to say “love” in Spanish. Yo te quiero.

This means I want you.

We had sex for the first time in my bedroom. My parents were at work. My sister was somewhere in the house, watching television, or practicing the piano.

Andy Griffith, maybe, or a Satie Gymnopedie. No boogie-woogie yet.

I was twelve, and my boyfriend was thirteen. I had made a bet with my best friend—which of us will lose her virginity before the other? I caught the first boy. I won.

I lay there and thought of groceries, of what was in the refrigerator and the pantry. I’d need to start dinner before my mother came home from work. I would make coq a vin. Or meat loaf. There were also fish sticks. I didn’t realize, at twelve, that these could be seen as sex jokes.

Sometimes when I set that table, I used the good silver.

Now, my husband and I polish each other until we shine. We nestle together, large protecting small protecting large. We look in the distorted images we make in silver blades, and we laugh.


JESSICA HANDLER is the author of 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.

Lucky Girl

By honeymoon music/ Flickr

By Jessica Handler

I was in my late twenties, on a road trip with friends, when I flopped into a chair at a music club in New Orleans and had a look around. We were lucky; the club was rocking, and we were already in a highly pleased state from visiting the drive-through daiquiri place. When I caught sight of a trampled baggie trapped under a table leg, I leaned down to examine it, making as if to tie my shoe. The bag had either been hidden for safekeeping or fallen from a stoner’s pocket. If it held a few loose joints, I’d take it. If it were pills, I would take them only if I could identify them. This bag held neither. The bag held a jackpot: leathery, grayish chunks of psilocybin mushrooms. Lucky me. Free drugs. The baggie was in my pocket in a flash. Later that night, the mushrooms met orange juice and a blender, and then my body.

This moment in drug history is more than twenty years old, but it’s one in a sequence that composes a kind of mental flip book for me. There are the “first acid trip” pages, which end with a teenaged me supine beneath the comic book spinner rack at my neighborhood pharmacy, whirling the cosmos of Archie and Weird Adventure above my head while belting out a then-current Three Dog Night hit. I like that sequence; it’s funny and poignant, the stuff of memoir. I’m also fond, in a rueful way, of my memory of origami-style birds fashioned from the cut-off corners of magazine pages. The glossy paper made neat packets to hold just enough cocaine for a few pre-party lines. I’m less affectionate toward the next pages in my flipbook: me licking the empty, unfolded paper triangles, searching the creases for remnants of the numbing thrill.

“We’d have a hard time getting you addicted to anything,” my physician mused during a recent checkup. She’d prescribed a short course of something innocuous, and I’d balked. “I’d rather not,” I’d told her. I wasn’t afraid I’d become dependent: I’d already done my obsessive turns with better drugs, and years had passed since I’d licked, swallowed, or pocketed anything that rated as a Class IV narcotic. I was tired of drugs, prescription or otherwise.

“You’re lucky,” she said.

I grew up sneaking peeks at the Physician’s Desk Reference the way other kids steal a look at the Playboy magazines their fathers believe are safely hidden behind the laundry hamper. The PDR’s color pictures of pills were my idea of erotica: pale pinks, blues, and greens, sweetly side by side or blatantly aggressive in grainy blow-ups. Most of the book’s scientific language escaped me, but I welcomed its atmosphere of danger tinged with hope. My father got a new PDR every year, hardbound and heavier than any of the Martindale-Hubbell law books in his office, and nearly as thick as the dictionary in our den.

He believed he needed them. My two younger sisters were terminally ill with separate diseases; their illnesses were moving targets, and every drug might be a door to redemption. On Sunday afternoons, I went with him to the pharmacy (later the location of that first acid trip) to fill sheaves of prescriptions and buy a carton of his unfiltered cigarettes. Sometime between his first and last trip to the drugstore, my father developed an addiction to amphetamines. Eventually, my mother was knocking on the pharmacy’s glass door before business hours, meeting my sisters’ needs for real medication and filling my father’s illegal scrips. She didn’t know then that he’d had them faked, only that she wanted his rages stilled so that she could mother her daughters in moments of peace.

