Saturday, April 14, 2018

Seven Years

Hello all,

(NOTE: This first paragraph is a paraphrasing of last year’s intro. I thought it would be useful for those new to the list of recipients.)

It’s been seven years since the crash. Every year, starting maybe two weeks out, but really ramping up in the final week, my brain becomes weighed down with thoughts and images and reflections of and on my experience since that night. I have discovered that writing out my more complex or frenzied thoughts, be it in prose or poetry, tends to help release them. It allows me to reflect on and, in a way, distance myself from them. I am able to hold them and look at them analytically, as opposed to just being overwhelmed by largely illegible noise. That is the reason I write this letter every year. I send it to a community of people whose energy has been helpful in large and small ways over the last six years. If I simply wrote it out and saved it, it would not have the same effect. The thoughts must be seen to be released. It may seem self-important to assume anyone wants to read this stuff, but it is helpful to me. And I don’t think it is unhelpful to understand the wide-reaching and constantly changing consequences of one’s actions and one’s responses to the actions of others. Grief and trauma are foundationally human experiences and I think by living through and better understanding those experiences we better accept humanity in all its pros and cons. If you would like to not receive these letters in the future, please let me know and I will be happy to take off your name. But, thank you for reading.

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As one ages, birthdays and anniversaries become useful, largely, as markers of time. You reflect upon the past year. You add distance between the person you were and are now. You take stock of how far you’ve come, of how much you’ve endured, of what has or hasn’t happened, of how much closer you are to wherever you may be headed. Of how much you have or haven’t changed. Of how long you’ve lived. Our anniversary of the crash is no different. It has become a marker. A point to and from which we measure.

We think about how far, physically and mentally, we’ve come since that night. We remember how much, internally and externally, we’ve endured. We dwell sometimes on what did or did not happen. We take stock of what has and hasn’t changed. We realize how long we have lived without Alex.

This year, up until this week, when things traditionally get heavier, and darker regardless, my crash-ripple response has evolved into a more matter of fact, if no less deep, state of mind. Seven years on, I am still triggered relatively frequently, but it has become somewhat expected and is only rarely debilitating. Even those moments that cut more deeply tend to fade within an hour or two, as opposed to the days-long doldrums of the early days, or even the 12-24 hour funks of more recent years. Physically and mentally, injuries flare, but rarely sideline. Last month at my monthly MADD talk was the first time I thought to mention that things were getting better. “It’s taken seven years,” I said. “But things have gotten better.” Seven years.

In early March I was told by Facebook I had been using the site for seven years. The sole reason I created a Facebook account was to create a page for mine and Alex’s band, Thea, since I had been told MySpace was no longer relevant. I had intended to avoid social media entirely, but chose to fall on my promotional sword for the betterment of the group. When I explained how painfully annoying it was, Alex gave me a (only mostly) mock heartfelt, “I know that was hard for you. I appreciate it.” Then followed with the trademark honesty of, “Brian and I were not going to do it.”   

We recorded six songs with our friend Josh in late February. On March 28 I posted most of them on Facebook. The last went up on April 1st, thirteen days before the crash. Both of Thea’s two shows happened in March, after I set up the account. It’s crazy to me how condensed that all seems. The band existed for a little over a year, but most of the most significant events in its history happened over about two months.  Things were really ramping up for us.

Now I measure those events in terms of the crash. We recorded our last songs two months before the crash. Our last show was two weeks before the crash. It took about a week in the hospital, after Brian, the guitarist, came to visit, that I realized I had lost the band as well. A week after the crash.

I have all this data at my fingertips because Facebook sees fit to remind me of it in its “On This Day” feature. Every year as April nears, I start noticing more the years of my various archived posts. Anything from March - April 13 of 2011 strikes me as relatively optimistic and maybe even a bit oblivious. April 14th - early May 2011 is sparsely populated, save a few updates from Nissa sent in my name. And, everything past then, regardless of content, is viewed through a post-crash lens...

