Life and Death

It was Christmas, 2015 that the explosion happened at the dinner table. My brother and I, my parents, my aunt and uncle, and two younger cousins. We might have been having fun, wearing tissue paper crowns and racing wind-up penguins across the table. It was much later and the two younger ones were locked into their electronic devices, the rest of us remained at the table, wine glasses close to empty, listening to my uncle tell stories. And then my brother snapped.

I dont remember how old I was when I finally began to understand the kind of person my uncle was. My mom tells me she saw the look that crossed my face the moment it happened. That my aunt saw it too. 

It took years for my brother and I to finally decide we’d had enough of my uncle. My brother had packed his things and nearly drove home that night. It took an hour long, heated conversation for him to finally come out and say he wouldn’t do a family gathering that included my uncle again. My brother was eventually persuaded to stay, but it was the last Christmas we would spend with my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

December 2017, right before Christmas, my last grandparent passed. Some time before that my mom and I had gone to lunch and she’d told me what my grandma’s life had been like. How hard it must have been. It was lovely to hear she’d had a smile on her face when she passed. That perhaps my granddad had finally taken her hand and that they were reunited.

And it was that passing that finally brought us all back together. To raise a glass to celebrate her life and love, together.

Not present, was my uncle. 

Five days prior, the doctors had discovered cancer in his bones and lungs. They told him he had a few months at best. That day he stopped eating. My aunt believed he had given up hope. She called her eldest daughter, away at college, and told her she needed to come home as soon as possible. And that afternoon we helped my aunt get ahold of hospice.

I’ve struggled to remember the anger I felt, to remember why it was important. Maybe there is a reason it all happened like this. My sweet and endlessly loving grandmother, hanging on to life for so long. No one knows why. Perhaps it was for this. Perhaps it was to bring us all back together at this time when love and support was needed. Perhaps this was her lasting gift to us.

The Drive

It is dark when I set out. My small jeep and my small family. The road is long, like 280 miles long, but its a road I’ve come to know well. I program Google Maps to give me directions. A route I easily know by heart, but perhaps so the journey wont seem quite so lonely. Another voice to me, where the cats will only meow. I have my podcasts cued up, 6 hours worth. Usually something of an educational nature, or sometimes mystery crime stories. Something to keep my brain engaged, where the dark monotony would pull me into sleep. 

In the darkness, the world seems small. Just two strips of pavement and a steady stream of white and red, like two string lights side by side, bending and curving along. The rain is falling, making the windshield explode with white and red light, like a muddied fireworks show, instantly whipped away with each sweep of the wipers. Its possible I get lost in it, the kaleidescopic patterns flashing before me, just following the stream of red lights. The cats each claiming a side of my lap. The voices of the podcast suddenly lost to me, something about math and physics and the birth of the universe… and then I notice red lights flashing more rapidly. Red and blue..

I pull over, out of the way, but the lights remain behind me. I continue to pull over. I hit the rumble strips as I pull off to the shoulder. The slowing speed rouses the cats. I watch as the flashing red and blue follows me off to the shoulder. I don’t have the tightening in my chest, or the pit in my stomach, the way I did the last time I was pulled over. Over 10 years ago, sorrowfully driving back to college. The year I dropped out and moved to Oregon. 

The flashlight beam illuminates my passenger window. A police officer and my uncaged cat lock eyes. I roll the window down and am informed I’m being recorded. He asks me if I was aware I had been going 70 mph. 

“No. Not really.” I respond, blandly. 

“Whys that?” He asks.

“I guess I just wasn’t really paying attention.” 

He asks where I’m going and I tell him Seattle. He scoffs and says I have a long drive. After having just gotten off the most patience draining 8 hours of work, I simply nod and say, “yeah…”

He lets me off with two warnings. One on paper, the other by telling me he didn’t want the next time he drove up to me to be at my traffic accident. I laugh, but he reminds me that he is being serious.

“Watch your speed when you pull out.”

I watch him as I pull out, adhering to the speed limit, unsurprised when, after a few moments, I see his lights go on again, for someone else.

The rest of the drive is unremarkable. My speed slowly creeps back up. I follow the lights, like lights guiding me to an exit. One cat settles across the center console, my empty Red Bull can crinkling under his weight. The other settles between my thighs, face resting in my stomach. We drive like that for the next four hours. Occassionally the voice of Google Maps will calmly remind me which exit to take.

