At 3:30 a.m. on February 15, 2013, my friend and mentor Emily Rapp lost her only son Ronan to Tay Sachs Disease. From the time I heard the news to this moment as I sit and write this, as I go about my range of daily activities (the care of my children, grading, email, cooking, etc.), the weight of Emily’s loss will ricochet from New Mexico and hit me here in Michigan and then it will be gone again, back with Emily and her family. The vastness, the emptiness, the heartbreak. I imagine many of those who love Emily, Rick and their families are feeling this exact same thing.
I remember Emily writing once about how hard it was for her when people said, “I can’t imagine” about the terminal illness of her only child. Of course they could imagine. Especially other parents. They just didn’t want to. “Good” parents, “bad” parents, angry parents, indifferent parents, helicopter parents… all parents can imagine the horror of holding their beloved in their arms and knowing that each time may literally be the last.
My sister Tina is a public defender and at times works on capital punishment defenses. In dark moments, I imagined Emily parenting through Ronan’s death sentence—his date with the electric chair. Or lethal injection by God.
But neither Ronan nor Emily had committed even a benign crime.
Emily was my graduate school instructor in 2009, at a difficult time in my life. My sister Tonya died from complications from her suicide attempt. She overdosed on 70 to 80 Ambien, but there was almost a month in there where we thought things were going to be okay, that she might survive. We got to talk to her and she told us she would never try to kill herself again and she was committed to living. Then the full physical effects of what she had done– brain damage from anoxia followed by a refusal to eat and drink–manifested and she died on May 8, 2009.
By any measure of mental health, now, here in 2013, I am functional (just as Emily has been functional caring for Ronan, teaching, exercising, writing). I make plans. I participate in life. I go to work and fulfill my job duties. I volunteer at my kids’ schools and their sporting and music events. I read. I pack my children’s lunches every day. I load the dishwasher, feed the dog, show up mostly on time to where I am supposed to go. But I do these things surrounded by exhaustion. I wade through sludge and fog to execute my daily tasks. Sometimes the mere thought of chopping chicken or vegetables for dinner will seem like an insurmountable effort and instead I pick up the phone and call for pizza. The thought of going through the clothes in my closet to find my cold-weather socks is like a journey to Tibet. Helping my son clean his room feels Herculean. Cleaning the entire house… the mere thought of it feels like a Greek tragedy in scope and effort and I must marshal all my reserves to accomplish it.
Here is a secret about grief that perhaps you don’t know if you haven’t experienced a cataclysmic loss—a dying child, the suicide of the sister who helped raise you, the death of a spouse, the death of a parent too early in your life—grief is a glacier. And it doesn’t shrink as our real glaciers do, melting with the increasing temperature of our planet. The glacier of grief grows. Ice is added on all the time. Grief has chasms and valleys. A large chunk of its terrain is still unknown to me. Grief doesn’t stay inside you, it works its way out, leaving you frozen and immobile, connecting you to a vast ice continent which you have no desire to explore.
For me, my emotional anguish seems to have taken up residence in my back. I have been plagued with back problems since Tonya died; wrenched muscles, a herniated disc, a re-herniation, followed by sciatica. Every morning I wake up with a numb right leg. I used to walk and jog for miles. Now I am lucky to walk my dog around the block. At about 5:00 p.m. every night my back is done, weak and tight; I need to sit and rest. I dig my thumbs into the muscle above the herniation. The counter-pressure provides some relief. I take Motrin by the handful. My muscle relaxants and Vicodin ran out months ago. I didn’t bother going back to the doctor to get more. People speak to me of cortisone shots, epidural drips, acupuncture, chiropractics. Of discectomy. I look at them like they are aliens. Can’t they see something is wrong at my very core? I can’t hold myself upright.
Mourning is deeply personal. This is why no one knows what to say. You are alone and silent. Grief is sometimes too painful for tears. Too cold. I know my living siblings share my grief but we each mourn on our own islands. We focus on moving forward. We mention Tonya’s name in the context of funny stories. Or say we wish she was here. If we focus too much on the mourning, it feels stiff and grotesque. The grief we feel in private is elastic and porous. Not victimization or martyrdom or a stereotype, but the feeling of being the subject of an ancient and profound curse.
This is why I feel that ricochet. I know that Emily has been cursed. Until she draws her last breath. She has been marked.
