Thursday, December 7, 2017

Goodbye, My Friend

What the fuck? 

I think I'm still breathing. I know I'm still sitting in my chair. At my desk. Before my computer screen.

But my chest is tight. My heart is racing. My hands begin to tremble and shake. 

What the fuck? I look at the screen again. WhatthefuckwhatthefuckWHATTHEFUCK?

There in the middle of my Facebook newsfeed, after a picture of someone's holiday card but before an old coworker's elf meme, is an obituary.

And that is how I learn that my friend is gone. 

*     *     *     *     *

That night I pray as I google and search Facebook for more information. Please, I beg, please let it have been a heart attack. Let it have been a stroke. An aneurysm. But the biting truth, the thing I think I already know, is gnawing away at me from the inside of my gut, a pit so raw and wildly churning that it sends me running to the bathroom where all I can do is lean over and retch. 

Minutes later, I find it: a comment from a friend of his that affirms what I already know.

He took his own life.

I am shredded anew as I crumple to the floor, the dark, unlit Christmas tree looming over me from the corner of the room while I heave and sob, the unbearable question of how he did it racing around my brain, leaving a string of potential answers, each more devastating to imagine than the last. 

I do not sleep that night. I toss and turn and thrash until the covers are completely undone, until they are simply a heap of blankets that I drag across the bed as I roll over, double over, sit up, curl up. My hair is damp with tears and sticks to my face in clumps. My eyes swell and burn. I lie on the far side of the bed and look up out the window.

Can you see me? I ask him silently, my face turned skyward. 

Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you call? Didn't you know that I meant it when I said you could call me anytime and I would come? Did I ever lie to you? Did I ever not follow through? I would have come, I would have sat with you, I would have called your doctor with you, I would have taken you to the hospital, I would have done anything to keep you safe and keep you alive. I would have done it. Didn't you know?  

But the sky doesn't respond. It just stares back at me, cold and pocked with stars, and says nothing. 

*     *     *     *     *

I get angry. At everything. At him. At his therapist. At the god he so devoutly believed in. At myself. I read our last text conversation, exactly one week before he took his life, and I pick apart every word of it, scouring for a sign, a clue, something I missed, because this is what you do when something happens that makes no sense. You look for some sense. You look for something that has some kind of goddamn rhyme or reason or rule or logic or predictability to it because surely the world is not so terrifyingly random that your friend can tell you seven days, just SEVEN FUCKING DAYS, before he kills himself that he is fine. Surely he must have said, somewhere, "Jenn, it's all about to come crashing down" and I simply missed it. Surely. He must.

But he didn't.

"I'm doing good" he wrote when I asked how he'd been. "I hope you're well" he said at the start, and then, later, "How are you?" He told me about his Thanksgiving. He asked how my boys were, asked for them by name. He filled me in when I asked how his kids were. He went into some detail about his pride for one of his children who was facing a difficult time. 

I told him I was sorry to hear things were rough for her. I told him my heart felt for her because it's difficult to discover that someone you care about isn't showing up, isn't coming through to be there for you when you need them.

He never replied.

*     *     *     *     *

I write. A long letter, by hand, the things I hadn't said simply because there hadn't been time. You don't step back and take stock, you don't try to gain the perspective of the impact someone has had on your life when they're still so largely in it.  

You don't do that until they are gone. 

Dear John... 

I write and write and write until I'm empty. I roll the letter into a tight scroll and wedge it into a wine bottle. I peel off the label. I grab my hat, my gloves and my scarf. It's the day after Christmas and it's 26 degrees outside. It's supposed to snow later. 

I drive out of Massachusetts, through the winding stretch of road through Providence. I drive south until Rhode Island halts abruptly and becomes the Atlantic. There are only two other cars in the beach parking lot. 

I don't know what I believe happens after you die, I told him once. He believed in heaven, believed his mother was there, believed he'd see her again one day. I wasn't so sure. I told him about the gauzy sense of my father that I could never quite hold on to, like he might be just past the graze of my fingertips, someplace I could not touch. Or, I pondered aloud, maybe it's all just science. Maybe his body is ash and my sense of him is nothing more than a series of neurochemical firings, a trick of the brain. 

