The Sunday Rumpus Essay: We Are Not Dead


I’m wearing a dead woman’s socks. Suzy. She gave them to my husband a couple months ago, a 3-pack of white Polo socks. Said she’d ordered them online but didn’t need them, or they didn’t fit. I can’t remember. I lose socks a lot. I’m mildly famous for wearing two different socks at all times, so I gladly accepted them. Also, my dad sold Polo clothing at Dimensions, the men’s clothing store he worked out in Philadelphia, so I have a spot soft for the dude on the galloping horse, his mallet in the air. I’m wearing Suzy’s socks and thinking about what the dead leave behind.

I’ve lived in this apartment over ten years and in the ten years I talked to her rarely. In front of the mailboxes, or when I was pulling my car out of my tight little parking spot, and there she was, trying to maneuver her car so it didn’t hit the wall in our awkward garage. One Christmas I got her a picture frame with rhinestones on it and she came in for a glass of wine. Or, I had one and she stood in my doorway and said she couldn’t, that she’d just had one.

She looked older than her age of 74. She was frail and too thin. She shook like she had Parkinson’s but didn’t.

A couple years ago, my husband became friendly with her. About six months ago, she fell in her apartment and broke her neck on the fireplace. We have these fake gas fireplaces in our apartments and she fell on the brick in front of hers.

We went to visit her in the hospital. It was November and we were on the way to the ostrich ranch in Tehachapi, where my mom and stepfather live. We brought Suzy flowers and gave them to the nurse on duty to give to her when she woke up. She woke as we were leaving and thanked us meekly from her bed, a neck brace around her throat, her reddish-blonde hair matted to her head. She didn’t have anyone except her friend Chuck, a Japanese ex-boyfriend from the 1970’s, who she called The Colonel. Or Pudge. Both nicknames are hearsay and neither make sense to me, but I don’t know Chuck except for the time I met him in the hospital, and the time he and his daughter were clearing out Suzy’s apartment after she died. It made me feel bad that Suzy didn’t have anyone except The Colonel/Pudge/Chuck and us, and not really us, more just my husband because who am I kidding? I barely talked to her.

It made me want kids. I thought about being in the hospital like that, alone, with a broken neck, and no one. We left her lying there as The Colonel/Pudge/Chuck came in and put the flowers we got her in a plastic cup with water. He seemed kind.

We drove to the ostrich ranch and I wondered why I didn’t talk to her more.

While she was in the hospital for a broken neck, the doctors discovered she had lung cancer. This didn’t surprise me. She smoked incessantly, the smoke drifting into our little apartment and reminding me of my father’s own ritual of 4 packs of Kools a day. There is almost nothing I hate more than cigarette smoke. I whined about Suzy’s smoking. God, can’t she stop? I smell smoke everywhere. I can’t take it. It should be illegal to smoke in our building. I hate our fucking apartment. I am going to die of lung cancer.

It didn’t surprise me that she ended up with lung cancer, but I felt bad. Especially because she had no family. I thought about how my husband had been caring for her during the weeks and months she’d had some kind of crazy eye infection and couldn’t drive. I thought about chemotherapy and about who would take her? I felt scared. As if I would be her in 35 years if I didn’t have kids. The fear. The what-if. The never-ending cycle of it all.

But then I thought: You can have kids and they can turn out to be assholes and then what?

Then what? Then you’re just as bad off as if you didn’t spring anyone from your loins because there you are in a puke green hospital dress, lying with your neck broken and newly found cancer in your lungs, all alone, just before Thanksgiving with some dickhead kids. There’s no guarantee. But still. It frightened me.

She’d told Robert not to tell anyone that she had cancer. She said she didn’t want anyone to worry about her. He began taking her to daily doctor appointments and chemotherapy. It made me love him more. Other time, it aggravated me because he literally became her chauffeur.

I came home one day a couple months ago and realized I was locked out of our apartment. I had to pee so badly that I debated squatting in a bush out front until I decided to knock on a neighbor’s door. I jokingly said He’s driving Miss Suzy. Again. I’m not sure they knew she had cancer. There was a period in time, years ago, when Suzy had asked them for a lot of help with various things—driving, errands, whatnot—but now that Robert was in the picture, she’d stopped. I said that I felt bad, but that it was a shitty predicament because now he could never say no to her because he’d been saying yes for so long. I understand the unspoken agreements we make with people. He had silently agreed to be her caretaker. I peed in their bathroom covered with toys and boats and dolls, watched their kids play on the carpet, and then Robert finally texted I’m back. I was frustrated at Suzy’s non-existent family. Where the hell were they? He let me into our place and then went back to the hospital to take care of her.

