Sunday, May 19, 2019

Here's How It Could Have Gone: Sudden Death Edition.

Rewind three and a half months.  6:30 pm, February 3rd.

"Hey, Leah, I feel really bad, weird.  Anxious and sweaty and nauseous.  Oh and my shoulders hurt and my face is numb.  I think I'm having an anxiety attack."

"You are, sweetheart.  Because those are all the symptoms of an anxiety attack.  Anxiety attacks are the name of the game for our family.  It's only ever an anxiety attack.  I mean I know that's really my wheelhouse, and you don't really get anxiety attacks, but of course that's what it is.  Lie down and I'll rub your back and don't worry, I'll stay with you."
*has anxiety attack that's really a massive heart attack for 20 minutes while I soothe him and rub his back.  Stands up for a glass of water.  Falls down, unable to speak.  Reaches out wordlessly and sightlessly.  His nose bleeds. I call 911 screaming and can hardly even remember the address for what feels like ages.  He dies on the floor before the EMTs can get to him.  They try anyway.  But it doesn't help.  Dead is dead. The End.

"Those are all the classic symptoms of a heart attack darling [as anyone would realize], so lie down very still and we'll get help quick--"

"911, what is your emergency?"

"My husband is NYPD, he's having a heart attack and we need help very quickly.  Thank you.  Here's the exact address, the door will be propped open for you.  I'm calmly helping him in all the right ways.  But please do hurry."

Ambulance arrives just before he would have collapsed.  They do magical twinkly things and then he has an emergency quadruple bypass and survives.  The End.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Two Beds

Midnight, I'm lying in the soft bed, the dog curled into my side.  She's already asleep, comfy and unworried.  I'm lying in the soft bed, in the dark, barefoot and thinking of you in the dark in the cold graveyard, you in your coffin deep underground under the earth, in your suit and shoes.  Spring comes late to the Adirondacks where you are now.  Midnights in the graveyard are cold.

In all my imaginings of the way things might turn out for us, never did I ever think there would come a midnight in spring like this, I in the bed alone and you alone in the grave.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Last Touch

I'm not scared of a dead body.  I know now that no harm can come to me from sitting with a beloved corpse, or holding its hand, or kissing its lips and forehead or stroking its hair.  No harm from a last teasing tweak of familiar dead toes with hobbit hair and funny familiar toenails carelessly trimmed.  No harm in laying a warm hand on a still-warm furry cozy bare tummy that won't ever again be pressed to my bare tummy.

You grew cold, fast.  Then colder still and stiffer and then there was the autopsy and the death mask makeup and soon there was no truly human landmark on your body, by which to find my way, and still no harm came to me in the last moments with you, the last moments I would ever experience in the presence of corporeal you.  I stood with the funeral director at the very end of the longest week I've ever known to date, it was finally quiet, just the three of us, and he told me he would put the ring on your finger, before he closed the casket.  I told him I wanted to do it myself, I wasn't scared, and he said "okay."  I carefully unbent your dead ring finger and carefully worked the sterling ring, the one I made just for dead you, over the dead knuckle and then I placed your dead hand nicely back where it had been, and ran my fingers through your hair to mess it up a little, to make sure you looked a little more like you, in preparation for the journey you'll make alone, the return journey of your body to the earth.  The last touch was only ours and ours alone, because touching the living you who touched me back and the dead you who couldn't, that was all part of our story.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


I heard the autopsy results today, over the phone.

Three hours before you died, I made us sandwiches, not knowing, of course, the importance of the moment.  Your favorite thin-sliced smoked ham from Lassen.  Swiss cheese.  Really good tomatoes, and lettuce, and Dijon mustard, the seed kind.  I'd been making you sandwiches for long decades.  I wanted to take care of you, and I began to learn the things you liked to eat, the very first month we were together.  In those days, it was white American cheese from the deli in the Swarthmore supermarket.  Tomatoes.  Miracle Whip.  On white bread.

