Carol saved takeout containers, always sending people home with leftovers, yet somehow managing to amass a small architectural village behind her cupboard doors. A “mini-hoarder” my father used to tease. “What, Don? Ya never know.”
When my father sat Shiva for his wife Carol, who recently passed away on the half-birthday of Lucas and Abigail, now age 7, she proved her point–sadly for all of us, in more ways than one. It was on Lucas and Abigail’s 5th birthday that Carol was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. My father had called to wish them a happy half-birthday, and we joked that I’d offer them a half cupcake to celebrate, but then he called maybe an hour later asking me to leave the kids at home and to come be with him and my bonus-sisters. “She’s gone,” he said.
Carol never asked me not to write about her diagnosis on the blog or elsewhere, but my father did. “Not for the blog,” he’d said. And I understood. It wasn’t my story to tell, and she wanted to control what she did have under her control. In these two and a half years I’ve respected that wish because I’m human first, an artist second. In my next breath, I’ll say this: one of my best friends was once jilted at the alter. A guest of a guest wrote about The Wedding That Wasn’t in the Modern Love column of the New York Times. It wasn’t that writer’s story to tell, so to speak, but she had her own point of view on the event and how it touched her own life. We all do. So as a writer, I can tell you that there is always a story to tell, and as a memoirist, I can say that it is mine to tell. Because it’s my point of view on the event, and if it has shaped me profoundly and impacted my life, then it’s mine, too. But you must tread very carefully here. As a non-fiction writer or blogger, you cannot share someone else’s story just for the sake of it, just because it’s a dramatic or juicy story. You need to have insight and a reason for telling that story. [My t-length teacher skirt has now been hiked up to a fashionable length. We may proceed…]
It has been very hard for me not to write about any of this, since my way of dealing is to write and share and process here, on my Greek Tragedy blog. It’s how I cope. Instead, I cried to the woman at the counter of Janie & Jack as I bought an outfit for Abigail to wear to Carol’s funeral, which ultimately, Phil and I decided she should not attend.
In Spring, my father phoned me to say Carol was out of surgery. I was thumbing through a J.Crew catalog. I picked up a pen. “The doctor said it was very advanced.” As he spoke, I jotted down notes. I read them to Phil when we hung up. The catalog is still on my bedside table. It reads: 6 MONTHS. She lived 2.
Fairness. It keeps circling back to how completely unfair it is. How healthy she lived. She exercised! She ate so healthfully! Ate spinach, fresh veggies and fruits, low-fat diet, lots of fish, high-fiber, weight-lifting, lemon, no sugar, avoided animal fats aside from fish. Healthy, healthy, really took care of herself. Was a teacher, loved people and parties, a HUGE animal lover, quick and easy to laugh, always optimistic, positive energy. Her mother was her best friend, and she was her daughters’. 65 years old.
Death feels a lot like divorce. You keep hoping you’re going to wake up, that it was all some sick dream. And then, eventually you will have a good dream where life is as it should be, restored and familiar, and you awaken to a cruel reality. You don’t want to get out of bed. Friends call and you silence your phone. You don’t want to get out of bed. People tell you you’re depressed. No shit.
I feel guilty in saying so because divorce seems so trivial in comparison, but the feelings of loss and grief are the same feelings whether you’re dealing with death or divorce. A lot of what my bonus-sisters are going through right now is a lot of what I went through with my divorce. You have someone who knows you 100% completely, and then one day, they are 100% gone, poof, forever. You are closer to their things; you can touch their clothes, their most treasured possessions, but they are no longer there and will never be again. It’s surreal. It’s the exact same feeling. I think people underestimate how severe a break-up is, when you discover your whole relationship was a lie, it’s a death. You have to wake up to a whole new life, with your best friend completely gone. But when it’s your parent, it’s worse, because we’ll only ever have one. There’s no replacement. Compare and contrast it however you’d like, bottom line, the intensity of the loss, once you’ve experienced it, whatever the reason, you know it acutely. You remember the intensity, having to remind yourself to breathe, forcing yourself to go through the motions of a day. You can relate. I think it helps if you can relate to reach out to those suffering to let them know that they’re not alone, that they eventually will come out from under it.
In any scenario, the best thing you can do is to learn how to love on loan. Easier said than done. But I tend to practice saying this to myself in all my happiest moments, taking mental photographs. On loan. Everything we love is on loan. In this story, I am a second-rate citizen. I don’t feel worthy of the “I’m sorry for your loss” and condolences, not in comparison to my bonus-sisters (these are my step-sisters for those playing along at home. We just find the term to be so Cinderella ugly, in our beautifully dysfunctional blended family) who’ve lost their one and only mother. But, yes, I too am grieving. I wake up every day and think of Carol. I cry here and there, mostly over small things, like eating fruit out of a plastic container labeled “Gefilte Fish.”