I never felt a connection with her. I would ask him what they talked about in the car rides to doctor appointments. We’d never exchanged anything more than pleasantries. Hi there. How are you? Nice weather. Good to see you. Chilly day. Did the mail come yet?

A few days after the Driving Miss Suzy comment, Robert told me that he hadn’t heard from her in a few days. She usually called every day with things she needed, or to ask if he could help her with something or drive her somewhere. I immediately panicked, as if my words caused something bad to happen because I apparently still believe that my words are powerful enough to cause catastrophe and death. The last words I said to my father were I hate you right before he died. My words kill, a child’s belief, a weird science fictiony, narcissistic ridiculous belief, but one that I still clung to.

I suggested he knock on her door. She lived in the apartment next door, after all. Go knock! I urged. He said that she didn’t like visitors when she was sick and didn’t want to bother her. I knew something bad had happened. I was afraid to knock.

A few days later he texted me Suzy passed away. The only other time I received a text like that was when my friend Steve Bridges died. Someone texted me: Steve passed away.

It feels like a mistake at first. Isn’t that the worst cliché? But it does. It feels like someone’s fingers typed in the wrong words or someone mistakenly took the phone belonging to your husband/friend and texted you by accident. (You don’t tell someone that someone else had died through a fucking text message, so it has to be a fucking mistake, right?) I remember when I got the text about Steve, I had been sitting in the hallway of a yoga studio. I snorted and hit my head against the wall as I read it. I said out loud, as if the texter could hear me and take back what she had texted me: No, he didn’t. No. He didn’t. This is a mistake. And I called him. Again and again and again.

I looked at the last text messages I’d exchanged with him and I was sure that he passed away meant something else other than he is dead.

Our building manager finally let himself into Suzy’s apartment. He found her dead on the sofa. Just like Steve. His maid had found him dead on the sofa. Television on. I wondered how long they both had been like that.

What the dead leave behind: Sofas. Their bodies.

Steve wanted kids. Badly. I thought that if he’d had them it would’ve been horrible for them, losing their dad like that. I lost my dad when I was eight and I would’ve hated for Steve’s kids to have to go through that. They’d be young because he was young. But I also hated that he never got to have what he wanted.

What the dead leave behind: their kids. (Sometimes.)

I don’t know if Suzy wanted kids. I didn’t know her well. A few weeks before she died, my husband told me that she told him she’d been raped when she was eighteen, in West Virginia. And that her family didn’t believe her. That her father beat her for saying such things. Robert isn’t much of a talker so as he relayed the story to me he just said, “Whoosh.”

Then, “Can you imagine that? Your family doing that?” Robert has an incredibly small but loving family, as do I. In the weeks after she passed away, I thought about her telling him about the rape. I also thought about how none of her family would answer the phone after she died and it took them weeks to get out to California. I thought: Fuck them.

What the dead leave behind: their pain.

I was glad Suzy had told him about the rape. I have heard it said that people give away things before they die. My father gave away his favorite signed hockey stick, signed by the whole team of the Philadelphia Flyers. Suzy gave away her shame. She let it leave her body just in time. Hockey stick, rapes, bodies on a couch, recipes.

I have found pages and pages of recipes that The Colonel/Pudge/Chuck put out by the mailboxes with a sign that said “please take.” He cleared her apartment and put out things he thought the world might want. Books, recipes. I took many. I stuffed them into my backpack before anyone else could, but really, no one else wanted them. They sat for weeks in a pile on that bench.

My husband admitted that taking care of Suzy had distracted him from dealing with his own life, as we sat over salads at a place near the airport. I was headed to lead a workshop in Dallas and my flight was delayed. I told him I was impressed with him for saying so, since he isn’t much of a talker. You know, we all do that, with things, and people, I said at the salad place. I’m not saying that he didn’t care about her but it’s easier to be a stand-in son than to deal with the fact that you need a job. I understood. I do this with my body. While dealing with my recent foot break I’ve realized that it’s easier to make pretend any pain is about my body and how it looks and how I want to crawl out of my skin and how much weight I feel I have gained rather than what’s really there. And what’s really there? I don’t know. I’m too scared to look.

