I’m standing in a vacuum. Perfect quiet, perfect stillness. There’s no air left to breathe or speak or cry. Grandpa’s study is cast in shadows. Hours yet until dawn. I want someone to turn on a light. I’m glad no one has.
Uncle Teddy’s fingers are still clutching the white sheet at his hip. There are sores on the back of his hand. The skin stretched across his face is tissue-paper thin, crumpled and lined like someone has balled up that tissue paper then tried to lay it out flat again. It’s gray, tinged with blue. Who would ever guess he could once smile? Who could ever guess he was only 44 years old?
Thank God, Thank God his eyes are closed.
Somewhere in the distance – or is it just beside me? – I hear someone crying. Perhaps I’m the only one who can’t breathe.
I stare at the bed. The huge medical bed squatting in the middle of Grandpa’s study. Is he comfortable, surrounded by these clouds of white sheets and pillows instead of his habitual wreath of cigarette smoke? I can still see the tobacco stain in his fingers.
I will those fingers to move. But they don’t.
Grandma strokes his dark hair absently. Grandpa sits in his recliner, his lips silently mouthing a prayer. Mom’s the one I hear crying. But I don’t turn right away to hug her.
Thank God, Thank God someone turned off the heart monitor.
My Uncle Teddy was a mess, he really was. But when I was younger and he was sober, he would play with us sometimes. I try to keep hold of those memories – my brother and me running around, laughing, jumping on his back like squirrels spinning around the trunk of a tree, or hanging like monkeys from his iron arms. He drank and smoked heavily, and he was always in and out of jail. But I didn’t know about any of that; I was only eight that summer we visited Grandma, and Sterling was only five. All I knew was that he played with us, and he had promised to teach me how to ride a motorcycle when I was older, and he made the best five-alarm chili in the state of Texas.
One day that summer, I watched from Grandpa’s study as he drove up to the house. He rode some kind of Harley bike at the time, all black and chrome. He didn’t wear a helmet, of course; a fact Mom continued to lecture him about long after Grandma and Grandpa had given up. He leaped off the bike with a flourish, shook his dark hair, and opened his arms just in time to catch Sterling and me when we launched at him.
“Hey there, Munchkins!” he laughed, and he carried us back inside swinging from his arms. He took us fishing that day.
We walked down to Bailey’s from Grandma’s house, along a road that was dark even at midday because of the heavy trees. Bailey’s was a lonely stretch of gravel road that trailed alongside a small tributary that eventually led to Sabine River and then to the Gulf. Uncle Teddy promised us we’d see a real live alligator there – and we did once, years later, but not that day. We took fishing rods far too long for us, and a small cooler – not for the fish, which weren’t edible because the water along Bailey’s was horribly polluted, but for Uncle Teddy’s beer and a couple bottles of water.
When we found a good spot, we stopped, and Uncle Teddy showed us the proper way to hold a fishing rod. “Like this. No this,” he said, shifting Sterling’s hands. In the end, Uncle Teddy simply had to keep his hands around Sterling’s to keep the rod from falling into the water. Sterling was so small then. The water was green and muddy, and in the distance I could see a tire half sticking out of the shallows, and something that looked like a shoe floating in the background. But the sky above us was such a pale blue it hurt my eyes to look at it, and the tall yellow grass danced gracefully in the wind, and the humid air clung to the back of my neck. I was content.
About an hour into our little fishing trip, Uncle Teddy plopped down in the sand, popped open a can of beer, and smiled happily. On each side of him, Sterling and I sat down to drink our bottles of water. We were talking about something, when suddenly Uncle Teddy went perfectly still. “Look,” he whispered, pointing.
Not more than twenty feet away, a white heron stood on the opposite side of the stream, surrounded on both sides by the tall yellow grass. It’s long black legs disappeared into the shallow water, and its slender neck curved up to an elegantly pointed head and beak. It was looking down into the water, watching for fish, and it hadn’t noticed us yet. I held my breath, saw Uncle Teddy holding his, our eyes both transfixed. Then he stood and threw a rock toward the bird with a shout.
“Hey!” I shouted indignantly. But Uncle Teddy only laughed.
Maybe that’s why the silence disturbs me so. He used to laugh so much. He stopped laughing a few days ago. He stopped cursing too. I’m not sure which silence disturbs me more.
