The Ferryman

When I moved back into my apartment for my senior year of college, I noticed a large black spot on the ceiling. I called my mom to tell her and ask what she thought I should do about it, but she didn’t answer. When she finally did, she was angry at me, told me, “Figure it out,” and hung up. My move back to school was a couple of weeks ahead of the rest of the population because I worked for the campus. Patricia sat on the kitchen chair, her legs elevated, cigarette limp in her hand. It curled and whined upwards. She looked tired.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together this summer.”

“It’s alright. I was away anyway. I’ll be home for your birthday in October.” I looked at the clock, “I better leave. I love you, Mom.” 

“I love you too.” 

We hugged and I made my way for the ferry. Something felt off. I already decided in my head to come home earlier than her birthday – earlier than October 8th. And as I called her – and she didn’t answer – something felt even worse. She used to make me call her everyday the other three years, so what changed? 

I decided to report the black spot to maintenance, and they sent a crew of guys to come rip out a 2×3 foot chunk of my ceiling to address the black mold. It turned out to be a leak in the emergency sprinkler system, slowly releasing warm water for the entire summer.

“Good thing you caught this in time,” one man said to me. 

My mom still wasn’t answering her phone. Then, one night, my dad called me. 

“Don’t call your mother anymore right now.” He sounded frustrated with me, like I was inconveniencing my family’s life. I asked why the hell not. 

“Just don’t, alright?”

“What’s wrong? Is she sick? Should I come home? Is she mad at me?”

“No, she’s fine. Just call me if you need something from now on.”

I felt powerless and small. Clearly, something wasn’t right and I was purposely kept in the dark. It took only two days for my dad to call me again and tell me I needed to come home. He said she was sick; he didn’t say with what. He said to just come home; she was in the hospital. I knew Patricia and hospital didn’t mix well. My mother almost proudly toted the fact that she had not seen a doctor since I was born in 1990. Once I got off the phone, I collapsed to the floor. My gut – my deepest parts – knew she wasn’t coming home. 

I couldn’t sleep the whole night and by the time I got to the ferry, the sun had barely peaked up over the horizon. It was a chilly September morning, my first week of my senior year of college. I bathed in salt air and drank cheap ferry coffee. It was nearly impossible to sit still, as if I thought somewhere inside of me that I would have been able to swim to Long Island faster. I wanted to yell at the captain and tell him to hurry the fuck up.

From the moment I touched down on the island, every basic human instinct stripped itself away. It’s amazing what the human body does when sent into a literal crisis – a life or death situation. My senses went insane; I kept catching myself biting my fingers, crying silently, shaking my knees around. My dad hugged me – then my grandpa. I remember everything like it was on a hyperrealistic recording in my head. The flowers were still in bloom in my grandpa’s backyard; Nana’s geraniums still lined the driveway. The half hour drive to the hospital took longer than the ferry home. Everything around me pulled like taffy and mentally I couldn’t keep up. I just needed to see Patricia. I needed to see my mommy. 

It was so horrifying and real. It smelled. It was dry and asphyxiated me as I entered the ICU. Uncertainty. How could any of this be happening? I saw her there, yellow. Simpsons yellow. Egg yolk yellow. Yellow eyes. Yellow everything. Stringy, limp, matted hair. No makeup. She always wore makeup. No cigarette. Impossible. It couldn’t be her. I needed to snap back into reality. It spoke.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Oh God, it was Patricia. I let out a forced laugh, more so of disbelief than anything, that my own mother was so worse for wear. The conversation was minimal as I described her view outside the window. There was a 7-Eleven, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

“I want vanilla ice cream and a fountain Coke.” 

She said her mouth was dry, which I found difficult to believe especially with the insane amount of swelling in her legs and abdomen. She looked like someone who was nine months pregnant with the calves of an Olympic cyclist. I kept looking at the wall. The woman before me, demanding Haagen Dazs and fast food soda, was impossible to place in the same category as the woman who viciously dragged my hair every morning, who took care of all the kids in the neighborhood – who cursed out my principal. She was laying there, unable to move, shitting in a diaper. The person in front of me was the foil of Patricia.   