I felt bad because I knew they had gotten close. He’d spent hours every day with her. She bought him fancy cameras and scarves and she gave me socks. He was sad that day at lunch, as was I. We pushed lettuce around.

What the dead leave behind: cameras and scarves and socks and other things easily used for distraction.

I started to write about her a few weeks ago, before I broke my foot while leading a retreat. I typed the sentence, “I’m wearing a dead woman’s socks,” and a book fell from my bookshelf onto my computer and broke in half. It was an old copy of a book of poetry by Robert Lowell. These are the last lines of the poem that fell open onto my laptop,

In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin,
Lowell has been misspelled LOVEL.
The corpse
was wrapped like pane tone in Italian tin foiling.

I have to write about it now, don’t I? It’s like Chekhov’s gun rule. I can’t have this show up and not write about it, I can’t have it not go off. It’s like Lowell’s trying to pass me a message from beyond the grave. Fire the gun. Dig deeper.

What the dead leave behind: poems. Things to turn into poems.

I put the essay away for various reasons. Mainly this: I broke my foot and got consumed into the land of depression, pain, self-pity. One day however, I go downstairs to get the mail and on the bench by the mailbox are stacks of dusty books.

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes is the first book of Suzy’s I dive into. I hold the hardcover book in my hands and try to visualize her smoking as she read “Cora Unashamed.” I wondered if cooked as she read. Did she lean the book on her tiny kitchen counter as she made one of the various dishes from the recipes I found stacked by the mailboxes? Did she pay only half-attention as she made Mexican Wedding Cake from a handwritten recipe on a paper that said From The Desk of JUDY? Or did she hunker down, and even put her cigarette out, because she recognized Cora and the moment she unhinged? Suzy in her one bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, California, where she’d lived for 30 years, and what do I know–I’m not a trustworthy narrator since I barely talked to her, but it seemed to me that maybe she was finally unashamed.

I am trying to piece together a life of a woman I didn’t know from the books and recipes she left behind.

“Cora Unashamed” ends with “they somehow managed to get along.” As in, despite it all. So maybe that was my neighbor. She somehow managed to get along. As we all do, eventually.


When I was eighteen, just a week shy of graduating high school, my stepfather died. He wasn’t my stepfather anymore by the time he died in his sleep one night in 1993, just weeks after being released from prison for shooting and killing a man in self-defense. But my mother and I flew out to California from New Jersey to help go through his things and attend his funeral.

I wrote a poem about it a year later, when I was nineteen and studying poetry at NYU called Dead Man’s Things. An excerpt:

He had all his different lovers in separate boxes,
made it a lot easier after he died
to sort his life into categories
a picture of a girl with long brown hair, brown nipples
panties rolled down below her hipbones, kneee socks
I hope you dig it, she wrote
I was a little smashed at the time.
She was from Tacoma.
Out of all of us looking through the stuff
No one could say we knew who she was.
Put in pile with “Miscellaneous and Unknown.”
(Who would that box be important to?)

I wrote that poem in 1994 and here it is 2014 and I’m still looking to dead people for clues about life.

What the dead leave behind: Questions. And boxes of things. And hair, cut off hair tightly wrapped into rubber bands. And pictures of drunk ex-lovers. They leave behind socks, bodies, skin, recipes for guacamole (always good served with potatoe1 chips or corn chips.)

They leave behind: photographs of Burt from Sesame Street smoking a cigarette and holding a bottle of booze, a Barbie doll spread eagle in his face, an open shirt and a loose tie. My father took that picture. He set my Burnie doll up (I called him Burnie because I didn’t know if he was Burt or Ernie from Sesame Street, but looking at the picture I can now see it’s Burt) like that in what I now think may have been a self-portrait. So the dead leave portraits of themselves.

What the dead leave behind: doughnuts. I remember the morning my father died. I walked into the kitchen and thought doughnuts and also: bodies.


A memory she had:

There are so many bodies. The kitchen is filled with adults, many of whom she recognizes. The neighbor Blanche who loves across the street with her blind dog Pepper eats a jelly filled doughnut. Purple on her face.

“Here, have one,” she offers the girl. The girl declines. Everyone is handing her a doughnut.

She spent the night counting on her fingers until the sun came up.

