In the Eight Years Since You Died

In the eight years since you died, I moved to New York and saw three therapists. I wrote a play, biked and wrote in Amsterdam for a summer and scaled cliffs in Nicaragua. I drove six hours to Berlin and met our family for the first time in Poland. I visited grandpa’s grave, your picture placed neatly next to his tombstone. I drank cheap rum and danced on a beach in Thailand. I graduated college. I thought I was in love. I hung your picture above my bed.

In those eight years, I considered going back to graduate school, getting a law degree, and eventually chose acting over medical school. I wrote poetry, started and failed to finish books about you, pitched articles and dyed my hair. I drove to your grave every day for two months and never got out of the car. I learned how to make a Thanksgiving dinner for two grieving boys, what kind of lipstick looked good with my skin tone, how to fold a fitted sheet. I starved myself. I started eating meat again. I took up running and finished four half marathons. I got a call that dad fainted at work and sobbed in the middle of a crowded street. I took a spontaneous trip to Arizona, went solo hiking, learned how to knit and cried at the sight of the Appalachian mountains on a thirteen hour road trip.

I learned how to apologize. I didn’t get into my dream school. I changed my mind on wanting children.

I made it through eight Mother’s Days, eight of your birthdays and mine and dad’s, eight Christmases, my high school and college graduations, eight of your death anniversaries, getting fired and winning an award, all without you. When we applied for financial aid, dad had to label himself as a widow and we fought about which day you died (he said 10th, I said 12th) — we were both wrong.

The day you died, I woke up in my childhood bedroom and the first thing I remember is smelling your hair so viscerally that I went to grab you, thinking I had fallen asleep in your hospital bed. It was snowing outside so everything was white and too quiet and it was then that I knew. The nausea persisted for days. Grandma wanted you embalmed so she could say goodbye. This was against your wishes and we did it anyway. She took a picture of you and Kasia, my half-sister, warned me to resist the temptation to look at it — to not taint my memory of you alive. Despite her warning, I looked at it anyway. You didn’t look like yourself, but you looked calm. You were dressed in a beige suit (which I know you’d hate), but were wearing a pink brooch (which I know you’d love).

You died on a Saturday and the funeral was on Monday. I picked out a poem by Whitman to read, but right before it was my turn at the podium, dad turned to me and asked me to keep it short (I realize now, because it was too painful for him) and grandma asked me to say something in Polish. I still regret listening to them — I really loved that poem.

Kasia doesn’t speak to us anymore, by the way. I thought you should know.

— -

Dad and Jakub picked out the Bible passages that would be read at your funeral. Dad picked out the wood for the casket, the stone for the tomb, the place where you’d be buried. Friends (Zoe, Katie, Nicole, Cara, Hannah) baked me brownies and lasagna and baklava and sat on my bedroom floor, recounting stories of the mother they remember, who bought us McDonalds’ breakfasts after sleepovers and took us TPing and gave us advice about boys.

After the funeral, we followed the pickup truck carrying your coffin to the gravesite. It was December and cold and raining. I watched them lower you into the ground and the simplicity of it took me by surprise — the tears finally came. Dad and I made brief eye contact in the rearview mirror and I wiped them as quickly as I could. I wanted them to think I could handle it, I could take your place, I could fill your role, but this was the last time you’d be above ground — a singular experience. I had buried my mother. It was something I’d never done before and would never do again.

These are the questions I can never ask you:

Who was the first person you loved? How many men did you sleep with? How did you know dad was different? Why did you move to America? Did you love your mother the way I loved you? Tell me about your first marriage, the one I found out about on a patio in Arizona with my grandma and godmother three months after you died. Tell me why you chose to give up a law degree and have two kids instead. Tell me about the ultimatum dad gave you: quit smoking or break off your engagement.

Did you hear me when I said it was okay for you to go? Were you in pain? Did you see your dad when you died? Did you only want your brother and dad to be there, or were Jakub and I wrong to not be by your side? Were you upset when I didn’t come to the hospital on my 17th birthday? I wanted to not think about you dying, for a day. I know that’s selfish. It’s okay if you don’t forgive me for that. I haven’t been able to, either.

Should I move back to Chicago? LA? Dye my hair again? Did you know I also had crushes on girls? How do I make chicken noodle soup? Should I forgive and forget? Am I too sensitive? Too bitter? Do you think I loved him or that he loved me? Should I start over, move to another country, run a marathon?

— -

Five months after you died, dad and I had a screaming match in the car. I don’t remember the details (they weren’t important, anyway) but I remember the silence after we had both said our piece.

At a red light, without making eye contact, he patted my hand.

“It’s me and you now. You’re all I’ve got.” A truce.