The road gradually grows smaller. Three lanes, to two lanes. The white and red lights grow fewer. And the trees begin to close in. Until eventually I am alone, on a two way road with a yellow line down the middle, cradled in the green embrace of the trees. I am listening to the sound of an old man’s voice recall the murder of his daughter. My speed slows as I come to my first stop sign in 6 hours. Both cats perk up. Soon enough, we’ll be there.

Sick Day – fin

324 miles and morning seems like a lifetime ago. But I woke without the foggy, thick feeling in my brain. My nose still ran like a faucet, but I think I’m pretty well resurrected from the Death Plague. I made some coffee for my mom and I, and we video chatted with my dad, in London. It was nice to smile and laugh together. Then, in our own time, which took alot of time, we head out. Just down the road, my jeep waited, also resurrected.

Its only been a couple weeks past our one year anniversary together, and shes cost more money than shes worth. Yeah, I call my jeep a “her.” She’s far too small and dainty to be referred to as a “he.” Like an Undine, all deep, aquatic teals. Small, mighty, and trouble. She’s been nothing but a thorn in my side. Never failing to hit me in the head when I open the back to load things in, and her back window refusing to stay up on a hot day in the sun, despite functioning a/c, and never, never failing to go dead after the slightest amount of neglect. All boats are referred to as “she,” perhaps because men loved them as they loved women, or perhaps because they were as high maintenance as a woman. 

I am hoping the approaching new year will prove better for us. For her and for me. A new beginning. Although truthfully, I don’t hold much hope. My heart has been cracked and broken too many times to hold much of anything within it. Everything is just going to happen. Maybe one day I’ll meet someone who knows the art of Kintsukuroi.

She brought us home. I unloaded her contents back into my small apartment. I sat on my couch, while my cats settled back in. It was dark, and late, and cold. Tomorrow, I’d be back to work. No more sick days.

Sick Day – day 5

My mom shoots a look behind us as the sound of Christmas music blares from right on our heels. “Thats me. Its my purse,” a woman offers. “It helps keep my cheer up while on my lunch break,” she doesn’t smile. We both turn back to the cashier and complete our transaction.

Its not a mystery how Christmas snuck up on us. Its just hard to be cheery when your last grandparent is laying in a hospital bed, no longer eating or drinking, no longer recognizing anyone. Its hard to be cheery when you’ve just celebrated the life of a 32 year old woman whose hand you held at her wedding, and then she was gone 12 hours later. Its hard to be cheery when you’re making follow up appointments to address your own cancer scare.

The mall is tedious and full of people. Its lunchtime on a Tuesday and I’m not sure why they’re all at the mall. The presents for friends are easy. The presents for pets are the easiest. We get those all done before noon. Its the presents for the family that are the challenging ones. We walk thru the mall, eventually stopping to get underwear for my dad, and plain tank tops for myself. We stop at the center stand to get Summer Sausage. What do you get when no one really wants anything.

I’d noticed the Christmas decoration boxes upstairs. Out and open, but not unpacked. No Christmas lights along the roof, no stuffed Santas, or holiday table runners. Just the small set of bells on a bow, around my kitten’s neck. Tiny jingling as she trails around underfoot.

This year proved challenging for all of us. Externally, as well as internally. With a heart attack and a triple bipass surgery. The loss of a well paying job. A serious job suspension, served twice. And a car that keeps dying despite multiple auto mechanics saying they can’t find anything wrong. 

I suppose the holiday blessing isnt in the gifts or the decorations or the music played around every corner. The blessing is just us. We can all be together, happy (ish) and healthy.

Sick Day – 4ish

Another early morning. Frost on the cars and thick fog blankets the streets. We are surprisingly efficient this morning. We head down into town for a quality cup of coffee. The kind where the baristas weigh the grounds before pouring a shot. And for a monday morning, its pretty hoppin’.

I watch the main barista, the image of a PNW hippie, with his wool sweater and dark beanie. He bounces around behind the counter taking orders and shmearing bagles. He smiles the whole time. How wonderful to have so much pride and love for your job.

Aside from the two baristas and myself, I realize everyone else is twice my age. A sea of grey and white hair, sipping coffees and chewing bagles. Some of them stare deeply into their phones, others engage in gossipy conversation. Everyone seems local, familiar with the barista named Patty. Its cold out, and they all wear their name label puff jackets and thick raincoats. You’d rarely see anything less up here. My own no-name, black cotton button up is tucked under the table. Its loud, and echoy in there, the sound of the music long drowned out. A phone rings loudly, and I watch as men feel their pockets, some lift their phones off the table to check them, women dig in their purses, or hold them closer to their ears, only to put them back when they realize if wasn’t theirs. 

