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When Grief Feels Like Death by a Thousand Cuts

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We found a tooth with a gold filling.

When all was said and done, we had to check the perimeter to survey the damage. Like World War I soldiers sent out to check “No-Man’s Land.” Spot the enemy. See how close he was. We had to see what parts of us had loosed, what parts were broken, what was irrevocably lost in our souls. We found pills. Tons of them in prescription bottles. Under the sink, in the linen closet pushed in the back under towels, in the drawers under the bed, in the dresser, downstairs, upstairs, hidden in bags at the bottom of the closet. Everywhere. We put them all together and it made a ginormous box of pills, expired, never taken, some taken, half pills. Dad used to say she had more pills than Carter. I always thought he meant the President. I didn’t know as a kid that Carter’s made pills. That explained a lot.

And yet, he was always explained away as the problem. Drinker. Alcoholic, who had to go to rehab when I was in second grade. Who relapsed when I was in high school and my brother found empty cans stashed away in the ceiling tiles of our basement. Who ultimately died of cirrhosis of the liver. Though she’d sometimes say it was when he fell off the roof of our house whilst in a drunken stupor that damaged his liver. Hoarder, who was taking stuff out of the trash when we were moving. After we had filled a semi-truck, a regular moving truck and four cars with belongings. Those things we want to take with us. Those things that aren’t necessary but that we take along for the ride. The barnacles along the underside of the boat. Our baggage. Emotional. Something we can’t shrift as much as we’d like to, represented in items found in the neighbor’s garbage cans. I still have the necklace my parents gave me for my 16th birthday. It has a stone in it that my dad found in a parking lot. Or so the story goes. Realizing now that stories are just that and even though we affix them to our lives, you can make them how you choose, mold them, pinch and pull them until they stretch and are so far beyond what they first started out as.

We found resilience.

She called a taxi to come pick us up and bring us to her store when I was 5 and my sister 9. She let us ride home with a priest after our cousin’s wedding. A single man she befriended in her store took my sister to get her wisdom teeth out when she left us home by ourselves while she was in Colorado. Kindly he went to Walgreens to buy her ice packs and brought us home where I feared she would die of blood loss since we were left to our own devices and I was in charge of caring for her. When we’d call her at work, she told us don’t call her “unless it’s blood, fire or throw up.”

She never could say goodbye. She left early for work the day I went to college and never said goodbye. My dad took me to college instead. She was busy in the store she said. She had work to do. She wasn’t there with me on the morning of my wedding day the way moms are supposed to fix your hair, help you get into your dress, whisper words of encouragement in your ear. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. She was with my dad entertaining my godparents. We sometimes expect people to act a certain way but then are surprised when they don’t come through.

We found a diagnosis.

In a large envelope thick with doctor’s reports, we also found a disc full of scans revealing her bones — moth eaten. After talking to her via phone when her bones started to simultaneously give, break and shatter like the course of lives at that point. She said, “Can you believe they told me I have cancer?” In the hospital room with her and my siblings, the doctor revealing that five years previously a scan showed “gross abnormalities” in her chest. Still not believing. Quoting her favorite author and namesake, Joan Didion, “Stories that we tell ourselves.” She got that right. Surmised it best she could. She told herself a story for many years. Long isolating years, keeping a secret the eventually her body would betray. And we believed it. Believed she was OK. “I went on and lived my life,” she’d say. Leaving us to pick up the pieces. Bamboozled.

So many things we found left unopened. Things never said.

Going through her belongings looking for important documents, we found a bag full of Christmas cards unopened from the years shortly after my dad’s death. She boycotted Christmas in those years and refused to celebrate. We found cards from my sister and myself. Cards that we lovingly wrote out and had our small children sign with their adorable kid scrawl. Christmas pictures enclosed when the kids were little. We found no unopened cards from our brother — the oldest. Those she opened, we assumed. We found a sealed birth announcement of my sister’s first daughter. An unopened invitation to her granddaughter’s baptism. Remembering how odd it felt that she wasn’t at the baptism because she was mad about something. Playing emotional games like she would. Telling her little grandsons she didn’t know they had a sister. Sabotage. Left to contemplate why she saved those cards. Unopened. Was it because she knew we’d find them?

And yet we loved her with all our hearts as family does. We tolerate the bullshit and like the most optimistic gold panners, keep shaking our sieves believing we can salvage something. Come up with a little gold nugget of reciprocal love. Enough to allow us to pass over all the other stuff like the mental illness. The second guessing. The controlling. Controlling until the end when your body has given way and you can no longer control your bowels and your chair and floor are stained with feces and you are determined to interview caregivers. But you have no pants on and your body is giving way and you won’t let anyone do the caring for you. You push them away. Ask the one caregiver who has stayed to put garbage bags on your naked body, and you tell her to send in the potential caregiver candidates. You never give over.

Death by a thousand cuts.

Some people say that grief is a process or a journey. They don’t say it’s “Lingchi,” the age-old practice of torture. Like living while having body parts slowly sliced away — death by a thousand cuts. And those cuts happen at the most innocuous moments. Like when your daughter brings home her school pictures and you realize that Grandma is no longer here, and you can’t give her a picture. Can’t talk with her and reminisce and say how the years have flown and you can’t believe how big your daughter has gotten. Or when you are cleaning the kitchen floor and move her sewing machine you use as a desk and think about how silly you must have been not to realize she was dying. You didn’t think twice when she asked you if you wanted her sewing machine that her dad bought her when she was 16. You gladly accepted it because you knew it was important to her and served as a reminder of her dad, your grandpa who you never met. You packed it in the car and drove home and didn’t think anything about it.

We found a tooth with a gold filling among her jewelry. It was hard enough going through her belongings. Each piece of jewelry bringing back a memory from your childhood. The crushing feeling as you find things like the tooth and have no idea where it came from or why she kept it and realize you have no one left to ask these things. Seeing old family photos posted by a distant cousin on Facebook and you see your dad’s face as a child, and it makes you cry because now both parents are gone. The feeling of loneliness spreading over you like a blanket that you are certain you will carry with you for the rest of your days. The dawning realization that these links to your history are lost, gone forever.

Follow this journey on Jami’s website.

Getty image via mmuffn

Originally published: August 15, 2019
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