...And here is evidence of the evolution. I find myself not knowing if I need or want to keep writing this. I’m stuck feeling obligated to honor this day, but not totally feeling like my long-winded thoughts are adding to my own conversation anymore. What I can think to say hews very closely to what I wrote last year, the only real difference being one year added. How many different ways can I say I think about the crash at least once a day and that’s just life? It’s not terrible all the time. It’s not great. It just is. This is life now. We all have a few stones in our pockets and these are a few of mine.

We live right by the highway. I’ve spoken before about how loud it is and how much it bugs me since the crash, but I’ve noticed recently what bothers me most is the cars that zip past the house on the road that separates us from the highway. The speed limit is 30. I’d say in most cases 35 is fine, but it’s also a street onto which a pedestrian bridge exits with no marked crosswalk at the top of an essentially blind hill, so caution is necessary. Not to mention, our son and our neighbors’ children play on the sidewalk that lines that road. Some people go the speed limit. Some that were speeding see the kids and slow down a bit. Some barrel through at 50 mph like they’re getting one over on all those suckers that decided to stay on the highway when there’s a perfectly good shortcut along this residential street. Sometimes these people are on cell phones. Nissa and/or I are out there with the kids, usually posting guard along the curb, sometimes stepping in to the street in an effort to get the drivers to notice us. I know it would take a wildly freak accident for even the most irresponsible speeder to suddenly jump the curb and hit the kids, but every car that zips obliviously by makes my eye twitch and my fists clench and unclench rapidly. Sometimes I give them a sarcastic “take it easy” hand motion. Sometimes I just glare at them not seeing me. Sometimes I flip them off. I remain outwardly calm, but inside it is an exhausting sort of tension. The vulnerability of human being vs. speeding steel box. The racing thoughts about generally selfish behavior on roads and highways. The indignation of some people’s choices. The thought that we’re out there on the road with these people everyday. The thought that my son will be out there someday too.

On a Friday night a few months ago, I took Oscar out to the backyard to pee. Out of nowhere I hear from the highway a high whine like a motorcycle and then three enormous booms, like a canon. The sound actually moved the air around us. Oscar and I both whipped our heads towards the noise. It sounded like it was right outside the door. I raced inside to see. Nissa had heard it too, but we couldn’t see anything that made it clear it was right next to us. We heard no sirens and traffic was still moving. I was a bit rattled, but settled back into the evening relatively quickly. The next morning in bed, Nissa was reading the news and told me what had made those sounds. A mile up the road a drunk driver caused a multiple car collision that left four people dead. The driver of one car, a local college student, lost his younger brother, his father, and two in-laws, all in the car with him. The moment I heard what had happened, I realized I knew exactly what those sounds were the night before. They were the sounds I have kept in my head since the night of the crash. I had always described them as cavernous. I thought this was because that’s just how I experienced them in my head. I had never realized that’s how loud and powerful they were to the outside world. I knew at that moment that I knew exactly how that young man had felt, what he heard, what he saw, what his body now knows, the only difference being the fact that he was driving. He knows how it feels to lose control of what he had been controlling, to have controI taken from him. I knew what he went through in the moments immediately after he realized what had happened. I also knew, for the first time, what those in the immediate vicinity of my crash may have experienced. It was overwhelming and I sunk into the bed, not getting up for an hour or more. Nissa was kind enough to get Jack up and get him ready while I laid there spinning. This is all the subject of the first poem below. The incident drove home once again the cruel unpredictability of the highway and my complete inability to protect myself or my family. We were supposed to go to Best Buy that day to pick up something we had ordered. I knew I couldn’t let them go by themselves and I knew I couldn’t ride in the passenger seat. I eventually got up and drove them all, white-knuckling it all the way. I feel connected to that man’s family and to him. We are now a part of the same community. Those who know.