I quickly noticed that the room she was in had no clocks and it felt appropriate. Time didn’t exist in a place like that. We sat in the room, stale and stagnant; it smelled like chemicals and had a metallic, sticky taste of pending death. There, in the space of crossing over, I watched my mom slowly drift in and out of toxic hallucinations and call out for our family dog, Duffy, who sat home, unsure where she’d gone. By the time I reached the boat at the end of that weekend and gave my ticket to the ferryman I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned. Everyone gave promising, half-smile reassurance on her condition, but I knew – Patricia had burnt out. 

I was right. It was only four days before I decided to get on the ferry again and see her in the hospital. She deteriorated quickly, and it was clear she wasn’t well because instead of insulting me when I walked into the ICU she told me my hair looked nice. I leaned in to kiss her forehead, bangs matted down to her yellow shell. My dad, brother, and his girlfriend had been there most of the day. They were all puffy and swollen from crying. It was 8:20 PM, and suddenly, time mattered, because the ICU nurse told me I had to leave.

“Can you stay with me tonight, just in case?” She rolled her eyes at me to lighten the overtone that “just in case” meant, “if I die tonight, I don’t want to die by myself.” 

I crumbled in front of her, saying I wasn’t allowed but I loved her, and walked away as her lip quivered and she called out for the dog. 

When they called to say she fell into a coma that evening I felt a bizarre combination of relief and panic. I didn’t have to rush to the hospital, but I felt an obligation to do so. She lay in the same bed, eyes closed, writhing around in pain and I sat next to her and just put my hand on her arm. I told her I wasn’t going anywhere and she moaned and turned her head to the sound of my voice. We were met with a doctor who told us she had a ballpark 12 hours left to live. The finality of that – the time put on life – sent me into a spiral and I had to walk out of the room. What the fuck was happening? Why was this happening to me?

I wrote her eulogy, my head splitting open in a way that I never imagined possible. I thought I was dying too. I hadn’t showered in days, I saw people coming in and out that I barely recognized; my own family seemed like shadows. Someone brought brownies, another sodas, another baby wipes – I was in an alien environment and suddenly needed to be taken care of by everyone around me. I lost function. I became sub-human. There was a point where the only thing I could perform was the writing of Patricia’s eulogy. Talking about who she was made it easier to forget that she was technically no longer there.

We tried to swap funny stories and reminisce of her self-proclaimed title of “real estate slut” as opposed to being a broker. She rarely cried. She had a sick, dark, wonderful sense of humor. She fed everyone. She loved our family dog more than us – I was relatively confident of that. She didn’t deserve to die the way she was. 

A somber tone hit the group at once. There were about ten or so of us sardine-canned into the hospital room, some seated in the window will, a couple tossed onto chairs like old clothes, the rest of us stood, myself included. We looked around uncomfortably, mostly avoiding eye contact although the stench of sadness hung over all of us like a fog. Miraculously, Patricia began to move in her bed. Everyone jumped at the sight of a comatose, technically brain-dead woman rolling around and we all began to collectively panic. We realized quickly that someone, in their awkward, depressed shifting around, leaned on the bed controls and pressed down on a lateral lift, causing my mother’s body to pitch hard to starboard while we all looked on helplessly, trying to figure out which button made it stop.

“Oh my god! Oh my god,” my mom’s friend shouted out as my father threw himself onto her body to prevent her from rolling onto the floor. Hands went over mouths and people began to gasp until one of our family friends, an EMT, stopped the roll and lowered her back to a stable, flat position. It took all of five seconds for me to burst out into laughter after witnessing the dumpster fire that was my family. 

“She would have laughed at that.”

Her death was far less climatic than her accidental resurrection. I actually woke up to a phone call from my best friend asking me how she was coming along. When I rolled over, she took her last two breaths. There weren’t angels to come take her soul away; no soft sound of harps and horns. There was only the buzzing fluorescent tubes above us and the hiss of an oxygen machine. She and I were alone together. It was 12 days before her 52nd birthday. 

