4 Years After Loss

I have a theory that you don’t really know people are gone until they’ve been dead for about 4 years. That’s the recommended length of college and of high school. It’s two Martian years and a quarter of a year on Jupiter. Not a long time, but still plenty of time. Plenty of time for the not-right-ness to settle into your bones, for you to get used to this new normal, an alternative universe where the one you love isn’t dead, just away. Right up until the illusion can’t hold anymore. Not when I didn’t see them daily anyway. Not when I stay so busy, even when I’m home, to avoid visiting their empty house.

One autumn day, 4 years and a couple months after my grandfather passed away, I was sitting at my desk at work watching the red and gold leaves fall and twirl in the wind. I suddenly missed my grandfather so deeply, with such a long-suffered ache, that I stood up to walk into an empty office so I could call him. I couldn’t, of course. And that was the moment I knew he was gone forever. And I grieved, silently, viscerally, until I had to get up and walk into an empty office to ensure privacy for my tears.

My grandmother passed away 4 years ago last month. I thought of her often in the snowy day we had recently. A few days ago, her last sister passed away as well. Yesterday, a friend texted to ask when we could get together, as she had a present for me. It would be another week before we were able, and she confessed that she’s always impatient to give people their gifts. “I’m terrible at it,” I told her. And thought, I get that from Grandmother. And just like that, I realized anew that she is gone. I will never hear her voice, hold her hand, feel her love, receive her gifts or smiles again.

It’s been building. Someone asked about the small tablecloth my grandmother’s sister crocheted for me in the 11 months between her sister’s passing and her own; blue because it was my grandmother’s favorite color. The pendant my grandmother gave me when I was in middle school, which my mom bought a chain for and gave to me this Christmas; the pendant I wore this week after my last great-aunt passed away.

I’ve been calling the dog “Babe,” my grandmother’s nickname for me, even though I didn’t like it at the time. (To be fair, my mom was “Babe,” I was “Little Babe”.) I dream, sometimes, that I’m back at her house. She and my grandfather are in their armchairs. I’m sitting on the floor listening to a conversation I don’t grasp any of. Or I’m racing around the pool table with my cousins, a small metal grocery cart full of our toys. I picture the house the way it was before the remodel. Dark wood panels and old brown carpet. My grandparents in their places. Me in mine. Our family around us. When last this happened, I woke up knowing my grandfather is gone, but had forgotten my grandmother isn’t. After this week, I suspect that will change.

For my cousins, I am so sorry. Your loss is fresh and deep. Many of you see your grandmother and aunt and mother much more often than I saw my grandparents in those last few years of college and travels and work. Maybe you’ll experience the knowing just once, and soon.

I love you. I’m so sorry. She worked so hard, loved so well. I know you will miss her. And I am sorry.

Snowy Days

In my day, [grumble grumble] we didn’t have snow days. We didn’t have snow! I remember exactly 4 times in my childhood when I saw snow at my home on the southern coast of South Carolina.

We did have hurricane days. We built them into the school schedule because the Atlantic was pretty active in those years. One season, we evacuated five separate times. We could not wait for October! And we barely unpacked in between. Still, we didn’t suffer a direct hit. And we had minimal damage. Not so in the past two years. But I’m not here to talk about hurricanes.

I’m here talk about snow.

The first time I saw snow fall and stick, I was in college. It was also the first time I saw accumulation. I don’t even know that we got a full inch, but it felt like two or three. Statesboro hadn’t had snow since the last time my hometown had snow, which had been the year I was born: a 21 year gap. I made my first snow angel and built my first snow person. I got to witness my Bajan friend experience snow for the first time in the coat that I helped him buy.

I had seen more snow than that before, but it was at Snowshoe, West Virginia on a church youth group trip, and there was no beautiful powder to learn to ski on. Snowshoe’s fresh snow had iced over several days earlier, and only the snow machines were keeping a semblance of dust on the trails. Which dropped off into mud and trees. I know, because I careened off of one. But I’m not here to talk about that either.

The last time it snowed in Macon, my grandmother died. Not exactly at the same time.

Four years ago, it snowed. During every cold snap that winter, a friend stayed with my roommate and I because the house she was renting was crowded and poorly insulated and notoriously frigid. We refused to let her sleep at home in four layers and hat, so our spare bedroom became hers for much of the winter. The night it snowed, we three went out front with the dog, throwing snowballs and laughing in the driveway and stomping designs in the snow. Then we all came in for hot chocolate and warm, dry clothes.

