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.

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. 

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.

Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.

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.

Get out of the box

There isn’t much to be said about this bullpen. It’s plain, encased in brick, and unassuming. The ceilings are illuminated by OSHA regulated fluorescent lighting, and the only windows I open are on one of my three computer screens. There are constant echoes of doors opening and closing all about the building, like industrial breathing. Our standardized morale boosters come in the form of a free popcorn maker and complimentary bulk-bought coffee. The walls are a uniform blue-grey that seem to gain inspiration from Orwell’s 1984 (the two minutes of hate scene in particular) and I sit here until 7AM, observing a symphony of airplanes as they cross the Atlantic airspace.

My commute to work is laughable for someone who lives on the island. Before moving to my current residence in 2016, my drive averaged a very, very long-feeling 25 minutes, which is still modest compared to the rest of the populous; my father drove an hour or more each way for my entire childhood. I remember seeing him leave before sunrise and return well after dark donning a sullen, angry look on his face that showed his unwavering need to be a workhorse and keep food on the table. He had strained, sunken eyes with dark encapsulating circles – sometimes a frown, sometimes not. Every night he would retire to a La-Z-Boy recliner with the television remote and eventually slip away into sleep, HBO playing dully in the background; my brother and I learned young that it was important to invest in a decent recliner. After a couple of hours, he’d make his way to bed where my mother already lay in a drunken slumber, harboring an unbearable snore that made the bedroom smell of stale cigarettes and wine. As a result, my father would resort to spending most of my childhood on the couch. He would wake to the sound of his 5AM alarm and the smell of preset coffee, prepare his belongings, and trek once again into the darkness of morning.

As of 2016, the average car commute time for Long island was 33 minutes. For train, an hour. But 33 minutes, each way, five days a week undoubtedly beats down the human spirit. That’s 33 minutes of creeping traffic, skipping music, spilled coffee, and maybe a little road rage. For me, 11 minutes on average (six if I don’t hit any lights) gets me to my gate at work. That’s 22 minutes of less stress, fewer distractions, and generally zero coffee spilled.

The drive home is equally zen. Where I live, most commuters head west. I, however, miss all of the congestion and essentially reverse commute – facing the sunrise. Driving towards the sun each day as it rises has given me an appreciation for the varying colors, intensity, and energy is expresses, especially in contrast to the box I crawl out of each day. It shows me that my job may be the same, but every morning begins differently. I go to bed around 7:30, eventually tackle my afternoon, and make it in again well after night falls over the east coast to check in on my orchestrated airplanes.

Each night, tiny green triangles crescendo and decrescendo along calculated global routes, and suddenly the earth looks so insignificant. I monitor different sectors to ensure everyone is going where they need to go, while passengers sit oblivious to my existence. Sometimes, I’m technical when asked to describe my current profession; other times I refer to it as glorified babysitting. Either way, I watch thousands of lives cross the water, like a modern Charon. They are hopelessly unaware of my job, and I am continuously reminded of how important and how equally miniscule I am in this world. Each person is visiting, returning, working, or escaping. They all carry their own personal agendas and reasons for travel – they all have their own mini missions of life.

Since the Spring of 2015, I have been an overnight shift worker. I don’t mind shift work – it’s actually the only real type of work I know, minus a year-long stint as a Monday through Friday secretary in an insurance agency. My uniform is street clothes, except for pants with holes in them or flip flops (for whatever reason). I report at 11 each night and make it to my front door a little after seven each morning. My days off rotate; my social life has kind of taken a toll in regards to making plans and going out. If anything, working overnights has given me an appreciation for naps and breakfast at three in the afternoon. Living my life like a vampire – while detrimental if I don’t take care of myself properly – frees me up to write in a more relaxed, almost library-esque setting during the twilight hours. I also have a greater appreciation of my personal health, knowing that if I don’t listen to my body, take my vitamins, and eat relatively healthy I will suffer more over than someone who works during the day. And while the job can be boring or monotonous, it gives me times to reflect.

Generally when the traffic dies down, and 3AM rounds the room to tell us that it’s time to kick the chairs back a little further, crack open a book, and unwind, I begin to reflect and record the events of my life. For years, I tried to run away from everything. I recall attempting an ass-backward approach of making it out of my own life – well – alive. This lasted about six years before I realized everything I had endured up until this point was a test of strength and mental stability, and I somehow managed to survive while maintaining a crippling fear of ending up like certain members of my immediate family.