I tried to figure it all out before he died, I told him. But I never did. 

As I walk down the beach and stand before the expansive gray sprawl that is the ocean in winter, the broken clouds casting a dull, weary light, I know that I still haven't figured it all out. 

Dear John...I don't know exactly where you are. But I feel like this might be it. 

I watch the waves for a while. I study the sky. I breath in the sharp salt air. I let the biting wind snap my hair. I let my tears roll without brushing them away.   

And then I take the bottle, full of my heart, and I hurl it into the sea. 

I hope it smashes against the rocks. I hope the paper dissolves and my words, the biggest and most important things I will ever say to my dear, beloved friend, bleed until they are one with the water, so that he may know them. 

I hope this is the right goodbye. 

It begins to snow giant, beautiful snowflakes as I drive back home.

And I know then that it was.  

Scarborough Beach, RI  12/26/16

Monday, November 27, 2017

Everybody Hurts

In childbirth you learn to trust your body, to have faith that it knows what it's doing. You surrender to the pain. You let the pain serve its purpose.
A similar thing happens when you get a stomach virus. The body knows what to do: empty. Get it out. And so, as you lean over the toilet heaving your guts out for hours at a time, you reassure yourself that you'll be okay. You just have to let it out. The same is true for emotion. When difficult emotions try to surface, we so often try to avoid them. It doesn't feel good to be angry. It doesn't feel good to be sad. It doesn't feel good to process loss. So we drink. We work more. We go out. We make jokes, we stay busy, we read books and binge TV shows. We distract ourselves in any way possible to avoid feeling the feelings. But eventually these things bubble to the surface. Because your body knows what it is doing. It's pain with a purpose. Your body, your heart, is trying to get it out. We fight it, we numb it, we do all sorts of mental gymnastics to hide from it, when really what we need to do is let it come. Then you breath a sigh of relief once you've ripped off the band-aid. You've felt the icky feelings and had a good cry or identified some difficult truth about how you feel and what you want. You look down and expect to see yourself nicely healed under that band-aid. Only to find another, smaller band-aid that must be ripped off when its time comes. We serve ourselves best when we learn to trust that those unsettled feelings we have deep down are a sign that another band-aid is ready to be to ripped off. When we recognize that this is the only way to get to healing. And when we remember that sometimes what you reveal is a cut that never fully heals; it simply scabs over. If you pick at it, it will bleed every time. But you learn to stop picking. You learn to work around it, careful not to nick it, aware that it exists and is part of you. And you learn that when it does bleed, it will again scab over. You will be okay. You just have to let it out. And trust that your body and heart know what its doing.

Monday, December 5, 2016


Year One

Christmas is coming, but still you died today.

I tuck the boys in bed and then I water the tree. I wander from room to room, pacing. I'm not sure what to do with myself. No one has come, not even my mother. 

There's a gauzy haze between us; I feel you here and gone, near and far. My stomach churns. I stop at the window at the bottom of the stairs, press my forehead against the cold glass and look up at the stars. Is that where you are now? 

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.

*     *     *     *     *

It's a new year now, but we're not done with your dying, so I get on a plane and write you a eulogy while the sun dips below the wing. I land in Seattle, at the airport where you are not. I cry in the back of a car, in the driveway of a house where you are not. I go to a church and stand before a room full of people I don't know and tell them that I am your daughter and how beautiful a thing that is to be. I'm trying to prove that I belong there too, in this place that is far from my home and far from my life and not ever where you and I really existed. 

I feel a panicky type of betrayal when it's time to leave and I cry openly as the plane pulls away from the terminal. I can't leave you and I can't stay. Do you know this feeling? You must, you must, because I am your daughter. 

I try to guess when we've reached the halfway point between Seattle and Boston. I look down, I look up, I look out, and I wonder if that's where you are now. 

Year Two  

Dear Dad, please be with me. 

