I’ve been avoiding the page for the past two weeks because I haven’t wanted to deal with life head on. The year anniversary of the death of my brother was a couple of weeks ago–March 25. I took the day off work and drove out to Pedernales State Park to commune with nature and my brother’s memory.

DSC_0834

Pedernales River March 25, 2014

I generally don’t like people in my nature photos, but if you look closely you can see the itty bitty people standing on top of the rocks right of center, which gives some perspective as to the vastness of this place.

On my way home, I saw these little guys, so I pulled over to stop for a visit.

As spring finally appears in Central Texas, I’m only now beginning to appreciate how weighed down I’ve been by all the grief. The change of seasons is prodding me to awaken, and the fact that it’s so difficult to do so highlights grief’s impact. As I hiked around the park, I thought of Steve, and my dad, and my other brother, Mike. All the loss has changed me. Irrevocably. It had to.

I no longer know what I want from life. I don’t think I want much of anything, in fact. I don’t want to excel at my job. I want to do good work, but I don’t want to achieve, get ahead, become a star. I don’t want to pass the time in idle conversation. I don’t want to buy things. I’m not much interested in world news or politics, including Facebook bickering. It just seems so inconsequential. To me. (I did accidentally shake hands with a tea party candidate at my office last week. One who is expected to win a powerful post in my state. I felt like I’d contracted cooties, afterward.) I used to care deeply about this stuff. But many things that used to matter, don’t now.

What does matter is this beautiful rainy Sunday. The squirrel eating out of the bird feeder. The gold finches and the doves. The cat on my lap. My visit with my mother at her assisted living home yesterday. The doctor told us last week that based on her EEG results, she’s got dementia. They are starting her on Aricept and Namenda. I kept hoping her memory loss was due to grief, but it’s only getting worse. The doctor says she’s still very high functioning. And she is. But I can’t help but think of my father’s deterioration and the fact the Alzheimer’s killed him, albeit indirectly. (Disorientation caused him to fall out of bed and hit his head on a nightstand–he died a year and a half ago from a subdural hematoma, exactly a month after emergency brain surgery.) I asked them to do an MRI of my mother’s brain, which will be done next week. Hopefully it won’t reveal any additional concerns.

All of this has brought me back to a familiar spot. Wanting my mother to live and enjoy life for many years to come. But not wanting her to live long enough to make it to the devastating late stage of dementia. My father got close, but the brain injury spared him (and us) from the worst of it. And now with both my parents having been diagnosed with dementia, it’s bound to catch up with me at some point. I’m trying to stay in the present. Focus on the beautiful moments in front of me. But my mind keeps racing ahead.

Here is a photo I took last weekend, to bring me back to now.

Texas Bluebonnets

Texas Bluebonnets

I used to dislike the holidays because of the family dysfunction. I now dislike the holidays because of the lack of family to create dysfunction. This time last year, we were adjusting to the death of my oldest brother (April 2012) and father (October 2012). I was in the midst of putting together an intervention for my remaining brother so we wouldn’t lose yet another family member to an alcohol-related disease. The intervention worked: my brother went to inpatient rehab, quit drinking, and died three months later of acute myelogenous leukemia (March 2013). That’s how it goes.

This year, my remaining family members remain a bit shell-shocked. None of us really knows how to do Christmas. My sister has a pretty good gig–she just leaves town and goes to her daughter’s home in Dallas to hang out with her new grandbaby. I, on the other hand, will go to Houston to try to cobble together some sort of Christmas get-together for my mother. I haven’t written much about my mother of late. I suppose I should pause and insert a quick update.

In July, my mother had minor outpatient surgery to suspend her bladder. Now that she was no longer spending all her time and energy caring for my father and alcoholic brothers, she began to care for herself. The minor bladder surgery turned into a major medical emergency when she got deep vein thrombosis in the days that followed. She spent two weeks in intensive care, during which time the doctor informed me that a vena cava filter she’d had inserted during a hip replacement years earlier likely saved her life. Even so, I found myself putting together my to-do list in the event of her death. It had sort of become old hat. But, she didn’t die. She went from intensive care to intense inpatient rehab for a month. People gave me funny looks when I told them my mother was in inpatient rehab. I had to pause and explain it was not the kind of rehab my brother had been in just months earlier. From there she went to normal rehab at a skilled nursing facility, where she stayed until the Medicare ran out–three months. That took us through late October, where she made the transition to assisted living. Insurance does not cover assisted living. That’s running about $6500 a month. Yes, I lose sleep worrying about money. Often. But I’m also becoming quite thrifty with my own finances. Better late than never.