I come from a long line of worriers. The kind of people who think you might be dead if you’re 15 minutes late and haven’t called. I have often had the thought that I arrived uniquely conditioned into this weird and stupid situation, because I had so much practice imagining terrible things happening. It is never far from my thoughts what I might do or think should the unimaginable occur. What would I say to my employer? Would I have to book travel? What kind of lee-way does one get with bills? What in the hell would I do the next day or even the next hour? Beyond all those (what I call) normal thoughts, this week has brought some disturbingly concrete fears about my son and what could happen to him. At this moment I can’t see myself being anywhere near as put together as Jeannine was and has been. Granted, I was not with her in those first few months and I know she went through and still goes through absolute hell. I can’t even picture myself speaking, let alone moving through the horrifically mundane bureaucracy of it all. This all a terrible way of saying Nissa and I are painfully aware now of what Jeannine and Sean lost and how ungodly hard it must be. I know standing still is not an option. I know they have and are moving and building and creating new and wonderful things for those who happen upon them. I know I would get up the next day and call who needed to be called. I would fill out the paperwork and make the plans. The fact is, I don’t want to think I could, because at the moment I have the luxury of not needing to. The last few days, when I have found myself losing patience with my son’s behavior and contemplating potential responses, I have occasionally asked myself, “how would I feel about that decision at his funeral?” Had I given him all I could? Had I offered my best self as often as possible? Death comes when it comes. We are not always ready.

This is all pretty rambling and unfocused, but I think that’s a decent illustration of what it’s like now. Fragments of feeling and unexpected reminders. Piercingly real possibilities and glancing, everyday pokes. It’s the year of a Facebook post sending you momentarily sprialing. It’s hearing a friend say your son is the same age as Alex was when she first met him and unavoidably peering forward to a time we will unavoidably hand him the keys and hope he comes back while at the same time loving the fact that his hair stands on end with slide-generated static on the playground on a sunny day in March with pink-blossoming trees and the ludicrously scenic fog drifting just beyond the towering green hill. It’s casually walking up to that same friend’s art project and recognizing the silhouettes of your shared endurance like a swift punch to the part of your mind that waits for just these moments, where you’re torn between thinking about lunch and just laying in the middle of the floor to let the past seven years wash over you while you’re son clacks together the library’s Legos. It’s wanting to text Alex about a new band I’ve found and it’s remembering Jeannine and Sean are no longer in town and knowing at least one of the reasons rests on the head of one man who made a terribly stupid and selfish decision. It’s knowing that decision is not at all an uncommon one. It’s feeling the tightness in my hamstrings and remembering I didn’t do enough to dig myself out that atrophic hole. It’s looking at my wife and knowing she’s got to deal with all this shit too. It’s looking at my son and knowing he might have to someday. It’s living just like everybody else and maybe sitting down and watching Parks and Rec again if that’s what is needed. It’s the quiet, often unsatisfying zen of moving forward with a bruised, but open heart.

I don’t mean for this to make my life sound bleak. This is just a corner of my life I tend to emphasize around this time of year. I don’t know. It is what it is. It’s a heavy day, but it’s just a day. The sun shines and my son needs to scooter.

I know I’ve been at my current job for six years because I got the job just over a year after the crash. I know we’ve had our 2005 Ford Focus for 6 and a half years because we drove it back from Wisconsin in autumn after the crash. My son was born a little over four years after the crash. It will be roughly twelve more before he learns to drive. My wife and I will have been married for 24 years by then. About 19 of that will have been after the crash.

I appreciate you all reading this far if you have. I love you all and hope for you decent neighbors, manageable traffic, healthy families, and patience.

Take care, have fun, drive safe,
David



WHAT IT IS SOMETIMES
Three cannon blasts moved the air at my elbow,
pre and proceeded by climbfading look-at-me engine whine and goodbye.  
My dog’s nose jerked toward the noises
I did not recognize as mine until the next morning
news of their source.

Then began the customary sink and pull.
My spine to the bed, my mind to the brink.
Four more timelines ended. Countless more begun anew
or annotated. Now a before and an after.
Now a never more again.

I knew the sound only from the inside,
cavern metal crunch and slam, shoulders
driven back and dragging behind knees jut
quick past ankles. Unforgiving. I had long assumed
it deafening only because it lived in my head.

But the backyard we share with the upstairs neighbors
is miles from where it happened and the air around me moved.
I know now what the unsuspecting evening felt
as I spiraled, limp and nothing, down the highway.
I know what those four heard as they wondered when it would stop.

