He Survived, But I Still Grieve

Ever since the accident, I mourn life before fear

Photo: kaipong/Getty Images

1.

I sat motionless, staring out the window of our condo, waiting for the car to pull up. “Any minute, any minute,” I thought, my phone in hand, my finger hovering above the redial button. Your voicemail — exactly how many times did I hear the start of your outgoing message that night?

The moment it began, I hung up and pressed redial.

2.

It didn’t arrive like a tidal wave. Instead the worry was slow, like the plodding up a steep flight of stairs, the sort of unlikely fear that can be explained away.

And so I did.

I brushed it aside, marking it under the category of things that happen to other people in other houses.

3.

But hours later, it was impossible to think past short phrases.

He’s dead.

He’s fine.

He’s hurt.

He’s fine.

He’s dead.

Like an infinite and terrible loop I would never find my way out of, stuck in that labyrinth of uncertainty and terror.

4.

When the tow truck driver answered your phone, everything went sideways.

I saw the world clearly now, as I hadn’t before. It was vibrating, and ugly, and cruel.

Time didn’t stop, the way they say it does. I sensed, rather, that time had continued but also shifted, coldly, beneath my feet. The universe of time was now a different animal. My body, too, was smaller than just moments before.

I had a suspicion it — my body — was falling, independent from me. I saw the world clearly now, as I hadn’t before. It was vibrating, and ugly, and cruel. I held the phone a distance from my head. And then I screamed.

5.

The tow truck driver said you were sprawled out. The top of you in the back of the car, flung backward from impact. Your feet up near the steering wheel. The seatbelt had always been a little funny, not tightening the way it should. When I went to see the car, to retrieve my belongings from the trunk, the tow truck driver was there.

He was a tall, thin man with the same name as my brother: Evan.

“You were crying a lot on the phone,” Evan said.

6.

I hadn’t remembered crying. I remembered screaming, the cats running into the closet, my knees buckling. When I’d asked the tow truck driver how bad the accident was he’d said, “Ma’am, real bad.”

7.

I thought you were dead.

8.

But you weren’t.

You were alive.

You were breathing.

You were in the hospital bed and when I walked in the room, you smiled.

A splenectomy, cracked ribs, your neck in a brace that kept your head so still you couldn’t see me unless I stood directly over you, like a parent.

You, on the hospital drugs — hilarious! Everybody thought so. You’d never had a sip of alcohol, had never taken drugs, so on morphine you were swirling. Delirious. You were kind, too, and I was proud of you for this. You always asked the nurses how their days were going. When one replied she was excited to have her day off soon you said, “Everybody’s working for the weekend, huh?” And I knew that you were referencing the song — because you loved that song — but the nurse didn’t get it.

I loved that she didn’t get it. That only I got it.

9.

At night, I slept on the pullout bed in the hospital. But I never slept. Instead I had visions. Colors. Reds, and blues, and greens. And shapes. Circles and triangles. Once, I saw what looked like a circus floating in the periphery of the hospital room. Monkeys and lions and flame-throwers dancing wildly. I don’t know why I saw this. I never told anyone “I’m seeing monkeys.” Then I told my parents. I thought I was crazy. Maybe I was.

10.

One night around 2 a.m. you woke up.

“They’re putting me in the furnace,” you whisper-screamed. Your eyes were red.

I called the nurse in. I said, “I think he has brain damage.” But the nurse reassured me it was just the drugs.

The next morning the doctor who operated on you came to visit. You had a copy of The Lord of the Rings on your nightstand. The doctor said he loved The Lord of the Rings.

I looked at his hands. I imagined them holding a copy of the book. Then I imagined them inside of your abdomen, saving your life.

11.

Your brother had died in a car accident one year earlier. The night of your accident, when I saw your father at the hospital, he said, “We have to stop meeting this way.”

12.

When he said that, he smiled, and I thought he looked like the saddest man I’d ever seen.

13.

You had a dream you were replacing your brother. You dreamed you died so that he could live.

When you woke up, you told me you were sad it was just a dream.

14.

I never understood your raw, gut-deep grief for your brother.

I never understood your father’s grief.

Now I have a daughter, and I’m closer to understanding.

15.