So here I am, the estranged white black sheep of the family, now in charge of all things: probating my father’s will, managing my mother’s finances (which includes three houses and not much in the way of liquid assets), and running what’s left of my father’s business from afar. White black sheep, you query? Yes. I considered myself the black sheep because I was different from the rest of the family in that I was the only child of four who did not work for my father’s business. Instead, I went to law school and basically ran away from home when I moved from Houston to Austin. (My sister and her husband quit the business a few years back, and my brothers quit by dying.) I considered myself the white black sheep because I wasn’t a bad sheep. I was different from the rest of my family in that I ran from the dysfunction, rather than embracing it. Upon further consideration, black sheep get a bad rap. I think I’ll drop the “white” from my self-description, and just go with black sheep from now on.  Seriously. Look how cute she is.

Embrace the Black Sheep

Embrace the Black Sheep

All this babbling is leading up to something. It really is. It’s just difficult to go at it directly. My niece (the eldest daughter of my sister and her husband) has a new baby girl. My sister’s husband molested their other daughter for many years until she spoke up at age 15. My sister didn’t divorce him. Aside from the molesting part, he’s actually a kind man. Whereas my sister is a cold, cold woman. It’s all very complicated for them, to be sure. For many years I found it all very black and white. He was horrible, she was just as bad (and maybe even worse), and they both should rot in hell, if only there was one. Rather than getting into how I feel about it now (if I even know), I want to talk about how disturbing it was when I was with them all over Thanksgiving. Yes, I waxed lyrical in an earlier post about how the baby brought us all together. She did. But what are my niece and her husband thinking when the molester holds the baby? Have they discussed with each other how they’re going to deal with grandpa? Have they had a conversation with him?

Dad, here are the rules:

  • You are not allowed to be alone with my baby. Ever.
  • You are not allowed to change the baby’s diaper.
  • You are not allowed to be in the room when the baby’s diaper is being changed.
  • You can’t give her a bath.
  • You can’t go in the bathroom when she’s having a bath.
  • You can’t bounce her on your knee.
  • You can’t dress her.
  • You can’t take her temperature.
  • You can’t play horsey.

How in the world is she navigating around the landmines? How does her husband feel about it? How horrible is it to have this dark cloud over the joy of being a new mother? I did notice when the baby’s diaper was being changed, he left the room. Which led me to think they do have rules in place.

Would things have been simpler if my sister had left him? Would it be easier to disown your father (and in my sister’s case, to leave her husband), or to continue to have him as a part of your life, but erect strong boundaries to prevent history from repeating itself?

These are very difficult decisions, to be sure. For some, I expect the answers are black and white. As they were for me for many years. But when everyone starts dying, you begin to see the gray edges. (I will refrain from picking the low-hanging fruit–making a 50-shades-of-gray joke.) You begin to see the good and bad in everyone. Including your crazy family. And you find yourself wanting them around, despite the bad. Which is difficult, too. Because in a way, it makes me feel like a sellout. Maybe I should get a new boyfriend, instead.

It’s in the 20s and 30s in Austin. Just a few days ago, it was in the 80s. I’m lounging on the sofa covered in a faux fur throw, a pot of Bolognese simmering on the stove. (Less than 2 hours to go!) Sadie is napping on the green silk chair.

Is the bolognese done yet?

Is the Bolognese done yet?

Sally is doing the rolly pollies on the dining rug.

No, I'm not currently using the rug as a scratching post.

No, I’m not currently using the rug as a scratching post.

Sophie is upstairs in her room snoozing on the hand-crocheted blanket on her sofa.

imageOr at least she was until I attempted to photograph her, at which point she got up, went for a quick scratch, and refused to pose further.

You may photograph my hind quarters. That is all.

You may photograph my hind quarters. That is all.

Damn, the paparazzi. Always intruding on my naps.

Damn, the paparazzi. Always intruding on my naps.

