Our Last Visit

The last time I lay there with your head on my chest

as it turned into a heavy, red brick

I felt it sink into me and seal itself next to my heart.

It will live

inside me,

be part of me for thousands of years.

Unless I implode.

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.

Painting

You saw our love in black and white

and I saw you in every color.

I saw darkness behind your eyes

and I saw hope in your smile –

I saw tenderness in the way you held me at night

and I believed you every time you said

I Love You.

It’s bittersweet, isn’t it?

To know you have been a stranger

but a stranger I know I loved

and will never stop loving

because I saw you in every color

and you were a damn beautiful painting.

A Dialogue Between Death and Karma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tired of Normal

Often I tire

  of too bright

a Sun

       A constant loudness

        she sings

 Soprano

to me

  weary concert ending.

I tire of pangs of others

      drum beat problems

beats same

      problems

        same

   beats.

I tire often but

  not of you

      Serendipitous breath

    in and out blindly

   lovely

breathing

         living I do not

tire of

Living of

    you.

Futility

Like building our homes

at the edge of the sea,

we put our hearts

in the hands of lovers.

Being as close as we can be

to the most beautiful thing –

the sun, the spray,

the dancing blue.

We gaze far, far –

ignoring the etching of land at our feet.

We know it can destroy us

at any time.

And often hope we die before it does.

Is it? It is.

Isn’t it funny

to cross dreamscapes, see

old faces but feel

new feelings

pits and shadows

past warnings – telling you so –

Told you so.

And isn’t it funny to see new faces

and feel old feelings

that were hiding under toe –

Under grief  –

Under eye lids –

and feel new touches

and feel home all the same

Reminders.

I vividly remember standing beside my mother in the kitchen, May of 2011, watching her cry for the first time in three years. Hopeless, helpless, I studied her eye, and saw someone I was unfamiliar with.

She sucked in a couple of quick breaths to stop the tears, exhaled, and looked firmly at the kitchen table. She shrugged, “I’m better off just killing myself.”

In weeks leading up to that comment, her sleep habits became erratic. Days were spent in bed, with drawn blinds and the stale smell of alcohol and depression hanging limp in the darkness. A once-reputable and successful real estate broker, she no longer had the drive to work for others – no less herself – and remained indoors, clad in a bathrobe painted with coffee stains and cigarette smoke. From time to time, she dragged a brush through her wiry hair – once regularly dyed, now predominantly gray. It wasn’t her appearance that I no longer recognized, however – it was the desperation and loss in her voice. In her, I saw an avalanche – every problem compounding and escalating into a rapid-moving descent, wiping out anything and everything in its path. I feared it was only a matter of time before this chaotic downslide reached me.

“If you’re serious about that, I’ll call out of the rest of my shift.” I desperately tried to maintain eye contact with her while she looked down at a smoldering ashtray. “I’m serious. We can go somewhere together and no one has to know.”

A long pause followed, where she resolved to pick up her cigarette and take a long drag. Her eyelids lowered and her stare became indifferent. She exhaled a solemn, smoky breath and looked at me coolly, “I’m not going to kill myself.”

For years, I replayed that afternoon in my head, and carried blame for not tossing her into a car and dragging her off to rehab.

By mid-September, I saw my mother become even less recognizable. She was unable to hide from her addiction behind denial and proclamations as she lay dying in the hospital bed before me. I left college after my first week of senior year to visit her in Intensive Care, making trips back for class, with the intention of coming home on weekends. On my first visit to the hospital, her eyes met mine. They were yellowed like egg yolks, and appeared bulging from the gauntness of her face; the doctors informed us that, although very bloated, she weighed about 80 pounds. It shocked me how drastic her appearance had been altered from the kitchen in May, and from the kitchen in August when I said my goodbyes and promised to be home for her birthday in October.

She resisted any form of greeting as I choked back tears in front of her.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I really didn’t expect anything more. She was sick, and dying, and while her body gradually shut down, her aggressive tough-love attitude shined through with biting confrontation from the moment I walked through the door.

For days, I watched my mother lose her lucidity. Her head would bobble and she was wheeled in and out of the ICU for tests and to have the lymphatic fluid drained from her body. When we sat in the hospital room together, she would begin to speak normally, and the sentences would fade as her eyes fixated on a point on the wall, and I would lose her for a few moments as she drifted into silence. From time to time, she would grab my hand and say something like, “I’m proud of you,” or, “You have to be strong.” I would cry and tell her “thank you” or, “I will be,” but part of me didn’t know whether or not to believe what she was saying was sincere or not. Part of me was mad at her for not listening, for not looking at me and thinking I was reason enough to continue living. My arms were extended for years to her and she shrugged me off, stubbornly objecting to my advances and telling me, “You’re not the parent.”