I lay, blanket-tombed, in bed, huffing back my own
carbon dioxide. My wife and son in the living room.
My wife and son without armor. Without assurances.
They we I must leave the house, must drive, must risk.
I we they are helpless outside.

I am no match for gravity. We are no match
for the unerring confidence of selfish whims.
I would have been no match for those four.
Some children. Some parents.
The highway carries us all the same.

We live by the highway. I bristle in the night at open windows.
Rain-slicked asphalt roars this morning
as I contemplate my complete inability to protect
my son from knowing tragedy.
I wonder about the son who survived and consider him a brother.

They are all my family now,
equally still in the hands of what happens,
tied together by knowledge.
We know the unique fullness of being there
and the intimate void of being told.

I have to drive to Target.
The wind will shove our fragile Kia at random,
will trip my hair-trigger memories of powerless tip,
of knowing I no longer decide.
We may very well die today on our way to pick up a new TV.

My son cannot live in fear.
I cannot protect him.
We will teach him how to drive.
I will tense on the wheel when young instincts flare.
They will drive to the funeral, and then to work.




TAKING A SHOWER

The twin-tone hum of the bathroom fan
sounds faintly of my son’s plaintive cry,

just as the highway’s constant roar

sounds of chaos



(Art below by Liebe Wetzel)





Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On Acting

I wish I was still acting, I think.
It’s been 11 or so years since I decided I probably would not properly take advantage of the opportunity. A quizzical, if understanding, nod from my theater professor.
I don’t know if it was fear or practicality that decided, probably a mix.
Sometimes I think practicality is just a mask for the fear of what will happen if the unlikely remains so.
Either way.

For a good while, I lied.
Partly as a way to appease my need to pretend, but likely mostly out of fear.
Nothing big.
“Yes, I know that band. I think the only one I’ve heard is the self-titled album” (most bands have a self-titled album)
“Yes, I’ve read/seen that cultural and/or intellectual touchstone” (one can often divine the bullet points of iconic books/movies through references and parodies made in lesser works of pop culture.)
“No, I won’t be able to make it. I have/don’t have fill in the blank.” (sitting on the futon wondering why I didn’t go, wondering how it would be received if I showed up anyway.)
“I’m so sorry. I completely forgot about it.” (watching the minutes tick by, waiting for the call.)
“No, that’s okay.” (weighing principles against loneliness.)

I act calm.
I act indifferent.
I act as though I understand.
I act as though I know.

I loved acting because it allowed me to inhabit a different life, a more perfect version of humanity.
Confidence, anger, fear, love, shaped and buoyed by the ideal words at the ideal time.
Each step and gesture choreographed for maximum effect.

Walking home from school as early as I can remember and still today, on my commute, I play out scenes. What I could have said, what I would say if. How would I stand and what would I be doing with my hands. The tone. The inflection. The sweep of each pause and accent.
They would of course respond according to the script. I know what to say, because I know what they will do. My response is quick, cunning, and reasonable.
And scene.

Maybe I gave up on acting because I knew it wasn’t real. I knew I couldn’t make it what I wanted it to be.

But, of course, I didn’t know at all. I was just afraid there was no me outside the roles to do the work.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Six Years

Hello all,


So, it’s been six years since the crash. Every year, starting maybe two weeks out, but really ramping up in the final week, my brain becomes weighed down with thoughts and images and reflections of and on my experience since that night. I have discovered that writing out my more complex or frenzied thoughts, be it in prose or poetry, tends to help release them. It allows me to reflect on and, in a way, distance myself from them. I am able to hold them and look at them analytically, as opposed to just being overwhelmed by largely illegible noise. That is the reason I write this letter every year. I send it to a community of people whose energy has been helpful in large and small ways over the last six years. If I simply wrote it out and saved it, it would not have the same effect. The thoughts must be seen to be released. Every year I do this I am conflicted. I worry about my true motivations. I worry that it will be seen as as just wanting attention or being unable to let it go. It may seem self-important to assume anyone wants to read this stuff, but it is helpful to me. And I don’t think it is unhelpful to understand the wide-reaching and constantly changing consequences of one’s actions and one’s responses to the actions of others. Grief and trauma are foundationally human experiences and I think by living through and better understanding those experiences we better accept humanity in all its pros and cons. If you would like to not receive these letters in the future, please let me know and I will be happy to take off your name. But, thank you for reading. Sorry it’s long.           


