Coke on the Sink

My grandparents were less proud of their property and more pleased with being able to afford a small home on the water for my family to enjoy. The farmhouse was where I lived but we didn’t own it. We rented it from the neighbor next door who knew about the lightning tree. My parents lived in a condo until I was about a year old and then they decided they wanted to raise us closer to Nan and Pop and in a better school district. I remembered the moving truck that took us east, and I recalled helping my mom paint the interior of the coat closet before we left.

“Like this,” she said, as she moved her wrist up and down in gentle, dramatic sweeping motions. 

I took my little paint brush she gave me and tried but ended with swirling the brush in haphazard, rough circles all over the place. She took the paint brush back and told me to go play and that I could try some other time. I was awful at interior painting, but I couldn’t have been more than two at the time.

The farmhouse had small bathrooms. Tile ran halfway up the wall and was pink, then black tile separated the pink from the wallpaper. I couldn’t reach much, but everything was aligned on the sink – Dad’s razor, Mom’s reusable toothpick, the toothbrushes, her hair brushes – everything was on the sink. I was fascinated with her toothpick. It was metal and had a rubber pointed end and it looked like something far too important to be used for getting things out of teeth. It should have been a magic wand, I thought, or something of importance. She found me with it more than once and scolded me the same each time.

“That isn’t yours,” she said, and tore the metal pick from my grip. My magic was gone again, until I went back into the bathroom and stole it from the sink.

Nan and Pop didn’t have golden-colored magic wands in their bathroom. They had large, heavy brass ducks all over the house, and Nan had a large collection of colored glass jars and bowls and vases. 

“Cranberry glass is my favorite,” she said. When she babysat my brother and me she took us to the church-run thrift stores in search of her treasured glass. She could tell the difference between cranberry glass and a fake, but anything red and glass I found I brought to her anyway just to be sure. 

I was less interested in the glass and more interested in the metals. The brass ducks were barely movable but they were shiny and solid, strong and smooth. I ran my hands over the heads and bodies and tried to figure out how they were made. I speculated that the ducks just came that way, duck-shaped, and Nan found them in her journeys like the cranberry glassware. 

My dad kept his razor on the sink. It was heavy and metal, and I spent many mornings watching him shave his face in the mirror before work. He filled the sink halfway with hot water and carefully released a palm-sized amount of foam from a can. With his left hand, he dabbed white all over his face and then used his pointer finger to scrape the remainder into the sink where it floated on the warm, murky surface like the foam on the creek. Effortlessly, he dragged his razor along his face, removing the white and leaving smooth olive skin. I loved the scraping sound the razor made. He left a little bit of hair around his mouth and under his nose, to cover a scar above his lip. I asked where he got it and he told me Mom was giving him a piggyback ride and Nan sprayed them with a hose on the walkway. He slipped on the slate and landed on his face. 

When he finished shaving, he released the drain plug with a loud gulping sound and the foam and cloudy water disappeared with it. He replaced the razor back on the side of the sink and finished getting ready for work. I stayed for a moment to marvel at the razor. 

I couldn’t get the vision of the razor out of my mind and returned to it that evening once my dad was home from work and he and my mom were watching television in the living room. I went into the hall bathroom, just off from the kitchen and turned on the light. The razor waited for me. I couldn’t reach the can of foam, or the faucet to get the hot water to fill the sink, but I thought my dad would be impressed with me nonetheless for showing him I could also shave my face. I figured out the proper way to hold the razor – it only took a couple of moments since I saw my dad do it so many times – and brought the blade to my skin. A sharp pain hit my chin. The blade dug into the flesh just between my bottom lip and the top of my chin bone. I looked down and saw no white foam in murky water, only hands covered in warm red. Warm red on the blade and on the smooth white sink. I screamed and ran to the living room, razor still gripped tight in my palm and my parents both jumped up at the sight of my face. 

Pop hid his razor from me, or at least I decided he was intentionally keeping his razor from my grasp. He stored it high up on a shelf I couldn’t reach so I wouldn’t try to shave my chin again and instead shave off a piece of it. When my brother and I went for a sleepover, the sink in their bathroom was cleared off. Nan made sure we thoroughly brushed our teeth and then tucked us into the old bed in the spare room adjacent to hers. 

“Goodnight. I love you,” she said, and kissed us both on the forehead. “And if you get thirsty in the middle of the night, I left a glass of Coke for you on the bathroom sink.”