I hurried home one Thursday when my father called to tell me they had to administer an oxygen mask and a feeding tube in her nose. Taking the ferry to Long Island was like wading through sludge, as I rushed to beat the deadline for visiting hours. I arrived at the hospital around 8PM to see her in the dark, wires and tubes all over, her arms covered in bruises and her hair matted around her face like a sickening halo. My family was scattered to their respective corners, all crying or cried-out. I approached her and she grabbed my hand.

“Your hair looks nice.” Labored breaths pushed compliments from her and I couldn’t muster enough to say anything back. She babbled incoherent requests to go home and to have her dog in the hospital, and a nurse finally entered the room and told us it would be best if we left. I kissed her forehead.

“Please stay with me tonight… just in case.”

The last words my mother heard from me were, “I’m sorry. I can’t.” I turned and left the hospital, breaking down in my car, unable to accept that this was actually happening. My head continued to turn over how she could do this to herself, how I wasn’t enough, and how I hadn’t known she was so sad for so long.

Sometime in the night, she slipped into a coma, and was given 12 hours to live. Through her own stubbornness, my mother lasted four days. The morning she died, as I lay next to her in the hospital bed, I was woken up by a phone call from my childhood best friend. She asked how I was, and then about my mother. As I rolled over in the bed next to her to confirm her status, she took her last two breaths.

“I have to call you back.”

I half-anticipated angels, a bright light – something. The room, however, was silent except for my own breathing and the hiss of her oxygen mask; the bright light was substituted by a blinding row of fluorescent bulbs. I stared down over her stillness, completely devoid of thought. How, I thought, how was it capable of getting this bad? I began to replay the past week, month, six months, years in my head. All of those moments, and the last thing I said to her was “I can’t.” I couldn’t stay with her, I couldn’t save her, and I couldn’t take that back.

I was haunted by a lingering guilt for months to follow. The helplessness that a child would experience now found its way back into the forefront of my adult mind. I was matured by trauma, and crippled by a feeling of weakness. School no longer seemed to matter, yet I continued on day after day, determined to get my degree if for no other reason than a fear of my mother haunting me. I was driven by the routine and familiarity of faces I could count on passing me by in the halls. There was no longer a taste for life, not when I didn’t have my mother to reassure me that I was doing the right thing.

We never had that “final talk.” She wasn’t lucid enough to reflect on her last moments and the futility of it all; there was no remembrance back to the younger years, or where I should take my next steps in life. It felt like it wasn’t enough. She was stolen at her own hand, and I had to learn how to deal with it. I tried to cope with therapists, exercise, writing, and that hole remained. None of the guidance, recommendations, sweat or tears would make my mother’s voice appear before me. There would never be a final talk, and I was unable to accept that she left without me knowing she was proud of me, or that I did all I could to save her. All she knew was that I couldn’t stay, and I knew she couldn’t stay either.

Eventually, I got to a point where I realized I had to learn to be proud of myself, and gave up on searching for her acceptance. I would have to learn to live for a self that I wasn’t entirely sure I knew. It seemed almost impossible to go about my days without my mother’s voice, without the conversations about my life, without her reassurance – without my guide. I went about my school year, hole in my heart, fishing through student emails about graduation, online classes, and assignments due. Then, in the middle of it all, I saw a familiar address – my mother’s.

I opened the email, and read through a mundane description of family business. She told me about my father and work, my grandpa, my brother, and my dog. It comforted me to read it in her voice as I scrolled down towards the end. It was there, in the last lines, where I received the answer I had spent the past year searching for.

“I’m very proud of you. You’re like your grandmothers. You are eager and exceptionally bright… but most importantly, you are sensitive to others but don’t take sh…”

There was the outspoken, hard-loving reassurance I craved for so long. It was eternal in emails, and letters I found later in my storage unit, old voicemails, and cards. She was always proud of me. And those last moments of her life, although the freshest, hardest memories, held no candle to 20 years I lived with my mother’s love.

Meeting Death

It’s weird to think that I met Death

Not for myself, always in passing.

He is quiet and humble

And collects final breaths

Of people who he’s ready for

It doesn’t matter if they’re ready

For him.

When it’s my turn to die

I look forward to the encounter

Not the end of my life

But the reunion with the last being

Besides me

To hold my mother’s hand