This time last year, Sophia hadn’t yet appeared on my doorstep. This time last year, the temperatures hadn’t yet reached freezing. Thank goodness she was lost last year.

Later, I’ll lie on her sofa, and she’ll jump up immediately, meowing and trilling repeatedly, until she settles herself on my belly. She’ll lie there, purring and drooling, as I tell her what a lucky little cat she is. No hiding from storms or the cold. Or dogs. No scrounging in the trash for food. No matted fur. No protruding bones. No resorting to rubbing against bushes for petting.

This holiday season, she lives in a warm house with all the tuna she can eat (Whole Foods pole caught albacore, no salt added). She has her own room with a sofa, sheepskin, blanket, and jungle gym.  She has two not-so-wicked-after-all stepsisters who’ve all but stopped hissing at her. They’ve even allowed her onto the two-legged mama cat’s bed. She’s got a clean litter box all to herself that is scooped twice daily. And she gets to lie on her mama’s tummy every night, purring and drooling to her heart’s content.

I can’t help but think in these freezing temperatures what Sophie would have done had I not found her. How she would have fared on her own. But I did find her. Or rather, she found me. She gave me something good to focus on in the midst of all my grief. She warmed my heart. And I warmed her paws.

Family time has always been a mixed bag for me. (Which makes me unique amongst my readers, I’m sure.) On Thanksgiving, I’d drive down to Houston in the morning, have dinner with my family, and drive back to Austin in the afternoon. Friends and acquaintances who didn’t know my family found the brevity of my visits odd. I found them sanity-preserving. As did my shrink.

Now, I miss those days. I miss the dozen plus people in the house, mostly in the kitchen getting in each other’s way, all frenetically trying to put the finishing touches on their dishes. I miss my brother’s gravy-making. And his turkey carving. (He’d taken over those duties when my dad couldn’t do them any more because of the Alzheimer’s.) I miss arguing with my nieces about whether we would make skinny mashed potatoes, or pour in the half and half and softened butter. (I wanted the latter. It was Thanksgiving, dammit.) Due to all the alcoholism, Thanksgiving was dry at my house most years. Or rather, it was dry in the house. The drinkers would duck outside for the beer or rum and coke waiting in their vehicles, claiming they were stepping out for a smoke. Or to cool off. The house was always too warm. In the beginning, the bodies and cooking caused it. As the years passed, it got progressively warmer. My aging parents, feeling a chill that wasn’t there, would turn the thermostat higher and higher. If only the house had been cooler, I might not have punched my brother in the face that one year. (Not a true story, but the heat was conducive to arguments.)

Eventually, dinner would make it to the table, remarkably warm. Probably because the house was so hot. There were always two tables set–the big table in the dining room, and the kids’ card table in the adjoining living room. Seated at the grown-up table, my dad always at the head, were my mom, my two brothers (and before they divorced, their wives), my sister, her husband, and me. (I haven’t brought a date to Thanksgiving for thirty years.) My six nieces and nephews would sit at the kids’ table. We’d then go around the tables and say what we were thankful for. My mother generally was thankful that everyone was there and healthy (even when they weren’t). My dad was thankful for his dog. My oldest brother, when he showed up, was thankful for his girlfriend (who would later kill him, but only figuratively). My younger brother would tear up as he expressed thankfulness for his children. (He and I were especially sentimental.) My sister would tell him to hurry the hell up, and then express thankfulness for the fact that she could leave us and go to Galveston as soon as the kitchen was clean. The kids would be thankful for family, or the giant pile of mashed potatoes on the plate before them, or their new puppy yipping outside in the back yard.

I can’t remember what I was thankful for. That I’d dumped my most recent crappy boyfriend, adopted two fluffy black rescue kitties, or lost ten pounds and had room in my Thanksgiving jeans, were likely contenders.

Now, I’m thankful I had all those precious years with the seats at the table filled.