I stare at his gray and ruined face. The lips turned blue. The three silver hairs at his temple. The eyelids thin and translucent. Open your eyes! No. No, don’t open your eyes! Is it true what people say – that death is visible in the eyes, that they become not eyes but glass? I don’t really want to know.
Mom turns away, walks out of the room. Returns a moment later on the phone. Who do you call when the person is already dead, has been nearly dead for days? Surely not 911. The hospital? The hospice worker? The coroner? The funeral home? Mom’s talking to one of those, making arrangement for the—
For the body.
Bile rises in my throat, my stomach churns. But there are no tears in me. Only silence. Only stifled, disoriented, futile rage.
“Sweetheart,” Mom whispers when she hangs up the phone, “go to bed. You don’t need to be here for this.”
Stiffly, I nod. I didn’t need to be here for any of it. What did I do but stand and stare? Am I the only one who can’t speak? Was I the only one who felt the vacuum filling this room for days? Sterling talked to him yesterday, came out again looking better, more comfortable. Did Uncle Teddy expect the same from me? Did he expect me to forgive him? Did he need me to forgive him? Did he die waiting for me to forgive him?
Perhaps I should have. I didn’t. It’s too late now.
I turn away, stumble blindly to bed. There’s no way I can sleep. But, somehow, I do. Dreamlessly at that. In what seems a matter of minutes, I’m awake again.
For one panicked moment I don’t know where I am. This isn’t my bed. This isn’t my room. Then I hear the familiar sounds of people tinkering around in the kitchen and talking around the dining room table. That’s right. I’d forgotten. I glance to my left, see that Sterling has already left the room. I hope someone else already told him Uncle Teddy’s dead.
I crawl out of bed, pull on a pair of dirty jeans, then stumble into the great room.
Everyone is here. Grandma milling around the kitchen, a little more quiet than usual. Grandpa sitting in front of the blank television screen with his coffee, thick and sharp as battery acid. Uncle Greg, Uncle Joel, and Aunt Dinah around the table with their spouses, talking loudly – it’s a safe bet they’re probably arguing about something. They usually are. Mom’s doing dishes. Sterling is next to grandpa, eating toast. Okay, so not quite everyone is here yet. Aunt Sophie and her family are flying in from New York later today. They made the plans two days ago, hoping to see Uncle Teddy before… Do they know yet that they’re too late?
So many people. I just want to back slowly out of the room, slink back to the dim bedroom with its thick, dingy curtains and go back to sleep. But Mom looks up and beckons me over. I don’t sigh. I refuse to sigh. I walk over.
She gives me a hug, hands me a bowl of rice with green tea poured over it, and a mug of thick Cajun coffee, and sets me down at the table. Her hand stays on my shoulder a long time, squeezing it. Her wrists are taut, her fingers tremble.
Mom, I’ve learned over the years, is needy in her grief and pain. I simply don’t want to be touched. But I keep rigid, resist the urge to shrug her off. Her pain is worse than mine – I’ll indulge mine later.
Mom and Uncle Teddy were close friends growing up. Mom, the third of three girls, was followed two years later by Uncle Teddy, the first of three boys. They were closest in age and often, or so I’ve been told, rallied together as the middle children. The years had put a strain on that relationship. Or maybe it wasn’t so much the years as it was their lifestyles. Mom was so straight-laced and disciplined. Uncle Teddy spent most of his time in pool halls getting drunk.
I try to keep hold of the good things – playing and wrestling, going fishing. But the later years, the darker things, are the things that stay longest. And I cannot chase away the memory of the night that haunts me.
He was drunk – not slurring-your-words-stumbling-around drunk, but angry-pick-a-fight-with-anyone drunk – and he was arguing with Mom. Maybe if Mom didn’t feel the need to lecture him, to fill the space Grandma and Grandpa had resigned years ago… Maybe if her lifestyle and his didn’t clash so completely…
In any case, Mom finally decided it wasn’t worth her time to try to argue with an alcoholic who refused to let her finish a sentence. What would be the point? So she stood from the dining room table and turned to leave.
“Whatever, Teddy. Do whatever. I don’t care.”
She started to walk away, and Uncle Teddy moved to follow her. But Sterling, who had been sitting between them, surged to his feet, to block Uncle Teddy’s way.
I sat in the far corner of the room, in a rocking chair, doing chemistry homework, and for a moment I simply could not process what I was seeing. Uncle Teddy sneered, and swung to punch Sterling in the face. My 42-year-old uncle punched my 17-year-old brother in the face.