The next day, the office was closed so I stayed in with my friend, crocheting and knitting and watching a little TV curled up on the couch with the dog. Morgan had to go to work, but when she came home we watched movies and ate chili in the coziness, after playing in the snow a bit more.

It took something like an hour to clean enough snow and ice off my car the next day that I could go to work. I was an hour or two late, and by that afternoon my grandmother was dead. She’d been in and out of the hospital for a while, so I didn’t realize this one was different. I didn’t know she was in ICU until we were under several inches of snow. There was no opportunity to get to her.

Her sister has been in the hospital for over a week now. This is my grandmother’s last sister.

I’ve been looking forward to the snow all winter. I was thrilled to wake up early to see it fall. My roommate’s dog from the previous snow has passed away, so this dog experienced snow for the first time. Watching her joy and confusion were my greatest joys of the day.

The roads are dry now, I’m back at work, and I’m trying not to be superstitious about things, but I’m also wondering if I’m going to get a call from my aunt or my mom. I’m wondering if I’m going to know even before I answer. I wonder if I’m going to rush out of the office and into a spare room, surrounded by discarded and antiquated computer parts to sit and listen to what I already know.

I hope not. But I don’t begrudge her rest and healing, whatever that looks like. She’s had a very hard life, and her sisters are gone.

I pray for her children. I pray for our family. I pray for everyone who suffers in the cold like this: those without heat, those without enough insulation, those with no home, those with disabilities that make cold especially difficult, those who are lonely. I pray for those who are more prone to slipping and breaking in this snow and ice. I pray for the families, friends, and coworkers of those who have died since the storm began.

Oh God, I am sorry

My childhood nemesis was murdered.

I don’t mean that exactly how it sounds. For one, I had several childhood nemeses, our relationships growing progressively hostile as we grew older. But this was an early one, my second. And for another, he wasn’t murdered when we were children. It was many years later, when we were adults and living in different cities—from our hometown and from one another—and hadn’t seen or spoken to each another in over 8 years.

So why did I care so much when he died?

Maybe because I always had, or try to have, compassion. Even for my enemies. Not that we were really enemies.

Maybe it’s because he was alive, and now he’s dead.

Maybe it’s because murder is terrible.

We had a lot of fun times together, actually. But only when it was just the two of us, waiting for our moms to pick us up or working on a project together or sitting at the same art table.

I remember once asking my mom why he and I couldn’t get along except when we were alone. She told me that when we were older, maybe in high school, things would be different and maybe we could be friends. I moved to a different school a couple years later and we never got that chance, but the optimism of what our future relationship could have been colored my memories until I saw him through the lens of that never-realized friendship. I don’t know if I still harbored any bitterness toward him when I left that school at age twelve, but I know I’d long-since lost it when I got the email from my mother, his name as the subject line.

It might have been something innocuous. Mom had bumped into old friends and even other nemeses of mine at the grocery store, and spoken with their parents in the store where she works. I expected a fun update from him or his mom about how he was doing, all the more welcome because it’d been so long.

I had to read the article’s opening paragraph four or five times before I began to understand.

It was October. I’d been for a walk at some trails and was catching up on emails in my car before driving to Bible study. I felt closed up, insulated and alone but exposed, realizing how terrible a thing had been done to him.

And my next thought was of his mother. His kind, loving, hardworking mother. His mother who had already lost her husband in another act of violence.

If you think about famous nemeses, you might think about Joker to Batman or Moriarty to Sherlock. You’ll think about dastardly villains on the wrong side, foils in specific ways to the protagonist, but also compliments in vital ways. The Joker and Batman live their lives by similar but polar principles. Joker believes that anyone could become what he is—the worst of villains—if their circumstances were bad enough. And Batman believes that no matter how bad your circumstances, you too can become a hero. (Or, at least choose not to be a villain.) They work so well as nemeses because they are determined to prove themselves right to the other, but neither can destroy the other without abandoning their defining principles.

Moriarty and Sherlock are fantastic nemeses because they are so well-matched in intelligence and skill, and have similar enough vices that you can see how they very easily could be the same person or even best friends. But their moralities are just different enough that they have chosen to use their intelligence and vices and needs in entirely opposing ways.

Where Joker and Batman cannot destroy each other because of the nature of their ideological battle, Sherlock and Moriarty fear how they will cope if one should kill the other. We admire Sherlock not for the murder he commits, or believes he commits, but for his willingness to finally end this dangerous feud. He does so for everyone else’s sake, since doing so poses a real risk to his happiness and well-being.

