The Power Of Grieving — Even If By Proxy

By Stephanie Hallett

flickr/liz west

My friend Jeremy was silly. When he had a crush on a guy, he’d call him by a nickname — purple pants guy, ugly wig karaoke guy. He was also sweet. Once, when I was going through a particularly difficult breakup, he came over to comfort me and arrived to find me hiding under the covers wearing only a T-shirt and my underwear. Instead of forcing me up and out into the world, he came in, took off his shoes and then his pants, and climbed into bed to catch me up on all the America’s Next Top Model I’d missed while I’d been too sad to move.

Jeremy also took his friendships seriously. He invested in me, and others, in ways that made us feel certain our relationships with him would last a long, long time. When I first got engaged to a woman who was also a friend of Jer’s — the woman I later cried over in my underwear — I told Jeremy how much I wished she and I could someday have a baby together, but how we worried we would never be able afford the artificial insemination or adoption fees. Without missing a beat, he patted me on the knee and told me not to fret. He’d happily give us the missing man-part we needed to make a child. I squeezed him tight and told him we’d call the baby Taylor — his last name.

Things Jeremy loved included: riding bikes; drinking wine; learning new languages (he taught himself Catalan before going away for a semester abroad); dancing wildly; and having spontaneous adventures. He embraced life and all of its ups and downs, once even surviving a near-death bike accident in Europe — he passed out in a three-kilometer-long tunnel because of the car fumes. I thought of him as something of a superhero; I called him my hummingbird.

Before his 20th birthday, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer while visiting his grandmother in the South of France. He’d been having severe back pain for a while and had been told it was kidney stones, but decided to see a French doctor because the pain was only getting worse. When they discovered the cancer, his nurse assured him he’d be fine. “You’ll be like Lance Armstrong,” she said. “You’ll ride the Tour de France.”

Jeremy died about two years later. The cancer wound its way through his slim, early-20s body, taking hold of his liver, his lungs, and eventually taking his life. Between the time he was diagnosed and the summer of 2010, when I moved to Los Angeles, I spent many hours, many days, in his hospital room in Vancouver. His prognosis wavered but generally seemed promising. Testicular is one of the good ones, his doctors said; the survival rate is at least 70%, and some estimates put it at 95%. When I left Canada, I felt pretty confident that I’d have many more hours, many more days, with my darling friend.

So when, one day in early February 2011, Jeremy sent a short email saying things weren’t looking good, he didn’t have much time, the news hadn’t hit him yet — I panicked. I was in the midst of becoming a U.S. permanent resident and couldn’t leave the country. I couldn’t get back in time to say goodbye.

I frantically called a florist in Vancouver — please, please get flowers to my friend before he dies. When the flowers still hadn’t arrived days later, I sent an email with the subject line “URGENT order inquiry.” You could read the panic in my keystrokes. “The recipient is a terminal cancer patient at Vancouver General Hospital with very little time left.” I obsessed over that bouquet of yellow blooms, asking friends at the hospital if they’d arrived yet and if Jeremy was well enough to see them. Did he know they were from me? Did he know I loved him, even though I had to send flowers as my proxy?

On Feb. 20, his best friend, Eve, sent me a two-word text message: “he passed.” I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t going to get there in time. I’d hoped I might get my green card before he took his last breath, but it didn’t arrive until months later. He was gone, and I was in L.A. — had he even seen my yellow flowers?

A while later, friends back in Vancouver gathered to celebrate his life. They planned to share memories, hug his mother, brother and stepfather, and swap stories of nights spent biking wildly through Vancouver or singing karaoke in dive bars. I sent photos I’d taken of Jeremy and Eve, and asked to write something that could be printed and pinned up on a wall. I thought I could reach across nations and borders to say goodbye, yet my efforts felt empty, useless. I wanted to crawl into that hospital bed and hold him again, not send my love in flowers and photographs.

Months went by and I felt intermittently removed from and gripped by the loss. I was silent at work, glued to my computer screen, spine straight, hammering out scores of stories. At home I was distracted, burning squares of tofu or cooking pasta so long it turned to mush when my mind wandered to my last days with Jeremy in hospital: the time he proudly showed off a pair of American Apparel undies that were the same bright blue as the barf bowl at his bedside; or when a group of four or five of us got kicked out of his chemo room because we were singing Beyoncé songs too loudly. I couldn’t hear Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” without bursting into a waterfall of tears — it was Jeremy’s favorite karaoke song. I was even invited out dancing one night by a coworker and said I’d go — it would be nice to have a drink and a twirl in Jer’s honor, I thought — but instead, I tried on outfit after outfit before crawling into bed half-dressed, crying while my then-husband held me and rocked me to sleep.

Later that year, my husband’s grandfather died. The funeral was held on a Friday at the height of summer, in a cramped, un-air-conditioned chapel in Compton, California. We arrived around mid-afternoon for a family-only viewing, wearing all black. It was sweltering that day, about 110 degrees, and the sun bore down, heating up the chapel like a greenhouse. As the day wore on, my husband and his two brothers fiddled with their phones, took antsy, sweating children outside to play in the parking lot and glanced around, making faces at cousins.

Meanwhile across the aisle, their late grandfather’s second wife sat slumped in a packed pew. She was dressed in a polyester skirt suit — one she’d almost certainly never wear again — with her faced smashed into her hands, shoulders drawn up by her ears. Her body heaved every now and then as waves of grief coursed through her. Her family gripped each other’s hands and fanned themselves with whatever sheets of paper they could find, rubbing the widow’s shoulders and offering tissues.

And then there was me. I’d never met the man — my husband hadn’t grown up with his grandfather and barely knew him — yet I sat silently, blinking rapidly and swallowing hard to suck back tears. I used my sweaty palms to alternately fold and spread the fabric of my drenched, knee-length skirt, and avoided looking at the priest. As he delivered a service in Spanish, of which I understood not one word, I found myself choking up. I took deep breaths, holding back the flood of tears that threatened to pour out and drown me.

My mother-in-law stared blankly at the body of her father as the priest’s voice crested and fell. She and her siblings were called to stand around his casket one last time before it was closed forever. As she stood next to her father’s body she seemed to vibrate momentarily, a slight shake in her hands and knees. Then suddenly she cried out — “mi padre!” — throwing her body over the casket and sobbing.

That was it for me. My hands went immediately to my face, rubbing my eyes furiously as the tears streamed and streamed and wouldn’t stop. I sobbed hard and gripped the pew, sniffling and trying not to make a scene. I was mortified: Who was I to be crying at the funeral of a man I’d never met?

Still, I allowed myself to sob and sob and, as the tears slowed, I felt something surprising: a sense of relief. The knots of tension in my neck and shoulders — the ones that had formed the day I received Eve’s text message — began to soften. My shoulders began to fall and my stomach unclenched. Though I couldn’t understand the content of the service, I knew the ritual of grieving well — I’d lost three grandparents and scores of aunts, uncles, and cousins before reaching my twenties. Sharing the stale air in that cramped, concrete chapel and watching emotion pour out of a family burdened by loss, I was able to let myself be carried on the wave of their grief and finally say the goodbye I didn’t know I’d been longing for.

There’s a photograph of my husband and me at the reception later that night. His face is frozen in a tense, square smile, his arm wrapped tightly around my waist; he was never one for tears or shows of emotion. My face, in contrast, is spread wide in a smile, my body bent slightly in a laugh. I’m filled with the joy of life, with my memories of Jeremy, and with the relief of grieving freely — even if just by proxy.

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