My sister Terese thinks she hears Tonya’s footsteps in her old apartment. I think Tonya’s dog Sprite (who is now my dog), might be able to see Tonya’s spirit. Sometimes when I am alone in the house, I pull Sprite up onto my lap and I whisper to her, “How is she, Sprite? Can you see her? Tell her I’m taking good care of you. Just like I promised.”
My father died in 2006 and I still believed in God then. The mourning is worse now that I have become an agnostic. An aesthetic Catholic. A fledgling Buddhist. Tonya (and Ronan) are here and not here. There is no there. My interest in quantum physics makes me pause briefly and consider other dimensions. Where matter came from. Where matter goes. When I was younger I thought I would see all my beloved ones again in heaven. Now I know they are gone. Now I know I will go. There is that grief there, too. The grief for myself. I will cease to exist. My brain neurons will expire and I will flat line and I will go into the dark and quiet without even knowing I no longer exist, which seems harsh to me. My soul, what is left of it, will live on in my children and then in their children’s children. And then I will be forgotten.
I wish I could cry. I wish I could “let it all out.” The bottleneck. The choking.
Sometimes when I am driving in my minivan by myself—dropping one teen off, picking another teen up, I ask the God I don’t believe in anymore how much more I can stand. Emily cared and watched and waited for Ronan to die. She wrote. She will continue on with grace and momentum. She is stronger than me. She will live. Write. Have another love. Perhaps another child. There is a thread in her that wants to weave, be part of something greater. My thread that holds me to this world is gray and mangled and frayed.
I didn’t think I could withstand the loss of Tonya. Without my children to live for (and Emily does not have that…my source of continuance is her wound), without some level of personal ambition (if I’m here I might as well write and teach), I doubt I would have withstood life without her thus far. The sun rises. The sun sets. Two people gone among seven billion. My grief is no greater or less than anyone else’s. And Emily and Rick join too many parents who have watched their own flesh and blood die.
This is just life.
But oh dear God, it feels so personal.
You would think grief would harm because the pain of the loss is too much, but mine harms me because of its numbness. It harms me in its inertia and deadness. I don’t go to the doctor. I gain 70 pounds. I have another drink. Then another. I eat another chip and then another, followed by a brownie. I, who watched no TV for about seven years of my life, tie myself to Netflix streaming for hours on end. Movies, TV shows, consumed in large hunks. I don’t think while I am watching. I want to blot out the vast blackness blossoming outside my body. I want to ignore the slow implacable violence I inflict on myself.
There’s an episode of Scooby-Doo when Scooby and Shaggy are being chased by a dress that has no one in it. They think it’s a ghost and do their patented Scooby and Shaggy “runaway runaway.” I see grief that way, too—a black dress animated by our pain, chasing us, following our every footstep. But the empty ghost-dress isn’t really empty. There are things causing her movements which we can’t identify. Dark things.
What about Tonya, you might ask? (What about Ronan?) What was she like? Why do you mourn her so? I could tell you. I think I will. But I hope you know if you’ve been reading this far that it isn’t about Tonya. Or about Emily. Or about Ronan. It’s about me.
Tonya was in the precise middle of our family—three siblings on either side of her. Of the few parental resources (time, money, love) that existed, she didn’t get very many of them. She gave a lot of herself to me. I was the baby. Her favorite. Her job. “Take care of the little ones,” my mother would say to her—at age ten she watched an eight year old, a six year old and a two year old.
Tonya was sure. She knew what was right. She believed so firmly in justice that she became an attorney and then a college instructor. She always knew what was fair. And the world never cooperated with her vision. She carried the disappointment of our world around with her every day. How does someone like her live? The answer is—she doesn’t.
I could list her good deeds here. The students she helped. The women whose child support she helped collect. I could tell you about her love of dogs. How she was a good writer and her favorite show was Queer as Folk even though she was straight because she thought Gale Harold was so hot. I could tell you how introverted and private she was. How few the number of people she actually shared herself with.
I wish I could tell you these things and more, but I am getting so cold.
