The Second Day

A year of living one day at a time.

At 3:05 in the morning on March 20 of last year, I jolted out of a dreamless sleep and sat up straight as plywood before it inevitably warps. To my right, I could see pictures of a happy Indian family and briefly wondered if I’d woke up into a new life. Then I saw the face of the smiling boy in the photo and realized I wasn’t so lucky. I was in the bedroom of one of my childhood friends who happened to live a few blocks from the hospice facility. A moment later, my cellphone rang. Mom had taken her last breath.

I’d like to say what happened next is all a blur. The truth is I remember every detail. Driving too fast through the empty streets. Parking a little too diagonally. My dad hunched over on the cot by her bedside, hugging me hard to ground one of us. “You’ve got to let it out,” he said, urging me to cry as others had. The opportunity, if there was one, passed quick. My grandmother entered crying, collapsing, claiming to all she no longer wanted to live.

Soon the three of us, along with my grandmother’s sister, sat around the bed that held the body of the one we loved. We dialed in my cousin, a Rabbi living in Poland, to say a prayer on speaker phone. Someone farted a little too loudly during the call. Then silence again. The room emptied out one by one. I lingered longer and cried onto my mom’s shoulder one last time.

I stepped out of that room around 4:30 am if I ever stepped out at all. The day had either not ended, or not begun. It was the first day of Spring, I’d heard, but what did that sentence mean without her? “One day at a time,” the nurse said to me on my way out. It was the golden rule of grief, pushed by every hospice staffer, social worker and grief counselor we’d meet with before and after. “One day at a time.”

Cliches, at least for matters of grieving, are just simple pieces of wisdom that get repeated a little too easily. In better times, I probably would have scoffed at these lines. Instead I found myself writing them down. Be kind to yourself. Just feel whatever you feel in the moment. Write down those feelings or talk to someone. Don’t make any big decisions for the first year after. One day at a time. One day at a time.

In that spirit, I began keeping a journal. Fittingly, I used an app called Day One. The early entries are what you would expect from fresh grief (and a guy with a penchant for overwriting).

“Woke up to the sound of my dad crying. Then realized I had some tears in my eyes too. This is the new normal for now…” — March 24, 2014

It’s been two weeks. I’m still waiting for time to reaccelerate. The work days drag. Light conversations are labored. Thoughts bubble up slowly. The rain drops seem to take longer to hit the ground.” — April 3, 2014

Busy but not forgetting.” — April 17, 2014

On the one month anniversary, I admit that life has picked up some momentum again, but I still feel like my mom — or the absence of my mom — defines my world. I‘m also clearly trying to reconcile the bitterness of her dying young.

“I read an old, short essay this week by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was born 28 years before mom and died 28 days after her. He talked about his one brief run-in with Ernest Hemingway on a random street in Paris. In it, he argues that Hemingway appropriated the world through his writing: He owned Paris and bullfighting and the great wars and the art of writing itself by virtue of describing each so definitively. I think something like that can be said of mom. She owns so much of the world around me because she loved it with her full heart. It isn’t possible to forget her love of flowers or chocolates or the piano or the whole of Long Island. So the only option is to find some joy in her connection to it all. She loved them and we loved her.” — April 20, 2014

For a few weeks early on, I visit a grief counselor. She’s a kind woman who gives me a list of books and articles on grief to read. I don’t have the heart to tell her I’ve read them all before. I mention I’ve been writing down my thoughts. She tells me to keep doing that. We part ways. Really I just stop showing up.

“Reinvest. That’s the word the grief counselor used in my final meeting with her. Eventually you start to reinvest in your life. You reach out to friends. You pursue your interests. You become proactive. You learn to care again. Slowly, you build pillars to hold up your collapsed heart. But for now, my heart is an inactive construction site.” — May 17, 2014.

More telling than the diary entries are the timestamps. It becomes increasingly spaced out. Life happens in spite of myself. The mentions of my mom decrease, though she is the subtext of everything. Some of my articles for work get noticed, but I can’t tell her about it. My dad quietly starts dating, and I know what she would say. He begins moving on. My grandmother is forever stalled. I’m somewhere in between.

“’You know what we haven’t done in awhile?’ dad asked while we sit in the backyard. ‘Play some sort of game.’ So he pulls out the Scrabble board for the first time in years. He’s coming to realize how much of his life he gave up for my mom in recent years… Sometimes I wonder if he knows something about dealing with grief that the rest of us don’t.” — July 20, 2014

The milestones pass. Her birthday. My parents’ anniversary, which happens to be the same day as my birthday. New Year’s Eve, which we always spent together. The first of everything without her is the hardest. I start to worry that once we pass the one-year mark, whatever patience people have had with me will fade. I know it won’t be a valid excuse forever.

“Grief is the Scarlet Letter for people who have loved.” — October 5, 2014

“Things I should have asked mom: Did you ever regret having a child? Did you forgive me for yelling at you when I was a kid? Why did you love us all so much?” — November 9, 2014

“’One by one, all the foods that mom bought have expired,’ dad said.” — February 7, 2015.

Earlier this month, my dad and I drove out together to the cemetery for the first time since the funeral. The unveiling, a Jewish ceremony for revealing the tombstone and maybe finding some closure, is coming up. My dad wanted to make sure the stone is in place. The one problem: we picked a day when the cemetery was still covered in more than a foot of snow.

“We walked up to the grave we believed was my grandfather’s and chipped away at the snow covering his headstone. The last of the ice melted little by little like a frozen Polaroid to reveal his last name. With that, we tried to triangulate where mom’s grave might be. Dad and I took turns kicking and scraping snow with our shoes and bare hands. Once or twice I thought we’d found it, but it would just turn out to be more hard earth. Eventually we stopped and got back in the car.” — March 8, 2015

Closure would have to wait a little longer.

One day at a time, 365 times over, and it often still feels like day one. I’ve put miles under my feet since then, but whenever I think back to it, the events of one year ago are as vivid as ever. My mom’s death hovers like a moon following from the window of a moving car. Or like a large mountain in the distance that never seems to fully recede. The trick, I‘ve come to accept, is to start building another mountain on the opposite side that motivates you to look forward.

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