This year, with both my brothers and my father dead and no desire to spend Thanksgiving at my sister’s, I stayed home in Austin. I got up early and did the 5-mile Turkey Trot (which turned out to be 7.34 miles what with all the weaving through the people on the course and getting to and from our parking spot) with my friend, Dora, and then headed to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a nice Thanksgiving, and due to the absence of perceivable alcoholism in the group, there were many bottles of bubbles and wine. No one rushed off right away after dinner. We played Tabu. The house was nice and cool. The pumpkin pie was made with fresh pumpkin. The stress-free smoked turkey from Rudy’s Barbecue was moist and delicious. My Tuscan kale gratin was a hit. There were squabbles amongst Dora’s children from time to time. But rather than causing me consternation, since they aren’t my family, I found it amusing. (I may have even instigated a bit, just for fun.) I pronounce this my new tradition: Turkey Trot followed by Thanksgiving dinner at Dora’s.

Friday morning, I drove to Houston to see my mother. She’d spent Thanksgiving at my sister’s, along with my sister’s husband, her two adult daughter’s, the boyfriend and husband of each, and my eldest niece’s four-month-old baby. A baby! Everybody loves a baby. This particular baby has turned out to be a binding agent. Like eggs. Or mushrooms (as in these gluten-free meatballs).

When I arrived in Houston, I picked my mother up at her assisted living apartment and drove her to the house that she’d lived in with my father for over 30 years. The house currently is unlived in, save for a nephew in the garage apartment. I had invited my nieces and nephews by to spend some time with me and my mom, and had offered to take everyone to dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Later, the plan would morph into a family meeting as I arranged for everyone to meet a notary at the house to sign some documents the lawyer had prepared in connection with my father’s estate. My mom and I had several hours to kill before everyone arrived, and I found myself in the master bedroom with her, going through photos and momentos tucked away in her dresser drawers. (She was also looking for a ring she suspected my nephew had hocked. We never found it.) As we looked through the pictures, children’s drawings, and cards, I teared up numerous times. My mom said being in the house made her sad. The house being so devoid of people and commotion played a part in this, to be sure. As did the fact she’d taken many pieces of furniture to her assisted living apartment, leaving it rather sparse of inanimate objects as well.

Eventually, my sister, her husband, all six of my mother’s grandchildren, her great-grandchild (the mushroom baby), and the husband and boyfriend of my nieces (two different people), would trickle in. Then came the notary, and we all took turns signing her book and the three documents, generally milling about, and taking photographs with the baby. The baby, who is perfect, by the way. She looks like a little doll. A Gerber baby. She is beautiful, and oh so sweet. And she loves me, which is to be expected. Unexpectedly, however, is the transformation my sister has undergone. It’s like she saw that baby and her heart grew three sizes, much like the Grinch.

Here is my sister’s heart pre-baby:

Size of Sister's Heart Pre-Grandbaby--note it is barely discernable in the magnifying glass.

Size of Sister’s Heart Pre-Grandbaby–Note it is barely discernible in the magnifying glass.

Here is my sister’s heart post-baby:

Sister's Heart Post-Grandbaby--Note it breaks the magnifying glass due to its ginormous size.

Sister’s Heart Post-Grandbaby–Note it breaks the magnifying glass due to its

ginormous size.

And here is my sister with the baby on one knee, and me on the other.

My Sister--Note Mushroom Baby on one knee, and me, dressed as reindeer dog, on the other.

My Sister–Note Mushroom Baby on one

knee, and me, dressed as reindeer dog, on the other.

Yes, the change was this dramatic. She hugged me. She talked to me when she didn’t have to. She kept handing me the baby and taking pictures. And then every one of us (all 12.5) went to dinner at my father’s favorite Mexican restaurant. (I’m not much for believing in dead people looking down and seeing what’s going on, but if he could have seen it, he’d have been feeling like the Grinch with the swollen heart.) I’ve got photos of all 12.5 of us at a very long table, all the seats filled, plundering the chips and queso, fajitas, and margaritas spread from end to end. (Since all the alcoholics now are dead, the ban has lifted.) Everyone had a great time. Everyone was happy we could be together. Everyone was happy that we were happy.

All hail to the Mushroom Baby. For she is good.

I’ve written stories and poems since I could string a series of words together with a pencil in my Big Chief Writing Tablet. My first short story was about a girl, Miranda, and her horse. (Like many young girls, I really wanted, but would never get, a horse.) I wrote poems in my early teens that began:

I’m sleepy

I’m tired

No longer inspired

By childish games

Yes, a true prodigy.

