I lost eight people I cared about in a five-year period. It started with my grandmother, “Nannie,” who died of breast cancer. Next, my boyfriend and his father drowned when a storm came up and swallowed their bass boat. Then my friend Lisa took her life, followed by my friend Jim who died of AIDS. After that, my other grandmother had a heart attack and was found lying on the floor of her bathroom by her husband, my grandfather, who only lasted another year before stomach cancer got him. My friend Katherine provided a gruesome finale by dying in the hospital days after she crashed into the side of a convenience store while riding on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle.
Losing so many people in a row felt like going from “Death 101: When Bad things Happen to Good Hermit Crabs” to getting a PhD in the seven stages of grief.
Fortunately, no one I am close to has died since then. But my father recently had a heart attack that took him from two rounds of golf a day to “Why is it so hard to walk to the mailbox?” Watching him suffer through multiple hospital visits, surgeries and medication management has been a whole new kind of hard. He doesn’t have the kind of issues that can be fixed with open heart surgery. His arteries are actually fine. It’s his electrical system that is out of whack, and for that there is no real fix. The prognosis is grim in the way we don’t talk about above a whisper.
The truth is, I am more worried about how I’m going to deal with my father’s death than him actually dying.
I didn’t handle it well when all those people passed away. I kept thinking I would adapt, I suppose. But, standing in the grass wearing the same black patent leather pumps while eight of my friends and family were lowered into the ground resulted in a rabid case of insomnia that wrecked my ability to concentrate, which tanked my GPA — did I mention I was in college at the time? — and shredded the tiny thread of self-esteem I had before death came to visit, raided my fridge and shit in my bathtub. Thoughts of suicide followed me to every class, on every date and to every party.
I want to take my red pen to that time and scratch out the parts that make. No. Sense. And, while I’m at it, I’d like to draw in some lovely snapshots of me sitting down with a therapist or a friend or a relative or a support group or anybody willing to say something besides “just give it time” or some other bullshit cliché.
I remember at one point — was it after Lisa swallowed way too many Valium or after I sang “Ave Maria” at Jim’s funeral? — I crawled into my closet, wrapped myself in every sweater I could find, and hummed the theme song to Gilligan’s Island over and over and over because someone told me to “think positive.” Newsflash: It didn’t work.
Nothing worked. Even now, 25 years later, I’m still grief-limping through life with a wince on my face where a smile used to be, bracing for death the same way a person clings to the handle above the passenger door when her husband follows the car in front of them a little too closely because she’s sick of saying, “Honey, could you not?” in her patient voice, hoping the combination of heavy sighing and handle grabbing will make him slow the hell down. But death is as immune to reason as husbands tend to be.
Nietzsche wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Really, Nietzsche? Really? By that logic, I should be on the cover of some macabre comic book. “Grief Girl!” Able to face death without crawling in the closet to hum theme songs! “Grief Girl!” Able to not have a nervous breakdown in the produce aisle! “Grief Girl!” Able to sleep through the night without waking up in a sweat-soaked panic!
I joke to ward off the darkness. I get that from my dad. But if I’m being honest, there’s nothing funny about the fear I feel when I think about the ripple effects of losing him, of what the grief will do to me this time. I have a child now. I can’t just crawl under the covers and whisper to God, Take me, please.
I’ve written the ending to this so many times, and I can’t for the life of me bring all the threads together and tie it with a bow because the conclusion I keep coming to doesn’t end with a period, but a question mark.
And that, like death, is profoundly unsatisfactory.