I wrote this a few years ago. A close family friend had died and I didn’t quite know how to react- I had just started college, I was learning what it was to be on my own- it was the first death of my adult life and it hit me hard.
In the wake of more death, I went digging to find this again and found it still rang true. Obvious trigger warning for death. It feels sick to be proud of a piece like this but I am, and as I’ve never been great at expressing things like grief perhaps finally sending this into the world will do something.
Again, I did write this a few years ago and I haven’t edited it, so bear with me if parts are rough.
First, live a life. Pick a life, almost any life, though any life should work if you’re lucky and can tweak the circumstances. Be born, be a child, be present at family gatherings and know those who constantly show up. In-laws a step or two too far away from you should work perfectly. Know your parents’ best friends, your siblings’ partners and their partners’ families. Know everyone, while simultaneously somehow knowing no one at all.
Hear stories. Ask questions or don’t ask them, so long as someone asks them you should be fine.
Find a person. Any person. You may not even think yourselves particularly close in life, but they are a constant, a pair, Mr. and Mrs. and to say anything but their last name in the plural sense when asking about a guest list seems almost sacrilegious. Perhaps this person is only related to you through the twists and turns of blood and inlawry and has been dying your entire life, from the time they were eighty to the present. Perhaps your memories of them are hazy, shrouded by the inaccessibility of a four-score age gap, severe hearing issues, and memory loss. Perhaps, despite being an adult and having known them for years, you can’t refer to them in anything but the formal- their first name seems too personal, and they are too elder.
And so it comes that your person dies. Perhaps it is sudden, perhaps it should have happened a decade ago. And you leave your home and go to the visitation, the funeral, hug the people who need hugging and talk to the people who need talking to, shift your falsified exterior for just a little bit so that you can be sad and seem sad at the same time. This is a safe place for emotion. But not too sad, remember- you weren’t actually related to them, and blood makes those ties closer. You were a shadow, a loud one but a shadow nonetheless, and were you really close at all? You avoided them, towards the end, because older people and sick people and people in other situations you don’t fully understand scare you and you didn’t quite know how to handle it. Remember how they were in the bathroom for four hours at Easter dinner, and your aunt had to take them home so that they could clean up and avoid further embarrassment? Remember how they would forget your name, say the same things over and over and over again so that you would smile and nod and say, oh you look lovely, too, I’m Katie, I’m John and Terry’s daughter, I’m eighteen years old and in college now, do you remember me now?
In fact, do you have any right at all to mourn? Are you even mourning at all, or just being dramatic? Because just earlier you were laughing and chatting with the one boy at a coffee shop, wondering if this could possibly be a date and how does one begin to figure that out in the first place? Perhaps you are sick and hormonal, and that’s why this hits so much harder than you anticipated. Both of these things are true, you know, and they could add to this. You tell friends about what happened, and perhaps you have bad timing: you seem pretty okay, they snap back, and you want to tell them that you really aren’t. That you try and try and try to express things outwardly because you spent seven years wrestling with yourself on the inside and you’re terrified of what will happen if you have to do it again. That if you can’t convince yourself that you’re okay, you’re scared that you never will be again.
Perhaps you sit alone in your room, drinking tea and pounding out your thoughts on a laptop keyboard and wondering how many things you’ll have to skip the next four years in order to make it through. Wondering if your voice teacher, the free one you got in the lottery from Allen, thinks that you’ve given up after two weeks of missed lessons, or your professors believe you’ve slacked off in classes- who gets sick, has a death in the family (or even is it?), and has an undiagnosed illness that keeps flaring up all within the same week? No one can have that kind of luck. She seems fine.
But you haven’t given up, or at least you don’t think so. Not yet. You like your classes and your professors and never before have you been in a room with so many people passionate about your same interests, the same interests so many people have told you to just shut up about, that you should be social and ask questions about other people rather than going on about what you want to go on about. This is the kind of thing you would have killed for in high school, that you know the people you left behind would kill for a chance at. You’re supposed to have aged out of teenage angst, but you’re scared that this is what you’re falling into again. Angst with a side of one or two things going wonderfully, beautifully right for once.
Perhaps all of this is what the anxious knot of vacuum in your chest consists of. Perhaps you are mourning, perhaps you are terrified, perhaps it’s some combination of the two but whatever it is, you try to cry and find that you can’t.
You think about texting a friend, finding something else to take away the edge of the hurt. You think about your roommate, who had an interview today that you think went well but can’t tell for sure- she took a nap, you went on a maybe-sort of-possibly-date, she went to work, you went to the visitation. She really is so much stronger than you, you who once thought yourself both as strong as you’d ever been yet also so vulnerable. You really are a dramatic child, but you wish for once that the joking labels were taken away and you could know for sure. Are you just dramatic? Or is this even real?
You have the funeral tomorrow morning. Hence the skipped voice lesson. Perhaps you will go to the brunch afterward, so you wonder who all will be there. Family, probably, and their family too. Every time you picture it, you see them being wheeled backwards into your house, being held in the chair, sitting at the dining-room table with a plate of ham and scalloped potatoes and black-cherry jello. The oven at home isn’t working right now, maybe that’s what your mom will bring.
And you remember that they will not be there. They will not be wheeled into your house, backwards or otherwise, and they will never sit at your dining-room table with a plate of ham and potatoes and jello ever again. You can taste ham now, even though you haven’t had it since then, tinged with the acidic flavor of the boxed wine your parents let you have a drop of. You wonder about that wine. Wonder if you should text that friend anyway, damn the consequences, get drunk for the first time (good Christian girls only drink wine at communion, and even then it is because they’re no longer Protestant and no longer obliged to obey their parents in all that they do) on hard cider or that Smirnoff she had in a Hydroflask the other night. Perhaps then you might be able to cry.
You aren’t going to be able to go to the burial. You can’t, you know you can’t, and yet you wish you could. It will be cold, this coming Monday morning, but of all the people that have died and whose funerals you have been to in the past few years, you feel the closest to him. You want to skip the two, maybe three classes that day and be with them but you were sick last week, sick and sad and tired and you missed so much that- at least for one of them- you don’t know if you have any absences left. But you wish, nonetheless, for the painful finality of it- the Psalm, the hymn (would you cry then?), the last remarks, the spouse, bundled in blankets and embraced so much you fear her bird-bones will crack and she, too, will fly away. The two of them aged together, lost themselves at the same time, went off into a fanciful past where they could drive and travel and be young once more.
But he’s gone. She’s left. And your aunt, standing by the casket with her brothers on either side of her, looks more tired than you’ve ever seen her. You were excited to meet your cousin’s firstborn, an infant boy with a name better suited to a 1950s-era-professor with a tweed coat and a pipe, but here he is at the funeral of a great-grandfather he never got to meet. A death before you are three months old- you can’t imagine. His first flight, his first funeral.
Another cousin’s eldest, a boy of six, seems to understand better what’s going on. He solemnly tells you about a picture in the room, him as a baby and his great-grandfather grinning together at their first meeting. His brothers, four and two years old, tear about the place before distracted with books and card games. You always knew that those kids were smart, it was inevitable, but you don’t think you’ll ever tell the six-year-old that he’s better and more confident in his schoolwork than you’ve ever been.
You sit back and reread what you’ve written. Surely you’re being dramatic, you’re always being dramatic, you’re always looking for attention and being insensitive to the people able to grin and bear it but Christ, you grinned and bore it for so long and it almost killed you, you never want to do it again.
Is it okay to hurt as much as you do? You don’t actually know. All you know is that he is gone and you still don’t really know how to be a human and you wish you weren’t quite so alone right now.
And just like that, you can finally cry.