How loss defies life’s order and rewrites our stories
I paced around my bug-infested, studio converted two-bedroom apartment with two fingers to my neck, counting the thumps. I wasn’t sure if it was stress, the questionably tasting weed I had just smoked or a combination of both, but I was absolutely certain that I was about to die of a heart attack. When I realized it was beating too fast for me to keep track, I started to cry. A quiet, bewildered sort of cry that gradually contorted into an uncontrollable sobbing. After deciding against calling 9-1-1 and soaking in the tub for an undetermined amount of time, I was able to quell the shaking that had overcome my body and regain some common sense. A quick google search confirmed it; I had a panic attack. One of the first causes listed was the death of a family member. I thought back to the harsh fluorescent lighting and smell of bleach that overwhelmed my senses the day before and suddenly, it all made sense.
Dehydrated from faces full of salty tears, my aunts and cousins questioned why this hospital we were in didn’t seem to have any fucking water. The fountains were either malfunctioning or we were too stupid to figure out how to get them to work. The hallways stretched into strange turns that would only theoretically lead us to pay two dollars for a bottle of Dasani, decidedly the worst brand of corporate owned, plastic flavored water. I stepped out into the hallway silently, hoping to track down some of those juice boxes they give patients or a maybe a water cooler. Instead, I found my nine-months-pregnant sister pacing up and down the hallway talking on the phone with who I could only assume was her fiancé.
With tears in her eyes, she said, “I’m seriously about to pop off on him”.
I held back a laugh, knowing right away who she was talking about but waiting to hear the details of today’s episode. The anxiety inducing combination of severe thirst and a table full of identical water bottles potentially containing non-spousal germs had apparently sent our dad into a spiral that ended in him screaming threats and profanities in front of the hospital staff. I held her hand as she finished telling the story and contemplated not how this reflected our relationship with our dad or how we should go about handling it, but how his tantrum was going to affect the rest of the day. The last thing we needed was the kind of drama that sucks us back into reality and shatters the thin bubble of shock that was protecting us.
Sadly, it was inevitable.
Artificially, my grandma was still alive. I would be back in the hospital a few days later, but my mind had already been made up. In an utter refusal to confront my loss, I caved to my almost primal instinct to seek narrative, writing the ending of my experiences in my head as I am living them. I crave something that is decisive and recognizable in hopes that it will be more palatable to me and the rest of my family. And it works. At least for a while. There were short bursts of time during that first visit that met my superficial expectations about grief: my sisters and I huddled beside the hospital bed and cried as we determined this would be the last time we saw her. That assertion, in some psychologically invented sense, made turning around and walking out of the room incrementally easier. Imagining that she would continue to suffer for days as we clung to the slightest hope of recovery was messy; it complicated things. At some point, the dissonance began to fade and the story I had constructed came crashing down around me.
The area of the Intensive Care Unit that my family members had filled was drowning in the heavy, somber energy that prevents you from summoning a single thought that feels worthy of saying out loud. The time she had spent in the hospital somehow felt both like an eternity and absolutely no time at all. We had only found out about her cancer a couple of months ago and felt cheated out of time to prepare for the emotionally and financially taxing phenomenon that is the death of a family member.
As a result, reacting to the situation in the same way every protagonist has since the beginning of time was the only way I knew how to cope. I held her tiny, wrinkled hand and told myself this is what she would look like in her final moments. I was wrong. My grandma laid in that hospital bed being pumped full of fluids for another week before we returned to say our real goodbyes. By then, her previously skeletal hand was swollen and puffy. My grandpa covered it gingerly with the bed sheet and we laughed weakly at his attempt.
I began to recognize how this small gesture proved that we were all in on it. Manipulating and fabricating reality in a desperate attempt to cushion the blow. But clearly, we weren’t the only ones. Like so many others before us, we allowed her suffering to continue for longer than it should have, leaving adequate space for the possibility of a hallmark movie miracle. Despite all of that, of course, she went.
Afterwards, I sprawled across my bedroom floor attempting to process what had just happened. At some point, my eyes began to scan my bookshelf which was filled with some of my all-time favorite stories from A Tale of Two Cities to The Shining. From the time I became enthralled with reading fiction as a child, I was nursing a sort of dependency and escapism that has followed me into adulthood. I’m sure that’s the case with most of us who were thought of as the smart, gifted child through adolescence. Reading only became an intellectual practice as we matured, and most of us haven’t even stuck with it. It was a coping mechanism: we found comfort it the structure of it.
I began to ponder how invested I had become in these stories, how I regarded them as a crucial part of what shapes my identity. So much so that even as I chose which ones from my collection to bring with me from my parent’s home, I carefully selected the titles I thought would most dynamically represent my personality and taste as a reader. I probably wouldn’t even pick them up, I thought to myself. I had read them all already.
Except on this occasion, I did.
I grabbed one of the many Stephen King novels that I had strategically placed on my shelf, suddenly remembering how I had been introduced to his writing. It was the same way I was introduced to Twilight, the series that consumed my mind from fourth grade until, well, now. My grandma. She was as much of an avid reader as I was and spent years trying to write books. My mom and aunts were always too polite to tell her how bad they were when she asked them to read her work. When I consider all the horrible things she had experienced in her life, and how little she spoke of them, I realize that she must have been escaping, too.
There is something exponentially more difficult about mourning the death of a person whose life you know was filled with pain and unprocessed trauma. I tend to not only mourn the person I knew and loved, but the one that they could have been if their story had only been more romantic. The only thing I can take comfort in is the knowledge that despite everything she had been through, it was obvious that having her family around her was the only thing she needed to have a full heart and a good ending to her story. It would be easy to call it closed minded or unambitious to want nothing more than a simple life filled with love and tradition, but there is something profoundly honest about it.
I am one of the young people who overwhelms themselves with the pressure to make something grand out of my life and fulfill the potential everyone around me demands that I have. I convince myself that a high-profile career and an overpriced apartment in a city is what I want and what I will fight for, because that would make be a great character, right? I try not to pay attention to the fact that the slightest inconvenience leads me to fantasize about booking a flight to Iceland and living off the grid. These feelings overwhelm me most when I realize these painful details of life, the little pieces of dough that don’t fit into the cookie cutter, they are unavoidable. And in some ways, they are what makes every human life beautiful and unique.
In my imaginings of my future, there’s no trace of these plaguing, persistent problems like mental illness, abuse or poverty. This is just another way that I have found comfort in crafting a narrative around my life but honestly, that doesn’t even make for a very good story. It’s things like my grandpa secretly running to the store during my grandma’s chemotherapy to pick up a coconut cream pie because he wanted to make sure she wouldn’t pass without tasting her favorite dessert one more time. Those are the things that prove there were people in this world who truly saw you and knew that your life was one worth living simply because you had the courage to live it.