July 17, 2018

It is so easy to be my mother. It is essentially effortless to turn around, pick up a bottle, become a functioning alcoholic starting at seven in the morning when my night shift ends, pass out within an hour of pounding liquor, waking up in the afternoon and no one questioning it. My life would have numbing, functioning alcoholic sleep. I never saw myself wanting kids, so I could easily get away with addiction. My job pays well, I live alone, and I have an elderly dog who is low maintenance. I wanted to kill myself when my mom died but didn’t have the gumption to do it, partly because I felt like I’d be a failure and I was terrified of being a failure in my mom’s eyes dead or alive, especially when she told me on her deathbed that she was sorry for failing me. Instead, I lost a bunch of weight on my own in an obsessive control-freak episode. I tried out new jobs and stopped smoking weed and limited my drinking. I began to write and write and model my writing outlet to the likeness of Augusten Burroughs’ Lust and Wonder and David Sedaris’ many-a-memoirs.

I then again lost the sense of control, so I read more about what to do when I wanted control, and how to release the illusion of control. I allowed myself to be used by men because, let’s face it, my male role models were less than stellar throughout my existence. I lacked a lot of female guidance growing up, and realized in my 20s that I’d have to do a lot of the growing up on myself. This is why I don’t like the idea of having to fix or take care of people, although by nature I am a fixer. I have a fear of dying alone, do activities with myself for the peace and quiet, but ultimately want to find someone to adventure with.

There is an intolerance that exists within me towards people who are incapable of communicating, and it hurts relationships but I admitted to myself that I’d rather have no relationship than pretend everything is alright. I don’t know if I’m happy; I don’t know if I’m depressed, either. I know I’m doing what I want in the confines of whatever financial resources I currently have. I think what I am is dissatisfied with how certain aspects of my life have turned out thus far. I want to be published and I want to have a stable, healthy romantic relationship. I fear that if I tick everything off my bucket list, I’ll just die – and that’s the last thing I want to do.

You are not Gone

Winter finally came after an impossibly warm December. My hand touched the case which would take you away forever, after I already lost you forever. My hand print held onto the metal and wood for only a moment and I saw each time we held hands. And I saw my mother’s hands. I saw the hands I would never hold again. The winter took you away. As we stood outside in the below-freezing January wind, I thought to myself this was the least we could do for you. You survived prison camp; you marched 18 days to what was supposed to be your death during one of the coldest winters in the history of Europe. You survived on stolen root vegetables and a bartered egg. And when you returned home you still managed to be one of the kindest souls to exist in this place where we live.

I was a minute too late. The doorbell rang three times and with no answer I knew that something was wrong. On the drive to you I thought to myself if they gave you your last rites. I thought, of course you were given your last rites. Of course you would be forgiven. Of course you were a good man. In that minute I felt regret for you dying alone. Silent. Alone. A minute too late. And it’s funny how that minute took away the 28 years I had spent with you awake. 28 years exchanged for a minute was not worth it and in that minute – that time gave me 28 years worth of pain. That much pain came out in heaves rather than sounds. Tears came out like glass and I felt every single one as a future reminder to moments I will not get back and moments I will never experience. I was stripped bare of that energy; that soul is gone. It was suddenly cold and frightening and the choice was to remain there, on the floor of the hospice center, or face the body you left behind in suite number four.

You used to leave me notes when we lived together. They would always start with “K-” and list your daily tasks. If you left the house before I woke up, you would simply write, “GOOD MORNING” in big, blocked handwriting that always reminded me of Legos as a child and I never knew why. When you lay there in the hospice center, writhing around in your own head, you opened your eyes for a moment. You looked up and saw me, standing over you, adjusting your blanket because I knew you always liked your hands tucked in. “Good morning,” you said with a faint, genuine smile. It was eight in the evening. The pallor of your face, the whiteness that is associated with any hospital setting was dimmed by how unbelievably bright your blue eyes looked in that moment. I said “good morning” back to you and tucked you in. You smiled. Then, in a flash, I disappeared in your eyes and you became fixated on something – someone else – in front of you. Your eyes lowered and your brows furrowed. “What?” you leaned your head forward as far as you could, “Oh. Well, alright then I’ll come with you.” I stopped you and asked where you were going. You didn’t explain, just repeated that you had to go. I knew you had to go.

A Dialogue Between Death and Karma

Death and Karma sat across from one another, sharing a cheese plate in their favorite UK shop, The Cheese Society. Stores came and went – especially in the last couple hundred years – so when they found a place they liked, they’d make it a point to visit as often as possible; a hundred years was nothing to Death and Karma. The shop was quaint – and popular, according to its Google review that Death checked before this particular outing. Death found Google to be an incredible invention – almost as incredible as the wheel.