Your walk-in closet now holds one set of shirts on the left. A few have migrated to the empty side: dad’s attempt at making things equal, less empty, less of a reminder of what we are leaving behind.

THIS IS WHAT I’D RATHER FORGET:

The way Jakub looked when I walked into his room to tell him.

Being asked the question, “Why didn’t you tell anyone she was sick?” over and over after I returned to school.

The New Year’s party where I drank too much, burst into tears, and missed the clock striking midnight

How I badgered you about participating in every experimental trial.

The look on your face when you woke up from surgery and didn’t remember who we were.

How the nurses looked at me from behind the ICU desk when I climbed into bed with you.

The Christmas we tried to celebrate two weeks after you died.

The way dad looked when he saw your coffin.

The looming grey sky of December.

Seven years after you died, my best friend called me over winter break to tell me her mother had been given the same fate: a few more months. Despite having a better handle on navigating my own grief, I didn’t know how to navigate hers.

Michelle called her mom every day. I remember a night when we got too drunk and as we walked from the train to our friend’s apartment, she was on the phone with her — she had just had a stroke and didn’t remember where she was or even that she was sick. I heard the fear in Michelle’s voice that comes from having to parent your parent: the unshakeable desire for some adult, someone more qualified and responsible than her, to show up and take over.

We spent the summer filling our weekends with food and good movies and nights staying out far too late. We ran a half marathon and she was able to FaceTime her mother when she crossed the finish line — one of the last (of many) incredible things she’d see her accomplish. We put up a play and practiced monologues in our living room.

The morning she died, Michelle sat on our couch, the one she looked at when we first moved in and proclaimed “I think we’re going to write something beautiful here”, and stared at one point on the wall, unmoved. I remember doing the same after you died, sitting on our couch staring out the window at the first snow of the season falling silently to the ground. I knew without asking. We spent the day eating too much barbecue and refused to talk about it. From here on out, we would learn to mother ourselves.

Three winters ago, I’m on a beach in Nicaragua with a group of college students. Before dinner, I decide to peel away and go for a short jog along the coast. The sun is starting to set and the colors that filter through the sky are ones I hope I’ll be able to experience again. It feels unreal and new and I laugh at myself for tearing up at the shades of pink and yellow and orange- the type of scenery I know you’d love.

My run is cut short by an expanse of sharp and jagged rocks overlooking the water. I step my bare feet onto the slippery boulder and pull up my tired legs that have allowed me to drag them through miles of running to rest on the edge.

I stand and look down and allow the reflection of the sun to burn my eyes. The ocean expands before me and the sun is over my head and I can feel my chest cracking open.

Large bodies of water have always terrified me, but this feels different. I remember how you used to take me to the ocean, knowing my fear of water. I’d watch you wade in, calf-deep. You looked like a pioneer, your hair in a ponytail, your pants rolled up above your knees, your hands on your hips. You’d take one finger, wipe the water off your skin and stick it in your mouth:

“Just some salt” you’d say, “nothing to be afraid of”.

I dip a finger into the water and stick it in my mouth. Nothing to be afraid of.

THE FIRST DAYS AND WEEKS and years after you died were filled with vivid dreams, writing and TV watching. It was a time of packing up your clothes, of working shitty serving jobs to pay my way through college, of getting drunk and high and promising myself I wouldn’t drink or smoke again and then drinking and smoking some more.

I graduate my senior year of high school with a 4.3. I go to college and sip cheap vodka out of plastic cups. I fight with my roommates. I cry alone in the bathroom after classes. I never go out and I drop 30 pounds. I see a counselor who gives all the right advice that I’m not ready to hear.

I count you in movies about moms and in books about moms, in phone calls with other peoples’ moms and in maternity sections. I count you in the eyes of passerby and double takes, in the corners of my rearview mirror and in the moments before I wake up. I count you in billboards and on highways, in Europe and in Houston, in grocery stores and laundromats. I count you in greeting cards I have sent to you with made up addresses, places you’d never live and will never be. I count you in bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios and stalks of rhubarb dipped in sugar. I count you in the recipes we didn’t save, the people you’ll never meet. I count you in the wrinkles forming under my eyes and along my forehead, in the deep grey of a rainy day, in the quietness of a car ride home, in reunions at airports.

That short, dark time after your death is what returns to me now, those days and weeks when I didn’t see how I could go on. I still find comfort in that poem I wish I’d read, the one I keep folded behind the picture I have of you on my bookshelf:

“Nothing is ever lost or can be lost.

The body, sluggish, aged, cold — the embers left
from earlier fires,

The light in the eye grown dim shall duly flame again;”