Nan was no stranger to the sweets. I woke up the next morning to see the Coke untouched, since both my brother and I slept through the night. I went to the bathroom and took a couple of deep, cool swigs of flat soda and made my way to the kitchen where Nan and Pop were already seated. The smell of instant coffee – very distinct from a drip coffee –  filled my nose. It was mixed with the scent of hot bacon and scrambled eggs. Pop made scrambled eggs in such a way that I only dreamed to duplicate for myself. 

Nan and Pop rotated their breakfast. Every other day they had bacon and eggs, and the days in between were filled with cold cereal or oatmeal. Regardless of Nan’s main course, though, she finished strong with two cookies. Always two. Mallomars or Oreos, neatly placed on a folded napkin on the upper right corner of her plate or bowl, waited for her to put down her utensils and dunk them for a sweet ending to a nice meal. 

I followed suit more times than not. She tried to enforce good eating habits when we were there, especially when my brother and I spent a couple of summers gaining an unbelievable amount of weight (our babysitter at the time took us to McDonald’s anywhere from three to five days a week for lunch. She was fired). One afternoon Nan replaced what would have been my normal lunch – grilled cheese and tomato soup, her specialty – with a small dish of creamed spinach.

“You kids have to start eating healthier,” she warned. 

How could I possibly want to eat healthier when the second drawer down to the left of the sink was filled with ginger snap cookies and Oreos and Mallomars and graham crackers? How could I stray from a cookie with breakfast? How could I avoid the giant dish of Hershey kisses, placed obtrusively on a table between the kitchen and the main hallway? She asked the impossible of me, surely.

The sweets were my drug. Ice cream floats and warm backyards were perfect for each other, and Nan couldn’t tell me otherwise. Nighttime Coke on the sink was expected, not anticipated. I looked forward to maybe having to get up and relieve myself in the middle of the night for the promise of sweet, flat soda in the bathroom after I washed my hands. The lackadaisical observation of my movements by my two favorite senior citizens; it freed me up to grab a cookie or two, or three on my way out the door. I was outside all day, I justified. Two cheeseburgers were not uncommon for a child who spent all day kayaking against the currents. Root beer was in the fridge because it was on sale, not because it was healthy, and my two Depression era companions never said no. They said, “I love you,” and sent me outside to play some more.

I baked in the sun until my shoulders turned purple and I felt myself shrink and shrivel up. The salt air made its way into my mouth and left me with a desert thirst all over as my skin tightened and stretched on my bones. I crawled onto the boat to jump off of the bow into the water. The creek was like a bath and I disappeared under the cloudy top and hung for a moment, suspended where she held me. 

I ran back across the dock planks to the float so I could repeat my dive. I placed my foot on the bow of the boat once more and it shifted away from where my other foot was planted. I slid forward into a split until I couldn’t hold on any longer and plunged between the boat and the dock. I felt a sharp burn as my back scraped against a rusty nail. My head went under for a moment only to see the side of the boat come back towards the dock. I scrambled out of the water and ran into the house, screaming for Nan. 

She took me into the bathroom and pushed aside the empty plastic cup that once had Coke in it, and replaced it with a bottle of clear liquid. 

“Hold still this will clean it out.” 

I turned my back to her, the space between my shoulder blades pulsating. Then came a cold touch of the liquid followed by an immediate burn, as if she went outside, found the rusty nail, and put it into my back. I screamed and ripped the curtains off the bathroom window.

“What is that?” I began to cry.

“Rubbing alcohol,” she said, panicked at my reaction.  

I sniffled and dried off, unable to see the damage she had done but certain the wound on my back was massive. My grandpa came into the house and sat down, his old man belly proud and shirtless, his knees sticking out from under khaki shorts and his feet decorated in white calf-high socks and loafers. 

“What’s the matta!” He put his arms out to me and gave me a hug. 

“I cut my back on a nail and Nan put rubbing alcohol on it and it hurts!” I was a pathetic mound in his arms. 

Pop shuffled me off his lap and stood up. “Oh wow! Is it like my back?” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder and turned around to show me his back. Although old and faded, I could see the deep white, jagged lines – scars. My injury was nowhere near as bad as his. 

“How did you do that?” 

“I had to jump out of a plane in the war. I was in a B-17. Do you know what a B-17 is? It’s a big plane. And I jumped out because it was going down and I got injured by shrapnel. Do you know what shrapnel is? It’s big pieces of metal. And then I landed in a tree in Germany. And then the Germans found me.” 