Alex and I were good nemeses in part because we were so similar. We were both smart, analytical, logical, sassy. We enjoyed arguing and bantering. And we were both proud. When no one else was around, the pride wasn’t much of an issue so we very rarely fought. Our similarities aligned and we had a great time. But allow even one other person into our proximity and we begin to compete, to spar, and to wound. I don’t think we really meant to hurt each other, just to avoid being on the receiving end. But I remember feeling hurt, so I know I hurt him. And that, I regret almost the most.

I probably should regret inflicting pain the most, and yet children are cruel. That was the duel and the deal until I bowed out and went to another school.

I didn’t reach out to him after his father died. I regret that the most.

He didn’t need me, but I wish I hadn’t withheld my offer of support and comfort. We were similar, had history, and had been connected. I told myself I didn’t know how to reach him but I did. I just didn’t try. I repeated, “He doesn’t need you” and didn’t dwell on “But what if it could help him?”

And, oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for inflicting pain. I am sorry for withhold support. I am sorry for his fear and his death. I am sorry for his mother, his friends.

After Bible study the night I learned of his murder and the finding of his body, I stayed up for hours in the dark writing every memory I had of him. Most I hadn’t revisited in years, but they were still there, once I let my brain sift through its back rooms. My personal pain from those years of the bullying was gone in the echo of his taken life. Late, late, late, sifting and writing and sitting and grieving. The next night, I wrote more, wrote them all out, and now I have them. And I will keep those memories on paper, a back-up for my mind.

A year and a half later, the week my aunt passed suddenly of a heart attack, I wrote to the judge so he would know the man who’d been taken before passing sentence on the murderers. I sat in the dark of a Dallas hotel, my coworker/roommate asleep behind me, too far to comfort my family or be comforted by them. But I could speak for my childhood nemesis. I could advocate for his memory. And I could pray, for the thousandth time, for his mother.

His name was Alex. He was aware, so he must have been afraid when he died. I hate fear.

I tried and tried to find a way to reach his mother, to tell her how sorry I am and to share my memories of her son and husband, but she retreated and I respect her boundaries. I’m sharing about this now because, with one gunshot, October was smeared with gunpowder. Even though Alex’s birthday was in summer and I first met him in January, I think of him in October. I remember him in October.

Not only in October. Also in sunlit pools and when I see a figure through the rain and when I feel spattered paint under my fingers and when I see a pale blue polo over broad shoulders and when I hear a football being caught.

Oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for Alex. Please comfort his mother.

7 Ways to Care for the Grieving

I’ve alluded to this before, but I’ll say it point blank: from January 2014 to June 2015, 9 people in my life passed away. They died of heart failure, blood clots, burns, young and old age. Plus the murderers of a childhood friend were sentenced. And a tree died. Some of my dreams died. My roommate’s dog started to die but we didn’t know it yet. It was kind of a lot.

Over that year and a half, I got pretty good at telling people why I’d be out of town again, at hiding that I was still grieving (or grieving again), at visitation small talk, at selecting photos for slide shows, at giving warm hugs without sobbing, and at thanking strangers for coming.

Lately, I’ve watched various people in my life experience intense loss. So here are 7 ways to care for a grieving person, learned from being the one grieving.

Say something. More to the point, don’t say nothing. Avoid platitudes, but a platitude is better than nothing. Say you’re sorry. Ask me about a favorite memory of the person. Don’t ignore it because you’re nervous or uncomfortable. That’s horribly selfish. Don’t be afraid to bring up my loved one or say their name. Even if it just happened. Even if it was two weeks ago and you just found out. Even if it’s been months.

Listen. Listen to what I say. Listen to what I don’t say. Let me guide the tone and topic for a week or so, especially when the funeral or death comes up. And if you conveyed your sympathy, I thanked you, then I started talking about work or asking about you, don’t keep dragging our conversation back to my grief. Maybe I really don’t want to delve those depths right now.

Don’t harp. I’m not the only person who has lost someone and neither are you. Mention that a family member died but don’t tell me the whole saga of your grandmother’s slow demise unless I ask multiple questions. Your harping makes me feel like I should be comforting you. Your grief is no less legitimate than mine, but mine is also quite new. Please don’t make my pain about you.

Do something tangible. What you’ll do will depend on how well you know me. My roommate would vacuum and tidy up while I was gone and be available when I got home in case I wanted company or a distraction. When I did want to talk, she asked how my family was doing, if the service went okay, if everyone behaved well. (That could be it’s own tip: don’t cause drama. Pity it ever needs saying.) The day we had to put the dog to sleep, a friend texted and said he wanted to bring us KFC for lunch.