Six years ago I watched my good friend die. He was two feet away from me in the cab of his truck. I didn’t do anything about it. I don’t know that I could have. In the moment, I did not realize I had witnessed his last breath. The wet, gasping cough. He bucking against his seatbelt. I guess I don’t know that it was his last. There was no one to ask for help. I wanted to get out of the truck because I was scared and because I thought maybe I could find someone. I didn’t think about the phone in my pocket. The passenger side door was pinned against the asphalt so I crawled, legs first out the windshield. I left him there alone. I didn’t realize my legs would not work; or that I wouldn’t even be able to sit up because of the fire in my abdomen. I did my friend no favors lying cold on the highway shoulder. He was alone when the off-duty EMT arrived to press two fingers to his neck. I didn’t even think about that until two days after I arrived at the hospital. There was too much noise and pain and nauseous certainty. In the minutes, hours, days after the crash there was no foresight or reflection. Nothing but what was needed to survive to the next moment. A blur of concussive metal sparks and plastic masks and tubes and glass and cold and kindness and practicality and claustrophobic screams echoing across the black spaces never filled in but told about later and guessed at years after that and in the midst of it all the warm, familiar depth of sweatshirt arms patiently making sure I knew I was still alive while, behind me, never seen, they began to handle my friend. Before the sentencing hearing, the court asked that I describe my memories of the crash. In it, I wrote that, before the ambulance arrived, I had heard the second EMT say she needed gloves, but I don’t remember that happening.


Before the ambulance arrived, I asked the off-duty EMT who held me in her sweatshirt arms to call my wife, but she said not to worry about that now. I wanted my wife to know where I was, what had happened. I wanted to tell her I was alive at that moment. I did not think about her birthday eight days before. I did not picture her waiting for three hellish hours alone before the hospital called her. Her birthday cards were still on the refrigerator and the counter. In the month I was away from home after that night, she saw those cards. I did not know that every year after she would dread the approach of her birthday, knowing how it will feel eight days later.


Over the last six years, my experience with and responses to the trauma of that night and the months that followed have shifted and mutated many times. In previous years I have talked about becoming bogged down in a sort of existential mud as the anniversary approaches. At other times I have written of the futility of anger and the disatisfaction of acceptance. A consuming heaviness. The insistent, battering roar of the highway. The fullness and warmth of the deep void left by the loss of Alex.


