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.
When I was fourteen, I was what guys now call “thick.” In 1979 terms, though, I was just “fat.” I developed early and had boobs and butt galore, but I also had linebacker arms and thighs to go along with them.
In my family, my sisters were the beauties. My oldest sister Cheryl was fair-skinned with deep green eyes. My second oldest sister Caroletta had naturally wavy hair that required no heat straightening to cascade over her shoulders and down her back. I had neither. My eyes were hazel, more brown than green, and my hair, according to my mother, was “nappy” and had to be pressed. Both my sisters were slimmer than me: my oldest sister was short and curvy, and my second oldest sister was thin and muscular, with a tiny waist and large breasts. With my brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes and thick thighs, I most closely resembled a piece of well-done fried chicken.
Since I wasn’t considered a beauty in my family, I tried to content myself with being the smart girl, the good girl, the girl who never got into trouble, and I told on my siblings who did. When I reached my teens, I didn’t just want to be smart anymore—I wanted to be cute, too. But my weight kept getting in the way.
At Precious Blood, the small Catholic school I attended for eighth grade, the fine boys in my class either ignored me or teased me. It was always good sport to make fun of the fat girl. The only other male attention that I regularly received was the street harassment that I endured nearly every day as I walked home after school. Men would drive slowly alongside me, shouting, “Hey baby, can I talk to you?” I would ignore them and continue walking, acting if I didn’t hear the comments they made about my ass and what they’d like to do with it. Eventually, they would scream, “Fuck you then, you fat bitch!” when I kept my eyes focused ahead and refused to acknowledge them.
All throughout eighth grade, I had watched couples sneak across the parking lot at recess and go behind the nursing home adjacent to Precious Blood to make out. High school, I hoped, would mean a wider variety of boys, some of whom might appreciate my ass like the men who followed me in cars, but hopefully without the “fuck you, fat bitch” part. Unlike all the schools I’d gone to before, my high school—Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s largest and most prestigious high school—was huge. With over five thousand students, the school was filled with good-looking boys everywhere I turned. My second oldest sister, a senior, was friends with all the hot senior guys, but to them, I was just her little freshman sis.
Along with the multitude of hot guys, there were girls at my school who were bona fide glamour queens. Every day, these daughters of doctors, lawyers, and judges came to school with their slim bodies dressed in the latest fashions. I envied their tight Calvin Klein jeans, their fresh-from-the-salon hairstyles, their Fashion Fair and Clinique makeup, and their Coach purses. With so many beautiful girls around, no matter how many boys I had crushes on—and the crushes felt like legion at that point—the guys I wanted to notice me were paying no attention to the shy nerdy fat girl.
A few other boys took notice. There was the senior boy at my school who, one day during swim class, took me down to the deep end of the pool—I couldn’t swim—and stuck his tongue in my mouth and his fingers in my vagina. I hadn’t much cared for either intrusion, but I held onto him for dear life so that I wouldn’t drown. He was a senior, and he was light-skinned with curly hair, so I was even momentarily excited that I’d been singled out to be assaulted by him. One day, I asked Caroletta, as casually as I could, if she knew him.
“Ugh,” she responded. “He’s a creep. How do you know him?”
“He’s on the swim team, and they practice in the deep end during my swim class.”
She frowned in disgust. “Stay away from him. He’s a weirdo.”
Caroletta didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask what that statement meant. But her words forced me to stop thinking of what that guy had done to me in the terms of the romance novels I loved—as a seduction. I began to see what he had done to me as something that was wrong and that shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t tell my sister or anybody else what he had done to me, but I avoided him after that.
There was the boy I met at a football game—a boy from one of our rival schools, King High School. He wasn’t even remotely cute, but he approached me like I was, and convinced me to go over to his house one day after school. As we lay on his sofa that day—him on top of me, his enormous lips completely encircling mine, covering the lower half of my face with spit—I could only think about washing my face and getting home. Fortunately, he was as afraid of his mother as I was of mine, so he hustled me out before his mama got home from work, and I managed to get home early enough to avoid getting in trouble with my own mother. I had no desire to repeat the experience, so although I made the mistake of giving him my phone number, I luckily answered the phone every time he called, and each time, I would hang up like it was a wrong number. Soon afterwards, he took the hint and stopped calling.