My friend Suzanne theorizes that people our age don’t do recreational drugs because we no longer have the leisure time to recover like we used to. That Captain-Crunch eating, pajama-wearing indolence of the next day—and even the day after—lives in a spot on our personal timelines when no one needed looking after (those mirrors laid across table tops weren’t tools for self-reflection), and grocery-buying and bill-paying were afterthoughts at best. “We’re afraid we’ll run out of luck,” I agreed. “We’re old enough to know we could die.”

Even when I was young, I knew that luck stuck to people in different ways. Even though my father was an addict (who didn’t buy his drugs on the street, and was therefore, a different, better class of user) he was also, for a while, the executive in charge of an alternative sentencing drug treatment center. The basic algorithm at the center: go to state-sponsored hippie rehab, or go to jail. Junkie teenage runaways only a few years older than I was slept in the center’s bunk beds, washed the spaghetti-crusted dinner dishes, and were encouraged to chime in during “rap sessions” led by social workers. On the few occasions I accompanied my father when he dropped by work on a weekend, I made a beeline to a reasonably clean beanbag chair beside a dirty window. The air smelled like musty old house, incense, and dirty socks. I’d bury my face in a book and try not to breathe.

My father excelled at the complicated handshakes the inmates—earnestly called “family”—bestowed upon him. Some of the older boys in the “family” looked dangerously romantic to me, aloof, and thin as pin-joints. I imagined hanging out with them, impressing them with how much I knew about their twin passions, drugs and rock music. I was eleven. I had no idea what we’d actually do or what their lives were like. Hiding behind my paperback copy of The Exorcist, I stole periodic glances at the wall clock, counting the minutes that became hours until my father and I could go home for dinner.

At home, drugs hummed in my sister Sarah’s nebulizer. The motor made our kitchen smell vaguely of plastic while she coughed through the vapor. Drugs had swollen my sister Susie until her face resembled a wheel of white cheese. Drugs were all around me, close as family, distant as adulthood. Two more PDRs came and went before I gathered pills and pot from my father’s bedroom bureau and made friends in high school: gentler, less-broken versions of the unapproachable treatment-center boys.


My flip book didn’t end in New Orleans. Not too terribly long ago, my husband and I stood in the doorway of a coffee bar in Amsterdam, reading the chalkboard menu. We felt awkward; buying pot in the open in order to smoke it in the open seemed utterly wrong. The prices were suspiciously cheap. Turned out they make it up with the lighters. Inquiring puis-je utiliser votre Zippo? of a French twenty-something at the next table got us smoking. My husband, a soft-spoken, deep thinking man, had told me a raft of funny college anecdotes about pot turning him into a deathly silent, withdrawn shell. “I get really quiet,” Mickey said, drawing out the “really.” I’d stopped smoking pot years before we met, and the harder stuff was long gone from my life. My husband and I had never smoked together.

In the coffee bar, I smoked one joint, delighted that they roll them for you. They box them, too, like my Camel cigarettes of yore. I smoked and talked. I got garrulous. I sang along with the stoner video for “Little Green Bag” playing in a loop on the television in the corner. I lit another. I chatted with the folks at the next table. And Mickey grew quiet. Really quiet.

“Honey, are you okay?” I asked, pretty sure that he wasn’t.


“Honey, do we need to leave?” I had three entire joints left, neatly rolled, in a cute box. The coffee bar was plastered with signs warning me not to leave the premises with marijuana. Our hotel was plastered with reverse messages: bring any marijuana in, and face imprisonment.

My sweet husband moved his head. Not a nod, but a barely perceptible vertical bob.

“Can you stand up?” I asked. Please be able to stand up, I thought, eyeing the vertiginous spiral staircase to street level. Mickey made that same head-gesture and, as if he were emerging from a puddle of glue, rose to his feet.

Un cadeau, I said to the French kid with the Zippo, pointing to the box with my last three joints. Lucky him.

Step by slow step, my husband and I climbed the metal stairs to street level and walked carefully to our hotel, each snow-dusted cobblestone and trolley track a massive obstacle.

When I told Suzanne that we’re old enough to know we might die, I was thinking back to Amsterdam and my history of fearsome chances: a beloved husband rendered mute in a basement coffee shop four thousand miles from home, a reckless young woman churning dubious flora into a blender, a desperate mother negotiating a momentary balance. And what I see now in that mental flipbook are brushes with danger, and a few very lucky people dancing on the edges of something close to hope.


JESSICA HANDLER is the author of 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.


On the Pain Scale

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.