how I am

“How are you?”

This is a dangerous question, today.

On the way to work, my knuckles, already OCD-torn, cracked and bleeding, are white with strain. I pinch my nose. I do all the things I know to keep my mascara on my eyelashes, not all over my face.

It isn’t easy, because today marks exactly one month.

Today, it’s been thirty days since my best friend died. Thirty days since I walked in aimless circles outside fourth floor ICU waiting, trying to keep myself from ripping apart the two Christmas trees next to the elevators, breaking absolutely everything in sight. I shook. I trembled. My bones rattled as I stood and watched my best friend’s husband get to his feet and walk to the desk, and talk to the clerk, who opened the doors. And I watched him cross that threshold knowing he had to go and do something I couldn’t bear.

I just rattled in place, knowing that it was time, and that he had to tell them yes, it’s time to take them off life support.

And I couldn’t do it.

I ran away.

I went home. I sat and waited. I couldn’t sit. I got up and paced. I hadn’t slept more than two hours in days. I paced more. My mother just watched me and cried, because it was awful to watch no matter what distance you stood at, no matter what angle you watched from.

 

It didn’t make sense.

It still doesn’t make sense.

 

On November 30, my best friend contacted me and Archie, another best friend, for an emergency Stonehenge meeting.

Stonehenge was a friend name, a thing that was what we were for each other: a big old bunch of rocks who were always there and always had been, and, as far as we’d known, always would be.

It’s a hell of a thing when your rock tells you, “So, basically, I’m Deadpool.”

“I’ve got no sense of humor right now,” I told them. “What does that translate to?”

“Turbo cancer!” This, said with genuine, honest humor, because that was the kind of person Pru was. “It’s basically everywhere.”

“It’s metastasized?” I think my eyes watered over at this point.

“Pancreas, lung, spleen, liver.”

My heart did an awful nasty thing, hearing “pancreas” and translating to “pancreatic cancer,” which meant “going to die within two weeks.” So I asked, “What kind?”

Melanoma. Oh! Well, then, there’s time. They’ll run the tests, do targeted treatment, and we’ll all throw in together to help clean and cook meals. Keep everything going while they got better.

I clutched onto Pru’s leg anyway, because I was the one who was a mess, and I couldn’t joke about it. I was and never have been the stoic friend capable of maintaining composure under emotional duress. It’s either the best thing about me or the worst, but regardless, Pru had wanted me there, crying or no.

Later that night, I tried to go home, and I couldn’t. I drove in a circle. And then I started screaming, and I punched the steering wheel, screaming “no no no no no no” because “cancer” and my best friend’s name were not allowed to exist in the same sentence.

But now they did.

Days went by. Tests, but no treatment. Conditions worsened. They worried. A motley of us tried to reassure that we had time, that it wasn’t over till it was over.

My best friend, crying late one night in the stationary aisle of Walmart, telling me “I’ve got to leave something for the boys,” me reassuring that they’d still be here. That there was time.

There wasn’t.

December came, and by the fourteenth, it was hospital time again. So they went, and they were admitted, and hooked up to tubes and bags and drugs and by the time I saw all the scary physical warnings, the things I recognized, just did not, would not accept…

I swapped gears. Shifted over into disaster-crisis, where I could be okay, be helpful, hold my best friend’s hand while we walked straight into hell.

“It’s okay. I’m here. You can sleep, it’s okay. I’m here. Craig’s here. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.”

There comes a point where that’s all you can do.

I was on my way from work to the hospital when Molly sent a text that I didn’t need to stop by CVS. And then I got another, that Pru’s vitals had crashed and they were rushing them to ICU.

I stared at the numbers.

I drove too fast.

I didn’t really think about it. I just ran. South parking, down the stairs, then across. Then into the hospital lobby. Then the elevators. Trying not to think about what might happen. Just that I needed to get there. And when I did…

God, you know, it was a terrible thing, but sitting in ICU waiting, watching everyone coming in. Waving from the glass. There were so many of us, the desk attendant had to tell us to shut up.

Watching all the people who loved my best friend walk into ICU was the only thing that made the waiting bearable.

Eventually I got to go back.

