“What grief does is it puts us squarely in the middle of a fire, and it burns away everything that is not essential to our lives.” – Alana Sheeran
To my friends from back then… We should never have so accurately known where to find the bathrooms in the funeral parlor.
None of this is ok. But it happened like this.
“Alison, daddy died today,” spoke my mom. She had positioned me on a wicker-backed bar stool in the center of my kitchen, my aunts and uncles and cousins at the round wooden table, wide-eyed staring at their beloved 11-year-old, waiting for the tears, the screaming, the wailing, the shaking. But I never granted them that. Not even close.
I heard myself say, “I have a science test tomorrow. I have to study.” It was very important to study for that science test. It was all that could matter at that moment. So, I hopped off the bar stool, grabbed my backpack, and went into the family room.
I remember a blue couch (or was it a blue carpet?). The objects are hazy but the colors are vibrant. My significantly older half-sister, who never came to visit, followed me into the room. She sat next to me. She asked me questions (“Are you sad? Do you know it’s ok to cry?”). She wanted to talk, wanted to explain that death meant daddy was in heaven (… I bet she didn’t believe that herself). I handed her my textbook instead.
We flipped through the illustrated pages, she quizzed me on the nature of frogs and butterflies. I heard voices in the kitchen. I wouldn’t go back into the kitchen. Everyone wanted to hug me. I didn’t want them to touch me. I wanted it to be a normal day. I wanted everyone to stop crying. I wanted an A on my science test. I got an A on that science test. And on every test that followed. I studied. While my mom organized a funeral.
That should be sufficient… to damage a psyche, to start a spiral of abandonment and vulnerability… to enable sickness, weakness, immune dysfunction… to thwart intimacy… to confuse attachment and detachment… to breathe shallowly through existence, anticipating absence from presence. But, that wasn’t all.
I arrived at college seven years later, at a rah-rah football university, in the middle of the Indiana corn fields. I encountered happy, carefree freshmen all around me. I never knew teenagers could live without a shadow of a specter. My roommate in particular was a walking ray of sunshine and rainbows. She idolized all things Disney, loved the twirling Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance films, and she gave cartoon voices to beanie babies. She bounced around campus with an enviable lightness and a joy that confounded me. She called me “al EEE son” – an extreme perky emphasis on my name’s middle syllable that implied a glittery exclamation mark at the end. She was ecstatic and cheerful. I was somber and fearful.
We couldn’t agree on a shared music vibe for our room. Her tunes were all in major chords. Mine played in minor. She studied biology and chemistry toward a pre-med major. I studied 19th century Russian and Victorian literature and persistently hounded her pseudo-doctor brain, begging if my unrelenting cough meant I had consumption. Thereafter, she hid her Microbiology textbook under a plaid fleece blanket, lest I discover another tragically historic disease.
She wore turquoise blue and hot pink sweatshirts with Minnie Mouse hearts. I wore head-to-toe black and gray. As a native Midwesterner, she wanted to know, “Is this wardrobe choice the New Yorker in you?” No, it wasn’t. I explained, “I went to 18 funerals before I turned 18. It became easier to wear black all the time… just in case someone else died.”
Someone else always died.
I can’t hear Stairway to Heaven without being transported back to high school stage band rehearsals. I’m at the keyboard and we’re practicing for a concert in honor of “A”. She was a shining star in my high school, her younger sister “J” had been my classmate since kindergarten. Four years ahead of us, “A” bounded off to college with promises of greatness. She was a brilliant pianist, and I was honored to take over her musical footsteps in our high school.
You know when a bus driver tells you stand back from the white line near the door? Always listen to that driver. Always stand back from that line. Now I do. Because “A” didn’t. She was on her campus bus, it was too crowded, and she was over the line. The bus turned, swerved, she fell out the door, got caught underneath, and that was how her life ended, so horrendous the casket had to remain closed.
