It’s been a difficult four years for my family, health-wise.
We’re spread out across the country now, but we keep reuniting in emergency rooms up and down both coasts. We’ve learned the layouts of at least 12 different hospitals, the procedures at the security desks. We can distinguish the difference in rhythm between the ICUs, the hospice wings, the post-op rooms. The locked doors of the traumatic brain injury floors and the psych wards.
These places always have lovely names. “Garden South”, “Pacific View”. I can’t blame the hospital planners for putting a serene spin on things. Of course, many families are growing at these hospitals instead of shrinking. How would you even come up with an appropriate name for the place where you watch someone you love die?
I do, however, have plenty of contempt for the airlines. Especially for the product teams who decided it would be a good idea to throw massive insurance pop-ups at someone trying to get the last seat on a flight 4 hours before its departure—“Are you sure you don’t want to insure this flight?” Insure this flight? I’d love to not even have to fucking take it. In which circle of hell did you hide the button that would have let me skip this line of questioning? Within minutes, the flight I was trying to book jumped from $477 to $799.
My nerves are shot at this point and the numbness has set in. I’m afraid of the phone. Every time it rings, every time someone doesn’t pick up, I steel myself to start executing my now well-established checklist. Book a flight. Tell my manager. Call Dan. Run home, grab whatever is clean, throw it in a bag. Water the plants. Don’t cry in the cab on the way to the airport. Start mapping my path to the hospital when I land. Get tougher.
Is there a name for the specific feeling you get when you realize you’re trying to figure out whether you should be packing your funeral clothes? Is there a world where your decision somehow jinxes the outcome?
The commonplace nature of these health failures didn’t prepare me for their impact. Bodily deterioration is guaranteed from birth. It’s already happened to your friends and their families. It will happen to you. It will happen to everyone you love.
And yet, something really strange has been happening to the four of us—my parents, and my brother and me. We can sit peacefully and eat a meal together now. We can laugh and joke. We’ve taken our first family photo where nobody’s body language is saying “Get me the fuck out of here.” I’m not completely dreading the holidays this year. It doesn’t seem real.
I’ve had this poem stuck in my head for the last two weeks. It’s about romantic love, but for me, it applies to love in general. A really strange cognitive dissonance has taken over my head: I feel genuinely grateful for circumstances that were only possible because of a terrible loss that I wish had never happened.
Sometimes with one I love
Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage
for fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love,
the pay is certain one way or another
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs).
— Walt Whitman
My aunt died on Halloween at Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights. After we said goodbye, we headed downtown and set up camp at an empty restaurant in her neighborhood. The meal took many hours; each new friend and relative that appeared brought another round of food and coffee to the table. Her favorite drink, prosecco, flowed steadily as we toasted over and over to her name and memory.
It was dark when we finally paid and left, spilling out onto a street alive with parents taking their young trick-or-treaters up and down the businesses on Broadway. A group of small monsters jumped at us from the door of the liquor store. We made our way to Harlem-125th to take the train up to my mom’s apartment. While we were waiting for the 11:19, we took this photo.