My story seemed much less interesting. I listened to Pop tell me about the plane crash for a while longer, then found Nan and apologized to her for making such a scene. She forgave me, of course, as she always did. 

“Here,” she said, and handed me a hard butterscotch candy.

Dirty Secrets

The evening following her death was quiet. Too quiet. My dad sat on the floor of my grandpa’s living room, surrounded by heaps of papers and bills that my mom hid around the house during the last year of her life. I later learned through my own investigation into the mind of an addict that they’re particularly good at keeping secrets. My mom’s secrets were of a financial matter. She had a credit card no one knew about, bills left unpaid, stuffed into drawers here and there, and now my dad was sifting through all of it. 

It made sense to me, though, watching him look at old bills for the first time and have no idea who was responsible for them, or how they were so well hidden. That previous summer, my mom and dad were living with my grandpa who was recovering from surgery. My brother and I lived in our childhood home across town. One afternoon my mom called me and asked me to bring the industrial-sized jug of coffee to her because they ran out and she would rather die before ingesting instant decaf.

Dutifully, I made a pit stop to the kitchen and pulled out the jug. Behind it, my mom’s Minnie Mouse glass – a souvenir from our first family vacation to Disney World – sat behind it, half-full of clear liquid. At first, I thought it was a glass of water and thought it was very strange that it was in a food cabinet. I pulled it from the shelf and brought it to my nose. Vodka. How? She never drank vodka. 

I brought it up to her that same night. Her response was, “Don’t judge me.” I knew she was drinking vodka before she wound up in the hospital, before she turned yellow, before she forgot who she was. Yet, I said nothing, because she told me not to judge her. She told me to stay out of it, and that I wasn’t the parent. So I obliged. Partly out of fear and partly because I thought maybe if I kept her secrets she’d have more to tell me until there was nothing left to hide and maybe – when all other forms of avoidance were exhausted – she’d want to get sober.

It was uncommonly warm – the day after her death – and we opened all the windows in the front of the house, the ones facing the creek. I grew up accustomed to the smell of low tide, the oddly sweet, rotten, organic smell that rose up from the muck when the water receded. When we were little, my brother and I would blame it on the other as our parents drove us near the water. As we aged, we could pinpoint the difference between creek smell and a fart.

The smell at first wafted gently and slowly into the living room. I saw my dad wrinkle his nose a bit – especially since he was on the floor and the odor was too dense to rise up the cathedral ceilings in the cape house. My grandpa, whose diet consisted all-too regularly of things like Jarlsburg cheese and canned sardines, was unaffected. When the smell arrived to me, on the couch, it round-house kicked me in the face. Putrid, rotting organic smell. Human-organic smell.

“That’s shit.”

“What,” my dad began. Then, cut off by his own sense of smell, inhaled deeply and regretfully.

“Oh my god,” he said, “what the fuck is that?”

“Huh?” My grandpa finally looked up. For a moment, my dad and I thought he soiled himself and was trying to play it casual. 

“Shit, pop, shit,” my dad said to him. “It smells like shit.” 

Our attention turned to the four or five open windows that faced the creek. It wasn’t the creek, so my dad and I both got up and walked out onto the deck.

“I think it’s coming from the basement,” I suggested. 

My dad put on his sandals and opened the basement door only to be struck with the affirmation that yes, the smell of raw sewage was down there. Enough, in fact, to flood the floor and anything buoyant enough that once sat on the concrete was now adrift in a sea of poo. 

It was concluded that the influx of visitors over the last week to my grandpa’s house overloaded the septic system and backed up a combination of water and waste, creating an ankle-deep tide pool downstairs. My dad grabbed a Shop Vac and I recoiled to the couch. He called an emergency plumbing service to pump out the tanks and, within maybe three hours, all the crap was gone – except for the smell. 

“Look at this,” he said as he walked back into the house. I did not want to look at whatever he had in the bucket he was carrying. 

“They floated out from behind the dryer.” He tilted the bucket towards me and inside I saw several large, empty bottles of Absolut vodka. 

“Holy shit,” I said. Immediately, I thought back to the summer before, and how I wasn’t able to figure out how my mom was drinking vodka and keeping it from everyone. It all made sense. Laundry, chores, grocery shopping – she hid everything in plain sight.

