Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Ways of Grief

This Saturday at 3:00 PM I got a phone call and the news that one of my best girls, one of the members of the Pink Torpedoes, lost her father. After the call, I sat staring out my bedroom window, down onto my front lawn. It had been raining all day, and the golden Maine leaves--leaves more fiery than any I've ever seen--were stark against the wet grass, the wet sidewalk, the wet pavement. Mist was rising from the ground, and the whole world was awash in blue.

Everything felt wrong, so I got up off the bed and started throwing things into a suitcase. I packed too many brown shoes and no black ones. I packed wrinkled sweaters and mismatching underwear. I packed a toothbrush. And then I drove. I drove the nine hours through misting-raining-pouring Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York.

While I drove farther and farther into the night I had to keep myself awake, which meant I had to keep myself interested, involved, perked up. I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about my brother's eventual wedding--which is strange and weird and wrong--and, before I knew it, I'd moved through an entire state and written a speech I want to give at my brother's wedding--a speech that ends with Bad English's "When I See You Smile" swelling in the background. I amazed myself with how sweet and sentimental I was able to be on the Thruway at midnight, but, really, it shouldn't have been such a surprise. I was delaying the inevitable. I was trying not to think about why I was driving home, what it meant, what was going on, and what it reminded me of.

It reminded me of my grandmother's death.

I haven't really talked about my grandmother's death before. She died the month after I moved to Minnesota for graduate school, and her death was a surprise but not a surprise. In those sickeningly hot summer months before my move my grandmother's body slowly started giving out. There was something wrong, and nobody really knew what it was. She was tired all the time, and she often complained of her bones aching. It was a deep ache, she said, one that she could feel in the deepest parts of her. The ache was dull and moist and constant. She thought maybe this is what it was to grow old, that she would never feel right again. But it wasn't growing old, and it wasn't just the way things were going to be from then on. It was cancer, her second time. This time it was cancer in her bones, deep down, all the way down. Her first time had been closer to the surface and had taken one of her breasts. As a little girl, I was confused why my grandmother's lingerie drawer was filled with bras that were generously padded on one side and not the other. But at twenty-one, I was no longer confused about cancer and what it meant. This time I was angry.

When I'm angry and hurt, I don't do so well. I cut myself off. I shut myself down. I become a verifiable brick of a girl. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. I am stone. I am red, red stone, glowing with the heat of my rage.

I didn't handle my grandmother's illness well, and since then I haven't been able to deal with similar things in any way that even remotely resembles "good." What I did was this: I went through the motions. I drove to the Roswell Cancer Institute in downtown Buffalo once a week, and I sat at my grandmother's bedside. I brought her books and stories I'd written. I prattled on about the newest TV shows, what she was missing. I picked up the tiny pencil the hospital gave out--the type handed out at golf outings--and helped her choose what she wanted to eat for the rest of the week. I asked questions like, Do you want the banana cake on Wednesday, Grandma? How about the pork cutlet for Thursday's dinner? Doesn't that sound good?

Never once did I say anything important. I didn't say, This is unfair. I didn't say, You can't go. I didn't say, Please don't leave me. I didn't say, I haven't been very nice lately, and I'm sorry.

I never told my grandmother I was sorry. And I had many, many, many things to be sorry for. These were not good times for my family. We'd recently had what I refer to as The Worst Christmas Ever, after which I adopted the general strategy of ignoring my grandparents' house and thus my grandfather who was, at that time, not a very nice man. Because I was ignoring the place where he lived, I was also ignoring my grandmother, and grandma wasn't happy about this. She kept sending letters begging me to forgive, to forget, to come home, to come see them, to spend some time in her kitchen like I usually did--just sitting at the table, hanging my feet over the edge of the chair and painting my toenails. She wanted to make me a sandwich. She wanted to mix me a cup of Loganberry. She wanted to pick through my nail polish container and comment on all the strange colors--purple, silver, orange, green--but then stroke one of them onto her own toes so she could wiggle those brazen toes in the direction of her friends, tell them it had been her granddaughter's suggestion.

But I didn't do that. I went on being angry and punishing everyone because of it. I hadn't spoken to my grandfather in months and months by the time my grandmother landed in the hospital, which made things uncomfortable when I came for visits. My mood was not improved when I sat slumped in a chair in the corner of the room, watching my grandfather treat my grandmother like she was a princess, a queen, every kind of royalty that ever lived. I thought it was terrible of him to go on like that--to pretend he was something he so clearly was not. For twenty-one years, I'd watched him berate her in public, tell her she was stupid and useless, tell her no, no, no, you won't go here, do that, leave me in this house without dinner on the table. He yelled while she was making food, while she was driving, while she was shopping, while she was telling stories.

After my grandmother died, my mother told me grandma had wanted to leave him years ago, but those things weren't done back then, and she'd stayed for the kids and because that's just what you did. Always. I couldn't stop thinking about that. I couldn't stop wondering what it must have been like for my grandmother to stay with a man who, just for kicks, just because it was fun to watch, made his children move the wood pile from one side of the driveway to the next several times a season, all while he sat inside with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and the newspaper in the other, all the while telling his wife the mashed potatoes better not be lumpy like they were the last time. I don't blame my grandfather completely for the man he was--after all, he was raised by a woman who, once when my mother was very little, brought her down to the creek bed with a pillowcase full of squirming kittens. My great grandmother handed the pillowcase to my mother and told her to drown them, and do it quick. My mother couldn't. My mother wouldn't. And so my great grandmother snatched the case from my mother and did it herself. When my mother turned her head so she wouldn't see the little paws breaking the surface of the water, trying so desperately to paddle, paddle, paddle back to the shore, to life, to warm, dry nights in the cow barn, my great grandmother grasped my mother by the chin and turned her head back toward the water, to the drowning kittens, and made her watch until they were all dead.

