First, late on the night of September 11, 2001, I got up to go to the bathroom, and upon stepping into my living room, which separated my bedroom from my bathroom, felt the physical presence of the day’s dead, and though I did not believe in my own feeling, I would not walk through those that were not there, but instead returned to bed, where I felt a strange comfort that in their dying they were with me (why me?) and all together—even though they weren’t and we weren’t.
Second, I have decided that if I am, at the moment of my death, cognizant that it is the moment of my death, I will think only the word love. I will not try to remember my own history of love, will not name my loved ones, nor recall the moments of our love, but will trust that the word will carry in it the feeling: love, and that will carry me into death.
Third, upon reading Rumi one day, I decided to replace the image of a beating red heart inside of my chest cavity with the image of the bright blue globe, and ever since I have carried the earth inside of me instead of my heart, I have felt such relief in the acceptance of my responsibility.
What is it I am trying to tell you when I tell you these things?
Is this a confession of my goodness? Look, how unselfish! Look, how caring!
What if I told you a story instead?
First, a baby is born in a hospital in North Dakota. When she looks up into the face of the doctor who holds her in his hands, she says clearly and specifically, “Love.”
When she is older she moves to New York, where one night she wakes to find the ghosts of 2,977 people in her living room. The next day, two planes crash into the World Trade Center Towers, one plane into the Pentagon, and one plane into a field in Pennsylvania. 2,977 people are killed. Years later, when she dies, her body is autopsied—do not ask why, it does not matter—and the coroner discovers instead of a stopped heart she has a still beating bright blue globe inside of her.
“What does it mean?” the coroner asks.
“It’s a miracle,” his assistant says.
“But what does it mean?” he asks again.
“It means that there are miracles,” she tells him.
Does it seem now like I believe in God and he is a comfort to me?
I don’t, and he isn’t.
And yet this story is a comfort to me.
Most of the time I write fiction. It is one way of keeping secrets. Or of confessing them.
I have told you three things I have never told anyone.
What is it I am trying to tell you?
That I am the kind of person who doesn’t know how to tell people things? That I am the kind of person who thinks many things, most things, can go unsaid?
That I know I may be wrong about this?
There is a fourth thing. I have never told anyone.
The year in between my job in Ohio and my job in Florida, I lived in Pennsylvania, in the same town as my grandmother, a few towns over from my parents, my brother, my childhood. I lived just blocks from the hospital where my mother was born in 1944, and where my grandmother was taken, over and over, in 2003. And I woke one morning to snow, so much snow, schools-closed-for-days snow. And I woke the same morning to my mother on the phone, crying.
“They can’t wake her,” she said. But she was so hard to understand, I couldn’t understand what she said, and I made her say it again. (This scene would play a second time when my father called a few years later to tell me “she’s gone” about his own mother, and even though I knew what he must have been saying, knew the only logical thing he could have been saying, I said, “What?” and he had to say it louder, and harder somehow, and I have never felt worse about a single thing that I have ever said.)
“They can’t wake her, and I can’t get there because of the snow,” my mother said about her mother.
And so I put on my boots and a lot of winter gear I would never wear again because I was weeks away from getting a job in Florida. And somehow even though what my mother had said—twice—was “They can’t wake her,” during my walk through the snow to the hospital—not much more than across the street—I came to believe that my grandmother would be awake by the time I arrived—and even though I understood she was dying, what I thought I was doing was walking—through the snow, so much of it—toward my grandmother, who would be dying and also awake, and I would be the one to accompany her in her dying. And because she was my grandmother and not me or my mother, she would expect me to talk with her, to keep her company, the way one kept company with company, during her dying. And so during the short walk through the tall, still falling, snow (so much snow, an army of plows passed as I waited to cross the street and thank goodness), I thought about what I would say to my grandmother while she was dying.
I will not tell you what I would have said, not because it is too personal, but because I cannot remember it, because what really could I have said? (Love.)
(A few months later, my great aunt in her own dying, pointed a finger at my mother and said, “Be good,” just like E.T. she said it, and it was beautiful, possibly the funniest, sweetest thing she ever did in her whole odd and angry life.)
But they could not wake my grandmother, and so, when I arrived, she was not awake. And while I sat with her in the snowed-in hospital, visited from time to time by nurses (who had spent the night there so they could be trapped at work and unable to go home, rather than trapped at home and unable to go to work), I held my grandmother’s hand, and counted her breaths per minute (my uncle, a surgeon, on the phone, had asked for statistics, and even though I had long ago answered him, I could not stop counting, even after the answer, from the doctor who checked my grandmother’s pulse, became not a number but words: “not enough to sustain life”). And so I counted my grandmother’s breaths and I held my grandmother’s hand, which felt sweaty, though that was from my own walk through the snow in so much winter clothing that I would soon discard. And sometimes the phone would ring and I would hold the phone to my grandmother’s face so my aunts and uncles, her children, so many of them it seemed suddenly, could tell her things while she lay dying. It was hard to tell when they were finished, so sometimes I held the phone to my own ear, and so I, instead of my grandmother, heard some of the things they said (love).
The story could end there (love), except it doesn’t.
I held my grandmother’s hand (sweaty). And I counted my grandmother’s breaths (not enough). And I know there are so many stories about this kind of thing, but still I feel like there is something I am trying to tell you.
Sometimes you do though.
But I said nothing to the nurse, because what really was there to say.
And so I ate my grandmother’s lunch. And so I held my grandmother’s hand. And so I counted my grandmother’s breaths.
And eventually the snow stopped and my mother came, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, and still my grandmother hadn’t died. My shift was over. I went home. Sooner or later, everyone else did too.
And my grandmother, so courteous until the very end, died then, alone (but was she?) in the middle of the night, while everyone was sleeping.
And so I think the thing I may be trying to tell you is: we are all keeping each other company in our dying. Even now. While I am trying to tell you something.
But there is one more thing I want to tell you. Maybe this really is the thing.
Sometimes I forget what is inside of me, and I stop trying.
Rumpus original art by Paige Russell.