Dragon Woman

Smoke coiled through the seams of the car

and we sat in the back in the haze while classic rock blared

into your ears and you forgot for a moment that you were a mother,

that you were my mother. 

Loosely strumming on the steering wheel,

palms and thumbs drumming.

Music maker child maker — 

I wanted to be just like you.

I wanted to be like you until the sun went down because 

when the sun went down the bottle came out

and there was dracula — 

And the werewolf — 

And you.

You damaged, fermented 

Dragon Woman with hands that curled

to knotted tree branches and poison spat out of you.

We hid 

I hid in my closet until the lightbulb died.

And I realized I never wanted to be like you.

But you taught me so much.

You taught me to be afraid 

(I was afraid of my mother) 

So I had to be strong  

And you taught me to be strong and to question you

Question everything — 

Go against you.

Your vicarious wishes of who I should be

who I was — 

But I didn’t have a fucking clue.

And when the morning came that I watched breath escape 

your chapped lips for the final time you somehow taught me right there to look Death straight in his face 

and fear nothing because I already knew you, Dragon Woman.

And I don’t want to be you but I came from you

you created me — me.

I am the daughter of patricia — 

Of teased hair and electric blue eyeliner — 

Of wild coolness.

I grew up at the altar of an ‘03 mustang

With empty diet coke cans and Bic lighters on hand.

Bic lighters everywhere 

fire always on hand.

And you drummed your primal ancient animal skin beat to the chant in your head — 

Do no harm. Take no shit.

The final lesson of my mother.

Into the Kassel

“Well, fellas, here’s the new ship.”

Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as copilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up. “Good job, boys. You broke the plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically and comically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and Arthur would get in trouble as young boys; she would reprimand Harold for something his brother did, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane. 

“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand. 

“I dunno, somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess.” Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta. 

Several days prior the Allied forces began an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry, and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190’s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single engine fighter aircraft of the war. The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany – at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving – and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II – hopefully – approached.

The ships took off out of Ipswich early July 30th. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight uneasiness – the same uneasiness he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane went down – but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done. 

Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis – two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side – especially following the July 28th mission. 

After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These ships moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves, as well as being unreasonably deep in enemy territory. They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the ten-panel plexiglass the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was like if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping. The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present. 

More smoke filled the ship. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a bomb shaft filled with artillery, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.

Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope for getting this ship back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany. 

The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screw driver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the artillery dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind – the only goal to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought on what to do next. 

“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty – the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.

One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations. They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory. Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, his own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could. Jack never saw Harold bail out, no less make it to the ground.

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. 

A Love Letter Home

This is a love letter from my grandfather to my grandmother, just over a month after their wedding, about three weeks after he was called to war. I’ve written a book using their letters, and hope one day to have it published.

July 7, 1943

My Darling Wife,

I love you with my whole heart and soul. If, by shining its light, the sun could express my love for you, you’d never see darkness. And if the tide would come in every time I think of you, the ocean would be constantly overflowing. Honey, I’m madly in love with you.

I completed the gunnery course and received my diploma yesterday. If we don’t have anything else honey, we’ll at least have enough diplomas to wallpaper our house with. 

Today, I arrived at my base, and immediately dashed off to the mail room. The last time I received mail was may 28. That’s some time ago, so you can imagine how much I appreciated your letters. I got 11 from you, 2 from Erwin, and 1 from Arty dated May 20. Honey, [you’re] swell for writing me so much, and I love you for it. I enjoyed your mail and consider every letter a treasure in itself.

I knew about the shower the girls were going to give you that Saturday and am very glad to learn you had a swell time. The presents we got interest me a great deal, and is the start of a new cottage whose occupants shall be none other than Mr. and Mrs. H.P. Schwerdt. Then, after a while, I hope the stork pays us a visit and leaves a baby Loretta. Gee honey, I love you. 

Honey, [you’re] swell for taking care of the cards and etc; anniversaries and buying presents for Father’s Day. [You’re] just wonderful sweetheart, and I think [you’re] the best wife there is. 

I have $100 on me, and will get a money order and send it to you tomorrow. I’d like to [enlighten] you as to my financial status, and think it best if we keep it a secret. I thought you knew, so here it comes. First of all, my base pay is $114. Then, I get $57 for flying, then, $22.80 for overseas duty, and for being married, I get $37.50. It comes to a total of $231.30 a month. From that, you get $100, my mother gets $25, and the government keeps $7 for insurance, which leaves me a total of $99.30. I’ll be able to send you a money order for $50 (I hope) every month. You should get $100 from the government about the middle of every month beginning with July. I hope this money situation pleases you and that you’re satisfied with it. 