Beyond short stories and poetry, I wrote in a journal for decades. journalI’ve got boxes of notebooks, most of them with hardback black covers, but some floral, leafy green, and one emblazoned with a sunset photo. (I’ve got a pact with a friend who promises to throw them away, without reading them, upon my death.) This blog, although anonymous, is as close as I’ve ever come to allowing my writing to have an audience. While I have shared short stories like the one of Miranda and her horse with friends and family, before I began this blog, I never shared my intimate writings.

I’ve thought for years about writing a memoir. Or thinly-veiled fiction. Some writers have to make up stories from whole cloth or use events from the lives of others. I have the opposite problem–too much material. What would my memoir include? I couldn’t include it all: unhappy childhood, drug and alcohol-filled teens and twenties, promiscuity, married boyfriends, alcoholic boyfriends, pedophile boyfriend, moochers, scammers, users, eating disorder, struggles with weight and body image, alcoholic father and two brothers, co-dependent mother, pedophile brother-in-law, niece sexually abused by her father, sister still married to said pedophile, both alcoholic brothers dying in their 50s within less than a year of each other, death of my father sandwiched in the middle of that awful year, mother falling ill shortly thereafter and after four months of rehabilitation, being well enough to move into assisted living. And then there’s the fact that I’m 50, single, never married, living alone with three cats, and have a career in a male-dominated field that I sort of fell into and that now has attached itself to me like a giant barnacle because unfortunately, I’m good at it.

My life is one big passé cliché. How do you write a memoir with so much already-done material? Not to mention the distress it would cause my remaining family. Until I write my story as fiction, or retire and become fearless, this is my medium.

AloneWhile some people may prefer cat stories and vacation photos, which I indulge in from time to time, my deeper desire is to reach out to a somewhat different audience. A woman out there sitting alone on her sofa on a cold, overcast Sunday afternoon, cuddled up with her cats under a faux fur blanket. A woman wondering whether she’s utterly lost, whether her childless partnerless life is devoid of meaning, whether loving her cats as if they were her children makes her odd. A woman who is thrilled that her recently-rescued stray is sitting on the arm of the sofa behind her head, purring loudly, while her step-sister is curled up on the faux-fur blanket on the other end of the sofa, napping. (Never mind that the third kitty is upstairs being unsociable, as usual.) A woman who, as she reads my blog, knows she is not alone in her aloneness. She knows that there are other single, never-married women out there who have endured the death of their parents and siblings alone. Who have vacationed alone. Who sleep, each night, alone (with cats). Women who, despite the tragedies and heartache they have endured, are content. And they are not alone.

 

I’m lying on the sofa in baby cat’s room. She’s cuddled up to me, purring, as I write. If I go too long without petting her or kissing her head, she presses her wet nose into my arm. The little stray is lost no more. I, on the other hand, am asea.

My neighbor left for California last weekend. There’s no one filling up the emptiness. I didn’t realize it was there until she left. That first night without her company, the grief pounced. I thought I’d made it through. Turns out I was just delaying it.

My brother has been dead five months. If we make it through two more months, that will be the longest I’ve gone without someone dying in my family since April 2012. Back in June, I was preparing for my mother’s death. When she went into ICU with DVT, I wrote a list of what I needed to do to wrap things up. The Death List. Cremation. Easy. We’ve used the same guy three times. Church for service? What’s one more time in that fucking chapel? Piece of cake. Cleaning out and selling the houses would take some work. My aunt in California loves the cat. And I’m becoming proficient at probating wills.

But my mom didn’t die. She went from ICU to intense inpatient rehab to a skilled nursing facility. She seems to have settled in well at the SNF. She has daily therapy. The psychiatrist visits. She’s getting some attention for the loss of her two sons and her husband. She got her hair cut in the salon. She gets manicures. (My mother never pampered herself. Ever.) She plays bingo. She goes to the ice cream social.

My mother didn’t die. At least not this time.

I leave in two weeks for the Great Bear Rainforest. I’ll spend nine nights sailing on a 54-foot boat from Ketcikan, Alaska to Bella Bella, British Columbia. I booked the trip shortly after my father died. I grew up sailing with him. We spent many summers at the family cabin in Ontario. Combining sailing and Canada shortly before the year anniversary of his death seemed like a fitting tribute. I didn’t know at the time I’d hit the trifecta, and have a third loss to grieve.