Take initiative. Saying, “Can I bring dinner by tomorrow? I’ll leave it on your porch” is way better than “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” A dozen other people have said the same thing to me, and I don’t know that they all meant it. Assuming you did mean it, no matter what I need or how much I need it, I don’t want to inconvenience you. But if you take the initiative, I can either say “Thank you” or “Would you mind waiting until next week?” or “I really appreciate that, but I’d rather get coffee with you and talk. Could we do that instead?”

Pain is pain. My friend told me this nine years ago. Her fiance had just called off their wedding and she couldn’t understand why a lady in her church, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, had reached out to her to offer encouragement. “Your loss is so much greater than mine,” my friend had said to the woman. And the woman had answered, “Pain is pain.” All pain is not the same, and maybe you don’t understand why I’m grieving so much over the death of my roommate’s dog or the falling of that tree. Just know it was important to me, and so the loss is painful.

Don’t tell me I’m grieving wrong. You aren’t helping by criticizing how much or little you saw me cry. Maybe I’m much better at acting okay than you think. Maybe this is my third funeral in two weeks and I’m a bit numb. Maybe I wanted the woman in the casket to hold my babies and I just saw how much yours have grown. I’m working through this is my own way. You don’t have to understand to respect it.

The Collapse

A tree fell at the office next door to the building where I work.

It had rained hard for much of the long weekend after a drizzle-y week, and the roots seemed to have just sighed too hard and either they or the ground let go. Maybe both.

The once shapely Bradford pear tree fell away from the driveway, the building, and other Bradford pear trees to lay down in the thin seam of grass between that property and the parking lot for our building.

Every day for a week, I watched the branches of this 30 foot tree slowly collapse from their own weight and lack of nutrition. This tree settled first onto its thicker, inner limbs. After a couple of days, the edges of this very round treetop, which faced the windows nearest my desk, had collapsed. Those thicker branches bore the weight of the outer, smaller branches until they could not bear that weight anymore.

For a few scraggly limbs, being pressed laterally by gravity is not so different from being pressed vertically. Those branches reaching high are still almost as tall as the one-story gabled building behind it. But even their leaves had grown pale. The undersides faced the sun in the morning and, without water from the roots, the leaves were scorched, dried out, and squeezed off.

I did not expect to watch a tree die every day. I expected people with saws to come, and trucks, and for a scattering of leaves and twigs to be all that remained.

I expected death to be that way. Surgical. Clinical. A gush of blood or a shot or a nap. A beeping suddenly ceasing. A sudden fall and a swift demise. Surreal in its swiftness but over. For the fear of my own suffering, I think I want it that way. But in others, I think I want a fight, a prolonging, even when it’s clearly almost over. Yet, I haven’t found death to really be this way. I have more time than I think—so much time, no sense in rushing—right up until I don’t.

They are the tree. Or, if there’s an accident, a massive heart attack, a fatal stroke, the tree is me.

The profound suffering is mine, is yours: weight that can’t be carried the only way we have ever carried anything. And now the edges of our life, our family, our emotions are collapsing. Our tender surfaces are exposed. And I see how cut off we can become from all that feeds and sustains.

Then there’s the weight, the crushing, the breathlessness, the collapse.

It’s horrible to see.

You know it’s coming. Sagging skin, brittle bones, dodgy balance, purple welts. Moans. Face so slack you have to strain to see the chest rise. Forgetfulness and fewer filters, if they remember much of you these days. Gradual. Unexpected. Sad. Slow. Mean.

Or you don’t see it coming, except maybe while squinting into the past. Flagging footsteps. Early to bed. Insomnia. Shallow sighs. Hurting eyes. Dropping things. Forgetting to eat. Obsessing over the trivial. Biting anger chased by the inconsolable wretch of sobs.

And when do you call it “over”? When do you say “the tree is dead”? When the limbs are all broken, the roots all severed? When the dying one—person, relationship, friendship, pet, home—has finally lost all it’s leaves? Or when it first falls?

Take a leaf. Squeeze it between pages. It’s coming.

It’s coming, so watch. Don’t turn away. It’s hard to look but this isn’t the first tree that’s fallen in this way and it sits in a line of Bradford pear trees, shapely and tall. You know that Bradford pear trees split. You know they grow too top-heavy and fall.

The others will fall. You can’t stop that.

Park a little farther away from them. Enjoy the reddening leaves, the shade, even the smell.

Witness the end.

Maybe, later, plant another.