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.

If you are Grieving

I wanted to write something about grief, because I am grieving now. Because it’s hard. Because I’ve been through this too many times in the past ten years.

• everyone grieves in their own way so try not to take a change in their behavior personally. Also, try to be conscious of what is *your* grief and your own expression.

• you will be achy, cranky, oddly calm, have an anxious mind, and feel like your brain is a rocky ocean because all the dust is settling from a whirlwind of change. Don’t fight it, just batten down.

• don’t be afraid to take an extra nap. Don’t fear being a little impulsive. If you feel impulsive, try a productive impulse like hanging a picture, cleaning something, planting a house plant, cooking, buying a $5 book (or two, or three like I did), cleaning out your closet for donation… things that won’t cause any self damage.

• if you feel the need to damage, go to the gym. Or eat a bag of chips, just remember they’re grief chips so the calories don’t count, but also that they – like your feelings – are temporary and should not be a permanent daily helping of grief chips. May I recommend Doritos?

• don’t be afraid to tell someone you don’t have the emotional/mental energy to help them with something that may seem overwhelming to you because you’re grieving. We all have a set amount of energy and grief takes a lot of it out of us.

• it will get easier. It may always be there like a crack or a stain or rust but hey – people call that vintage and you’re popular with hipsters and gastropubs.

• you’re loved and not alone. Some people don’t know how to console a grieving person. It doesn’t mean they don’t care.

Reflections on Grief

It’s all utterly hopeless. All I could hear was breathing and if I listened harder I thought I could hear other people’s thoughts. My mind was looking for an escape route, because the images and scenes playing over inside of me left no room for thoughts. It was like my eyelids were stapled open and I was being forced to watch a terrible movie over and over again. I wanted to scream but I cried instead. But really, how many people can you cry to until you get sick of listening to yourself?
Eventually I realized that tears wouldn’t save someone who didn’t want saving, and obviously didn’t, and frankly I was sick of getting headaches. I felt like by this point I was digging around in my tear ducts for whatever they would give up, like I was addicted to the salted droplets streaming down my face. I exhausted my abilities and natural rights, even, to continue sitting in the dark and crying over someone who would never come back to me in physical form. I tried to see my friends and be social, but there were still so many days when I would sit in my cotton cave of blankets, perched in the corner where my bedpost met the wall, watching Netflix and hiding in the dark. I would lay under my down comforter and hold it like a baby’s safety blanket, thriving off of the warmth that it provided to the cold hollow self I had become over the course of those few months.

After the first month mark of my mom dying I called my social worker, Lisa. She told me to reach out to her immediately following everything but I couldn’t bring myself to extend my hands to anyone, considering I missed a week of school and had to get my academic life back on track before anything else. I was so incredibly distracted in what was going on that I forgot who Lisa was, I forgot that I spent the past few weekends moving out of the house I grew up in, and I forgot that my mother was gone. Then one random day, I picked up my cell phone, and I called Lisa.

How are you feeling?

Surprisingly, I’m feeling OK.

That’s impressive, but you know, it’s just beginning.

Yeah, I’ll be fine.

We spent almost an hour talking to each other and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized, moments after I hung up with Lisa, that I wasn’t fine. I became very reclusive over the next few days, and I began to sink into this dark pit within the pit of my apartment. Nothing sunk in, and the emotional gunshot wound I received was becoming tangible at last. I was assessing the damage of what happened to me over the past month and I realized that I wasn’t going to die, but it sure hurt like hell, and that made me wish I were just out of my misery.
You get a purple heart for injuries protecting others and sacrificing your body. But when the person you’re trying to protect doesn’t want help, and they hurt you emotionally, that just gives you a stone heart, weighing your chest down and pushing you back into bed when it’s time to get up. The stone heart makes you teeter and totter on the edge of your emotional stability. You shakily walk a tightrope, hoping you don’t slip and hit rock bottom. I kept my chin up and kept looking forward, disregarding the danger and blatant signs of depression around me. But, like walking a tight rope, there’s no telling what would put me over that edge… until it happens.

