28 March 2013

let's do this

we are all of us, my father tells me, in the midst of a mild depression. 

this is not new news. 

i realize, in retrospect, that it was maybe a tremendous blessing to have had an endless stream of house guests in the wake of donovan's death. to have had a day job. to have had to wake up every morning and go to work and come home and entertain people and go out drinking and go to bed and get up and do it all again. 

it's a different death, a different loss. but still. death is death, loss is loss, and all of it is awful.

a male voice that i did not recognize as my father's asked if i was sitting down. why do people ask this? at such times, is there a real advantage to being seated? your world lurches regardless.

i was, in fact, sitting down and this male voice that didn't sound like my father's proceeded to say something, the language of which was singularly unpindownable.

later, in my family's many reconstructions of these events, it would become clear that the language in which the news had been broken to my father over the course of three conversations with one of my grandmother's friends was then co-opted for his conversation with me. however, because it was condensed into a single four-minute conversation, by which time the outcome was already clear, the ambiguity confused me. the breaking of this news was, almost, too gentle. 

what i remember, what i felt even as it was happening, was a sense of uncertainty. not so much that this couldn't be happening as that i might have misunderstood, might have read too deeply into it, might have reached conclusions that were- in fact- not true. from the two-minute mark on, i wanted to stop this man and ask him to say, in no uncertain terms, that joe was dead.

but i could not bring myself to ask that of him, because i still wasn't 100% certain i was speaking to my dad.

he did not sound like himself and i had believed, from the first, that i was talking to a friend of my father's, some friend i didn't recognize, who was calling on his behalf.

the following night, i talked to burvil.

there's a distancing at work here. in their evolution over the last years into joe and burvil. because they aren't actually joe and burvil. they're gran and pawpaw. they've always been gran and pawpaw. they will forever be gran and pawpaw.

but when i write about them, it's somehow easier if they're joe and burvil. if i treat them as adults. as people from whom i'm removed. people i've not seen in hospital gowns. people who are not so thin, so fragile that when i hug them, i can feel their bones.

gran and pawpaw are my grandparents. joe and burvil are LEGENDS.

'we were just talking about you,' gran said. 'there was a commercial for anne of green gables and i was telling your mother how much fun we had. you know, they'll never really understand it. they'll never really know. we had so much fun, you and i. how blessed we are to have ever had so much fun. years of fun.'

and suddenly, vividly, with a searing heat like a migraine in the heart, i'm reminded of all the nights i spent at her house, where she tucked me into bed and lay down next to me, book in her right hand, running circles along my back with her left until i, troubled sleeper even then, fell asleep.

my mother, my father, and i are all in the midst of a mild depression. 

it is maybe not the best time to be getting up every morning and thinking about 9/11.

i find myself longing for concreteness. for tangibility. things that can be touched, that exist, that are real and lasting. i go to the dollar store a lot.

there was no burial service. simply a memorial at the church. and so we had not yet been to the cemetery. late in the afternoon of joe's funeral just before the sun went down, we went. all of us piling into cars, my teenaged cousin arm-in-arm with burvil to make sure she didn't fall on the uneven gravel that joe had had imported in a four foot high mountain way back in the winter of 2000, and which has only just begun to be flattened into the earth. 

when we arrived, the light of the setting sun burned against joe's recently closed grave. 

this was all i could see on the plane, on the way back to london a week later, every time i closed my eyes. and so i stayed awake and watched water for elephants three times, crying every time hal holbrook appeared onscreen.   

the day before joe died, gary wrote me a letter. 

mail has absolutely no regard for context. in the week in which it takes a letter to get from memphis to chicago, so much can happen. never mind memphis to london. and so, while i was flying to memphis, what became known in my family as 'the joy letter' was slowly winging its way towards me.

in it, my father told me, he went on and on about the joy he was feeling on the wednesday night he wrote it, totally oblivious to the fact that, three hours after the letter was mailed, my grandfather would die. 

by the time 'the joy letter' arrived, i'd already orchestrated the moment of grief i would allow it to provoke. having decided that if i was going to look, i was really going to look, i'd asked my cousin for the photos she'd taken of us all at joe's grave. there was going to be no short-changing joe's loss, no half-assing this experience.

i needed to see the sun and the dirt.

when i was a kid in memphis, we'd take these field trips to the old houses downtown, previously owned by the wealthy memphians and later deeded to the city in what, i now realize, was somewhat of a mixed blessing as the city of memphis totally lacks the revenue to keep them up.

i remember two things about this. (1) that my father was a chaperone on one of these two trips, and (2) that the mcgevney house had a shit-ton of victorian hair jewelry and that was the absolute creepiest thing. 

yet as an adult, i find myself longing for a comparable concreteness. not hair, because really hair is always creepy when it's not attached to a head, but for photographs, for things. for something solid to hold on, to make death real rather than an abstraction or a mere absence.

MJ, my crazy old boss at the magazine in memphis, emailed the other day and told me, in between thoughts on the breakup of his marriage and burvil's future, that my dear friend martha has died.

the magazine in memphis was my first job. martha was my first work friend. a crazy manipulative crack-head with better style than anyone i've ever known and who i was totally enthralled with when i was 23.

she applauded my knee-socks. she coveted my legs. she wore hands-down the cutest white go-go boots to work every single day.

when i responded, asking MJ what the hell happened, he sent a photograph of martha in her coffin and what immediately jumped to mind was my 10th grade world history teacher nancy kemp who, when her mother died, told our class of how she got in the hospital bed and lay there with her dead mother, hugging her and weeping.

how bold to have shared that story with a bunch of 16-year-olds.

we are so seldom honest about death.

joe's funeral was open casket.

i've never ever in my life seen him so tan.

joe died on a thursday morning. approximately 10:15. he and burvil were getting ready to go into town to file some legal papers. she went to grab something from the bedroom. he sat down in his chair. when she came back, he was gone.

these things get pieced together over time, looking back. later, she said she thought he was maybe still alive. maybe he drew his last breath when she was calling 911. she wondered if she should have done something different. if she should have kissed him or said goodbye.

she called her friends and they came over to be with her. one of them had been in the shower and came so fast that the shampoo was still sudsing in her hair.

we turn events into narrative so quickly.

that week, in mantachie and memphis, you heard every story ten times. regardless of whether you were in the room when it happened, you felt you were. that has, in the end, been the hardest part of being in london. i am no longer privy to the stories. i have to ask for them. still, i am as needy for them as i was then. still, i want to hear them all.

suddenly, joe is so shadowy, so surprisingly distant though it's barely been a month. i nearly dropped the phone when, calling burvil's landline, the answering machine picked up and joe asked me to leave a message and told me to have a good day.

there has been a gravitational shift. we are all about burvil now.

we kept losing her at the funeral. burvil is so, so tiny. so easily lost in the crowds. 

my underage cousin said, watching gran was my only job and i have lost her!!! 

she was in the bathroom. 

the #1 lesson i have learned: at a funeral, when you cannot find someone, they are inevitably in the bathroom. they have not run away. they have not died. they are still there. breathe. do not panic. they just had to pee.