They liked to blend in every once in a while and food was always a good mixer. The name of the store gave them a sense of belonging, and the cheese was to die for. Death joined the cheese subscription, and happily received his packages when he wasn’t out collecting souls. He got to choose his delivery dates, too – so, win-win. Death stared over his brie at Karma as she sipped her tea and knifed her goat cheese, knowing he never had a shot with her, but always enjoyed the company when a like-minded astral being such as Karma was available for some small plates and conversation.

Death always found discomfort in the size of the tables in most restaurants. The restrictiveness bothered him, especially when he would reflect on existence before time. Everything was just one big open space, he thought to himself as he clanked his knees together, avoiding touching Karma’s knees or feet as she sat across from him. His distaste for tables was in contradiction to his fondness of a cheese plate. Death admired the way humans were so cute in their arrangement of food – making each slice neat and stacked, spreading the crackers as if they were playing cards, putting the knives on the proper side of the plate – it was so made up and so cartoonish to him. The food was to be consumed, all go to the same place, and the knife would cut and spread regardless of what side it was on. However, this presentation mattered to humans. His explanation for this behavior was that humans were aware of their fleeting existence on this tiny planet, and it was best to do as many things with care as possible, even if was arranging water crackers. He smiled, gently picked one up, and added some cheese to it.

“You know,” started Karma, “we really never do this enough. Or do we do this too much? I guess it doesn’t matter.” She had wild eyes. Death looked into Karma’s eyes and saw eternal, unbiased justice. He saw retribution and a tinge of macabre; it excited him.

It was difficult for them to gauge what was too much, or what wasn’t enough, because both beings were in a constant state of maintaining the living world. They were present when catastrophe overtook mortals in the first War of Wars. They collected on the people of Vesuvius – albeit a couple hundred years earlier than anticipated, but that wasn’t their fault. Death and Karma existed as a Bonnie and Clyde before Bonnie and Clyde, although collecting them was an accomplishment to hang on the refrigerator.

Death swirled his cup of tea, staring down and to the right of it at his dirty cheese knife. “I really do enjoy being around someone more my speed.” He continued swirling nervously, “It’s nice to discuss things that only you and I have been around for. It’s just – “

“No,” Karma begrudgingly exhaled, “we are not having this discussion again. You circle like existence on this, you know that right?” She gave him her eyes, except they were the eyes of retribution and unbiased justice and someone very, very tired of having to turn down romantic advances. Death felt sweat, but he didn’t sweat, he was Death. He was experiencing the illusion of sweat. Man this is bad, he thought to himself.

“Yes, this is bad,” Karma projected, “we are essentially the same, you and I. We have set purposes that we have adhered to since the dawn of time and our companionship exists in the way that we keep life moving. You collect the souls, I collect the debts on the souls; the souls are our livelihood.”

By this point, Death ceased his tea fidgeting and anxiously reached for another water cracker and some brie. He was always a stress eater, but at least he took a liking to human food rather than his previous diets of mass extinction. Nothing in the universe concerned Death more than Karma. She was his mirror image, and because of that, he was unable to always keep an understanding of her.

“I understand,” he lamented with lowered eyes and a mouth full of cracker. Death wiped the crumbs from the corners of his mouth with a thumb and forefinger and reached again for his tea, which at this point had gone cold. He took a sip, displeased, and returned the teacup to its saucer. With his right hand, he covered the top of it for a moment. When he removed his hand, the tea was once again hot as if straight from a fresh kettle. Death returned the lip of the cup to his own and carefully drank. “Better,” he said to himself, satisfied.

“What’s gotten into you, anyway?” Karma looked at him with a furrowed brow as she reached for more goat cheese.

“I don’t know – I had a personal call to a stroke victim not too long ago, and he was so concerned about leaving his wife behind. It got me for some reason. We were talking in his head and I was seeing his thoughts as well as hearing him; I haven’t had to do that for some time. It was so… intimate. I usually have my reapers out on the job.” He sipped again, “The guy was just motionless there – aware. We’re always moving, you and I, and sometimes it feels like we’ve been moving for so long that we aren’t actually in motion.”

Karma understood. “I get it. But that’s what we’re here for, to collect on debts and collect on lives; it’s how the world balances. If we didn’t do this, people would live forever and souls would turn to poison; the world would crumble.”