At the funeral parlor, there was a winding trail of mourners – out the door, around the block, and down the main street. I waited almost two hours to hug her sister “J”, my friend, the entire time I could hear her cries getting louder, as I moved from the street, to the foyer, to the hallway, to the room. The sick smell of lilies and carnations (please, courtly gentlemen reading this, never bring me lilies and carnations…). We were thirteen years old. We should have been painting our nails with glitter and sharing the latest Sweet Valley High book. But instead, I just hugged her, and from that hug of empathy, she sobbed harder.
Not a tissue left in town, but I remained dry-eyed through it all. I experienced panic instead of sadness. I stood separate from it all; disconnected from tears. But, so blindingly, shockingly aware that everything could really end that quickly, that unceremoniously, that permanently. That someone could vanish from my orbit instantaneously, without finishing that book on the nightstand, or taking out the trash, or folding the laundry, or fixing the bed… and without saying goodbye.
I knew “M” from kindergarten. His mother once brought cupcakes baked into ice-cream cones for his birthday. Those were the most fun cupcakes. He made shadow puppets with his hands during 4th grade films. He made me laugh. He was a nice boy. He became a nice teenager, with a bit of a swagger. He got sick during high school. The doctors said cancer… I was told he could survive. He didn’t survive. His best friends dedicated our senior talent show to him. They took the stage and pointed up to the heavens of the auditorium as tribute. They mourned him. They honored him. They spoke words in remembrance of him.
“B” was my close friend’s mother. She was warm and inviting, smart and cultured. Her home was bright and sunny. It was the first time I’d heard of a woman getting breast cancer. I remember lots of blankets in their living room. She must have been cold a lot. I remember my friend being stoic and brave; scared and emotional. There was a funeral. Everyone came. My body was freezing in the pew. But, I had no tears to offer. Maybe those were frozen too. My tremendously talented friend, in her expressive grief, sang R.E.M.’s I Will Try Not to Breathe during a talent show, with a repetitive verse “I want you to remember.” I do remember. It was haunting then. It’s still haunting now.
“E” was another close friend’s mother. She was beautiful and elegant, wise and graceful. I always felt welcomed in her home. It was the second time I’d heard of a woman getting breast cancer. I sat in gym class when they said “E” would survive. I was dubious but hopeful. A few weeks later, I sat in Latin class, translating sentences like “the horses and the chariots ran around the Circus Maximus to victory.” Somewhere in the middle of conjugating “vocat” and “vocamus,” my friend “T” burst into class, her face flushed, hands shaking, begging the teacher, “Can Alison come out of class?” I was taken out of class. I didn’t want to leave class. It was very important to get 100 on the Latin Regents Exam. But “E” had died. Even though they said she’d survive. I was 16 years old. I never believed what “they” said anymore.
I’m stopping here. But there were others… friends and classmates who passed away at their own hands, from bottles of pills or a rope tied into a noose, or those who left this world through freak accidents, like the one involving a booze cruise, man overboard, a boat’s rudders and some sharks. There were school-wide counseling sessions; after-school special movies, auditorium convocations with students staring blankly, and teachers at a loss for helpful words. There were tables filled with baked goods, pasta salads, and deli platters in beautiful suburban homes. There were nights spent sitting vigil with friends, families, and out-of-town strangers. There were evenings dressed in black, trying to get comfortable in hard-backed wooden chairs in the paisley wallpapered rooms of the funeral parlor.
There were more parents too, those with “just a lump” that turned terminal, those who walked out their front doors one morning never to return home again that night – some weird accident or lone gun shot. And there some grandparents. I was always relieved when it was a grandparent who died. Except when it was my own. I was locked emotionless in March of my high school senior year when my grandmother who lived with me passed away from cancer. I didn’t cry. I selfishly implored my mother to stop crying. And then I took a Russian History test in school the next day. It was very important I get a top mark on the European History AP exam. Which I did later that semester.