You notice the weirdest things in hospitals. I saw a lot of them as a kid. Sickness, then heart surgery when I was nine. You’ll never see red paint on hospital walls. Just calming colors.

The ICU was spring green.

I walked for the longest time, till I got to a room set up like a surgical theater. And then I stopped, and I looked at my best friend in that bed. The no-longer-conscious tilt of their head, the yellow tinge of their skin. I stepped in.

I walked up.

I teared up.

I said, “Hi, buddy,” and my voice broke.

I searched for my best friend’s hand, and I grabbed it, and I recited everything I could see. Described everything I could see, everything it meant. Googled it. Recited numbers on screens. Blinked fast, blinked hard, because those numbers were not naturally possible with organ failure.

But I watched my best friend fight the numbers back up, digit by digit. I held tight and said “You’re fighting, I see it. There, you did it again. It’s going up. You’ve got this. You’ve got this.”

I held on until my turn was over.

In the morning, I returned. Called work, because there was no realistic way I could leave. I knew myself. I knew I wouldn’t.

I knew I couldn’t.

I kept coming back and standing in that room, hoping it would get better, but it only got worse.

I couldn’t do anything about it. The most I could do was call over nurses, or keep Pru from ripping out IVs, saying, “I know it’s awful, but that one goes straight into your heart. Please don’t touch that one.” And the pinch, one more piece of whatever a heart is breaking inside me, when they stopped more for the pain they heard in my voice than whatever discomfort they felt.

It’s a terrible thing, watching someone you love in that much agony.

I thought a lot about drastic actions. Stealing a bunch of morphine, pulling out all the IVs, and hightailing my best friend out of there. Things that tricked me into feeling better for five minutes, better than the realization we’d already passed whatever threshold would have allowed for a more comfortable death.

Half of me knew.

Half of me would have fought God, the Devil, or both if I could.

Eventually the family was called back. I hesitated at the door, unsure till Craig said “You’re family. Come on.”

That was the morning I watched a dialysis machine running in a futile figure eight, noticed one of the catheters was gone, and another had stopped collecting anything.

The vitals were stable, steady.

But the doctors said “let’s talk about this in another room,” and Pru fought through whatever fog they were in enough to say “Where are you going, I don’t like this, I don’t like this secret meeting”

And I said “We’ll be right back, right back, it’s just loud in here, we’ll be right back”

 

I didn’t come right back.

I sobbed in an anteroom while two doctors laid out what was happening. That it was time to bring in everyone who wanted to say goodbye.

That it was time to say goodbye.

 

So I called an emergency meeting of Stonehenge, and the three of us held each other’s hands. Pru’s eyes were clearer, more lucid.

Lucid enough to ask, “Am I dying?”

And lucid enough that when we said yes, they sighed and said, “Well, that fuckin’ sucks.” Strong enough, there enough to tell me “None of that” when I started crying, because our time was limited, and they had many, many more goodbyes that would need to be said.

Even in that state, Pru remembered that I could not, can not handle the word “goodbye.” It was always “see you later,” or “see you soon, good buddy” or “I love you.” We were both prickly as hedgehogs, and we danced around each other’s spines a good bit, but “I love you” was holy. There were a thousand reasons why those were the only words I wanted to be the last I gave, they last they heard.

Even while dying, Pru remembered.

“I love you. I love you so much.”

That was the important thing. There would be time to grieve later. Now, we had the space for one last, good memory. One last good moment together.

Eventually, thirty minutes ran out.

I was holding Pru’s hand.

Time was up, but they didn’t let go.

Everything they had. One squeeze after another. It must have been ungodly painful, but they didn’t let go. I cried. I said “I love you” over and over until it ran together, stopped making sense.

Pru didn’t let go until they went unconscious.

Archie caught me as we walked away. As I folded in half with knowing that was the last time.

That was the last time we’d tell each other “I love you.”

That was the last time I’d hold my best friend’s hand.

 

 

It was.

 

 

 

Sometimes, I want to go back. I get this feeling, like if I go up there, sneak into the ICU, if I can somehow go back there, I’ll find the door they exited through. Like something out of a story I could write, that door would appear, and I could have another five minutes, another day, another conversation, another hug, another “I love you.”