“I feel like they do it to themselves already, with or without our guidance.” Death frowned. “They do have free will, you know. The Creator was nice enough to throw that ingredient into their evolutionary process. Like giving a toddler a pair of scissors, if you ask me.”

“Oh, you’re just bitter.” Karma let a smirk peek out the left corner of her mouth. “You’re starting to feel things, aren’t you? Is that – compassion – I smell?” From her forefinger and middle finger, she tossed a cracker across the table in his direction. It bounced off the cheese plate and landed in his lap. Death picked it up and ate it in one bite. The table suddenly felt smaller, “I do not feel compassion, that’s impossible. I pine for you every couple millenia, sure, but I do not feel for humans; if I felt for every human I would have figured out a way to kill myself by now.” Karma threw her head back and let out a singular Ha! “If you could die, a human would have figured it out by now – selfish lot, they are.”

The cheese shop was silent, as well as Death and Karma for a moment while they replenished their mouths with cheese and crackers and gulps of tea. A symphony of crunching, knife to porcelain, porcelain on porcelain, surrounded them and encased their lunch in a bubble of sound. Death got tunnel vision and realized how frighteningly beautiful Karma was, even as she picked goat cheese crumbles off her lap, returning them to her plate. Too bad it will never work out.

“You ever hear of the ‘Red Thread?’ Or the ‘Twin Flame?’” Karma looked up, still chewing, and nodded. Death took this as a cue to continue on his explanation, “The Red Thread is two people always connected at the heart.”

“But we don’t have hearts,” Karma said very matter-of-factly. She was right, of course. Her and Death were astral, ancient beings. They were made up of everything and nothing; there was no room for a heart.

“Right. So, I guess I consider you my twin flame. We’re made of the same material, both give off heat and light, but not the same purpose. One of us heats, one of us destroys, etcetera…” He trailed off as he caught himself rambling; Karma always made him ramble when she made eye contact.

Karma nodded. For the first time that afternoon, she actually agreed with what Death had to say; she liked that analogy of their relationship. “That makes sense.” She liked it when things made sense to her.

Coping

Death is a matter of perspective. As I’ve gotten older, I accepted that dying is an inevitable and unavoidable occurrence that unites us as people just as much as breathing. Each person’s encounter with death is relative (as are all things in life) to what they have already experienced, and what they are mentally and emotionally prepared to experience when the time comes. Death is a wave that, if not learned to be ridden, will pummel whoever it encounters.

From the ages of 17 to 20, I lost both of my grandmothers, as well as my mother. My first grandmother succumbed to her third bout with breast cancer on Christmas Eve morning of 2007 after learning it spread through her body, into her bones, and left her in excruciating pain. I was still in high school, and it was the first “real” death I experienced. Before my nana passed away, I didn’t see her for several days. I missed her, I was sad, however I realize now at that time I didn’t have a solid grasp on the finality of it all.

My dad’s mother left the world July 1, 2008, after complications from an otherwise routine stomach surgery. I saw her the day after I graduated high school – she apologized for not being able to make it, but couldn’t wait to be home again. The following day, she aspirated on a bottle of water as she lay in bed in the hospital. When my parents were called, we learned that she flatlined for 17 minutes before she was resuscitated, and was waiting for us – brain dead – on a breathing machine. It was the first time I saw a lifeless, living, person. I remember my dad telling me to say “goodbye” to her, although she wasn’t there. I remember shrieking as I approached the bed because the oxygen that was forced through her body pushed her chest up and made it look like she was jumping at me. Eventually the children were taken from the hospital room, the plug was pulled, and she died within a couple of hours.

I remember being angry. I didn’t think it was fair that she died in a way so stupid and avoidable. She was supposed to be home that week. She was supposed to come to my graduation party; she was supposed to be alive. It wasn’t fair to her or any of us, especially after losing Nana only six months earlier. At the time, it was like no one could catch a break. I remember my mother being absolutely inconsolable. She sobbed into her pillow on my parents’ bed one morning that she was her mother too. It was that weekend where my mother hit a turning point for the worst with her drinking habits.