This year brought another shift, one away from the creeping dread of recollection and toward the bare understanding of flat inevitability. I think about the crash at least once a day. Usually, these thoughts are sparked by a sudden, burning twinge in my knee. Planting my foot incorrectly as I stand up from the car; lifting my son, Jack, from the floor; carrying a duffel bag full of drum hardware up some irregular steps; dancing in the living room with Jack; sometimes just walking the dog. One careless footfall and the pain races the length of my body like lightning. Regular exercise seems to make these strikes more frequent, but also recede more quickly. However, the effect is never benign. Sometimes my response is little more than a heavy sigh or quick  grimace, a flutter of eyelid spasms to register, absorb, and move on from the shock. Sometimes a clenching of teeth and a biting of the lower lip. Sometimes a solitary, even-toned, “Fuck.” (Sometimes the tone used is less even.) Sometimes a flash of Chevy side panel and sparks. Sometimes a flash of Joshua Blackburn and the meeting I was denied. Sometimes a few minutes of “god damn it. I did absolutely nothing to deserve this and it’s incredibly unfair and there’s nothing I can do but keep fucking walking.” Sometimes I have to sit down, or at least stop moving, and wait in silence for whatever it is to ebb. Sometimes I want to punch Joshua or the wall or something. Sometimes I just see Alex and Nissa in our living room together, laughing and eating and drinking before the whole thing rips apart like film slipping off the projector sprockets, melting into white and tickticktickticktick. Sometimes I see myself in the future explaining to Jack why I have to stop. Sometimes I see Jeannine and Sean, huddled together on the couch. The initial stab of pain soon fades to an ache and lasts an hour or the rest of the day, but the images generally last only a few minutes. This is a welcome change from the more crippling episodes of past years, but it also reveals the cold reality that this is not going away. It will never not be a possibility. I do not spend as much time as I used to anticipating its arrival, but the insistent disruption of its presence has not diminished. The needling thing is it’s entirely possible that anyone of my age and fitness might feel a similar pain without having been in a crash, but it doesn’t matter. I associate any pain below my waist with the crash. Every time my feet or ankles are sore, every time my knee aches. And it isn’t always limited to my legs. Every time I have difficulty swallowing a piece of pasta I wonder if it's because of undiagnosed neck trauma. Every time I have a pain in my chest I wonder if it’s untreated bruising of my ribs. It is a constant thought, an inescapable presence; and each new year brings with it the further understanding that it is now an inextricable part of our lives. Nissa’s birthday has been corrupted. She hates its coming, because of what comes with it. Each time one of us passes the scene of a crash we are thrown into reflection and anger and sadness. And, again, that is likely the case for many people, but we have no option but to associate it with what has happened and what can never be changed. Be it a simple, “ugh, and this too.” or a drawn out and draining mediation on sleepless nights and unknown darknesses and tender understandings and surreal moments and gasping frustrations and just plain, stupid truths. There are still the odd days at work or the evenings at home where very little gets done because my mind has become so distracted or consumed with melancholy and/or frantic dwellings on crashes and pain and loss that productivity cannot penetrate, but those are fewer and further between. The hallmark of this year has been the bare, unflinching knowing that some things will not leave. Money will not return. Knees will not regenerate. Calendar days will not cease to have relevance. Alex will not come back. We continue to live with tragedy and gratitude.


I credit much of my ability to bounce back from episodes of heaviness to Jack. He forces me to remain present and, sometimes merely as a practical matter, to dwell on nothing but what he needs or how far I think he can climb up that table before intervention is necessary. The simple contentedness of being with him is a gift, but it is also a prism through which to view my experience. It is the exception which proves the rule. The (more often than not) clarity of focus when I’m with him throws into sharp relief the cluttered state of my mind the rest of the time. His carefree nature sometimes reminds me that there will come a time when he needs to know things he would rather not. His transformative presence reminds me how cruelly world-altering would be his absence; and how I know Jeannine must feel.


A revealing episode occurred a few weeks ago. I was struck with a medium case of food poisoning a day after a particularly demanding gig with the band. We went on at after midnight and didn’t get back home until 3 am and my joints were feeling it the next day. So there I was on the couch, nauseous and disoriented from sickness and sore from performing, feeling for all the world like I was back in the hospital. That night, in a brief moment of more intense fever, I told Nissa how it made me feel, like I was back in the bed, unable to move my legs, constantly just a little queasy, unsure of how long it would last. I told her I didn’t want to go back to the hospital. I told her I didn’t want Jack to ever be in the hospital. Two days ago, after the most recent shooting in San Bernardino, Nissa told me she worries about Jack going to a big city school, but also realizes that being in a big city has nothing to do with it, that there’s nothing we can do to stop it. I replied, “nothing we can do about anything. We have to show him that fear is irrelevant while attempting to create a world in which fear is unjustified” That’s the way I genuinely feel, but it is not always easy to convince my brain of that. Greater than my discomfort at re-living the crash is my fear that Jack will someday know how I feel.


Anyway, I fully realize there are more immediate and more widespread tragedies than this occurring every day to humans that do not deserve it. I understand our problems are relatively mild in the larger scheme of the world. And, I’d like to add, my thoughts are not this heavy every day. There are just sometimes that are worse. The poem included at the end of this describes a very specific feeling I experience sometimes. Sometimes I still feel like this; and sometimes I likely always will. Like my leg pain, it doesn’t come as often or stay as long as it once did; but when it does come, it stings.