My mind reaches for you as I look at the IV in my hand. I've made peace with the possibility that I will die today during brain surgery. But I can't do it without you. Please don't let me do this alone; please be with me. Please. Please. 

I offer up a last prayer to God: Thank you for my life.

And then, I shut my eyes. 

*     *     *     *     *

It's very late or very early. I've just been moved from ICU into my own room, a regular room, and I desperately have to pee. In 30 minutes I've gone from catheter to bed pan but I'm set on using the toilet. The nurse guides me and my IV into the bathroom. I turn to her and tell her I'm okay. I shut the door, sit down, and grin like an idiot as I go to the bathroom. 

I'm reaching for you again. WHOOOO-HOOO, LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO! I think of  your surgeries, how each one took more out of you, how each one was more difficult to recover from. I imagine I'm calling you, I'm laughing and telling you, "PEED ALL BY MYSELF TODAY!" I'm smiling as I call the nurse back in help me wash my hands. 

I feel you smiling with me. And in this small victory in a brightly lit bathroom of Brigham & Women's hospital, I have found you. 

I have found you. 

Year Four

Say something.  

It's December again, I'm putting a tree up again, I'm buying Christmas presents again, and I want to hear your voice. I want to know that you love me still. I want to know that you're proud of me. I need to hear your voice.

Say something.

Can you even hear me? 

Say something. 

Year Five

I don't remember a time in my life when I did not miss you, even as a little girl. I love you and I miss you were always a part of us. Goodbye was not new to us. Tears were not new to us. 

Sometimes I think I've adjusted to this new, lesser way for us to be, where I'm here and you're not and the conversations are always one-sided. But no sooner does it start to make sense to me than I'm knocked down and left breathless by a wave of grief I never saw coming.  

In five years, I certain only of this: those two constant sentiments of our relationship remain. They haven't changed. They never will.

I love you.

I miss you. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Funeral

The flooring of the Seattle airport is made of large, shiny, brown tiles. As a little girl I would walk the silver outline of them, my arms stretched out like wings, and wonder how many people could fit in one of the big squares. How many grown ups? (two) How many kids? (four) How many smurfs? (100, probably, but maybe more.)

My father would be there. If I was arriving, we were happy and hurried. We'd get to the car and drive through the winding spirals out of the parking garage and onto the freeway, because they call it a freeway out there in Seattle, not a highway. If I was leaving, there was a different tone. We were slower, my stomach in knots over the anticipation of the goodbye that was waiting. Sometimes I cried before we got to the gate. Sometimes I held it together until they called my flight. The older I got, the better I was able to control my tears. But I could never shake that knot of dread in my stomach when I'd leave. 

But those were the trips of my childhood and adolescence. Now as I look down at those familiar brown tiles I try not to think about the fact that my father isn't waiting for me this time. There will be no bone-crushing hug. There will be no warm voice to call me sweetie or pumpkin face. 

Because I am a grown woman now. And my father has died. 

*     *     *     *     *
It's after 11 when we get to the hotel, which means my body thinks it's 2 in the morning. My hotel room is cold. I don't bother to take off my coat or even my shoes. I turn the radio on to static because it's too quiet. I take a Tylenol PM and lie down and wait to fall asleep.  

I think about how I want to go home.

*     *     *     *     *

The next day we drive to my father's house, my in-from-out-of-town family and I. I sit in the backseat. We pull up the driveway.

I can't get out of the car. 

It's overcast. Maybe it's raining. Maybe I only remember it that way because it seems like it should have been gray and rainy.  

I have to get out of the car. I have to go into the house where he's not anymore, where I've never been without him. It's going to be the most real that it has been so far and I know I have to do it.

But first, I need a minute. 

*     *     *     *     *

That night, there's a party. The house is full of strangers, people from all aspects of my father's life that I didn't know, but they are warm and welcoming as I float among them. There's music and whiskey and laughter. I think about how much my father would love this, everyone talking about him. The house is warm and bright and full of love. 

It might be the best party I've ever been to. 