I was sitting in the back of my sociology class, minding my own business and clearly not taking notes like the professor advised. I wasn’t in the right mind that day, and I knew it. My rope was feeling a bit on the unstable side but I went to class anyway. My teacher put up the same drab PowerPoint slides except, today, it was about death and taking care of the last wishes of your family.

How many of you have lost a parent?

I was the only person who raised my hand. Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. Her eyes darted straight in my direction and with that a cue was given to every other of the twenty-eight or so students to look behind at me.

Anybody else? No? Alright, then.

The first thing I thought was how could this woman do that to me? Just earlier that week I was sitting in her office, telling her about the pains I was going through and discussing the work I was going to make up, and she takes such a bold poll question like that. I blamed her for making me raise my hand like that, and then I thought again to myself. A probing, horrible digging inside of me like the dirty fingernail of guilt forced me to begin blaming myself for all of the horrors that happened to my mother. There was no preparation for the death of her, like the professor said, however the death that she faced was so seemingly preventable. I began to cry silent tears down an unquivering face that went unnoticed by the room of people who were staring at me shortly before. I buried my face into my scarf while the slides clicked one after another, methodically reminding us of how to prepare for death when I was already beyond that point. She emphasized on comfort and insurance and not blaming ourselves. I couldn’t stand the thought of preparing for anything other than the unknown yet ever-impending torment and fears that would return to me regardless of how prepared I was for it.
I glared down at the chicken scratch notes on the poor-smelling paper and began to question everything. What was I even doing here at school? All of my friends were right, saying what they did when they saw me. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as I thought.

Oh my god it’s so good to see you back. I can’t believe you came back; I would’ve never come back.

The Affected

The hardest lesson I learned of grief was not how to grieve, rather, how to accept that everyone around me grieves differently. As relative as time, love, and happiness, grief is something only identifiable by name and felt to such varying degrees that it has no direct translation in my eyes. Grief means so much more than being sad, or depressed, or lost. Grief is a mindset, a state of being even, that takes over the affected individual for months and sometimes even years. After a certain period of time, when those affected feel like they have a grip on reality, and like they are able to turn over a new leaf – to rebuild – they are triggered. Sometimes the body catches it before the mind does. Sometimes, there is a cold tingle that starts at the top of the head and pushes down through the body and towards the toes and anchors the person into the floor where they cannot move and don’t know why. Their heart begins to race and their vision becomes erratic trying to identify where this thing is that must have caused such a knee-jerk reaction for them. What comes as a shock, though, is this trigger isn’t physical. It’s a smell, a sound, a feeling, or even a movement or passing memory that reminds the affected they are still vulnerable; there are still cracks that exist where the affected looked over, thinking it was safe, thinking they were fine, thinking that everything was copacetic because they were no longer crying for reasons unknown throughout their work week.

Grief came to me in the form of rage. Which is funny, I think, because rage (anger) is a side affect of grieving, and grief is defined as a “deep sorrow.” When you are grieving, though, your brain, your subconscious digs into that sorrow. It makes you question what sorrow is. It makes you reconsider all the things of your past that made you sad because what you’re feeling in a time of grief is a kaleidoscope of billowing colors and pulses that rip into your body, each wave a new feeling, destroying you and at the same time making you beautiful and human. Grief stripped me down to a vulnerable, raw core of a being where I lost recognition of myself each time I looked in the mirror. I lost sleep, I lost feeling, I regained too much feeling, and I lost more sleep. Ultimately, grief reached through me, and revealed to me the greater aspects of this life. It gave me a new-found perspective on emotions; it gave me a gauge of values deeper than the shallowness in which my glasses once only viewed.

Alternatively, grief can sometimes meet resistance of those unwilling to allow themselves to be recreated through tragedy.  I had to accept that members of my family and even friends needed to utilize their own form of self preservation. I had to accept that I could not save them anymore than my mother. Grief was an unconscious tough love I had no control over that forced me to look at myself, to focus on myself, and to understand that what was happening in my own world was necessary for me to be rebuilt. It was a sculptor to whom I relinquished all control. Through uncertainty, I emerged sure of myself. I became my own canvas, metaphysically reworked and renovated in order to ensure what I experienced would not destroy me completely for the rest of my life. Through grief, I became one of the affected.