I like to use this day to track my experience though this mess, much as some might use a birthday or wedding anniversary to reflect on the past year. I appreciate your listening and your patience.

SIX YEARS SAME AND DIFFERENT


The upturned carpet corner smoothed.
The mosquito needle swatted.
The molding drywall chlorine wiped
The road-etched kneecap kissed.


Insanity is repetition
borne with different expectations.
Futility is understanding
what’s repeating cannot change.


The missing tissue.
The moments stolen.
The date approaching.
The fucking choice.


I wondered loudly
why his face
is like an anvil
out at sea.


The silent hands.
The certain eyes.


I want to
go to
sleep.




Take care, have fun, drive safe.

Love,

David

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Stages of Feeling

I write poems to commemorate special occasions or at times of deep emotion. For whatever reason, it's just how I process things. I am sometimes unable to let go of certain emotions until I write a poem about them. Often, not always, it is required that I show someone else the poem before the thoughts and emotions can be fully released. Since the recent death of my grandmother, I have tried in vain to write a poem that would honor her unique character and her place in my life. I lack the art to sufficiently encapsulate how I feel about her without just listing thirty-some years of memories and examples. Thus far, what I've managed is this. Three poems less specifically about her and more about my processing of her illness and death.

The first was written as she was deciding whether to undergo a surgery that may or may not have made her any more comfortable and may have made it worse. The second was written after my mother called to inform me of her passing. The third was written several days after the funeral.

After having written the first two, I assumed I would write the third. I assumed it would be, and set out to write it as, more celebratory than it turned out. I guess there's more that needs to be felt and thought about. Perhaps I will write a fourth in a week or two.


IN TRANSITION


“She’s just wearing out, breaking down” they say,
and I remember the subtle bite of salt hidden
in each ideal chocolate chip cookie pulled down
greedily from the freezer.

I remember a time when she carried me home
from the Fourth of July parade. The time the heat
forced newly-patched asphalt to ooze tar. I walked
barefoot, because it was a small town and I was a child.

Her navy slacks set off the red accents in her mostly white
top and matched her navy orthopedic shoes. Before
the walker, I think, but after the bag of pills. She may
never have been able to carry me at all, but that’s how
I remember her. My other Grandma may have worn that top.

She would reel with laughter in her chair when Kirby
Puckett ran the bases. His relatively stubby legs pumping
like a cartoon, propelling his belly and endearing, goateed
cheeks in a surprisingly efficient arc, his talent and will
taming gravity on the field.

And after he left, the accusations came, tarnish added
to his bronzed fist pumping as he rounded third in Game 6.
Sense memory interrogated upon receipt, but only ever after.
The spontaneous trigger to elation cannot be disarmed.

And I remember her voice when I called about Grandpa.
She was steady. She understood that pain and liberation
and connection and loneliness are inextricably entwined.
She had seen enough of time to know its blank persistence.
I remember realizing we were both adults.

I remember the cards for every conceivable holiday. I remember
the increasing slant of her cursive, the humps squishing so low only
a practiced eye could translate. I remember my responses.
Short, pleasant, shy. Rarely diving much past, “It’s a busy time.”
and always returning with “...but things are good.”

Except one. She was in rehab after a fractured back
And I wrote claiming expertise, encouraging participation,
suggesting motivations and techniques, as though my month
in the hospital made us peers in disability.

But I recognized my own tubes and devices as some I had seen
connected to her on short visits to various antiseptic rooms.
Smiling and trying not to notice the smells and the veins
and the translucent plastic vessels marked in millimeters.

Her skin so soft and thin, stretched taut where the tape
secured the IV to her hand. As I first felt the blurry warmth
of opiates shiver through my system, I lived again the linoleum
and the sheets, the gown and the unfamiliar angles of flesh
and neckline.  All the small embarrassments of convalescence.

I remember standing at my mother’s side, speaking when prompted,
shying away from the discomfort. I was too young at the time
to recognize myself in that bed. I remember the evening
I understood we are all just bodies and brains.
We fall apart and heal and sometimes don’t.