*     *     *     *     * 

The next day I put on a black dress and heels that hurt my feet. The celebratory feel of the night before has evaporated. 

I'm careful not to look at the wooden box of ashes sitting upon the altar. I wonder for a moment where my dad might be, if he's there with us or if he's in some place called heaven or if he's just ashes now in a box. 

I push that thought out of my mind. My brother holds my hand. I tune out most of what's being said. 

I've written something for the service. There was nothing I could do for my father while he was sick, while he was dying. I couldn't comfort him or bring him tea or make him toast. But I can do this for him. I can get up in front of all of these people and take my words and put them together to say something that will honor him. 

I read my writing. I am steady. 

My voice breaks at the very end.

But I do not cry. 

*     *     *     *     *

As soon as they call my flight to board, my heart begins to race. My stomach twists. There's a lump in my throat. 

I cry as I board the plane. I rest my forehead against the window, turned away from the passengers walking by. I watch the airport recede as the plane pulls away from the gate and moves towards the runway. I can't stop crying. We're taxiing. 

The plane begins to gain speed for takeoff. 

I don't want to leave here, I don't want to leave you, I think in a panic as we rush down the runway. 

I'm not ready to let go. 

I'm not ready, I'm not ready, I'm not ready. 

And then, we're airborne.

And I am going home.  

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Things I've Forgotten

These are the things I've forgotten.

They are the things I don't think about when I look back, the things that don't ever burn or sting. They don't actually make me feel anything.

That's the beauty of forgetting. 

I don't remember the sound the pressure cuff made when I peeled it from my arm after the doctor left the room to arrange my transport into Boston. "Unfortunately, there's a mass on your brain," he had said, so there was not, I decided, any further need to watch my blood pressure or track my pulse or even for me to stay in the johnny. They already knew what was wrong with me. I don't remember getting dressed or brushing my hair or refreshing my lipstick before I started making phone calls. That piercing rip of the velcro from the cuff as I freed myself from the bed and took what little action, what little control I could...I don't remember that sound at all.

I forget the understanding that settled upon me in the ambulance ride from the small hospital to the big one. Stuck in rush hour and hockey playoff traffic, I forget that moment of realizing the EMT didn't know what to do with me. I forget how he got chatty, how he felt the need to fill the sad space that was the back of the rig with words about his daughter preparing for college. I forget how he asked again and again if I was too cold or too hot. I forget how I wanted to put my hand on his arm and tell him that it was okay, that silence didn't scare me. That I needed the calm and the quiet to catch my breath in preparation for what was next. I forget how he eventually grew still and the gratitude I felt for it as I waited to be delivered to my fate. I forget that his mustache was reddish blonde and that the driver was young. I forget how I made a joke to that young driver as they lowered the gurney out of the ambulance. I made him laugh. I forget the look in his eyes at that moment, in the second after he laughed, the look that fell just shy of pity but not quite shy enough. I forget how that look chilled me. 

I don't remember the moment,a few hours later, when the nurse gave me a steroid shot. I don't recall the terror I felt as I bolted upright. Something was wrong; my chest was buring, every pore of my skin alive and prickling and stabbing. I don't remember the way it felt like tiny shards of glass piercing my skin, from my scalp to the roof of my mouth to my legs and my feet and I tried to say as much but all I could do was grab my friend's hand and gasp, "Shards of glass!" I don't remember how the nurse moved down to my ankles and grabbed them, holding them tight. I don't remember the way he looked at me, steady and sure, and told me I was okay, that sometimes this happens and that it would spread through my entire body but it would be over in about a minute. I don't remember that the way he held my feet grounded me in that moment or that, when he told me it was almost over, I believed him. I don't remember it at all.

I have forgotten the minutes and days and years that hung in the air when the neurosurgeon on call that night asked me, "What year is it?" I forget the work of trying to answer. I forget the "19-" that came to my lips. I forget the thought, "Wait...wait...not 19...wait." I forget the blackboard I saw in my mind that said, "20-" and how I couldn't figure out what came next. I forget the way he told me that it was alright. I forget the realization that I hadn't been able to answer, that it wasn't alright. I forget that I cried in that moment, the moment I knew this was all really happening.