I’m hopeful the rainforest will restoreth my soul. For even a tiny sliver, I’ll be grateful.

Spirit Bear -- photo credit bcrainforest.com

Spirit Bear — photo credit bcrainforest.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about “letting go” in the context of loss. Specifically, the loss of my father and both brothers; all the male members of my family, within eleven months. The deaths happened in such quick succession. My oldest brother died suddenly last April. I brushed it off. I knew it was coming. Some day. I’d been waiting most of my life for that one.

My father died in October, six months after his oldest son. I had a little more time to prepare for his death. I spent five nights with him, just the two of us, in hospice. But even so, when my remaining brother died suddenly a month ago, on March 25, I was still trying to grieve the loss of my father. Only five months had passed. And I hadn’t even begun grieving the loss of my oldest brother last April. That death was complicated.

imageWhen I think about grieving, about letting go, I feel my heels planting more firmly into the dirt, my body leaning back against the rope I’m gripping. But it’s beginning to slip, sliding through my hands, in my own private tug of war.

I don’t want to let go. I don’t have time to feel the losses. To feel their impact. How can I let go of that rope?

Why am I not grieving? Why do I fear feeling it? Am I afraid it will take me through to “the other side”? To a place where I’m “done” with the loss? To a place where it doesn’t matter any more? To a place where they don’t matter any more? Back to my meaningless “before” life?

And so I lean back harder against the rope and hold on tight, even though my hands are torn and bloody.

I went from one death to the next to the next, with no time to grieve. My focus has been to push it away. Get back to work. Back to billing hours. Back to being productive. Back to fitting in at the mega-firm we merged with two years ago. Back to attempting to fit in at that firm even though I don’t share their ambitions and goals, let alone their pedigrees. I didn’t feel their level of ambition before the losses. I feel it even less, now. It all seems so trivial. Moving money from one deep pocket to another.

I need to let go of the rope. To be left alone to grieve. To let go of the rope and just fall apart. Why are we not given time in this culture to grieve? When did that stop? Why can’t I wear black for a year and have people leave me the fuck alone?

Since my brother died, I’ve had very few weekends to myself. Two were spent with family. Last weekend was spent out of town with my firm. And today I have to travel to a client event in a town about an hour and a half away. It’s a fundraiser for a good cause, and it’s being held by my favorite client. But I’m so tired. I just want to be alone. I want to write. Pet the cats. Sleep.

Nothing matters much right now. All the things people worry about at the office seem ridiculous. I want to slap them and tell them to stop fretting over stupid, tiny, small things. But nice things don’t seem to matter either. My jasmine is in full bloom. It smells lovely. And I don’t feel like sitting outside enjoying it and watching the birds. I want to be inside, in my bed, with a cat on my lap.

Last weekend, when I returned from Chicago, I got sick. Just a little cold. Maybe allergies. I wished I was sicker. Even so, I worked from home for a couple of days. In my bed. Papers strewn about, a cat in my lap (Sally), the drapes closed against the world. Just me, in my space, eliminating as many of the things that irritate me as possible. Next week, I may do the same. The boss will be traveling, so it won’t matter whether I work from home or not. He won’t need to walk down to my office every ten minutes to interrupt me with some idiotic, inconsequential tidbit. I like the man. But he’s annoying the crap out of me these days.

I know the irritation is part of the grieving process. But I want to drop the rope and move on to the harder pieces. I want to fall apart. I sometimes fantasize about being locked up in a loony bin for a month or two so I can just be alone and fall apart without all the meaningless bullshit distractions.

I’ve fallen apart exactly once since Steve died on March 25. Last weekend in my hotel room in Chicago. After the after-dinner drinks, of which I had too many, I crawled into the hotel bed. Maybe it was the unfamiliar surroundings. Maybe it was the lack of kitty sleeping companions. Maybe it was too much wine. But the next thing I knew, the dam broke. I sobbed into my pillow for over an hour. I was in such deep despair, I couldn’t prise myself off the bed for a tissue. But I was in a hotel, so I didn’t much care about the snot-covered pillow case. I just kept crying. Ugly crying. Body-wracking-sobs crying. I don’t recall ever crying so hard for so long. I was weak and hollowed out when it subsided.