The barista still bounces around behind the counter. The steady stream of people coming in doesn’t slow. We eventually finish our own cups, and abandon our seats for the cold outside. The fog is beginning to thin, and the sun is coming out.

Sick Day – day 3

We slept in.. I woke to silence in the house, save for my mother’s deep breathing down the hall. There was no 60’s music and espresso steaming from below. I rolled out of bed and padded downstairs to let my fur sister outside. I found the decaf coffee and pulled out the espresso machine from under the cupboards to start a cup for my mother..

When I finally hopped into the shower, I began reflecting on the fact that everything happened 8 years ago. People fell in love. People moved. Cats were adopted. Lives changed. Eight years ago, I chose to go Right instead of Left. I dropped out of college and moved to a town where I knew all of 3 people. And I’ve been here ever since. This town where I felt aching love for the first time, where I lost my virginity, and where I felt soul crushing heart break for the first time. This town where I got my first job caregiving. Where I smoked a joint for the first time, and was fired from a job for the first time. This town where I made some of the greatest friends, and lost some even greater ones. This town I found a life in. I worked my way from low paying caregiver, up to certified CNA2 in the local hospital. I started out living in a house with 4 other girls, to soundly living by myself. I started out afraid of being alone, to discovering I’m strong enough to be alone..

This town sucked me into its miasma, and I lost myself. I wonder how my life might have been different had I chosen to go Left instead of Right. Had I not chosen the more romantic and edgy option. Where would I be right now? 

Mom and I drive for 45 minutes to get dockside. The fishing boat bobs up and down as she buys boxes of fish. The sun is out, but the chill still bites my nose..

I think about leaving. About packing up and getting out of dodge. Leaving the perfectly sized apartment I found. Leaving the perfectly suited job I have. Leaving the ones who make me feel seen. The intern who asked why the Rose Fire seemed dimmer than normal. The co-worker who caught sight of me yawn and stretch, and blush slightly when he said it might have been the most adorable thing he’d seen. The friend who frantically worried about me when I accidentally slept in til 4pm and hadn’t heard from me. The baristas who know my coffee order as “what Rose gets.” The doctor who routinely encourages me to further my career. The friends who continually tell me to write. And the friends who tell me that my absence would be felt if I left..

I think about it..

I lay on the couch, fur sister under foot, Thumbs at my shoulder. Mother is finishing laundry, and making soup. We are getting by. Tomorrow we will probably sleep in again.

Sick Day – day 2

Its hard to gather my thoughts together, as I lay here on the couch staring into the fireplace. We spent 5 long hours on the road to say goodbye to my father. I watched him roll his bag down the ramp and around the corner, his destination: The Motherland, perhaps to say goodbye to his own mother. My last grandparent, laying in bed, fading away.

He is going by himself, a short trip, and I wonder if it will be burned into my memory like when he went over when my grandfather passed. He went alone then. I remember laying on the ungodly 70s couch in the livingroom, watching a daytime marathon of the first season of Alias. I would follow the show all the way until the last season. Which is typical of me, I can’t finish anything. I remember rolling off the couch and hugging my father goodbye, perhaps disgruntled to have my marathon interrupted. After all, I didn’t have many memories if my grandfather. Snapshots. Me watching him roll his own tight cigarettes in the darkened diningroom. Him yelling at me to stop playing with the hose. The fear I had after he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, that he wouldn’t know who I was, but the fear melted away when he saw me. Recognition lit his eyes and he smiled and called me Little Love. And shortly my father returned, he had presents in tow. He had found various Manga for me. All of which, I still have. One of which became one of my favorite series.

But thats how it is for me. I’m never there when my family members pass. I simply have odd memories of when it happens. Having to stay at my best friend’s house while my mother and father both flew to Seattle when my first grandparent passed. It was the middle of indoor soccer season and I was getting ready for an evening game. And perhaps it was for the best I ended up missing it. My parents weren’t there, with their pockets full of Rolos to hand me during the game. My brother and I each took turns talking with them on the phone. They cheerfully wished me good luck on my game and I passed the phone to my brother. When he hung up, he told me Grandpa had died. They hadn’t told me because I was young. I fell down and began crying. In hindsight, it feels a bit dramatic to me. I don’t remember feeling any emotion at the time. Simply that… people cry when family members pass, and so I cried..

I am staring at the fire, and wondering what is burning itself into my memories right now. Mother and I drove back in the dark and the rain, quiet. The sound of the rain on the windshield, like soft radio static. We arrived home to a dark and silent house. I put on my pajamas and curled up on the couch, my father’s usual spot. Mother sets about preparing dinner. And right about now my father would be just taking off..