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.

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.

A serious post.

2014 is at a close, and I can barely believe it.

This year has sped by too fast in some places, too slow in others. 2014 was not an easy year for me and my family, but we weathered it, and I have hope 2015 contains fewer losses. It’s never easy to lose people, and this particular loss was a bad blow. Still, I am telling myself what I always tell myself: “we’ll make it.” That’s been my mantra all year, and somehow I’m still here and pretty much everything in my life is intact. In some areas, things are vastly improved. In others, I know exactly how far I have to go.

2014 had some major wins. I found some very awesome critique partners and discovered a writing soul mate I get to see this January. I had one request for a full despite a terrible market, and the rejection shaped a stronger draft. While AMoA got bandied back and forth in the very capable hands of my critique circle, I discovered what was wrong with THE WILD HUNT. I’d hoped to have that particular book finished this year, but I didn’t find the right draft until September. Now it’s tentatively titled IN THE HEART OF THE HOLLOW FOREST, and it’s going all kinds of dark and nasty places I was afraid to go before. Continue reading “A serious post.”