It’s hard to lay the scene out in my mind, like a map that has been folded and crumpled and thrown into the back seat of the car so many times you simply can’t flatten it out.
Fists and swinging arms and wrestling and stumbling across the floor. Picture frames leaping from walls, glass candlestick holders flying through the air, bookshelves toppling like towers. Mom screaming, leaping at Uncle Teddy’s back. The windows rattled and the floor shook.
Armageddon. Ragnarok. Pralaya.
And when it was over, Uncle Teddy had a black eye and a bloody nose. Grandpa was threatening to kick us out of the house. Sterling was hyperventilating so much he stopped breathing and we had to call an ambulance. And through it all, I stood there, stunned, angry, unshed tears burning my eyes with blurry light.
And here I am again, stunned, angry, unshed tears burning my eyes with blurry light. Isn’t it supposed to rain at funerals? It always does in movies. But the sun is sharp, bright, cold, and the sky is marbled blue. The entire clan has turned up for this, and the green grass of the cemetery is blotted by a multitude of black pant legs and black high-heeled shoes. The coffin is polished and blanketed in white roses, but it is lowered down by hydraulics and soon it will be covered by six feet of dirt.
Is he comfortable lying there in a bed of cream satin? Will he be cold down there?
Mom whispers, telling me it’s okay to cry, it’s time to let go, there’s no point holding onto anger or bitterness. But the grass curled around me feet holds me back, and the marble sky presses down, and the cold black-hole of rage is firmly lodged in my stomach. I want to stare at her and demand to know how she can forgive the man who attacked her little boy. My lips are stuck to my teeth. My tongue is as silent as the coffin that disappears into the ground. My tears crowd together against the edge like spectators, but like spectators I keep them back with a barricade, and refuse to cry.
Is he still waiting for me to forgive him?
He never said he was sorry. Maybe he was. I watched each breath to his last, imagining that one, that one there, was the apology I was waiting to hear. But he never said he was sorry. And I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand. And anyway, it’s too late.
But I’m trying. I’m trying. I’m trying.
I have, thankfully, not been to as many funerals as some people have by the time they reach my age. Two great-grandmothers I barely knew beyond the stories my mother told. One of my closest friends’ mother, who died of cancer the day before Easter when we were seniors in high school. My uncle. And my grandfather, four years later.
My uncle died of lung and stomach cancer in March 2006. He was diagnosed in January and told he might have six months-to-year to live, and so we went to stay with him and my grandparents for awhile, hoping (according to my mother) to spend some quality time with him while we could. It was therefore pure luck that we were there when he died only a month and a half later, almost without warning, wasting away faster than anyone could possibly have expected.
It is worth noting, I think, that we tried to have him admitted to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America — those cancer centers you see plastered all over your t.v. in those oh-so-positive-and-comforting commercials that claim they accept everyone and offer real hope. Those commercials are a blatant lie (not that that should be surprising), and we discovered that they only accept the people who a) have very good insurance, and b) have a very good chance of survival. That is how they keep their much-touted success rates up so high. They pre-screen.
My uncle was, unsurprisingly, denied. So we watched him die slowly and not-so-slowly, with a hospice care facility offering us the medical bed that we kept in my grandfather’s study, and a nurse-practitioner who came once a day to check on him and administer medications. My grandmother and mother fed him, and helped him pee, and gave him sponge baths. My brother kept him company and told him jokes. I mostly kept my distance.
Every time I tried to write about my experiences, my feelings, about my uncle and his death, I always ended up writing in present tense. Months and years later, those days replay in my head with immediacy. I am always there in those moments, caught, haunted, trapped.
To this day, I still struggle with the anger. I still struggle with forgiveness. It eludes me.
In October 2010, my grandfather died of a heart attack after living through two years of dementia and several small strokes. We buried him in the plot just two away from my uncle, leaving space enough for my grandmother in the future. I stood between the two men, one grave now covered in grass, the other open and strewn with white roses, and did not cry.
It was six months later — sitting in a Lutheran church while visiting my best friend in L.A., sitting in a church for the first time since my grandfather’s funeral mass in the Catholic church he’d been a member of for forty years — before I finally cried. And I cried in the middle of the stranger’s Lutheran church, with people around me no doubt wondering what the hell my problem was, and didn’t stop for an hour.
What precisely I was crying for, I still cannot say.
(Note: all names have been changed for some approximation of privacy.)