And then there was the boy I liked the most at the time, a sophomore who was friends with my best friend Melinda’s boyfriend. He kissed me once during study hall, apparently out of boredom, and then forgot I was alive. Even though my crush ignored me afterwards, I replayed that kiss over and over in my head every day, multiple times each day, each time daydreaming that the kiss led him to realize that I was The One.
Since the boys I liked showed no real interest in me, and the ones who did show interest were creeps, I turned to the worlds of sports and entertainment for fantasy boyfriends. I had crushes on both of the Brothers Johnson, Prince, Paul Newman, Billy Dee Williams, Bjorn Borg, Detroit Tigers right-fielder Ron LeFlore, and NFL quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, just to name a few. I had so many celebrity crushes, I could have founded a fantasy boyfriend league.
I also lived vicariously through the exploits of my best friend Melinda. Melinda was dating the boy of her choice, a cute guy on the football team. Melinda was in love, and her stories of skipping school to spend afternoons at her boyfriend’s house while his mom was at work sounded like true romance to my virgin ears. Since I couldn’t have a boyfriend of my own, I lived for her stories about hers. When Melinda wasn’t skipping class with her boyfriend, we would skip class and walk downtown to Hart Plaza, sit by the Detroit River, and talk about her real love and my imagined ones.
Most of what I knew about boys, men, and sex came from reading my three older brothers’ porn books and magazines, along with Harlequin, Silhouette, Harold Robbins, and Jackie Collins novels. I had been reading my brothers’ porn since I was eight, and racy romance novels since I was ten. From time to time, Planned Parenthood pamphlets would appear, randomly and without explanation, on our dining room table. This was my mother’s way of giving us sex ed information without actually having to talk about sex. I read those, too, under my mother’s watchful, approving eye. Reading about sex was fine, as long as I didn’t ask my mother any questions.
Between the porn and Planned Parenthood, I felt pretty well-informed. But I was still missing the one thing I wanted most—a boyfriend. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, but that detail didn’t much matter. I’d never had a boy ask me to be his girlfriend. I’d never even had an in-school-only relationship, the kind of boyfriend who was only your boyfriend during school hours because you couldn’t see or talk to him any other time.
So when Melinda told me she knew a boy who liked me, I was excited to hear more.
“My cousin Rob thinks you’re cute,” she said.
Melinda’s cousin Rob was gorgeous. His neatly groomed Afro, velvet-smooth caramel skin, and faint mustache over full, lush lips reminded me of my fantasy celebrity boyfriends, like Prince. I was sure he would know how to kiss a girl without putting her whole face in his mouth.
Melinda’s cousin wasn’t a boy, though. He was twenty-eight.
“He wants me to give him your number,” Melinda told me.
“You know I’m not supposed to have boys calling me,” I told her. “What if he calls and my mother answers the phone?”
Melinda shrugged. “Have him call when you know she’s not going to answer.”
On one level, I knew to avoid older men. There was one teacher at Cass who grossed us all out. He would leer at the attractive girls in his class and tell them he would give them a higher grade if they would set him up with an older sister, cousin, or aunt. To us, he was one step away from being a pedophile, and everyone knew to stay away from him.
But at fourteen, I didn’t put Melinda’s twenty-eight-year-old cousin in that same creeper category. He was about the same age as some of the R&B and sports stars I dreamed about. I’d met him a few times at Melinda’s house and was flattered by the way he talked to us like we were people, not just kids. I had never noticed him paying particular attention to me at all, so to hear that he thought I was cute and wanted my number was both surprising and thrilling. Having a handsome, adult man I knew—not some random dude in a car—ask for my number made me feel attractive, desired and valued.
“I don’t know how I’m going to manage it, but give him my number,” I told Melinda.
We had one house phone—the heavy, indestructible black rotary dial phone that was Ma Bell’s trademark. The phone sat on the buffet that separated our living room and dining rooms, and although my mother eventually relented and allowed us to buy a longer phone cord from Radio Shack, we weren’t allowed to move the phone too far off the buffet. The phone’s location ensured that my mother heard the phone every time it rang, heard one of us answer it, and could detect from our response whether the caller was appropriate or inappropriate.