1) I won’t be bad anymore

2) If my daddy comes home I won’t be bad anymore

3) If my dad comes home I’ll be good

Until the light came into her room and she knew the dark wouldn’t swallow her.

The signal that Something Very Bad Happened were the Dunkin’ Doughnuts and Munchkins all over the counters and the powdered sugar glistening in the July air like tiny sugar fairies. The girl swore there were hundreds.

Her mother never let them eat doughnuts so she knew that Something Very Bad Happened.

“Here. Have a doughnut.” No.

“Sit down.” I don’t want to.

“Your father died.” I know.

She did know. She knew the moment his heart stopped. She’d been jumping on the sofa-her aunt pleading her to come down- and the moment her father’s heart stopped, she stayed in the air a little longer.

She landed and knew.

“Your father died.” I don’t care.

She ran.

The girl is me.

The girl is you.

That’s who the dead leave behind: us.


What the dead leave behind: a hungering, a gathering, a place on our bodies we can point to and say Here you are, You did this. Proof that you existed.

Yesterday, my friend Goldberry Long sent me this poem by Philip Larkin

This Be The Verse

 They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.


I am holed up with a broken foot in an apartment next to where a dead woman with no kids used to live. I am investigating her life for clues–was life better without kids? I am trying to decipher by her books and what she apparently liked to cook. Did she regret not having kids? I am a detective looking for answers in dead people.

My father, my ex-stepfather Carl, my friend Steve, Suzy, my neighbor.

All of her recipes were “comfort food.” The pages all smell like smoke. Faded yellow smokey paper with recipes for Orange Kiss-me Cake, Kentucky Butter Cake, Corned Beef Hash With Poached Egg, Ham-Maccaroni Casserole, Fabulous Fried Onion Rings. I look through them for ones that are hand-written as if I’d be able to tell things about her through her handwriting.

Were you happy, Suzy? Were you ashamed? Did you feel afraid? What was your favorite thing to make?

The wants and desires of dead people, the one’s they didn’t get to fulfill—that’s what slays me. That’s what I am thinking about as I want to escape my body and this immobilization from breaking my foot. What if they wanted more? What if they didn’t want to leave behind the things they left behind? What if the moment their last breath left the body their thought was No, wait. I’m not ready.


I suppose we are never ready. To have kids or not. To break a bone. To be sick. To die. Or maybe we are. Maybe we just need to bake a Mexican wedding cake and say, Fuck it.

Goldberry, after she sent me the This Be The Verse poem, said this to me yesterday: If there is any part of who that thinks you might want to have a kid, you should do it.

I want to go back and look through recipes for an answer or look through boxes of hair or pictures of my father from the army. I want to hold the weird woo-woo necklace made from volcano ash that Steve’s sister gave me after he died as I stood on his Gone Surfing! doormat and wept. And I want them all to speak to me. In their gravelly just-woken up voices I want them to tell me how it is. This be the way, I want them to say. And some of them, say my father, I want his picture to say I’ll come back.

When I go, I will leave behind these words on this page and books and things you never knew about me and you may or may not make up stories and you may ask me questions and pray that I will answer you things like Yes, Go, I’m sorry.

What the dead leave behind: everything.

This is true, yes. They can’t take shit with them. But. But here we are with the recipes and wallets and memories and all the things they left behind and here we are in the land of our bodies, which are not dead. And here we are, our bellies pressing into our waistbands, and here we are our hair turning grey, and here we are hugging our kids or wondering if we should even have them and here we are here we are here we are. We are not dead.


1. Why the extra e? Was it a British food magazine? So many questions the dead leave behind. You liked to cook? Or just collect recipes? Who did you cook for? Did you feel festive and add pomegranate seeds on top as the recipe suggested? Did you follow the recipes or say Fuck it, this gets extra butter? Just fuck it, I am done following the rules.

Jen is a writer living mostly on an airplane. She leads her signature Manifestation Yoga Retreats/Workshops all over the world. Jen and Emily Rapp are leading a writing retreat in Vermont in October as well as a "Writing + The Body" Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch in Ojai winter 2015 as well as her annual invite only Italy retreat. Jen will also be joining Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp, Rob Roberge & Stacy Berlein at "Other Voices Querétaro" in Mexico May 2015. She is the founder of the The Manifest-Station website. She is currently finishing her first book Beauty Hunting. More from this author →