My mother died September 26, 2011, at 9:45 in the morning. I know the time because I watched her die. I was in the first semester of my final year of undergrad, when my dad called me to tell me she was in the hospital. My mom suffered. She suffered for years with alcoholism, and eventually it became an extension of her as well as an extension of our family. Wine every night was normal, rum on the weekends was expected, and her chain smoking was since birth. I knew nothing different, and it wasn’t until I was older and more aware that I began to challenge her addiction, only to lose in the end.
We all lost in the end. My mother suffered a very painful, very long death. I learned that when a person dies from alcohol consumption, the alcohol is what does the consuming. She had ammonia poisoning in her brain as a result of her liver and kidneys failing to flush out the toxins in her body. Her skin turned yellow, and her corneas looked like egg yolks. She stopped eating from the lack of appetite that comes with severe alcoholism – and while she only weighed about 80 pounds, she carried roughly 30 to 40 pounds of water weight due to edema swelling. I remember seeing her the first time and thinking she looked like she was in her third trimester.

As her liver broke down inside of her body, a process known as necrosis, I watched helplessly while she reached into the empty air, clutched her stomach, moaned, and furrowed her brows. She was unable to open her eyes and sat for a day or two in a weird coma limbo, where parts of her worked, and others did not. Eventually, the poison overtook her body, and she lay for several days stripped of any medical equipment except for an oxygen mask that forced air into an otherwise dead woman. It didn’t scare me as much the second time around, to see a body lurch upwards at unwelcomed oxygen. I stayed with her morning and night, praying for her death.

Her addiction to me was the embodiment of Pestilence, War, and Famine rampant within her. She was wrought with disease, would not eat, and fought an internal battle of mental illness that she lost. I watched the Apocalypse of self in my mother. In the end, the thing I feared most – death – was the only thing I could have wanted for her.

When she finally died I felt an overwhelming wave of relief that I didn’t expect, and it eventually turned into guilt for having a sense of joy at her release from mortality. I didn’t want her to die, but at the same time I was glad that she wasn’t suffering any longer. She didn’t have the emotional turmoil, the addiction; she didn’t have to fight so hard. It was then up to me to learn how to live without her, how to cope without any female figures in my life, where to place blame, and where to learn no blame was ever to be placed in the case of her death.

These three situations taught me that the act of dying – and coping with dying – were all matters of relativity. There was no right or wrong answer for why my nana had to have recurring cancer, or why my grandmother had to drink water laying down, or why my mom chose a bottle over her family – and more importantly – herself. Eventually, I stopped blaming death. I stopped questioning why the world took people from me, and instead looked at what I could do to better understand the way the world worked. The following work of fiction is from the perspective of Death, the immortal. Its purpose is to show different sides to the workings of the universe, and to allow interpretation and understanding through fantasy. I truly enjoyed writing this, and I hope they help those looking to see deeper than simply the loss of life.

