Friday, October 22, 2010

Unnumbered List Item: Losing Your Goodbyes, Kidnapping Hellos

My mom called to yell at me yesterday about the stagnation of this blog.
I told her I’d been in mourning and to cut me some eff-ing slack. She told me to grow up and cut the eff-ing crap. (God, what is she, my mother or something?)

I hemmed and hawed and said something about needing to create a account to find work.
Then the mother-sucker punch: “Rosie would be pissed if she knew that you weren’t writing.”
A sigh from my end. She certainly got me there.

Two days before my grandmother’s stroke, which I wrote about here, I left my dream job. It was that gig that other people pray for, the one that validated everything I was trying to do in life when I signed the contract in 2008. I worked at it so hard it ate my life and I was happy to be consumed. I worked so hard the skills I learned permeated my own ligature, influencing tiny movements, changing the way I communicate with everyone from baristas to lovers.

And then, not too long ago, sometime back in June, I sat up in bed and saw I had been devoured. I spent weeks figuring out how to staunch the bleeding...and realized the only way to save the patient was pull the plug entirely. I talked to every mentor I have and each one in turn agreed: To stay was to have my bones licked clean, to become a middling skeleton resting in the same position at my desk, fragile knuckles curled over a mediocre portfolio. So I resigned. I logged two final weeks, packed up my things, cried in the handicap stall of the downstairs office bathroom, and then left, hoping enough freelance work would start flowing that I could stop regretting every step away. 

In the midst of many boxes and harried panic Rosie’s stroke came hard, followed soon thereafter by the phone call she had passed. I didn’t need the call. Rosie did come and see me, as I begged in that last blog post. She slipped into the middle of a dreamless sleep a friend couldn’t shake me out of. It started 10 minutes before her official time of death and ended 15 after the family was notified she died--we know because I missed exactly one 25-minute episode of the TV show we'd been watching. My friend said he’d never seen me sleep like that, sprawled out on the couch without a single nocturnal muscle twitch or puppyish attempt to cuddle. All I knew was blackness, warmth, and a feeling of being no where but being there with someone. No one said goodbye. I didn't see cerulean, which I always do in dreams. Just darkness and a presense. Then my friend’s hand on my arm sometime after 3:50am, his hands pulling me to my feet before placing me in bed. 

In three days I was on the train home for a funeral. 

In the reception line, people I haven’t seen in years kept telling me how beautiful I’ve become. Which still seems an odd thing to do--to offer validation that someone's pretty while their family matriarch is painted thick with make-up in a coffin by their side. It wouldn’t be the first thing I’d say in the same situation. 

I think we are forgetting how to be human around grief. 

The day after the funeral, I keyed into Rosie’s empty house and went into her bedroom, pulling open jewelry boxes and fingering her keepsakes, looking for  any cheap souvenir from grandma to keep on my person. I finally found an old costume jewelry pendent, black oval face laced with  filigree flowers and strung on a cheap gold chain. I put it in the back pocket of my favorite pair of jeans, the ones that get saggy at the knees and loose in the waist after you wear them a week straight, then sat down on her bed.

Death and loss are two of those things that I hate as devices. Everyone writes about them. We want you to feel our pain. We put voodoo pins in the hearts of readers and then string them to our prose, making sure every reader gets the heavy-handed point. PLEASE FEEL MY CATHARSIS OR I’LL STAB YOU WITH THIS METAPHOR.

But I’d never lost anyone, so it was easy to be judgmental. 

On her bed that day I tried to put pen to paper, and all that flowed out were the same cathartic cliches that have made me abandon authors in the past. Right there on my page: strings, cut and ready, voodoo pins already poked in place. I capped up my disgraced pen and solemnly retreated.

Now, like she (and Rosie) did when I was a kindergartner, my mother’s over my shoulder, making me do my homework, forcing me to write through all this so I can write again.  

I’m threading the cliche even as I prep this paragraph, but here we go regardless: I needed Rosie to die to put things in perspective. Her passing has been the unnumbered item on this Hitch List, a milestone on a life list, that important thing on the syllabus I must have missed when stumbling late to class. 

Loss, grief, missing someone, misplacing goodbyes--all reveal new angles in the hands of death. 

I'm talking about Natural Death, ordered and without tragedy, that inventible thing that comes and then detaches all its aches from your ego. The only heartache I have ever known is the kind that comes from break-ups, the selfish kind that paints people as victims, villains, martyrs. Those have messy scripts and even messier definitives: “You hurt me.” “I hurt you.” “You deserve to hurt.” “I’ve earned what this is.” Sometimes, "Hey, fuck you." All of it is me’s and him’s and she’s and they’s and you's and lots of ego. 

Natural Death, or loss, has transcended adolescent griefs. It's detached my child's ego and rebooted how to approach pain. Please: I am still a flawed, confused, maddening human being. I've not been enlightened. But I see things I did not now. And I cannot imagine being a true empathetic, forgiving partner to anyone without having met this new understanding of losing things through Rosie’s swift departure. It was one thing on a list I did not know that I should do.

But enough waxing poetic:

Having never been to the Sierra Nevada, shown a great desire to travel or demonstrated anything but a fanatic attachment to Catholic protocol, it came as some surprise that Rosie's last wish was to be cremeated, and to have my uncle spread her remains over the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. We were told about this shortly before the wake, momentarily kidnapping our grief and replacing it with a surprise new snapshot of a woman everyone claimed to know. I rolled the news around in my head as I sat on Rosie’s bed that afternoon, surrounded by all the trimmings of an utterly suburban and un-worldly life in one small New Jersey town. 

Upon the occasion of goodbyes, Rosie prepared for hellos.

One week later, no money in the bank and no paycheck on the horizon, I pulled Rosie’s chain down my neck and got on a plane to New Orleans, a city I’d never been to, a place I didn’t know, clutching the little black pendant and its tiny, tinny flowers in my right hand as we flew.