Melinda acted as the go-between for that first call. I told her exactly what time Rob had to call so that I could be right there to answer when the phone rang. I had to position myself by the phone, yet act as if I wasn’t standing by the phone because I was expecting a call. When the phone rang, I had to move quickly to answer it but not leap to answer on the first ring. My mother saw and picked up on everything, and she would have definitely noticed that. When I answered, I had to move far enough away from her so that she couldn’t hear a male voice coming through the handset, but I had to stay close enough to her that it didn’t look like I was trying to have a conversation that was so private that I couldn’t have it in front of her.
The actual call was even trickier to manage than I’d anticipated. Rob had one of those panty-dropper phone voices, sonorous and bass-filled, the kind of voice that teenage boys, no matter how cute, just don’t have. As he spoke, I imagined his lips brushing my earlobe.
“Who was that?” my mother said when I got off the phone.
“Melinda,” I lied.
“Hmmph. That didn’t sound like no Melinda.”
“She has a cold.”
I told Rob—through Melinda—that calling on school days wouldn’t work because my mother was watching too hard. We settled on Saturday mornings as a good time for us to talk without interruption. My mother slept late, my father would be out grocery shopping, and no one else would be awake, either.
During our conversations, Rob told me I was beautiful. He said I was mature beyond my age. He told me I was too smart and too good for those boys who didn’t want me. He never said, “If only you were eighteen, I’d love to date you.” He said he wanted to take me out—now.
I protested. “I told you: I can’t go out with you. I can’t go out with anybody.”
“We can pick a place to meet.”
“Nope. My mother would never go for that. The only place I can go is to school and over Melinda’s house.”
“Then I’ll come pick you up.”
“You can’t come to my house!”
“What if I shave?”
“Then you’ll look like a grown man without facial hair. You don’t understand, I can’t go out with boys until I’m sixteen. And even if I were sixteen, I couldn’t go out with you, because you would have to pick me up at my front door, and there’s no way my mother would let me leave the house with some man.”
He would laugh and offer up other schemes. He suggested picking me up from school, but I knew Caroletta would eventually get wind of that. I had gotten away once with sneaking off after school with the boy from King, but there was little chance I’d ever get away with that again. I wondered to myself—never suggesting it—why he couldn’t meet me at Melinda’s house. It never occurred to me that his aunt, Melinda’s mom, wouldn’t stand for it if her adult nephew started being too obvious in his attentions towards her teenage daughter’s best friend.
Still, I was pleased with my little secret rebellion. Rob and I had found a sliver of time on Saturday mornings where I could consistently talk to him on the phone without being bothered by anyone. We never used the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but those phone conversations—even if they were only once weekly—felt special. In my head, he was my boyfriend for fifteen minutes every Saturday morning. Talking to him on the phone was enough for me.
But it wasn’t enough for him.
During one of those Saturday morning conversations, things changed. Rob’s voice acquired more bass than usual, and he became insistent that I find a way for us to meet. He was so determined that I was nearly ready to agree—until he said something that startled me. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was sexual, in tone if not in content; the kind of ridiculous bullshit a man says to clarify that his intentions are not platonic.
I knew something had changed, but in my inexperience, I couldn’t fully process what happened. So I asked:
“What are you doing?”
Rob chuckled. “I’m making love to your mind.”
In one of my brothers’ porn magazines—Penthouse or Hustler, I can’t be certain—there was a cartoon that fascinated and horrified me. It was a drawing of a girl with crossed eyes and a stupid grin. A guy had his penis shoved in her ear, his balls squished against the side of her face. The tip of his penis extended out her other ear and dripped with cum. The caption was equally crude and extremely offensive: “How to Fuck a Retarded Girl.”
When Rob told me he was making love to my mind, I immediately recalled that image. My still-kid brain took the words “making love to your mind” literally. And although, intellectually, I knew he didn’t mean he wanted to stick it in my ear—and that if he did, it wouldn’t penetrate my ear canal and come out the other side—emotionally, I blanched. What I fully understood in that moment was that nice Rob, who said I was smart and pretty and mature for my age, wasn’t my Saturday morning fantasy phone boyfriend. He was a grown, adult man who wanted to fuck fourteen-year-old me.