But I just end up screaming in the parking lot, punching the steering wheel, till the scream turns into the cry, and the cry turns into a plea, and the reality of it settles back over me.

I could say a lot of inspirational things here, about how we keep the people we love alive within ourselves. How we take them with us, how we honor their memory by living, by doing, by loving in their stead.

That isn’t what happens.

What happens:

I clutch onto the wheel like I’m drowning, and I talk to Pru, because all I want in that moment is to feel like I’m close enough to have a conversation. And I say the things that I can’t help but say, because I can’t keep them in:

“Please stop being dead, just stop being dead, please”

“I wish you could come home”

“I miss you”

The same things I text late at night, when I can’t sleep and I’d curl up on a grave if there was one, because the ache feels like it’ll kill me, too.

I wake up, and sometimes I forget. I forget, till I remember, and it starts over again.

Some days, it’s easier. Some days I remember these tiny, funny things, and I share them with people. That was the thing about Pru—there was something about them that even a stranger can tell what a god damn delight it was to know them. How lucky those of us who got to know them were. Because it’s unmistakable.

Dozens of people, crowding ICU waiting.

Nearly four hundred people in the group Pru initially set up to coordinate our voluminous efforts.

A hundred plus at the comedy benefit.

And the pouring out of people at karaoke after.

I’m glad I made it through that song for you, good buddy, even if it resulted in the loudest, ugliest scream-cry I’ve ever had in public.

 

It hurt.

It still hurts.

It’s always gonna hurt.

But we promised, didn’t we?

Til the end of the line.

 

It feels like you’re gone, but…

You left behind quite a legacy, you know?

I’ve got a lot to do, to make you proud.

And even though it’s fucking agony, and absurd, and I’m fairly certain I’m gonna scream-cry my way to and from work for a few days, well…

I’ve got to keep going, no matter how hard it gets.

Even though every step forward feels like it’s taking me away from you.

Even though every tick of the clock makes me wish I could make it run backwards.

Even though it feels like I’m leaving you, somehow.

I know you’re waving. Cheering me on. Cheering us all on.

I know.

 

 

I know.

I will, good buddy.

Just let me stay here a little longer.

 

Thank you.

 

It’s busted all to hell, but you gave me my heart back.

I won’t let this harden me.

All the armor fell off, watching you die.

You’ve done a pretty miraculous thing, cracking me open like this.

I’m not the only one.

A lot of us who were lonely aren’t lonely anymore.

A lot of us who kept shutting people out aren’t shutting anyone out anymore.

The thread that was you cinched through us and drew us all together, simply by merit of being people who loved you.

There are so many of us, because there was so much of you.

It was more than enough.

You were always more than enough.

 

 

I love you, Pru.

 

We all do.

 

We can’t stop.

 

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raise the dead

Mothers are not meant to be remade.

This was a truth known since childhood. No simulacrum, no effigy could take the place of the spark that died in late September. I’d seen her dead. I’d touched her lifeless body. That cool, rigid cheek would never dimple from a smile. And she would never rise from that casket outside of nightmares. Dead was dead. But that did not stop me.

“Mother” was a word I hunted. Blood kin did not count. Biology had not granted me the mother I grieved. Madness had taken both the mother I found and the mother who birthed me. “Mother” was what I had to find before that madness claimed me, too.

There were certain things I knew, things a mother wasn’t. I knew the shadow of that Other Mother, that monstrous creature who destroyed and devoured and screamed to the heavens. In dreams, that Other Mother hunched over me, gaunt and terrible, and shrieked at anything that came near.

Other Mother crawled up the walls and panted from the ceiling at night. Other Mother was the phantom with four arms refusing to let me go. Any echo, any effigy of what I needed was jealously destroyed. I could feel her eyes through the baleful gaze of my blood mother, her rage in the curses hissed at me. She was there, riding upon my blood mother’s back. Cold black eyes staring down at me, the same monster who had claimed the mother I’d found and buried so many years before.

And that was the mother I’d eventually come to love, because she was the only mother I would ever truly have.