My childhood revolved around a sense of urgency and busy-body activities that kept me either out of my often turbulent household, obligated to my computer in my bedroom, or absorbed in a book. I had goals, and academic mile markers to not only prove to myself that I was worthy of great things, but also to give my mother and father one less thing to fight about.

At the age of seven, my school deemed me developmentally disabled, because I had a tendency to play pranks and wrote with my notebook on an extreme angle. After taping my books down to my desk proved ineffective, I was pulled from class and placed in a remedial room with coloring books and children on the spectrum. My mother was not notified of this, however, and when she discovered that I was doing “just wonderful” in my new environment, she cursed and screamed and had me pulled back out and put into the “regular” class. I was explicitly warned to stop playing pranks, and I feared making my mother that angry in academia ever again.

The ultimate drive became college, and when I was accepted to several universities in 2008 I thought things would eventually calm and settle at home. Being one of the only people in my extended family to receive a bachelor’s degree gave me a great sense of pride and a pedestal with which I could be better seen by my parents. This only improved in the summer of 2011, when I prepared to go to the University of Oxford and leave New York for a little to study English Literature. I remember it being something I wanted since my junior year of high school after hearing a story by my English teacher, Mr. Stahl, regarding him being accidentally locked inside the walls of one of the colleges while visiting a friend. He went on to describe ancient stonework, the smells, the stars at night hanging over old chapels and perfectly manicured grass. I fantasized for years, and when I finally got in, I told my mother to the response of a sigh and, “That’s going to be a great bill to get in the mail. Don’t tell your father yet.” I was determined to make her proud that summer; she died two months after I returned home due to liver poisoning from extreme binge drinking.

2012 onward was an era of attempting to find myself by essentially giving up and losing who I was entirely. Like people who gain wisdom by admitting they know nothing, I learned who I was by reflecting on the idea that I spent the first 20 years or so of my life not really having any sense of identity. I don’t mean “identity” as in what I wanted to do with my future; I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I stuck with my major all throughout my college career, and knew in my heart of hearts that I was a storyteller. Rather, I had no identity in the sense that I lived my life in a mode of survival for so long that I never looked at anything (with the exception of writing) and reflected upon it from an internal standpoint.

I spent so many years in chaos and alertness that when I moved to my current residence in 2016 – realizing no one at the time knew my address – I broke down crying. For the first time in a long time, I was completely alone. Not lonely, just alone. I was given the chance to be selectively introverted, and to answer to only myself since the day I watched my mother die in 2011 and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I imagined it’s what retirees felt when they finally didn’t have to wake up to an alarm clock after 40 some-odd years of answering to another; it was equally freeing as it was crippling.

It can be quite baffling to spend so long living a life of chaos – of constant emotional turmoil – and then to come up from the bunker one July morning and see all is calm, not knowing if you’re in the eye of the storm or if the storm itself has finally passed on. I like to think of my childhood as being raised in a life of coins, where every situation and family member had two completely opposite sides. My family grew up in the suburbs, yet under the roof lay an active volcano. My father was a man I idolized and feared. My brother and I shared the same sense of humor but ultimately grew up to be fundamentally different people. And then there was my mother – the woman who became my first friend, and my first bully.  
I only recently came to the admittance that my mother put me down in a very memorable way. For me, there existed a line I didn’t want to cross for the fear of insulting or demonizing someone who was unavailable to defend herself. Saying something like, “My mother was responsible for my compulsive overeating,” places an air of blame but – ultimately – the truth, and when the truth is put out that way, the power is taken from the things once feared. I however, was afraid to take away power from someone I idolized so much when all I had to go on were memories. I had to know in my soul that admitting to my mother’s harshness on me was a projection of where she thought she failed. She only wanted me to be a better version of myself but never conveyed it properly due to her horrible self image. The projections were magnified, of course, by her decades-long battle with alcoholism. Her ups and downs of affection peppered with vocalized disappointment of how I looked moulded a self image that became the two sides of my own coin: Mentally excelling in almost any subject, while never mastering myself. To learn who I was – to chase me down and finally meet myself – I decided to record the happenings. I began to write my life down. Writing, for me, became cathartic in the way that I was able to see everything I’ve done, gone through, or felt, and grow from it. After sharing some of my writings, I learned I wasn’t alone, and chose to be a storyteller, rather than hold my words to my chest.