I don't remember it at all, really.

I don't recall the fear that weaved in and out of those days.

I don't recall the lists and plans I made in preparation for potentially leaving my children motherless. I don't recall kissing them good-bye. I don't recall the feeling in my chest in that moment, a feeling exactly the same as the first time I touched them as newborns. I don't recall thinking that this was a delicious secret, how the intensity of love is the same at the end as in the beginning and I don't remember that I thought that was beautiful and gracious.

I don't recall the night before surgery, alone in the dark of my bedroom, lying awake staring at the ceiling and making my peace with the possibility that I would die the next day. I don't recall feeling at the same time that I had never been so sure of anything as I was right then that I was strong and ready to do anything I  needed to do to get back to the little boys I loved so much.

I don't remember these things. To remember them would be to dredge up the pain and beauty and clarity and fear and pain and love and grace and strength and pain and pain and pain.

These are the things I'll fight to forget.

These are the things I've already forgotten.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


The human body has a single goal: to stay alive. That is its sole driving force.

Keep the brain working. Keep the heart beating. Keep the oxygen flowing. Stay alive. No matter what.

When the body endures a major injury, its immediate focus is recovery. 

But once the physical systems are stable, the body essentially says, "We didn't like that, don't do it again. In fact, here. Have some intense feelings. This should help you avoid whatever it was you were doing when you nearly killed us."

This is called trauma. 

*     *     *     *     *

I loved my incision, in theory. I viewed it as a badge of honor, a permanent reminder that I was a warrior. 

But I hated looking at it. The swollen skin was unnaturally pink, so puffy and pinched. The black dash-mark stitches cut along its length, with deep, crusty scabs dotting the patches between. It was harsh. 

It was violent. 

I'd face it each morning, examine it closely, trying to familiarize myself with it. I would stare it down.

And then, I would look away.

*     *     *     *     *

"You can wash your hair now," the nurse said the day the stitches were removed.

She kept talking. "You HAVE TO wash your hair. You have to keep the incision clean. Don't be afraid to wash your hair."

My long hair was a braided, matted mess after two weeks of being covered by a turban of gauze and then head scarves. A good deal of it was encrusted with blood. I wanted it clean.

But my head had been screwed into place and cut into, the skin, the muscle, the bone all cut into. They cut my head open. I didn't know how to do this normal thing, I didn't know how to try to wash my hair and be a pretty girl again after my head had been cut open. 

"Don't be afraid to wash your hair," the nurse said. 

*     *     *     *     *

My friend Karen rinses the shampoo from my hair.

I sit in the bathtub. I'm wearing my bathing suit. 

I cry as I watch the rust-colored water flow off my hair, swirl at my feet, and then slip down the drain. 

I cry hard. 

*     *     *     *     *

Incision. June, 2013. Photo by Erin Lockhart

2 weeks post-surgery. June, 2013

Finally with clean hair. July, 2013

1 year + post-surgery. September, 2014

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pink Moon

What would you do if you only had a few months to live?

How would you spend your time?

Who would you surround yourself with?

What words would you be sure you said?

We hear story after story of lives that change in a heartbeat: the 35 year old man who drops dead of a heart attack, the woman suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, the family killed in a car accident. These stories shake us. We share them and say things like, "Life is short."

And then we go right back to wasting our time.

We stare at our phones. We date the wrong people. We worry about the extra ten pounds or the thinning hair or the wrinkles.

We don't take time to simply sit outside and breath in the sweet air, to be warmed by the sun. We don't linger in bed smelling our lover's skin as night stretches into morning stretches into afternoon. We don't grab our children's cotton-candy-sticky hands and run with them to the roller coaster. We don't say yes to the things that bring us joy, the things that evoke our passions, the people who truly matter.

How old are you today?

How many years do you have left?

40? 20?

How many days do you have?

100? 30? 10?

You don't know.

What would you do?

And why aren't you doing it?