Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
When I was in seventh grade, my best friend was Cheri Smith. We both got good grades and loved reading and and singing and had sleepovers and talked on the phone forever and read the same books and both despaired of ever being thin enough. She had the most beautiful voice. She also wanted her braces to come off more than I wanted my period, and since my body was just as immature as my mind, that wasn’t happening soon. She’d already started her period, and I was horribly jealous.
The Christmas break during seventh grade was pretty awesome. She stayed the night one night–how wonderful! The Friday before we went back to school, we met at the cheap theaters by accident, because our parents had independently decided to see see the Muppet Show while it was still at the cheap theatres. She had a sore throat that night, but we loved the Muppet Show anyway, and laughed and laughed and wanted to sing all of the songs because they were wonderful.
That Monday she had died of Toxic Shock Syndrome, and I was devastated. She was buried with her braces still on her teeth.
She was not my parent or my sibling or my spouse, but the terrible disappointment, the terrible shock of thinking “I had made plans with this person that included tomorrow and now there are no more tomorrows ever,” has stayed with me to this day.
I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to hardy up my soul in order to survive that terrible disappointment should it happen to me again. If Mate was an hour late from work, I prepared myself for his death. If one of the children stopped moving in my womb, I prepared myself for unimaginable loss. If my father coughed during my last visit, I prepared myself for sad news later. Not that I really EXPECTED the worst to happen–I just wanted my soul to have accustomed pathways on which to journey, so I would never, ever again feel same tissue between the world and madness rip into shreds like I did that day I came home from school to an empty house and screamed desolation to the four bare walls.
You can see that in my writing. There is a line from MacBeth, about Malcolm’s sainted mother in which she ‘died, every day she lived,” meaning that she prepared herself for the afterlife and thought about her spirituality, so that death was a somber companion and not a terrible enemy. I’ve taken that to heart for most of my life. Adrian could never have died if I hadn’t wondered what it would be like to survive a terrible loss. Cory and Green could never have continued if I hadn’t made plans in my own heart for how I would do the same thing.
Now, flash forward thirty years, and I am still a little shy IRL and I still treasure my flesh and blood friends, but now I have less time for them because I’ve surrounded myself with family that I treasure above gold and possibly even above my own health and sanity. So the few friends I have–brother, a phone call, an e-mail–it’s like Christmas.
There is no analogy for getting a phone call and hearing a friend’s voice and expecting Christmas on the other line, and getting a funeral instead.
They had been married almost exactly a year–and he had loved her so very much. I have few memories of Barb’s husband–she was busy with him, as I am with my family, but it didn’t matter because I was so excited for her. I remember their wedding reception, just scant days after her father passed away, and how he was so very anxious to make sure her friends were comfortable, and how he took care of her–water, food, a smile, a hug. I remember her very best friend’s wedding reception–just weeks after her mother passed away. She couldn’t dance because she’d injured her foot, but he wrapped his arms around her and they just swayed, and they were so very happy.
It was all going to be good for Barb–she had dealt with so much, and done it so gracefully, and Russell was her most excellent reward.
During their two years together they had made plans for his house in the twisting red-dirt hills of Nor-Cal. Huge plans. Fifteen dumptrucks of dirt and an above ground lap-pool + a master bath with a spa plans.
During the memorial service, everyone marveled at how much they had accomplished. Everyone cringed at the barely framed master bedroom, a horrendous testament to how every plan she’d made in the last two and a half years had included him, and how he was no longer going to be there to see them fulfilled.
The house was overflowing with people, and (cliche of cliches) so much food. And nobody had a single useful thing to say. She wore her husband’s shirt–it featured Wallace Shawn from ‘The Princess Bride’. It said, ‘Inconceivable’.
There was no other word.
Lady in Red and I worked pretty hard all day–we got there early, cleaned the house, took shifts in the kitchen dealing with the plethora of food, and then were part of the clean up. (By this time my feet hurt at an ibuprofin level, so I sat and watched. I’m lame. I admit it.) By the end of the day we were tired, sweaty, angry–Russell’s ex-wife sees no reason to keep their son in Barb’s life. The cruelty of that decision is un-fucking-imaginable– and we’d heard the godsawful story of the freak accident that had taken Russ away, twice. It didn’t get better–any story that involves a stuck accelerator line, malfunctioning seat-belt and an asshat of a CHP officer who confuses the deceased with a drug-dealer is not going to get prettier or any less horrifying with retelling.
And we were so baffled, so very very baffled on the way home. A world that could do this to good people–inconceivable. There was no lesson to be learned. There was no silver lining. There were no prepared pathways of the heart that could make sense of this and give her strength. There is no truism that will help her get through it. It’s going to have to be her and guts and her children. I watched her make her children dinner–‘so much food’ and they wanted anything that WASN’T on the table. They’re it. They are what will get her through. And they’re so small, and it’s such a terrible burden, and all I could think was, “I couldn’t call all week. By the time I got the phone and it was quiet, it was ten o’clock. I was dozing in my chair. My life was too much for me, there was nothing left.” She had family and she has friends, but eventually it’s going to have to be her shoulders, and they’ve dealt with so very much.
And maybe someday, it won’t seem like too much to carry, but not now.
Wait–I lied. There was one thing I learned from the day. If you are ever in a place where you can choose between dusting the home of the recently deceased and scrubbing the bathrooms, scrub the bathrooms.
Every goddamned picture had Russell and Barb, happy together. It broke my fucking heart.