My grandfather often told stories about how great of a woman his mother was. He loved her, said she was a great lady, a real class-act. And so it was easy, then, to place a little blame on her, to see what she had done to him, what she had made him. But it didn't make me any less angry, any less evil toward him and, just because she got in the way, my grandmother, too.

But it was more than just me being angry at my grandfather for what he'd done and said. That wasn't the only thing I had to be sorry for. I'd also been a real cocky girl for the last year. I was so full of myself--college educated, succeeding, winning scholarships and attention, getting accepted to grad schools in several different states, writing my way out of western New York and away from my family. I waltzed into family gatherings like I was a real big something. I sat around saying witty things and acting like I knew better than everyone. I was not a good daughter, granddaughter, or sister back then. I was floating through that year on a cloud of my own accomplishments.

And so my grandmother spent the last year of her life losing me. She would've gotten me back, of course, if only she'd been around. Eventually, I would've come back down. Eventually, I would've been myself again. But that never happened for us. I never came around the right way until after she'd gone.

My mother called me at 8:30 AM on a Monday morning to tell me my grandmother had died the night before. I didn't quite understand what she was saying--after all, the last thing I'd heard was that my grandmother was being moved that night to a rehabilitation hospital where she could recover from the chemo in peace. She'd made progress. She'd responded well. She was ready to take a step closer to home.

But this is what happened: the paramedics bundled my grandmother in blankets and the wheeled her out to the ambulance that would take her to the next hospital, the one with bright colors and flowers and balloons and cards that spoke of recovery. On the way to that hospital, my grandmother dozed, and then her heart gave out. It was weak and tired and weary from all the chemo--it was, after all, its second time around with cancer and all its treatments and exhaustions. The paramedics tried to revive her, but they couldn't. They couldn't. My grandmother died right there, so close to recovery, to a next chance.

When my mother told me these things, I collapsed in the hallway outside my roommate's bedroom. Megan was there in a second, and she had me in her arms and she was petting my hair and my back and telling me it was going to be okay, but I knew it wasn't. I knew my grandmother had just died, and I'd never get the chance to tell her what I really felt--that I was an awful granddaughter, that I was ungrateful, that I had ruined the last year of her life by being so hateful and spiteful and cold.

I flew home for the funeral. I spent three days in town. I did the wakes and the funeral, but I remember very little of that time. What I do remember exists in scattered, dark places in my head. I remember the casket being closed. I remember making a photo collage of my grandmother's favorite pictures. I remember hearing her older sister weeping in the hallway, her surviving brothers, too. I remember my grandfather pacing and saying, How can she be gone? Why was she taken from me? I remember my best friends coming by, bringing their ow mothers and baked goods. I remember Amy's mother's bar cookies, which were, at the time I ate them in the parking lot of the funeral home, the best things I'd ever tasted.

I remember the funeral. I remember my father standing in the back row. I remember standing next to my cousins and hearing each one of them start to weep--one, two, three, four--until the weeping reached my brother, and he broke down too. All around me there were people sobbing. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. I didn't cry, though. Never once. I stood there like a stone, like a pillar, like a brick that let nothing in and nothing out.

I was the only person who didn't cry at my grandmother's funeral.

And today, that's what bothers me the most. I don't understand why I wouldn't let myself cry. I wanted to--absolutely I did. I fought to keep the tears in. I tipped my chin up and I concentrated. I said, You will not cry, you will not cry, you will not cry until the urge to cry passed. When it came upon me again, I would steel myself and say, No. No, no, no. And I didn't.

These are the things I thought about on the drive back to New York. I hoped and prayed that my friend, my sweet girl, the one who is so terrifically kind and thoughtful and wise, would not do what I did, would not harden to stone while people filed in to pay their respects, press their hands against hers, and whisper, I'm so sorry.

At her father's wake, I didn't do well. I didn't do what I was supposed to. I found it hard--like I always do--to find the right words to say. There's an awful lot of guilt attached to being unable to find the right words to say. I'm a writer, and I feel like it's just something I should be able to do, something I should be good at. I should have a phrase or a sentence or a thought that is just right, that says everything that needs to be said and nothing that doesn't. But I always dry up in those moments. My tongue becomes a dead, awkward thing in my mouth, and I walk away feeling like a failure, like someone who has brought no comfort whatsoever.

But what I know is this: you don't remember what people say. You just don't. Afterward, you will remember only a haze of things, shapes of people and items that were in the same room as you. There was a coffin, of course, and flowers and people. But if pressured to recite what was said to you and by whom, you won't be able to do it. Or maybe that's just me, a stone-girl, the one who can't process and let herself grieve. And I hope above all other things that my friend, one of my oldest, one of the ones who will be around forever, just lets herself breathe, lets herself be, which is one thing I never remembered to do.


Joe said...


You should have given us workday readers a heads-up on that one.

Nicely written, though.

In order to compose myself I will ask What Would JJ Dufresne Do?

Jess said...

Sorry if it stunned you.

JJ Dufresne, I can only imagine, would have poured enough beer down his throat to make it all go away. And I would've sat next to him while he did it.