I remember her on Christmas, surrounded by her family and piles
of brightly-wrapped packages, so excited to see how excited we were,
slightly wary of our disappointment.  I remember more 
than is necessary to mention.
I remember she asked for a copy of my wedding poem, 
because she thinks I am amazing.
I can offer nothing but to return the favor.



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IT'S SUNNY HERE


It's sunny here in California.
There's no reason it wouldn't be.
The meteorology calls for it and it is.
I've only once seen it rain at a funeral.
It came down briefly. Shimmering gray sheets
cutting across the cars caravaning to the grave site.
There was some talk of holding the ceremony indoors,
but the sun returned once everyone had parked.
The freshly turned soil wasn't even muddy.
The grass sweat as though it was early morning.
The green carpet surrounding the grave glistened
like the edge of a miniature golf hole water feature.
Our shoes were a bit damp as we walked
in twos and threes and fours back to the cars,
some craning skyward to check the clouds,
wondering if there was room in the garage
for all the folding tables if it came to that.

But this is not a funeral.
It's a Wednesday. The phone call has ended
and the intermittent static of a weak connection
has been replaced again by the oscillating wash
of the highway. The front door is open.
Sunlight sections the rug into rectangles and trapezoids.
My son has been napping and is now wake.
It's time for a snack and a conversation.

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AFTERWARD

She lies there in slightly exaggerated makeup,
like an actress feigning death on stage.

I stand and watch, unwilling to indulge the illusion,
watching for the tell-tale rise of her chest.

The stillness of her lips belies the blush of her cheek.
Her perfectly folded hands. Her sweater,
fitted neatly at the shoulders, half-closed just so
over the black top underneath.

I remember pretending to sleep when I was younger.
I would arrange my limbs and clothes for maximum effect.
The perfect blend of realistic and precious. I would turn
my face to the car door or back of the couch
(to hide any irrepressible smirk) and imagine
my parents’ tilted head in the rearview mirror smile
or turn to say and then stop and shoulders drop and half smile aww
he must be tired like a tv show
where the conversation can wait for another time.

Leg half off the couch. One arm draped behind hip,
one tucked under the back cushion. Mouth hung slightly open.
Face slack. Overpowered by exhaustion, not curled to sleep by choice.
(I would often fall asleep in the car for real in odd poses, neck limp
and head bobbing forward or mouth wide to the roof,
which only lent my ruse believability.)

More often than not they or my sister would just repeat my name,
increasing in volume each time until they stopped with a sigh.
I held my eyes tight, breathing steady,
slightly more still than was authentic.

Her jewelry sparks beneath the church lights as I shift
to watch her hands. I remember their fragile softness,
but hesitate to touch them.

I turn away and join a group of aunts and cousins.
Laughter, sniffs, and conversations fade in and out
across the waiting room.

A red-faced cousin watches through swollen eyes
as my son tests his newfound ability to run.

I remember a photo of Grandma at my sister’s wedding.
She is sitting in a church pew in purple, turning to watch
something out of frame. I assume it is either children or grandchildren.
She wears the barest hint of a smile. Her eyes are soft, but not fawning.
She is comfortable in her pride and contentment.
She is humble in her well-earned confidence.

I remember leaning down to hug her. I remember potato salad
and her struggling to rise from the back seat to her walker.
I remember summer evenings and that giant maple 
scratching skeleton fingers at the window as I lay without covers 
in my Aunt’s former bedroom, a tender layer of Aloe Vera 
coating the sunburn on my over-zealous back and chest.
I remember her squinting, transformative laugh.
I remember her nasal, barking attempts
to be picked up by Grandpa’s hearing aid.
I remember the piercing, genuine concern
in her voice at every Christmas or wedding
when I mentioned my leg or how busy we have been.

I return to the casket, watching her hands and her blushed cheeks.
Too still to be sleeping. I lift my hand to hers.
I feel the softness and cold.

I remember the weight of her body, the strain of my wrist on the handle
as we maneuvered her onto the remarkably specific mechanism
in the back of the hearse.

I am so happy to have known her. I am so happy
so many did. I understand the practicalities of death.
I don’t know why I am still sad.

I don’t know why I pretended to be asleep.
I could have been with my family.


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