This Is Us

Store in a Cool, Dry Place

Dear Paul:

One of your sisters asks, “What happens if I shake his box?”

It is one thing to walk by the table with various keepsakes, notes, and photographs dedicated to the dead brother who came before her. It is quite another to realize the small, brown paper-wrapped box contains his ashes.

Even that term — ashes — works to ameliorate an unpleasant thought, to gloss over the act. His dead body—your perfect little dead body — was placed into an incinerator by someone and set on fire. This someone, who I will never meet.

I will never fully get over that I wasn’t there with you in that final moment, that I wasn’t introduced to the hospital employee with this sacred job. What remained of you was swept into a neat, tiny box and labeled with my name on it. And that is how you live now, that is how you stay, like a jar of turmeric or a glass bottle of probiotics.

We store you in a cool, dry place.

But I don’t know how to translate that to a 5-year-old without scaring her. So we talk about the small chunks we hear when we rattle it, and I say, “those are his bones! I bet he had strong bones like you.”

These days, she has become very absolute in how she determines who will live and who will die. If we see people outside without masks on, she says, “Now they’re going to have coronavirus and get dead!” Have I mistakenly taught her there is always a cause and an effect? I have tried not to do her this disservice. You had a hand in teaching me that cautionary tale. Sometimes the call is coming from inside the house.

Our brains are hardwired to survive, and without knowing what she’s doing, she’s trying to make sense and connect the dots of trauma, illness, accidents. She can’t quite digest your life and death, so she’ll often ask, “No but, how did he die? And why? I know his heart stopped but…” and exasperatedly trail off.

She’s a smart girl, but she doesn’t know where to land on you. Yesterday I was baking your cake and she said, “Yeah but, is he actually turning 8? Like actually, actually? Like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8?” She’s still trying to figure out exactly who and where you are. I wish had better answers.

Here in Portland, we used to worry mostly about earthquakes, the big one. About fallen bridges and houses sliding down the Southwest Hills. In a way, it feels so quaint now. I used to run drills in my head to strategize how I could carry one child and run to the other. If the overpass above I-5 collapsed, could I scale the sides of the highway like a mountain goat with a preschooler in one arm? Could I make the mile-and-a-half dash in time to find my fourth-grader among the wreckage? What if I was too late and she took her final breath alone, surrounded by strewn classroom supplies under a collapsed Catholic school ceiling? Or maybe I’d get there and be one of the lucky ones. She’d be scared and bloody but safe on the soccer field with the other kids in the group of “H” last names. But I know these survival tactics are forever inchoate and always slippery.

When Jimmy, your dad, was in fourth grade, the local fire department came to his school to show the students the fire engine. There was a kid in his class who was always anxious, a known bedwetter. He had confided in Jimmy that he was worried about the sirens. So your dad went to Sister Francine and reported to her that Joey was concerned about the fire trucks. She patted him on the head and said, “James, you’re always such a worry wart. You don’t have to worry about anyone but yourself.”

So when he started tracking Covid-19 in November or December of last year and told me this was going to be a really, really big deal, I may have pushed back a bit. “Like what are we talking about here… no school for 10 days, two weeks at most?” It turns out he was right on both accounts. Joey peed his pants when the sirens went off, and the girls haven’t set foot in a school building since March 13, 2020.

Your big sister inherited this worry gene from us — her, your dad, and me, a trifecta of eldest children. Sometimes she gets teary at night and asks questions I don’t have the answers to. What if Dad is exposed at the hospital? What if he has to isolate away from us for 14 days? What if he gets really sick and dies? What if we can’t be with him as he’s dying?

“We would march right in there and hold his hand and sing to him and nobody could stop us.” But of course, this is not true or it’s not enough. So I tell her the lie many before have said: “You don’t have to worry about this. You have to let us worry about these things.”

Sister Francine didn’t know it at the time, but she’d want little Jimmy, now an adult anesthesia provider, on her side. She’d want this guy who knows more about all facets of medicine and science than he has any business knowing. The guy who called his parents from Washington Hospital Center on 9/11 before the phone lines were cut and the doors locked. Before victims from the Pentagon came in, he called and said, “I don’t know what’s happening, but I love you.” He takes his job, this duty of care, so seriously.

But I’m the proudest of him when he cares for the most complicated and heart-wrenching of situations — pregnancies that necessitate ending or, recently, a young transgender man who showed up for surgery alone and scared. He doesn’t need me to do quality control but it’s hard for me to resist: “You took really excellent care of them, right?” I ask. “I gave them only the top-shelf cocktails and held their hands.”

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the hospital prepared new procedures around intubating and extubating patients. It seems benign, but it’s actually one of the riskiest parts of surgery in terms of spreading the virus. The anesthesia providers often now do this part solo in the room, lest these minuscule weapons be launched from the airway and land on others. Every day, he goes to work and I envision this new process. The surgeons, scrub techs, operating room nurses, and anesthesia techs file out, and there’s your dad — his goofy face the last and first thing patients see, sandwiching this manufactured sleep. I’m sure it’s not as poetic as I’m making it, but imagining him there alone as the final checkpoint feels exactly right.

Sometimes, Paul, this is what keeps me up at night. You gave two hypervigilant people who’ve trained their whole lives to intervene no chance at intervention. Every little part of you is a lesson, and I’ve learned everything and nothing at all.

Right now, it’s quiet and sunny. Winter is creeping in. There’s no need to run toward the girls because we’re never apart. The threat this time isn’t loud or showy; it’s not in our faces or shaking the house. It’s invisible and ubiquitous — stepping on the front porch without your mask to receive a package, scratching your face with a hand that hasn’t been sanitized for the 20th time that day, accepting a grocery cart from an exiting customer. Now we talk about six feet apart and aerosolized molecules. So many ways to die.

I can’t resist the urge to train for something. I take long walks and do pushups late at night. Like my friend Tess says, “Sometimes you have to lift the couch up just to see how strong you are.”

I wonder sometimes what you knew when you left. Maybe you guessed that we wouldn’t be able to make the leap from a man-to-man to a zone defense. That we only have two arms and scaling the side of a highway gets more complicated when you jump from two to three kids. But I would have welcomed the challenge. I would have created another workspace for a second-grade boy to do his distance learning. We would have cushioned you nicely, bookended between your big sister and your little sister.

A long time ago, a friend asked me why I didn’t just ask to be knocked out, have you removed via a baby-sized incision. I understand the impulse, but I don’t have the language to fully express the answer. I’d go back, I’d do it again and again as it remains one of the best three days of my life. Otherwise, I would have missed the magic of you, the hush of the room. I can’t explain that your presence changed the particles in the air. And sometimes I wonder if I was the one actually doing the delivering, or if it was you that ushered me through a new portal.

I’ve stayed tuned in all these years later to that electric moment, 10:56 p.m. every night. Every so often it’s conscious—most times, I pick my phone up and there it is. Usually it’s around the time I go check on my sleeping girls, your sisters, and palm their foreheads. Are you in there? Which parts? Sometimes I brush the top of your box — this little box that turns eight years old today — on my way back into bed.

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