And just as my sister’s calling the guy on the swim team a creep had stopped me from romanticizing his sexual assault, Rob’s claim that he was “making love to my mind” didn’t feel sexy and romantic, but icky and wrong.
I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.
“What’s funny?” he said.
“Oh, is that what that was?” I replied, buying myself time.
“Yes. How do you feel?”
I guess this was the point where I was supposed to tell him he was making me wet and I wanted to kiss him and, yes, I would find a way to sneak out of my mother’s house and see him. But I could only think about getting off the phone before anyone caught me, and telling him I couldn’t ever talk to him again.
“I have to go,” I said. “My mom is going to get up soon.” And I hung up.
I don’t remember if I told Melinda to tell Rob he couldn’t call me anymore or if I told him myself. However the message was conveyed, he obliged. And when I saw him at Melinda’s house, he stayed away from me.
Although Melinda and I remained friends throughout high school, Rob showed no further interest in me once I reached the age of consent. He came by Melinda’s house less and less often when I was there. Melinda would casually mention, “Oh, my cousin Rob asked about you,” but with no indication that he wanted any further contact. That was a relief, because I didn’t want any further contact with him, either.
Over the years, I told my story about Rob, to different audiences and for various purposes. In my late teens and early twenties, it was almost a point of honor to show that, like other girls, I’d had grown men chasing after when I was very young, despite my weight. Sometimes, I told the story as part of a longer narrative about the benefits of having strict parents who kept me from doing stupid things I wasn’t smart enough to keep myself from doing.
But it wasn’t until I told the Rob story to one of my law school friends that I understood its true significance.
As I described the compliments Rob bestowed upon me—that I was beautiful, smart, and mature beyond my years—my law school friend shook her head.
“He was grooming you,” she said.
Grooming? Until then, I’d never heard that term. I hadn’t realized that what happened to me was a thing that adults who prey on children do as part of their twisted seduction game. I’d been groomed by a pedophile—and I had no idea. Technically, the term for a man like Rob who desires to have sex with teens is ephebophile, not pedophile—but to me, that’s a distinction without a difference. No matter what term you choose, it means a grown man who wants to have sex with a child—and at fourteen, I was definitely still a child.
Rob had other issues and later wound up in prison for murder. He asked Melinda to ask me to write to him in prison. I told her I would think about it, but I never did write to him, because I had nothing to say to him.
I am thankful for my mother and her strict rules, because they helped prevent me from putting myself into an untenable situation with Rob. But now that I’m a mom, I wish I could have gone to my mother and talked to her about what was happening. I wish I’d had not just rules to keep me safe, but guidance on how to deal with sex and my burgeoning sexuality. If I’d gone to my mother, she would have forbidden me from going to Melinda’s house ever again, and that would have been devastating. I needed an adult to talk to about Rob—and I didn’t have one. My own daughter is now seventeen, which is the age of consent in New York State—but even now, I hope she would come talk to me if she found herself being pressured into a sexual relationship that she wasn’t ready for, something I was unable to do with my own mother.
As I learned from being groomed by Rob, an adult need not be in a position of authority over a child to wield unequal power. Rob preyed on my teenage insecurities, and were it not for that gross porn magazine cartoon, I might have allowed him to “make love” to more than just my mind. I wasn’t mature enough to handle a telephone relationship with a twenty-eight-year-old man that turned overtly sexual only once. I certainly wasn’t mature enough to handle an actual physical relationship with him. While I’m sure exceptional cases do exist, my experience with Rob taught me that the idea of a teenager under the age of seventeen truly consenting to sex with an adult is nothing more than a dangerous illusion. When I think about Rob, those weeks I spent as his Saturday morning telephone girlfriend feels less like a sweet young romance, and more like a near miss. I was lucky to escape unharmed.
A couple of names have been changed. —ed.
CAROLYN EDGAR is an attorney and writer who lives in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Salon and on her own blog, Carolyn Edgar – Notes of a Writer, Lawyer and Single Mom (www.carolynedgar.com).
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.