When I got home from my unexpected trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago the ornamental plum outside my upstairs window was blooming. Spring happened in Albuquerque while I was gone, but I’m not ready for it. It’s still lent and my joints are hurting. I’m coughing again. My voice this morning was too hoarse even to sing.
Honestly, I’m not feeling much like writing.
Years ago my husband and I were driving west across Oklahoma. “From there to here we called it coming home,” I wrote in a poem once, and I’ve always liked that line. On this particular trip the sky was tilted all off kilter; clouds and earth and sky jangled at crazy angles to each other. We listened to emergency reports on the radio, wishing we knew the city names as we tried to outrun the tornado swirling somewhere behind us.
I thought of that sky Monday night when I couldn’t sleep. The world feels all helter-skelter again. A good friend is the first to use the “t word”—the call in the middle of the night, the shock of deeply bad news. Trauma, she says, gently.
Every time someone dies, it’s hard in a new way. It’s not just that it opens the well of all the losses that have gone before, although that’s part of it. This time it’s that it feels so much like it shouldn’t have happened. Three weeks before he died, my brother Paul bought a new Subaru. This past Christmas, he bought a tree, a nativity set, a bunch of ornaments. Last summer he bought new furniture.
It isn’t that we didn’t know he was sick. For at least a year we’ve been worried. This summer we weren’t sure he would survive surgery to put a stent in his heart, but he did. When it became clear that his best hope was to get to Cleveland Clinic where the doctors might be willing to do bypass surgery, we worried that he’d die before he got there. It seemed to take forever to get the appointment arranged, while Paul’s voice on the phone kept getting weaker.
The thing is, my brother made it to Cleveland Clinic. A few Sunday mornings ago he and my brother Pat got in Paul’s new CrossTrek with Paul behind the wheel and Pat riding shotgun. They drove to Cleveland Clinic. Monday morning Paul was admitted, and Monday afternoon we all got the cautiously optimistic report that they thought they’d be able to help him. Monday night I was sleeping well when the phone rang a little after midnight Albuquerque time. I saw my sister’s name and the time and knew before I answered the phone what she was calling to tell me. Actually, I didn’t manage to answer the phone. I fumbled it and dropped it on the floor, and Fred answered on his side of the bed when she called back a moment later. Paul had had a heart attack and died.
Any editor would tell you this is a terrible story. It’s too abrupt; the irony too O. Henry. It doesn’t give you any room for resolution; there’s no denouement. Nevertheless, it’s the story I’m in.
When I walked into the funeral home Saturday morning my Uncle Larry asked me to say a few words. He’s done this before; I’ve spoken at my sister’s funeral, and at my father’s. By the time my mother died last spring the Catholic church had decided that lay people shouldn’t give eulogies at funerals, so the notes I jotted on the plane went unsaid. I didn’t think about the fact that Paul’s service wasn’t happening in a church, just a small chapel at the funeral home, so I was surprised when I walked in and my uncle said, “You’re going to say a few things, right?” There is only one answer to that question, and fortunately I’ve carried a tiny notebook around ever since I read Harriet the Spy three thousand times in middle school. I pulled it out and used the hour before the service, when relatives and old friends were gathering in the same room we all gathered in just last May, to try to figure out what to say about my brother.
Here’s a story I’ve never told. One night my sister Meg came home and something was wrong. I was little and watching the commotion in the street from an upstairs window. Someone, I think, had hurt her. My brother, nine years older than I, two years older than Meg, was losing it. “I’m going to kill him,” are the words that still remain, along with a flurry of efforts to hold him back, and some unremembered resolution of the night back into calm. By which I mean at some point I got in bed and proceeded not to think about the events of the night ever again. I wouldn’t have sought comfort or understanding. If my mother had stuck her head in to check on me, I would have pretended to be (and to have been) asleep. I do not know why this was so.
Here’s another story I’m trying to figure out. When we moved into the house on Marvle Valley I was three and my mother wasn’t with us. She was in the hospital losing a baby, and, I think, fighting for her life. My sisters are trying to piece that time together. They were in school, and Judy thinks they might have stayed with our grandmother whose house was close enough to St. Albert’s for them to walk. Where was I? I keep asking them, and they can’t tell me. They don’t think I was with them. How could you have left me? I keep asking them, all weekend, until it becomes its own story. Remember that time when I was three and we moved out of the house in Baldwin and you all went to stay with someone else and forgot me? What did that three year old know? What was she afraid of? In April 1967, did she believe her mother was never coming back? Had she been anticipating the baby that would have released her from her role as youngest? How did you all move out and leave me, I keep asking all weekend, as though that’s a story that actually happened.
Paul, I think, would have remembered. He would have known where I’d been left. What remained for me from the night he wanted to kill someone was the knowledge that my brother would always have my back. That’s what I say at the funeral. I don’t tell the story about how I knew.
Having an uncle who is a priest is never more of a gift than when he is leading the prayers at a funeral. Uncle Larry is standing behind the podium at the front of the chapel. He says, “When I say Lord have mercy, will you say, Lord have mercy.” I love the repetition of “When I say…Will you say…” That’s the litany my uncle’s prayers repeat and I fall into it. You do not have to have anything of your own to offer. You do not have to believe what you are saying. Your voice does not have to be strong. All you have to do is say the words out loud.
It takes a toll on him, officiating at family funerals. My uncle looks tired today, and older than I’ve seen him before. There were twenty-two of you, he tells me, meaning the children of his brothers and sisters. Five have died.
Yesterday afternoon I was on the phone with one of my students’ parents, a woman I’ve spoken to many times over the years. She asked how I was doing, and thinking she had heard about my loss, I told her I was muddling through. She hadn’t heard, so I told her, and she said something like, “Oh– you are still walking with God.” I am not sure that I heard her right, but I love that expression. I’m in those days of walking through the in-between space.
Here’s an image I don’t understand. The other night I walked outside and imagined that all the planets and constellations and blinking satellites had been lined up like icons on a computer screen. Gone was the spray of star I’m used to seeing. Someone had clicked on “align to grid” and they were all there, arranged neatly in two dimensions. I don’t know why I had that thought.
And here’s another. Years ago on the beach in North Carolina we flew a kite so high it disappeared; the string was wet and the only sign that the kite was still there was a certain tension, a vibration, a tugging on the string.
The last day Paul was alive was the last day I saw the three cranes I’ve been driving by all winter at the church on the corner of Taylor Ranch and Montano. They flew off to wherever they go when spring comes.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Writing about difficult, even traumatic, experiences appears to be good for health on several levels – raising immunity and other health measures and improving life functioning.”
Since Paul died I’ve been achy and exhausted and ill. I resent the early and longer light. I miss the cranes.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that I’m wallowing. I know that my little troubles pale against the world’s pain. I know that I can’t stay here, hunkered down, curled up, closed. I know that the stars are infinite and deep and that the ground in spring is eager to bloom. The inverse of grief is gratitude, and it soars like a kite into the sun. I’d be lying if I said I can feel it tugging at me, but there’s a faint vibration humming on the string.