*****Warning/Caution: Possible triggers…descriptions of death/dying, death of a child, and grief, from a personal perspective****
(From November 13th 2013)
Last night, I spoke with my older sister who lives in Hawaii.
Over the weekend – while K and I were at FPG – my sister’s boyfriend died.
I know that he had been ill and in the hospital a week or so before, but the last time that I’d spoken to her, he’d been getting better, she had said. Looking back on it, his illness seemed a weird respite from the appallingly stressful situation that their life together had become.
She had only begun to tell me the story.
She had been thinking of leaving him.
But now, she was telling me a different story.
She told me how he had left her on Thursday night, courtesy of several seemingly sudden multiple organ failures.
He was just 34 years old.
I don’t know, and there is a quality to that that seems surreal.
To think that two, perhaps three weeks ago, she was hiding in the bathroom of their apartment, sounding desperate, whispering hurriedly into the phone about how controlling he’d become, how abusive he was, his incredibly heartless and selfish he had been, and how hopeless her life had become.
She whispered and paused at intervals, because she feared talking about him as he was just on the other side of the wall, and she feared that he’d overhear her plans to leave him come January.
I noticed now, as she spoke of her grief at his death, that there wasn’t a catch in her voice. One would have thought that, when she begun to tell me the details of how he had died on Thursday night, that she was simply relating the plot of a suspenseful film. She was immersed in all of the smallest, most mundane details: what he had eaten on Wednesday, what he’d watched on TV, what he’d said just before he lay down less than 12 hours before his death.
Again, it was if she was reciting the details of an interesting television drama, but there was strange denial to her grief, I suppose, in the fact that she still spoke of him in the present tense, He does this….He says that…He is…
But then, then again, there is a catch in her voice there, there it is — when she tells me how she had been praying in that selfsame bathroom, whispered desperate prayers, asking God to help her get through this illness, this latest difficulty with him: What can I do? Help me, Oh Lord, please help me…Help me help him to get better…
And her voice cracks and finally breaks when she tells me how she had lain next to him on their couch at 9 PM on Thursday night, and woke up to realize that oddly enough, he had fallen asleep holding her hand, with his fingers interlaced with hers. Her hand, she explained, had been numb with pins and needles — and funny, how it had frustrated her – but hadn’t struck her as too unusual at the time — that it had taken her several minutes to pry her fingers from his grip.
She began to cry then, explaining how strange it was that his body had been warm, but she couldn’t awaken him.
And then, she broke down in uncontrollable sobs as she described, haltingly, when she realized that she had mistaken the relentless thudding of her own heartbeat for his, and that’s why she called 911:
I looked and looked for his pulse and I listened for his heart, but then I got scared — I couldn’t hear it because mine was so loud….I couldn’t hear it!
I devoutly wished that I could’ve comforted her somehow, listening to her sobs over the roar of blood in my own ears, trying to quiet my own heart as it hammered in my chest, as my brain chattered you cannot fathom, you cannot fathom that grief, and hating myself for that, for being so useless to her as she sobbed….
And then, almost as suddenly as she had begun to cry, she abruptly turned the discussion over to other topics, and she began a disjointed rapid-fire chatter about her memories of our father, complaints about our mother….
Then, she asked after the details of my camping weekend.
It was so surreal to find ourselves laughing, twenty minutes away from Death Who had just been standing so close to us.
My sister admits to feeling guilty, feeling scattered, desperate to fill up the spaces in the conversation.
She asks about my failing marriage.
We talk about it as if it is a difficult math problem that we could easily solve together if we follow some sort of prescribed set of steps, and she returns to discussing her boyfriend in the present tense: Oh he does that, too, she commiserates. That sounds like something he says.
I don’t correct her. I can’t bring myself to, but my heart breaks a little listening to her ragged, uneven breathing, and her voice cracking in odd places.
We are drowning, she drawls, suddenly suppressing a laugh, Our lives have both gone to hell.
So we talk of our kids.
She tells me about her plans for Thanksgiving, but things quickly devolve into reminiscence again — this week, last year, some Thanksgiving from years ago…and then, some particular difficulties of our shared childhood.
Again, Death returns, and clears Her throat, and my older sister and I are suddenly talking about the inexplicable death of our baby sister, when she was five, and I was three, on a horribly confusing day in August 1974.
We compare our strange, sharp memories of the weight of silence punctuated by sirens, or the useless distraction of the popsicles that we didn’t want to eat that melted down our shirts, and how no one thought to wipe our faces at all that day, because…because Death was sitting at our front porch, surrounded by flashing lights…and our mother was making a strangling keening wail unlike anything that we’d ever heard back then or since….
We agree on the fact that such grief as that can surely drive anyone insane
That is the sort of grief that certainly drove our mother insane, and maybe, she’d never recovered in some way.
Remember how it was, for the longest time after that, when she seemed out of touch with anything going on around her, but how she would shudder and stare off into fixed point just beyond our faces if we spoke to her?
These are the sorts of things we are talking about, the smallest details of that particular Thanksgiving, that haunted Christmas.
I miss him, but thank God it’s nowhere near a grief like that, my sister blurts out suddenly.
Nothing is unimportant, and yet everything seems profound as we talk, before the conversation wheels about again, turning to the mundane, the easy, the surface details of the present day:
Today is a school day, I say. It is 4 AM here.
I look up and realize that we have been on the telephone for 9 hours.
This is how we get through.