28 years after those first romantic sandwiches, you died and they cut you open and took out your guts to look at, along with everything else.  I guess the medical examiner held all the parts of you in his hands, probably not thinking, while he did so, that the whole history of a marriage passed through that stomach.  Birthday cakes, special meals we ate in Paris, the endless cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, street food, and salads with Michel's lemon dressing.  12-year-old scotch, the homemade hummus with too much raw garlic that you gamely ate anyway.  Pancakes with B-grade maple syrup because you heard it was better tasting than A-grade (and it was).  Raw broccoli (how could you have liked that?? But you did!).  Perrine's fideos with beans.  Ethiopian food, remember how one time I gave you my precious share of the bottom layer of injera, that had soaked up the juices of the meal? That was love! (also, I was full!).  And the cheerios that baby Ella fed you.  Hot hot sauce on our eggs. The week of unimaginative vegan meals, on a whim.  Army delicacies that I recreated in our kitchen, not quite the same, but tasty nostalgia, so you assured me.

The very last thing you ate in your whole life was a little square of dark chocolate.  You stood at the counter, totally alive, and when I offered it to you, you opened your mouth wide like a big funny baby bird, and I placed it on your tongue, and for some reason, we laughed.

I read that at the completion of the autopsy, the medical examiner places all the organs in a bag, and tucks the bag back in the body's thoracic cavity.  I think today especially of your stomach, tossed in that bag.  I think how all eating is done for you now.  I think how important was that last sandwich in the history of us.  I think, chocolate was the last thing he tasted.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Focus on the Good

Focus on the good, focus on the were not good for me, very often oftener than not, not good to me.  That's the fucking truth.  After this nightmare month passed, right at the end of it,  I thought I'd found some footing.  Equilibrium that I hadn't known in 28 years.  I started to remember what it was really like with you.  How wrecked and bloodied and battered I was, long before you died.  I started to think: I could finally have a life free from fear! My being was crowded, in the immediate afterwards, with the glory of your infrequent smile and the warm good smell of you, the sex, the jokes, the way you were my best friend forever...a strange set of only-half-truths my mind told me, because I was mourning my husband and that's the way it's supposed to go.  Focus on the good.

Focus on the good.  Focus on the good.  Focus on the good, even if the good kills you soul-dead in its memory.  The good I wished for.  The good I clung to like a weak infant.  You were the cloth mother, and I was trained to believe in a kindness of living flesh inside the soft rags suffused with that wonderful smell of Husband.  Focus on the good! Focus on the good! Focus on the good! Focus on the life! Focus on the beautiful memories! Good times! Compassion! Heroism! He loved you he loved you he loved you! Oh yes yes!

I'm curled up in the loneliness of 28 years of all alone, mourning the cloth mother and the Everything-I-Ever-Wished-I-Had.

Thursday, February 28, 2019


In the little Town of Mayberry, Brooklyn Heights, I have some dear old friends, many "hey how about this crazy weather, it's the warmin'" first-name-basis longtime acquaintances (who know little about the actual me), and in between these two, a number of what I think of as Street Chat Relationships.  These are the kind of weird ones where we know a lot about each other, always stop to talk, and the talks can get rather lengthy and even meaningful, within the limited scope of setting.

I have a particularly congenial Street Chat Relationship with the lovely mother of a boy in Ella's class, who lives across the street from me.  Over the last decade, we've had many (at times daily) exchanges: about our children (she really spilled the tea on her son throughout his early adolescence! That poor boy, his frailties laid bare for me, sotto voce!), our families (oy vey, our families!), our Judaism, tips on planning our kids' b'nai mitzvot festivities.  We laughed about our dogs' misbehaviors, lamented the shortcomings of the school math curriculum, shared stories of growing up in Brooklyn.

