Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Questions






Alex, we have so much to discuss.  A lot has happened since you left me.  There are the things I need to catch you up on: Haverford was the choice! How funny is that! And Itsy’s death, her final meal of a Starbucks breakfast sandwich, I let her eat the whole thing and still she yowled and shouted for more.

And I want to know about you: did Itsy come and meet you? And were you glad to see her, and did you laugh when you spotted her lumpy little body trundling your way? Are there pee pads there, or is incontinence an inconvenience of our Earthly Life only?

Did you meet your dad? Did you celebrate your birthday? Do you wear your body, or are you something else now?

Can you see me from where you are? Are you still mad at me, or are you proud at all of the way I’ve handled the hard things?

Did you think the wake and funeral were okay? Were you embarrassed by the open casket, and how everyone looked at you, or looked away?

Do you know how much you are on my mind?

Also, Alex, what the hell is your iPhone passcode.  Tell me! Or do I, perhaps, not want it? You can tell me that, too.  And tell me more about all these people I’ve met for the first time, who were such a big part of your life.  Did you like him? He checks in on me, I think he assigned himself that role.  Is he the right person for the job? Did you think that other guy, I bet you know immediately who I mean, was a creepy freak the way I do, or is there some back story to him, that you could fill me in on? I’ve speculated a lot, and I have my suspicions, could you corroborate?


Oh and most important: are you really dead, or was it an elaborate fake, are you working under deep cover somewhere, and will a black SUV with tinted windows pull up beside me on an evening in early spring a year or two from now, will you jump out and give me an awkward half wave, smile sheepishly, apologize a hundred times for all the pain, hug me and tell me you’re alright, just working and they needed you more than I did, and it was the right time.  Because I think that might be a possibility, too.

But if I do ask, and you tell me you’re dead, I’ll believe you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Imprint of the Barrel




It’s getting better in some ways, and much worse in others.  I have weeks of light, of hope and happiness, and then a week of relentless frightening grief, so strong I’m sobbing every day, alone and for hours until I’m dehydrated and sick.  I live with his books on the shelf; his army jacket in the closet; the stacks of 1/72 scale Thunderbolts, Corsairs, Hellcats, and Spitfires that he never got a chance to put together and paint, in his exacting way.  I don’t even see those things anymore.  But occasionally I’ll stumble on something that pulls me down fast into the bog of grief.  Today it was his leather holster, the one he’d used for 20 years to keep his personal handgun on his belt.  He was never without that gun.  They came and took the gun away, the night he died (I’m not licensed and also they move lightning-fast so the widow won’t have an easy way to commit suicide, in her confusion and despair, is what I believe), but they left me with this.  The deep imprint of the barrel, the memory of a gun so clear it’s hardly a memory at all but a feeling as real and immediate as bullets.  I loved him so much, his guns and books and models and Marlboros and how he knew everything about me from the first night we spent together, almost like he was a supernatural creature, a witch, a demon, or a god.  I was so scared of him.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Always



At the end of miles and miles of winding country roads, past farms both sprawling and humble, tall corn and bulky cows rumbling and ruminating in their fields, past the plenties of rich red sumac and sunny goldenrod, past the darkest wines and palest pinks of hydrangea, through brief breezestorms and eddies of the first falling leaves, that catch light as they swirl and scatter in front of me, past all this is Alex in his last place, in the lovely business of his new season: rest, and calm, solace and reward, a return to earth and all its light, color, movement overflowing.

His small grave stands in a military row, at ease between two very old servicemen, Frank and Winston, who died around the time he did, and I like to think that maybe he had a chance to meet them on his way; he always did like to talk with old soldiers.

He’s gone from what we call life.  But no one told me that if you lean your cheek lightly against the face of a gravestone that’s been sunning itself in a field on a clear afternoon in late summer, the marble is warm as living flesh.  And if you lean in and touch cheek to grave, and close your eyes and breathe quietly, it’s exactly the sensation of leaning on the smooth bare sun-warmed shoulder of a man you loved.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Living Things





The ivy is growing back, on the wall across from Alex’s spot, the kitchen window where he sat often and for hours, playing guitar or reading Terry Pratchett, or just watching the birds at their birdy business in the soft green.  In 2007, the building owner put hired men to work cutting that ivy away, we never knew quite why.  We watched as it came down in huge veils, to land in, and then smother, our little yard.  I cried and cried from the loss; there was nothing left but a terrible bare city wall.  Alex promised me that one day it would come back, because ivy on stone always does.  It grows again, climbing slowly and steadily over the years, until one day it’s as if it had always been there.

Yesterday I brought my girl to college.  I helped her pack her beautiful clothes, carefully, in boxes.  I made sure she has an electric kettle for hot chocolate on cold rainy days, when I’m not there to make it for her (“you make the best hot chocolate, mama!” even though it always came from packets).  We loaded the car without a fight, no tears or recriminations, no stubbed toes, no hassles, it all fit perfectly.  We drove two hours, we didn’t get lost.  We joked, we laughed.  It was time.

I can usually find the words to tell a story.  I can usually find its center, and its movement and meaning.  The metaphor and the narrative.  Today, it’s just these facts: He’s gone.  She’s gone.  The ivy grew back.  Here I am.

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

Autopsy

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 good...you 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

Ghoul

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.