That’s the kind of grief I want to feel. Over and over again. I know it’s there lurking, beneath the irritation. If only I could drop the rope again and fall flat on my ass in the mud. I don’t know how. I don’t know how I did it last weekend. It just happened. I think I just need to be alone. I need to stop with the tv-watching with my neighbor every night, which generally has included wine and a nice dinner. She’s my distraction. She’s been my distraction since the night I got the news Steve was dying. I haven’t spent a single night after work or on the weekend alone. Not one. Before Steve died, I was alone most nights. My neighbor was in Hong Kong and I spent my evenings in solitude. She is my defense against the grief. She’s supposed to leave this week, but is still waiting for word from her husband. I want her to go.

But I fear being alone with my grief. What if I fall into a pit of despair and am unable to climb out? What if the depression returns? I am depressed. Death does that to a person. But what if the regular non-situational depression returns? What if I can’t keep myself from being sucked under by the quicksand?

Depression is a part of grief. I know that. But what makes that depression different from clinical depression? Why is depression caused by death okay, but depression caused by life is not? How would I feel off the pharmaceuticals? Would I find grieving easier? Would I grieve too much? How can you grieve too much?

Maybe that’s why I’m having trouble grieving. Maybe I need to get off these meds.

Another rambling post. Forgive me.

Today was my brother’s memorial service. He died 11 days ago on March 25 of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). He was 52. My brother had struggled with alcoholism for many years. He tried going sober once and it lasted a year. He white-knuckled it: no AA, no counseling, no support. After that didn’t last, he gave up. His family gave up. We resigned ourselves to his fate. Until my oldest brother died last April of alcohol-related diseases: cirrhosis and hepatitis. And then six months later, in October, my father died of Alzheimer’s complications.

I’d decided then I’d had enough, I wasn’t going to lose Steve too, and I organized an intervention. While it was an “ambush,” it was a compassionate, loving intervention. And it worked. On December 28, 2012, he entered rehab and emerged fiercely committed to his sobriety. He did what he needed to do to stay sober: meetings every day, close contact with his sponsor, reading the big book, beginning to work the steps. And then he started getting sick. Sores in his mouth. Cellulitis in his legs. Pneumonia. My brother had oral cancer twice, and both times he got treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, removal of the lymph nodes) and it had gone into remission. We feared it had come back. It hadn’t. But he was back in the hospital in mid-March feeling tired and week. He went in on a Tuesday. The following Monday morning, March 25, he was diagnosed with AML. By 9:00 Monday evening he was dead. Three days before he would have received his 90-day chip.

My niece and nephew asked me to speak at their father’s service today. I’d never spoken at a funeral before. I fretted over it for two solid days. Jotting down memories. Writing stories from those memories. Discarding some and keeping others. Eventually I settled on several stories from our childhood, each of them with a humorous tone. Or so I hoped. I didn’t have a solid opening or closing, but I had some ideas rattling around in my head.

There were a lot of people at the church. I knew my brother was well-liked. He was a really nice guy. A sweet man, with a heart of gold. But still, I was surprised by the large turnout. And it ratcheted up my nerves a bit more. There were several readings done by the deacon, and then he did the eulogy. I thought his daughter was going to do it, but she lost her nerve. So it was up to me to bring Steve back to life, if only for a few moments in the chapel. It’s the least I could do for him. And his children. And his mother.

So when the time came, I took my notes and walked up to the lectern.

“This sucks, doesn’t it?” I began.

“All I’ve been able to think about these past 11 days is what a cruel merciless universe this can be. This sucks. But A and P have asked me to say a few words about their dad, and so I have to look beneath that, and find something more to say.”

This wasn’t in my notes. I’d set them on the lectern and forgotten about them.

I proceeded to tell the story of the moving-box forts, the false bridge-spotting, and the peeing on the car in Canada. I talked about him sneaking popcorn and pizza up to my room when I had to go to bed before everyone else because I was the youngest. I talked about him steering me away from dating his not-so-gentlemanly friends.

I made them laugh. Several times. Nice, hearty laughter filled the chapel. And I made them cry.