I ran into her walking her dog, the very day after I'd helplessly watched Alex die so suddenly, right in front of me.  I was still in shock, literal body-brain shock.  I was inside-out and quite crazy with the feelings that come before the grief sets in.  The email had already gone out to the high school with the news, and she approached me and asked how I was.  I'm sure she was immediately sorry she'd asked such an open-ended question, because I proceeded to tell her how I was, or rather, how it was.  I dimly remember telling her in a weird possibly smiling conversational tone, "oh it was terrible, he dropped dead just dropped dead, I mean literally fell down and died, right there right in front of me, one minute hanging out happily, the next minute on the floor dying, then the minute after that, dead!" I saw her sympathy smile freeze, and I knew I should stop talking.  I had reached out and grabbed her hand from the other side of the veil, and with my own clammy undead widow's hand, tried to pull her down into the intimate corruption of the grave.

I imagine myself now as a sort of ghoul in a human suit, walking the streets of my neighborhood.  The reek of body horror and fear and death is on me and in me.

I saw her this morning, halfway down the block, her golden lab in tow.  She raised her hand in greeting, then turned away, then walked away, then broke into a little trot, and disappeared fast around the corner.

Friday, February 22, 2019

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Alex never really wanted to get married; he didn't see the point, and probably also had a lot of reservations about me (who could blame him).  I had to convince him.  We'd been together five years.  I brought it up a lot, strategically and then directly.  He kept saying no, it wasn't the right time, and then quoting Joni Mitchell: "we don't need a piece of paper from the city hall..."

I really wanted to get married to him.  Eventually I wore him down, and we got a set of 14k gold wedding rings at Macy's (on sale for $35 dollars for my slender band and $65 for his manly version), and we got married by a judge in chambers at the Supreme Courthouse at the foot of Montague Street.

I was never sure what he really felt about me.  Not really.  Well, sometimes I was certain he hated me.  Sometimes I thought I was his.  Mostly I was just unsure.  Maybe in the very very beginning, when I was young and his eyes twinkled at me like Pa's eyes twinkled at Laura, I knew.  But he held me at arm's length and I was never certain where I stood.  Not for 28 years.

I would have crossed the frozen wastes of the Steppe, on foot, for just one sure sign of his love.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

PhD in Grief: a Slightly Tortured Metaphor

In my family we always joke about levels of driving skill.  Toodling along an empty country road upstate at midday on a sunny day is at most high school junior level driving.  At very most.  The FDR in heavy but fast-moving traffic on a rainy night is Masters-level.  Driving the unplowed back roads of the Adirondacks, in the dark, during a post-blizzard ice storm, on the way from your husband's burial, is PhD-level driving.  Though as you attempt the merges on and off unplowed highways under such conditions, possibly you reach your Driving Post-Doc.

Though I never made it past a hanging state of ABD with my actual doctoral work, I find myself now struggling to completion in a field of study I didn't choose, don't enjoy, but am resolved to see through to graduation (on an undisclosed far-off date, in an imagined auditorium somewhere).  I really hate the coursework.  It's all over the place, from the philosophical to the practical; some might call it interdisciplinary.  And it has no real specialization, but never mind.  A sampling from the course roster:

Staring Down the Void: Readings in Existential Abandonment  (independent study)
How to Cook a Nourishing Dinner for Your Child While Shaking and Tear-Blind (practicum)
Civil Service Bureaucracy: An Overview (prerequisite survey course)
Civil Service Bureaucracy II: Intricate Forms
Civil Service Bureaucracy III: Phone System Navigation
Advanced Civil Service Bureaucracy: Magical Realism and Lateral Thinking
Blurring: Uses and Abuses of Psychopharmacology

This really is some advanced-level grief.  I've watched people die before.  I've had losses.  Deaths of loved ones, numerous.  I sat vigil with the body of my father, and held his dead hand.  But I never imagined what a piker I really was, til now.

Monday, February 18, 2019

God Never Said It Would Be Easy

I'm up very early.  Brooding over God, and all the collective hurts of my marriage and his death and now the last two weeks.  It's built up big time.  People saying awful shit.  The ex-girlfriends popping out of the wainscoting to offer to send me baby photos his mother gave them, and to tread heavily on my grief.  Throwaway comments meant to help but actually are little knife jabs and twists that keep me in a state of bristling self-protection.