After the accident, I tried to explain my own grief and guilt. It wasn’t a tragedy. Not really. It was an almost tragedy. But my grief and guilt were real and intermingled. A part of me. Like a web inside my gut.

There’s the grief I experienced that night, the guilt that I couldn’t save you from your own grief, and the guilt that I left you.

16.

Ever since the accident, fear has lived inside my body. It is a creature. An inhabitant. Sometimes it curls up and sleeps for months on end. Sometimes I even forget about it. But it always comes back.

Cars scare me. Phone calls, too. Hospitals. Loving someone. The list goes on.

I am continually grieving the life I had before I was afraid all the time.

17.

At the hospital I was given a garbage bag. It contained the outfit you were wearing the night of the accident. A pair of your worn work shoes, the laces of them pulled out and cut, the tops sliced open. Your work shirt cut in half. Your pants, too. Everything, save for the shoes, caked in dried blood.

The first time I opened the bag I closed my eyes and brought your shirt up to my nose and inhaled — the scent of iron, tires, and rust co-mingling with the scent of your sweat. I tried to make out which part was car and which part was you — your sweat, the steel, the tires, your blood.

18.

There’s the feeling that, because you lived, I don’t have a right to my grief.

For years, I have tried to reconcile this: how my grief could be hard and raw, but not substantial. Like living in a foreign country, but always knowing you’ll go home.

19.

Ten years after leaving you, my husband was running late from work one night. He knows about my problem, so he normally sends a text. But sometimes he forgets.

That night, I waited in the living room first. Thirty minutes. Then an hour. Next I moved to the bedroom. I called his phone, just once, before I began to imagine it, the way I do whenever he’s running late.

His funeral.

What would it be like? The coffin and the roses. His face. The car. Who would come to the house to comfort me? I had guesses at which friends would arrive first. At who would bring the lasagna, and how often.

I imagined this too: how forever after they’d say this about me — unbelievable, the amount of bad luck. As though she were never meant to have anything permanent.

The thought of this caught in my throat, and I reached for my phone to call him again.

20.

There are so many doors. Infinite doors. There are so many people walking through them all the time and yet still so many closed doors, waiting to be opened.

There are so many phone numbers you can call. So many people who may or may not pick up. So many people you might love.

It seems impossible. Impossible that I could have loved you so much, when we were so young, yet we fought so often, and so hard.

Impossible that we also sort of hated each other. But that we loved each other too. Impossible that you didn’t walk through the door that day. That then you did walk through that door again, and that a year later I walked out, never to return.

21.

It seems impossible that I live here now. In a new city. With my grief and fear and guilt.

With my husband, who is once again running late.

My husband. He usually texts. But sometimes he forgets. I hear a siren in the distance.

22.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but I really did love you.

I loved you in a world before we understood what happens in the world.

23.

Ten years later, I love my husband more.

Why do I feel guilty telling you this?

24.

When my husband walks in the door, I am sobbing and holding our baby.

“You’re late,” I say.

“There was an accident,” he says.

“But you weren’t in it,” I say. I’m bouncing our baby.

“No,” he says.

“Okay.”

I almost don’t believe him. I don’t know how to explain this to him. Any of it. Not just the grief, but the bag of bloody clothes, and the lions, and the flame-throwers, and the terrible labyrinth, and its infinite number of doors waiting to be opened. How sometimes I’m not sure you really did live. Like maybe you died and came back as a ghost and everything in my life has been haunted by you since. Like maybe everything I love — my husband, our baby, our life — is just a byproduct of the accident, a spark made by two crashing cars, everything good in my life borne from the tragedy of yours.

25.

You always hated life and I always loved it. That was the biggest difference between us.

Was it that you didn’t know how to move through your grief? Was it that you yelled at me? That I yelled at you? Because I wanted to live, and you didn’t? Whatever it was, it wasn’t fair. I know that now. You were caught in the vibrating place, and I couldn’t reach down.

I’m trying to explain why I had to leave you.

26.

“You don’t have to worry so much,” my husband says, touching my cheek.

I had to leave you so that I could have this.

“I’ll always come home,” he says.

The creature clutches.

Bethany Marcel is a writer whose work has appeared in Literary Hub, Popula, Motherwell, and more. Find her on Twitter @bethmarcel or at www.bethanymarcel.com

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