I approached again and again. When that enraged creature possessed my blood mother and roared, when she drove tears and blood down her cheeks, I pushed forward. When she struck me, threw things at me, hurled vicious words, I ignored it and pushed on. With a cool cloth, I’d wipe her face. I’d clean up the poisons pushed out of her. I’d hold the Other Mother, stare directly into those black eyes, and tell her what she needed more than I did:

“I love you, because you are the only mother I am going to have.”

Other Mother would not answer. Other Mother would stare back, barely comprehending, but allowing my approach. Other Mother accepted my actions with no small degree of confusion; still, she became calmer. Watching like a feral thing as I channeled from the dead those things she wasn’t. And when Other Mother stared into me and saw the reflection of who I had become, she would recede and fade away.

No, you cannot raise the dead.

But you can become them.

celestial bodies

tumblr_muzwlypkj31rbt7bto1_500The first lesson anyone should be taught about stars is that most of them are dead.

What we seem is time dilating, moving on without us, leaving us behind. We see the afterimage, the echo, the last, gasping breath of a mass that burst and imploded millennia ago.

And maybe this is why stars are so much more beautiful in autumn. Lonelier, bluer, less crystalline than in winter, they cease to lie. They are not frozen, they are not fixed. They exist, if just for seconds, in the same time, trapped in a single glance.

We’re all just moving frame by frame. It’s all movement and distance. After all, time doesn’t actually exist. It’s just a measure of entropy. How much distance exists, in both space and time, between a thing coming into existence and leaving.

Once we find a way to navigate it, the trap of time will dissolve. A fixed point is all we need. A planet’s orbit takes it to different places. Its coordinates 10,000 years ago won’t match the same coordinates we’d plot it at today.

Given enough room to move into that space we call “the future,” we will find a way back. All memories revisited, all experiences explored. On a particulate level, time will come to mean as little as touch.

(What we know as touch is merely repulsion—no matter how closely we cling together, every electron struggles to push the other away.)

(Maybe that is loneliness.)

But this is all to say the more we think we know, the more we discover illusion is the constant. Our universe could merely be a projection, a hologram, depths we have yet to imagine hiding further down. All connections could fall apart. And once we’ve found a way to slip those electrons, unravel time, walk the distance to the farthest star…

Then maybe there is a place where every person you’ve ever met is simply waiting to see you again.

black water

When her feet stop at the edge of the bridge, Mara realizes she’s having the dream again.

This is an old dream, one that comes year after year. Always in October, almost always the same cold night. And because she knows the dream, she remembers what happens next.

She watches the road beyond the bridge. Its lone streetlight flickers, as it always does, right before shadows start dripping down the asphalt.

It’s always the road first. She sees them coming for her, the wrongness of those shadows crowding in the light. And then…

A tinkle of glass as the light bursts, leaving her with only the moon. Soft blue light, hazy and surreal, smudging the mist roiling from the river below into smoke. She can’t see the shadows, but she knows they’re spilling down the road toward her like a flood.

A cloud passes over the moon, obscuring the light.

She clenches her fists in the dark. They can’t cross the bridge—can’t cross water. Even in dreams, she has at least afforded herself this one protection.

A susurrous rises, scrawling the air. “Mara,” they whisper, their voices snapping branches, broken glass. “Bad dream, bad dream, bad dream. Mara.”

She steps back three paces, far enough to keep out of their reach. Oily darkness mixes with the hazy mist from the creek, struggling. They undulate and shudder, black against black, slippery and viscous. The outlines of their bodies are not entirely human, and that reminds her to step back another three paces. Back to the circle within the square, careful not to break the line of salt.

“Mara. Mara. Mara.” The shadows claw and fight, struggling to cross the center of the bridge. Water runs below them, but…

One breaks free.

One screams, discordant, furious as it bleeds and tears. It doesn’t stop. The figure bursts across, slamming against the first line of salt like a wave.

The line isn’t enough. The ward crumples in her hand.

“Bad dream!” the shadows on the bridge screech. “Bad dream! Bad dream! Bad dream! Bad dream!”

The shadow shreds itself on the first line of salt. It strips the oily black from its skin, revealing its true face.

She hates this.