During the worst times of my marriage (and people have said to me, "all marriages have their rough spots," a platitude that reeks of 1950s received wisdom), I remember this out of body thing that used to happen to me.  I could see my hurt face.  Not the rest of me, just my face.  I could see the preternaturally gigantic fairytale tears quivering and spilling over.  I could see the surprise in my eyes (how could this be happening?). But any anger was pushed deep down into a hidden trunk way back in a hidden room behind another hidden room in a hidden mansion on a hidden street in a hidden neighborhood where The Worst Things live.  It lives there still, but its wispy dark tendrils are beginning to sneak out.

I said to some cop friend of his, last week, "I was a good wife!" like I was arguing with doubters, which I was.  There are many doubters, including me.  "I liked to take care of him and cook nice things and even pair the socks and make sure there were always clean clothes and a cozy home and cozy love."  To which the cop replied, with a little bitterness, "other wives could take a lesson from you!"  I had many startled and conflicting replies, but for once in my overly-confessional big-mouthed life, I kept silent.

God never said it would be easy

I hear this in my head in a rumbling voice: "I NEVER SAID IT WOULD BE EASY," and it has been going round and round my brain in an unpleasant and uncomfortable spin cycle of suds and filth commingling, the psychodynamic washer of my injured soul.  God never said it would be easy! 

If we're in that kind of a casual, chatty convo with God, I'd say back, "Oh Great Lord of the Bait-&-Switch, are you retroactively applying plausible deniability to the shitstorm of my life?" And then I'd  imagine this chat further, with God saying, "I'm God, child! The Great Watch-maker! I never said anything one way or another! Where did I ever say that? Where do you think I told you it wouldn't be easy? The Bibles ? You are one of my faithful, and even you know those books were written by human beings.  Some very fine writing, yes.  The best of all human writing.  Some magnificent poetry, erotica, prayer, history, some gorgeously imagined psychotic ramblings of prophets.  But the actual Me-God? No.  I'm off the hook for ex-post-facto denials and helpful warnings and also for all misery, suffering, grief, concentration camps, child abuse, and even failed crops."

And I'd reply, "but God, I never blamed you for my suffering.  I blamed people and I blamed myself.  Now though, I'm suddenly wondering:  should I blame you? If you are saying 'I never said it would be easy,' then you're a dismissive jerk.  If you didn't say 'this shit is gonna be awful, don't say you weren't warned,' WHY NOT? Why didn't you warn me? WHY DIDN'T YOU WARN ME.  I went blindly hopefully toward life and love.  Like a fool."

I think God is mulling over His response.  I hope He gets back to me soon.  I'm waiting.

Sunday, February 17, 2019


I talk about my Judaism a lot, but I don't often talk with people about my strong and abiding faith, that is to say, my belief in God.  But I was talking this morning with a friend whose belief in God is also deep and abiding, and I felt a little relief.  Talking directly and specifically about my relationship with God, out loud.  Just a little.  I'm posting a fragment of my side of the conversation just so I won't forget:

"The Rabbinic chaplain of the NYPD (an amazing old man, full of what we call "kavanah") came to the wake and held a small service for us.  He chanted the El Malei Rachamim and said Kaddish, and gave a homily.  The ancient words really do give so much comfort to me.  I had felt at sea in traditions that were not mine, as I tried my best to do the right thing for Alex, in the hour of his death.  But I felt so alienated.  The Rabbi helped anchor me so I could continue on, a little strengthened.

I don't know.  My thoughts are all over the place.  I know I need some grief support, especially to help me work through my agony over the moments of death, I mean the details of the sudden horrible dying and my fears and deep guilt and regret over having failed him.  But I also need God.  I'm working my way to Him, I'm almost afraid of Him, I don't want to be rejected and I've never before asked for succor in a situation like this.  I tiptoe up to Him and whisper something, then I run away again, shy and worried.  Do you know what I mean? It's such a strange feeling, to feel shy and frightened of God, but at the same time to need Him as much as I do."

Just a fragment.  That's all for now.