Wishful Dying

I wouldn’t say I was a sheltered child, per se. I was, however, regularly threatened prior to social engagements to be on my best behavior or else I would be beaten/ have something taken away/ left somewhere. Only one of those three things ever happened.
It was a weird dynamic growing up in a home with a chain smoking, functioning alcoholic, successful real estate broker and an emotional eating, workaholic, manic depressive father. My parents lacked consistency in regards to their raising techniques; they loved my brother and me, no doubt, but their words of encouragement were generally masked with negative reinforcement and body image put-downs as a motivator to want to be the best we could be. Modern child psychology would argue that telling your overweight child she is a pig and looks like a sausage in her pajamas has the opposite desired effect of being a weight loss inspiration.
Although the under-the-roof pep talks were seething with backhanded compliments and flat out insults, my parents were known to defend me to the death in public settings, especially in regards to my intelligence. When I was in the second grade, my teacher had me placed in remedial math under the impression that I was, in some way, developmentally disabled. Hindsight being 20/20, I don’t entirely blame her. Almost every morning I hid underneath her desk and scared her when she sat down. I challenged kids to water chugging contests in between lessons. I was horrible at math, and I wrote with my book on an almost vertical angle. I did, however, excel in art and writing.
I spent days and days in the library of the elementary school with other autistic children, utilizing coloring books and bright worksheets, listening to stories, and frequently occupying space in the form of circles. I thought I was having a good time, that is to say until my mom received a progress letter in the mail praising how much I excelled in the remedial class that the school transferred me into.
This was the first time I heard my mom use the word “fuck” in all its forms.
“How could you fucking… why the fuck… put Mike on the fucking phone…” Mike was the principal. Mike was also my mom’s boss at one point. Before she made it as a real estate broker, my mom was a waitress, a stay at home mom, and a secretary in the special education department at the school. Even though the door to the kitchen was closed, I watched in awe as she reamed into this man about me, my education, my abilities, and the lack of faith the school had in my performance simply because I was a little eccentric as a young child; I couldn’t act out at home, I never acted out in church – where was I supposed to truly express myself? Where else, other than school, was I going to play pranks on my educators and challenge students to chugging contests that would be the precursor to my college chugging abilities?
Once the conversation ended, by my mother’s own discretion, I was promptly removed from the special education class and put back into the “normal” class, where I resumed my learning sans pranks – by fear of death by parent. I couldn’t help myself at times, though, wanting to be smart and wanting to be funny. Nothing ever added up in my home, so why did it have to add up in my head? I spent the entirety of the second grade with a backpack full of beanie babies and a pink shoe box in my cubby filled with classic rock tapes I stole from my mom’s car. I had Zeppelin, AC/DC, David Bowie, Aerosmith, and Pink Floyd to name a few blasting through my headphones each morning before we sat down to practice cursive; I knew the words to “Another Brick in the Wall” before I knew how to write my own name in the allotted cursive guidelines. My parents didn’t want to limit my experience in life, but there were certainly points where they shielded my experiences with death.
I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere on Long Island. We always had animals coming in and out of the house that my dad would save – baby birds, rabbits that the cats tried to eat, an adult quail. My brother and I had pets as well that were full-time, not just save, rehabilitate, and release. We had a large mutt, and two outdoor cats. The cats always got into trouble with other wild animals around the property. They would chase moles, bunnies, stalk birds, or even harass our dog when we took him outside for a walk. The interaction with the animals was never really a concern, until one afternoon my mom spotted a raccoon outside in the backyard.
“That’s weird, it’s the middle of the day; raccoons don’t come out until nighttime.” We sat in the bay window of the kitchen and studied the animal, weeble wobbling from side to side as it wandered closer through the high grass towards our house.
“I think it has rabies.”
“What’s rabies?” I was standing behind my mom, trying to peer out the window with her and observe the animal.
“That means it’s sick. If it’s sick, it could get the cats sick. If the cats get sick, we have a problem.”
“Oh.” Seven year old me didn’t quite understand the complexity of the situation. I thought of rabies as some kind of cold, like what kids got, except only animals could get it. My mom picked up the phone.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police station. We can’t have a sick and wild animal on the property.”
“Are they gonna take it to the hospital?”
“Probably not.”
Within a few minutes a cop showed up to the house and met my mom in the driveway. Cops were only needed for bad situations, I thought. When we watched the show Cops as a family, it was always a bad guy trying to run away. I wondered what the raccoon did to be so bad that the cops had to come. It was only sick, right? Sick people go to the hospital to get better.
My mom walked back down the driveway to the bay window where I was standing, but not before I noticed the cop reach around to his waist belt, slowly approaching the animal. She tapped at the window, “Close the blinds. Don’t look.”
“Why?”
“Kaitlin close the blinds or so help me…”
Anything ending in the words “or so help me” never needed to be finished. I knew what she meant. I closed the blinds and waited for an eternity.
A gunshot is a lot scarier when you don’t see where it’s coming from. My ears rang for a second as I stared long at the cloth curtains of the bay window, little birdhouses lining the trim. I thought it I looked hard enough I’d be able to see through them like magic, but even at seven years old I knew what I’d see. I’d see a cop, standing over a dead raccoon, or my dead mother, with his gun drawn.
When my mom walked back inside I let out a sigh of relief knowing that she didn’t do anything to get herself killed by the cop.
“Where’s the raccoon?”
“The raccoon is dead.”
“Can I open the curtains yet?”
My mom looked over the top of the curtains, past my line of sight, “No.”
“Why did he have to kill it, though?”
“Because it was sick and suffering. And sometimes when animals are sick and suffering, it’s better to put them out of their misery.”
I didn’t want the raccoon to feel misery, but I didn’t think it was fair at the time for it to die. As a child, I lived almost zero; I experienced almost nothing. I knew I wanted to do things, I knew I had dreams. I thought the raccoon, too, had a full life left to live, I didn’t want it to die because it was sick. I wanted it to keep living.
It wasn’t until I was 20 years old, sitting in the bed next to my mom, watching an oxygen mask push air into her otherwise lifeless body that I prayed to whatever god I didn’t know to just take her out of this world. I was exhausted and my head was pounding, and she just lay there, most likely unaware of my presence in any form, her body so frail I could see her carotid artery pulsing in the side of her neck. I counted her breaths, wrote her eulogy, and cried until my head hurt so bad I had to consciously prevent myself from crying. All that existed in those moments was the suffering of life; the lack of living, the suspension of consciousness where I had zero control and just wished for her to stop breathing. I didn’t want her to die, but I knew she would never live again.