She remembers this.

She always flinches.

“Mara.”

A voice that shouldn’t exist.

“Mara.”

A voice that was drowned in the waking world twenty years ago.

Scoured by the salt, it has eyes now. Those deep brown irises and its smile are the same. But its skin is wrong, its body hideous, and the way, the way it moves shouldn’t be possible.

“Bad dream.”

One swollen foot destroys the salt line. The shadows howl, their fury reignited. They are a dam bursting, roiling over the thing staring at her. They fall on it like a cloak of insects. Shuddering and climbing and rustling over its skin as it walks to the second line of her circle.

They can’t cross this one. It’s a fevered thought. They crossed the bridge. They broke the rules. But here, she is safe. She is safe. This is just a—

Bad dream. Bad dream.”

They can’t—

The thing shoots forward, its mouth a snarling rictus, claws splayed wide as it reaches for her face.

The charm drops from her hand.

The circle breaks.

It doesn’t stop. It’s relentless. It will never stop—

She opens her eyes. Someone shakes her shoulder.

She can’t see.

The words burst out of her in a shout. “Light! Turn on the light!”

The switch clicks. Pale yellow light fills the room, buttery and reassuring, but this is the part where she wishes for darkness.

The light reveals its true face. The irises are the same. The smile is the same. And the hands reaching for her are as she remembers.

“It’s okay.”

His hand is warm. He smooths her hair away from her face, wild grey waves she did not have when he was alive. He straightens the collar of her nightgown, dimples creasing the right corner of his mouth.

“It was just a bad dream.”

“No.” Her voice shakes. “You’re gone.”

“It was just a bad dream.”

She closes her eyes, swallows. Remembers. Remembers the phone call. The night she lost him unfurls in memory, ugly and awful—

The car, speeding past the streetlight.

The car, fishtailing before the bridge. Swerving left, breaking through the barrier, hanging in the air—

Plunging down into black water.

“It’s okay, Mama.”

The way black water dripped off his body as they pulled him out.

Those swollen hands and feet, distended, the awful color…

His hand is cold now, but still, still it wipes the tears rolling down her cheek.

“It was just a bad dream.”

She looks at her son one last time, and he smiles.

 

When she wakes up, she no longer cares about the light.

Stars

On the 18th, ten years and one day since Papa died, Gramma followed. 

I loved them both very, very much. 

…There isn’t a way to express how much. 

I got to have more time with my grandmother. Anyone who loses someone who formed and shaped their life with love knows there is no such thing as “enough”–the time you had is all you have. The memories are what endure. Memories are how we live on. 

I couldn’t go to the funeral. All I had were my words. 

At request of my family, I will share them with you. 

Ten years ago, we all came together to say goodbye to Papa.

Now, we say goodbye to Gramma.

But it’s different this time.

Ten years ago, my only comfort against impending loss was driving. The night I had my last conversation with Papa, I knew. I threw my stuff in the car and drove east until there was no road left, just a cold beach at four AM, and, oddly, one stranger. This person I’d never met in my life walked over while I stood at the edge of the water crying. He asked if I was okay and offered me a blanket, because it was so cold. That simple kindness was too much and all I could say was “My Papa is dying.” 

This complete stranger put the blanket around me and asked for me to come sit down and talk.

For hours we talked about loss. He told me about how, when his grandmother died, he went off into the desert in Utah and lived as a vagrant. Still did. Lived out of his car, because that was how he remembered what was really important in life. We talked until morning came, and when the sun crested over the watery horizon, this stranger stood with me, gave me a hug, and offered to let me sleep in his car. I told him I’d be all right, that it was only four hours back home, and that I’d be careful.

“When you get lost, go to the ocean,” he told me. “The waves will help you remember.”

If I was there, that is what I would do. I’d go to the ocean, and I’d look at the waves, and I’d think of things that go on forever. Past forever. Things that are eternal, distant and unknowable as the stars in the sky.
That’s where Gramma has gone. It’s where Papa went. Where we will all go. As the living, we get stuck trying to put things back together. That’s what grief is–trying to find the pieces, the broken, serrated edges of those mental tectonic plates. But with Gramma, the grief is different. 