I’m sending you all I can cause I’m all out for a little cottage for 2; or 3, or 4 or more.

My Darling, I love you lots and lots. I think of you all day and dream of you all night.

It’s [goodnight] sweetheart.

Your Honey and Husband

All my love,

Ha

xxxxxxx

P.S. I love you

Regards to all.

Nite Wifey.

Love

For who she was

It was never a question of whether or not I wanted to be like the woman my mother was, but rather the fear that I would fade away into darkness like she did. The person I came to know was someone I hardly knew at all, and by the time she died I felt like I watched a stranger die. Her last breaths before me were foreign and unforgettable. It was a strange disconnect to feel like I stopped knowing who she was long before I ever lost her. Seeing her in the hospital bed, the shell of the fabled Super Woman all her friends talked about, but the shell that I learned to accept as my mother. I knew that who she became was someone I never wanted to be. But who she was – that was someone worth knowing.

The older I got, the stronger the hold alcohol took on my mother – the more sheltered she became. She projected a lifestyle onto me that was shrouded in projections of physical insecurities and gaslighting that I didn’t understand until my mid-twenties. Growing up in a household so toxic groomed me to believe that I didn’t know what I wanted – or needed for that matter. It was as if nothing was ever good enough if it was of my own design. No matter what I suggested, I was met with resistance and aggression; I told my mother I signed up to take Spanish in school and she was infuriated that I wasn’t learning French. When I was a teenager, I expressed the need to go to the eye doctor and she was insistent that I only “wanted” glasses to look cool, as if she forgot I had to wear an eye patch as a baby for issues with my vision. I didn’t get glasses until I was 17 and now I wear bifocals for my astigmatism and nearsightedness. And even when I was in college and separated my shoulder playing rugby, my mother told me my injury was superficial and as a result I lost the range of motion in my left arm from never receiving physical therapy. No matter what the issue was, if she thought she knew better then her word was bond. I was compliant because I was the child, I didn’t know better. She was queen because she was mother, she knew best.

My mother wasn’t always like that, though. She wasn’t the woman who was afraid to drive more than 30 minutes away from home and refused to drive on a highway. She was loud, funny, sharp-witted, and adventurous. She was a real estate entrepreneur who spent more than ten years making a name for herself in the industry as a broker. Her childhood friends – who I am still very close with – described her as a talented writer, a comedian, a partier, a road-tripper, and a wonderful, honest companion. The woman I got growing up was overbearing, sheltered me, body-shamed me, and eventually just expected me to do well for the fear of being met with something else that might trigger her to drink more. Part of me wishes that I grew up beside her and got to know the person her friends missed so much; When she died, so many old friends approached me saying how “like her” I was. I couldn’t believe that I was anything like the woman in the casket. She was angry and refused to take credit for me being successful in anyway. “You’re just like your grandmothers,” she wrote in the last email I ever received, when I was sitting in my bedroom at Oxford University. She never said, “You’re like your mother.” I hated that. I hated that we were so disconnected, especially towards the end of her life when I was growing into a woman who wanted nothing more than to relate to the one who made me.

After her death and following my graduation from college, I tried to learn a bit more about who my mother was before she became the alcoholic recluse who raised me. I knew she was skilled operating a sailboat. She learned to waterski barefoot when she was a teenager, something I never learned. When she was young, she told her mother that she was going to visit girlfriends in Florida but instead moved to the Southwest for three months to live with a boyfriend. She snuck out of her bedroom window enough times that my grandfather silently nailed her window shut from the outside. She went to concerts, smoked weed, and hung out late. Who was this person?  How do I become closer to someone who isn’t here?

Now, at 28, I learned the best way to honor a relationship I never had is to live my life as the person she was before her disease consumed her. I experience life as if she was young and next to me, and living through me. I have traveled the world, gone on spontaneous, day-long road trips. I’ve encountered strange people in interesting places. I’ve been too drunk, up too late, and I’ve also gone to bed too early. I made a name for myself like I saw her do when I was younger. I forgave her for my childhood. I embraced her adventurousness and created my own adventures.

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.

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.