Less than a month after my grandmother’s death, with rejection letters from Harvard and Princeton and Amherst and Williams in my hands, I couldn’t stop crying and screaming for weeks. The loss hurt too much. It would have been easier to hide in those Ivy-covered hallowed halls. So one afternoon, I walked out my front door, and I sat down in the middle of the street, in the rain. My mother came out of the house beckoning me, “What are you doing? Get out of the street.” I said, “I don’t care if a car hits me.” My mother had to physically drag me back inside.
All my misdirected tears… all that misdirected hysteria. I didn’t properly direct any of that until many years later, after college, sitting in a Manhattan therapist’s office, when my body had already collapsed neurologically, and my spirit along with it too. I cried in her office for my father and my grandmother. I cried in her office for my friends and classmates, for their parents and grandparents. I cried for the loss of what was really lost. And for the memory of those I missed.
In my junior year Honor’s English class, our teacher assigned a creative writing assignment. The theme was simply “Innocence,” and how we approached that topic was open to our interpretation. There were approximately twenty students in that class with me. Twenty brilliant, talented, literary minds who shared in every step of this grief-stricken adolescence. We all took pen to paper, focused on our GPA’s, but also connected to our poetic souls. One week later, assignments turned in and graded, our English teacher stood at the head of the class with a tearful glimmer in his eyes. He held our stack of papers in his hand, carefully marked with grammar and style notations. But, before turning them back to us, he paused in a moment of reflection. He remarked that in all the years of his teaching this class and giving this assignment, he’d never once had every single student write on the “loss” of innocence, versus “innocence” itself. Until our class, that is.
He remarked that everything we wrote and expressed was seen and felt in his heart. He was concerned about us, I could tell. He asked us to pair off, two-by-two, with someone we trusted, find a corner of the classroom, or a corner of the school building, someplace comfortable and safe, and read our papers out-loud to our chosen partner. It was meant to be cathartic. I paired off with my friend, “B’s” daughter. She wrote of hating casseroles and brownies, the sickening scents and incarnations of all those lives passing and gone, everything that we’d collectively moved through, everything she’d experienced from her own vantage point as well. I wrote about longing for a childhood of dancing under purple skies and lying down in fields of bright blue colored grass – a childhood where one would be free to imagine anything that’s magical and wonderful is possible. A childhood I never had.
None of this is ok.
But I can’t spend my life crucifying myself for some twisted form of survivor’s syndrome that keeps me locked in physical illness, questioning if I’m “allowed” to heal… if I “deserve” to be well. Or if I’m just “supposed” to be sick and leave, like those who went before me.
None of this is ok.
But it’s why I get my college alumni magazine and immediately turn to the “Deaths” page instead of the marriage announcements. It’s why I stopped eating lasagna twenty years ago – that omnipresent dish on everyone’s table after wakes. Even the word “lasagna” itself is nauseating.
None of this is ok.
But it’s why my extremities turn ice-cold when I pass the skeleton of the World Trade Center… I hear echoes of my high school classmate who died there on the top floors with the rest of Cantor Fitzgerald. We used to play on the swing set together. Now her name reverberates on the morning news broadcast every September 11th.
None of this is ok.
But it’s why I seem to live more in my inquisitive mind than in my physical body. And it’s why I’m not at all surprised that my mitochondria broke down, my cell structure crashed, and now all these years later, I’m electro-hypersensitive – from decades of toxic burdens, physically and emotionally, entwined in a spirit that never professed nor released grief.
None of this is ok. But it’s what happened. So I write this in memoriam, for those who are gone, and for those who remain. For the epic quest internal to us all, is the one between holding on and letting go. There are no more science tests and history tests for me to ace. There are no more report cards to shine with perfection. But, now I actually cry at funerals and wakes. And now I’ve looked up to vibrating purple skies at the top of a West Virginia mountain, and I’ve smiled in sacred valleys illuminated with blue colored grass. And through all of that, I will remember.