Gramma’s life was a circle completed, a loop stitched back in, a puzzle piece fitting into place, because she has gone home.

And the place she’s gone–that place where things have no beginning, no end–it’s a place we get a glimpse of when we see waves that go on forever, stars charting the course of our small place in the universe. In that place at the edge of eternity, Papa was waiting for her. She isn’t alone. She has gone on to illuminate the dark, one more star watching over us at night.

When you forget–
When you get lost–
Look to the waves.

Everything you’ve ever lost is eventually found again.

Marching on

Happy March. From what I can tell driving around the countryside, it seems spring is on the way.

Updates have been a bit slow as I am now part of a delivery team driving freight all over the continental US. I edit, I drive, and I try to stay on top of the rest of my life from a van. Jess, my partner, has already bungie’d a desk to one side, and we’re planning to add a white board so I can write while we’re on the road. (Next to the freight if there’s room, of course.)

Living on the road is strange–but good:

It’s been eleven days since I set out on the road. 4805 miles. We drive as a team and deliver from Laredo to Detroit to Kansas City to…wherever. Whenever. I drove through all of Arkansas the other night, and a good bit of Texas the other night, and last night I slept between 3000 lbs of freight and the driver’s seat.

I’ve learned to live without constant conveniences. It’s a good trade. Kills the OCD tendencies. Every day on the road, I’m taking a hammer to every fear and anxiety I’ve ever had.

I used to have to take heavy duty tranquilizers to travel. I had to take back roads to drive around town.

Now, it’s like all of that is nothing. I’m realizing it was nothing. My priorities are more basic now: safe place to sleep, food, hygiene. Along the way I take pictures. We listen to Duncan Trussell together and I listen to ancient playlists while Jess sleeps.

Sometimes there are tornadoes. Sometimes there is snow. Sometimes the heater goes out in Indiana and it’s cold and we hide under the blankets and screech “it’s freezing! Screw this!”

and other times we doze with the windows open and the curtain fluttering over our toes, and it’s perfect.

Perfect.

When I was thirteen I imagined I’d live out of my car because my agoraphobia was so bad. I thought I’d be homeless and no one would know me and it would be terrible.

But it isn’t.

There are miles of stars in the desert at night. Fields of turbines in the Midwest. Sparkling cities. Tiny pit stops. And some intensely weird heckin’ stuff pretty much everywhere we go.

I don’t know where we’ll head next, but I think I’m getting the swing of this.

 

There’s quite a bit more in my travel diary, but that’s enough for now. Time for me to crash out while I still can.

Take care of yourselves out there, and maybe I’ll see you along the way.

❤ Anne

crossroads

As he passed the sign declaring HELL IS REAL, tumblr_mq6gg0hmnj1sq35zxo1_500-1Tyler laughed.

“Ain’t nobody who lives like us doesn’t know that,” he said, glancing at his silent companion. “And sure as shit, you and I know it’s true.”

The thing in the passenger seat slid its one gleaming eye toward him, a slight dip of its head acknowledging that yes, of course they both knew that.

Tyler had met his demon years before, standing in his path at an old familiar crossroads. And since that night, it had stayed beside him, because kin always knows kin.

Kin always stays with kin, especially in a family like theirs.

There had been no deal between them. No binding oaths. Just recognition of the truth, and a promise to never, ever look away.

Hell was real. Threaded through the corn fields, collected in sleepy diners, all the tired kinfolk spoke the truth with their very existence. Those bits of black matter, connecting everything, seeing everything, never looking away.

There was no way they could.

Hell was on the TV. Hell was on the radio. In every petty war and grim announcement on the eleven o’clock news, you could see it. You could know it. And Tyler kept driving, because it helped him feel like there was an escape somewhere. Some place he’d finally know rest. Where his demon would meld into him and finally take him away from this place.

Because hell wasn’t under the ground. It wasn’t a place separate from reality. Hell was the world he continued to trudge through, no matter what.

HELL IS REAL.

“Sure is,” he muttered under his breath. “It sure is.”

Another hundred miles to go.

He knew he’d wonder longer than that whether one of his hopeless kin put up that sign.