Sometimes I hit the snooze button. I wake up at 6:00 every school-day morning. My schedule as a college professor allows for a bit more flexibility but my children’s schedule does not. Usually my husband is in the shower and I lie on my back in bed, unable to feel my right leg. I feel the scope and weight of my stomach, the heft I have gathered since 2009. I know something needs to change. If I continue on this path it will lead to hypertension, diabetes, serious complications with my spine and perhaps even movement impairment. I close my eyes and I think, “Today could be the day. Today could be the day that I change my life. Today could be the day I go back to the person I once was. The day I become the person I want to be. I can write. No Netflix. No Facebook. I can grade my papers before the last minute. Do tai chi and meditate. Eat nutritiously.”
By 10:00 a.m. in the morning I am scooped out. Hollowed. I reach for caffeine and sugar. At night I empty the second bottle of wine this week and feel the husk of dark arms embrace my aching hips.
Someone will suggest to Emily at some point in the next two days to five years that she should go to therapy.
Let me tell you something about therapy. I tried it three times. All three times I was the smartest person in the room. Twice I was the most well-adjusted person in the room. I recognize behavioral techniques, cognitive techniques, attachment techniques, traditional psychoanalytic techniques. I recognize that at the center of us all, we want to be totally understood and supported by another individual. Therapy helped me all three times but at such a cost. So much heavy lifting on my part. Michigan doesn’t seem to attract brilliant psychoanalytic minds who could engage me in a debate about darkness, death, and caring. Nor does today’s drug-and-insurance focused mental health care leave me room to ask a harried MSW where hydrogen comes from if there is no Creator.
Each time I was in therapy, I asked questions for my therapists and then I answered those questions. It was hard work bench-pressing their mortality as well as my own.
My children are ages 16 and 13. As of today, no terminal illness stalks them. Their faces are smooth and lineless. Their backs supple and strong. They cling to the water, swimming and playing water polo year round. The smell of chlorine lingers in my home.
Tonya was my daughter’s godmother. She left half of her tiny savings to my daughter, where it waits in escrow until her 18th birthday.
My children need things. Thank God they need things. I structure everything around what they need. There are days when their needs are the only light that gets through.
I have friends. Many friends. And a devoted husband. I am blessed with people who care and people I know I can depend on. But how do I talk about this? If clichés surround love, even more surround grief. “My heart is broken.” “I’m having trouble moving on.” “I miss her.” “She’s with the angels.” And perhaps part of me doesn’t want to share this private experience. How do you tell your friends that you monitor your dog’s health constantly, worried that something might happen to this strangely precious canine? And that you somehow equate your dead sister’s dog with your relationship with your sister? How do you tell your friends you are okay and are not okay? That you see and participate in the world but that part of you is always trapped in sadness, each day of loss is notched and counted in the column of your spine?
It’s like I have 400 channels available to choose from but at least 200 of them involve programs with titles like Grief, Loss and Sorrow.
Emily was handed a remote control less than a year after her son was born. Welcome to your new life.
Americans aren’t very patient with grief, with sadness of any kind as Cheryl Strayed (Dear Sugar) has written on The Rumpus. Take a pill. Move on. We swallow metric tons of anti-depressants each year and still we are not happy. Swallow your pills, do your work and go out and buy things. This is what we ask of people in our culture.
To “treat” Tonya’s depression and its other symptoms through the years, she tried Wellbutrin, Celexa, Zoloft, Lamictal, Xanax, Ambien, Tegretol, Prozac, and Cymbalta. She had just started Pristiq when she overdosed.
I don’t believe that my ingestion of psychotropic medication will help me feel better about the failure of that same medication to save my sister’s life.
Every few weeks on Facebook a list goes around—12 Things that Happy People Do Differently. Wonderful things like expressing gratitude, practicing kindness, learning to forgive; many of these things I try to do daily. But I sat by a hospice bed and watched my brain-damaged formerly summa cum laude sister convulse and seize, her teeth clicking, and her eyes rolling.
I watched my sister die as a result of her own actions.
Please tell me what happy people do with this irrefutable, inconvertible fact. Please tell me what to do with that memory.
Please tell me how to bear up under the weight of grief.
Telaina Eriksen holds an MFA from Antioch University-Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The Feminist Press’ Under the Microscope, Hospital Drive, Marco Polo Arts Mag, The Truth About the Fact, poemmemoirstory, Recovering the Self, and in many other online and print publications. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010 and 2011. She attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2011 and is an assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.