Exposure

I generally peruse Pinterest when I’m at work on my overnight shift in between talking to planes, even though it’s advised that I don’t use Pinterest at work because it may be considered “distracting” or an unhealthy use of social media. Pinterest to me is not social media, rather, a drug and the only drug I am currently hopelessly addicted to. I find inspiration for new drawings or paintings, compare myself to other artists, look at outfits I’ll never buy, and save dozens of paint swatch ideas for a house I don’t own, but when I do will have 37 different rooms of different colors; it’s an oversaturation playground for people such as myself to become hopelessly lost in the world of elevated expectations.

Recently – and more aggressively – I find advertisements from Pinterest directed to me for handmade coffins available through hyperlink on an Etsy page. Each time I log onto Pinterest – every five lines of clickbait or so – is an ominous albeit beautifully crafted coffin, advertised as reclaimed wood (and, of course, customizable). I’ve never clicked the advertisement for the fear of being redirected to the page, thus creating more coffin traffic to my paint swatches and floral designs, but I thought back long and hard to what other internet activity suggested me as a potential demographic for such a product in the first place. I honestly have found myself torn between being offended, or simply impressed to see a niche market for handmade, reclaimed wooden coffins available through a craft site.

 

It was almost refreshing to see mortality advertised to me in such a comfortable, soft manner. Alternatively speaking, however, the oversaturation of craft and talent and accomplishment has bled over into the afterlife: “We’re all gonna die anyway, but make sure you stay dead in this chic, custom coffin!” Our media platform has run rampant with options and blasts of what we each can do – a lot of which is amazing – but I would be lying if I said I didn’t find myself often comparing my own abilities as a writer and an artist to the constant flowing stream of relevant social media content.

Sometimes I forget that even as a part of this huge planet that somehow functions in its own way of synchronized entropy, I exist within my own microcosm that most of the known universe will never have the experience of viewing. And even if, for whatever reason, my entirety of life was exposed, no one can truly know the wholeness that is myself.

It makes me wonder then, as an artist, as a writer – creator in general – why I often find myself feeling so pressured to live up to a standard that ultimately proves nothing in the long run. Call me a cynic, but my exposure in this world since birth has either been censored without option, or exposed without filter. The only difference as an adult it he introduction of social media, which has mastered the art of over-exposing filtered content. It’s like playing God or controlling the weather each time I post to Instagram or Facebook, showing the world only what I want it to see and then captioning it as raw and true; we’re all guilty of it. What makes me laugh in a sad way – so sad that it’s humorous type of way – is that I’ve experienced things in my short lifetime that many would consider fake, and that I am so conditioned to be used to that I don’t bat an eye at the obscurity of it all. At the same time, I’m not sure what the point of any of it actually is.

I know what the endgame is of course – death. Dying, mortality, the only one true unifying thing we as humans all have in common. The idea that we’re all going to die one day should make us enjoy our lives more, but instead many of us spend our days trying to prove to outside eyes that we are truly enjoying our lives. In reality, though, a very large number of us are blowing away weekends to make up for our 9-5 or our shift work or our multiple jobs that we need in order to satiate our desired lifestyles and somewhere along that line we lose the true value of what our lives are meant for. We aren’t meant to just bide our time until we die; we aren’t meant to prove anything to anyone.

 

What I’ve always wanted to do is simply share. I want to give my weird, outlandish life stories to people and hope they’ll laugh, cry, gain insight, maybe even hate me; at least they’ll feel something.