“Steve was my big brother. He was a good big brother. But we ran out of time. Still, he will always be my brother, and a father, and a son, and an uncle, and a friend. And I will miss him terribly.”

I made it through with my voice cracking only at the end.

Many, many people approached me after the service and told me how much they enjoyed what I’d said. I felt so proud.

I did it, Steve. I did it for you. I know you liked it. I know you’re proud of me. And you know how much I love you. We really brought down the house today, didn’t we?

My niece has asked me to say a few words at her father’s memorial service on Saturday. I have no idea what I’m going to say. I want to make them smile. Maybe even laugh. My brother was a funny guy, so this should be simple. This should just flow from my fingertips.

Nary a trickle.

Am I going to choke on the most important writing assignment of my life?

If only I could tell the story about how he peed out the window on my dad’s car, or when he pinned me on the floor and pretended to hock a loogie up and spit it on me, and once “accidentally” let one slip, or when he talked my friend into putting dog poop in her mouth (she would have done anything for him), or when he blew my barbies up with firecrackers.

I can’t think of any sweet stories. They all make him sound like a rascal. But he was a sweet kid. A little shy, even.

I’ll try again in the morning.

Cinque Terre, ItalyMay 17, 2012

Cinque Terre, Italy
May 17, 2012

I’ve spent my nights since I returned from Houston drinking wine, eating, and watching Downton Abbey with my neighbor. I keep referring to it as Downtown Abbey. My English neighbor corrects me but I’m too tired to remember my error. I keep waking up at 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning and lying awake for hours. I repeatedly open the box of work I brought home and toss the lid back on. Yesterday I was uncharacteristically restless. I began cleaning out closets, cedar chests, dressers, and cupboards at 9:00 a.m. I stuffed four trash bags with clothes and various odds and ends for my cleaning lady. I filled three more with towels and sheets for my mother. I finished at 6:30 p.m., not pausing to eat or rest. Then we put a ham in the oven, along with roasted potatoes and asparagus. It was delicious. Comfort food.

Today I was supposed to work at the office, but I feel too wiped out. I look in the mirror and I see a woman who appears to have aged ten years in a week. I’ll be 50 in exactly 50 days. I’m beginning to look more and more like my sister, who’s 6 years older than me. I don’t like her at all. She’s a cold, cold woman. Seeing her face staring back at me when I look in the mirror is depressing. I’ve spent my day today staring at the computer screen and Googling things like, “Death ages you.” And makes you look like your bitch sister.

So here I am: both brothers are dead. My father is dead. I’m left with my mother and sister.

All the men, dead.

This is so fucked up. Now I can see why women marry their fathers. Or their brothers. It’s comforting. I feel no comfort. The closet-cleaning, drinking, eating, sleeping, and tv are my attempts to avoid my pain. But it’s always there. All day. All night. My chest feels like an anvil is sitting on it. I can’t breathe. I keep sighing. I’ve got bags under my eyes. My skin looks washed out. Ashen.

I  forced myself to go for a Pilates session on Saturday. The instructor kept talking about imagining my breath filling my lungs, gathering the energy in my core. As I slid up and down the reformer, I thought, “My brother’s body is dead. He can’t breathe. He can’t gather energy in his core. I can. But he’s gone. He’ll never breathe again. His body stopped breathing fifteen minutes before I got to the hospital. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I could have been with him all weekend. My brother was dying and I wasn’t there.”

My family has been wiped out in the space of eleven months. Brother. Father. Brother.

Thanksgivings and Christmases are no more. They didn’t dwindle one by one over the years; they were wiped out all at once. I don’t have my own family to take their place. Instead I have three cats. Sally sleeps lying across my neck. I love that. It makes me want to never leave my bed.

And there’s that ache, expanding in my chest again, making it difficult to breathe.

Things will never be he same. I’ll never be the same. I was so lucky a year ago. Blissfully ignorant of this kind of pain. I’ll never be blissfully ignorant again.

Until one week ago, I still had my brother. I was grieving my father. And my brother. He was grieving our father and brother. I looked at some texts I’d received from him before he got sick.

“I miss Dad.”

“Be extra nice to Mom. Remember, she’s going to be 77 this year.”

He was sober. He had a chance for a happy future. Stolen from him by leukemia seven days ago.

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