Letters for The Dead

In Spring 2020, my parents died around a month apart. This is my first full year as an adult orphan. I still receive their mail every few months. If I see a letter addressed to them, I freeze for a few seconds. It seems dramatic, almost comical to me but I can’t help this. The letters feel wrong, there’s an instant burning behind my eyes. This is not just ‘cause they are dead. It comes from seeing their old fashioned names. Names that are uncommon.

Walter.

Louise.

In those moments, I ignore the sudden throat punch. I don’t want to erupt into tears by the mailbox in my apartment building for the cameras to see, or in my brother’s place when I pick up our mixed up letters. Later, in the quiet of my home, under the concerned gaze of my cats, I break down.

Last year, February to March, I nearly lived with Mommy at the hospital, visiting with her everyday, sleeping over so I could feed her breakfast. My brother had dinner shift. We talked, I fed her, kept her company and played old Motown songs on my laptop. Smokey and Aretha were her favorites. The doctors thought she’d live another year. When I told her, her answer was almost her normal musical laugh. It was a laugh I knew well.

She had no plans to die.

She smirked, “A year. What do they know?”

My mom was a youthful, mystical, but harden sprite from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. If she got stable enough to leave, she’d throw herself into recovery while having muted pacts and conversations with God and the spirit world. No one thought she’d die there, even at age 80. In early March last year, one Friday, we were told she’d have hours left to live. She succumbed to heart and kidney disease. We had a small lovely funeral. She was buried a week before lockdown. It felt she took the whole city with her.

Around a month later, my dad died. I’m not sure which death was worse. Covid took him. Walter, a funny, gruff, foul mouthed old black scoundrel was younger than my mom. He was handsome and soft-spoken, like some old DJ from the 70’s, Wolfman Jack era. At 76, a little dementia gripped him. It got worse after Mommy died. We begged him not to go out but he’d forgotten; he left to play the scratch-off lottery. A 15 min walk turned into hours. The police took him home. We freaked. He was so scared and more so, he was sad he disappointed us.

“Sorry, I didn’t know.” he said about Covid. No, he didn’t remember.

About a week later, The CDC said we should all wear masks. That Tuesday, he weakened and passed out in my arms. My brother, my partner and myself caught Covid from him then. No one was with him when he died, seven days after only a week from wandering off. This crass, funny guy who set large glass in the old World Trade Center, the Bronx Zoo, the atrium at the Bronx Botanic Garden, reconstructed Bellevue Hospital, the steps of the Apple Store in Soho, and hundreds of other places; our old black Santa, became a pile of ashes in a jar.

Orphaned at 51, most of my small family sick as hell, we felt lucky. We got dad’s ashes back in a handsome urn. Some families had no resources. Their people went to Hart Island, New York’s “Potters Field.” With the city locked down, nothing, I mean nothing allowed us to grieve for them the old fashioned way. There was far too much to do. Friends couldn’t gather. The paperwork needed to be dealt with while all offices were closed, phone calls and follow ups, trying to fax at any open shop near us, closing bank accounts when limited numbers of people were allowed in, then clearing 40 years of stuff from their home in three months, went by in a fast, numbing blur.

Side note…

If you’ve not put your loved ones directly on your bank account as beneficiary, already written notes to them on how you wished to be buried/burnt and where you wish last rites to be done, made both power of attorney, and a will for your kin or partner, you are thrusting you people into a world of hurt, darkness and confusion if you suddenly die. Thoughts of, “I’m young it’s not going to happen to me.” Is protecting you from thinking about death. It does them no good. Just heard from a friend: he’s dying of cancer. He’ll be 32 next week. So, yeah.

As a child, my mom never shied from taking me to funerals. It was a thing growing up in the South Bronx in NYC in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 80’s. We went South to bury people way more than for weddings or births. We joked about jars and boxes we’d use if some of our more annoying family members died before us. As an adult, I have a pretty earthy, dark sense of humor. I’m an artist drawn to Egon Scihele and Frank Frazetta. I sometimes write dark, romantic fantasy stories. I’m a nerd, I’m pretty gothic, I just don’t dress the part. I love beautiful things over all, but my sense of beauty can be off like that of Morticia Addams. Still, I was not prepared for both of them to die in the same year.

Everyday, I’m doing better, though due to Covid, the NYC I know is gone. There’s no delicious Ecstatic Dance scene at Judson Church, or massive intense yoga classes or some sensual Goth party to lose myself in. Mostly, I’m in my head about painting projects, making YouTube videos, writing, how to keep money coming in, bills, what movies to watch that my man and I haven’t since Covid started, and doing mundane house maintenance.

Then, I’ll get something in the mail addressed to one or both of them, something from the hospital or court documents, small bills, ads, tax info from the state, stuff from their Pension Funds… This gets to me not only about their deaths, but about friends I’ve lost last. There were other comforting faces I wanted to see after things got better with Covid a few didn’t make it. Mostly cancer. Soon, we will lose the friend I mentioned before. It feels like cancer and Covid are squeezing my world into a hardened little nugget.

Just this week, I wrapped my brain around some court papers about my dad thinking, ” I’ll fill this out, get it notarized at the court house… wait. Is Surrogate court still closed to the public ‘cause of Covid restrictions? Maybe I should mail it at the Post Office, but the wait there’s usually a line long as hell, it gets crowded in there enough to kill a few more of us. Not doing that, even with a mask.” I grew tired. I melted down. Cried. Took a short nap. A few hours later, I went to the post office when I thought it might not be busy. It wasn’t. I put plenty of stamps on the envelope, got the paperwork notarized, jammed it into the drop slot marked “Bronx mail” only, then fled.

Anyhow, things are getting better though, I have a perpetual sheen of sadness over my being. I’m grateful I don’t have Long Covid, neither dose my mate, my any of my small family. My partner started a great new job. I’m able to get some creative projects done and still have a small income.

NYCC (New York Comic Con) maybe moving ahead. Bought two tickets. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be the best place to wear a mask. Again, emotionally I’m feeling better, I’ve been painting at the Art Students League in their very reduced classes and enjoying the results, doing some yoga and meditation at home, ingesting Nootropic type products for emotional support and drinking good wine.

Almost everyday, at the supermarket, I still shop for them in my head, or get a strong feeling to call my mom to chat about the day.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact there’s always going to be a layer of sadness inside me. It means, I loved my people.

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Nigia Stephens

Nigia Stephens

I’m a painter, a writer, a nerd and a middle-age denizen of NYC wanting to relocate where there are more beaches and trees than people.