You, Dead Man, when you were alive, here’s what: we met one night, the second night we’d ever met, at a bar named State of the Union, now closed. when state of union u street closed
Lots of red velvet sofas, very dark, State of the Union was. 1993. February. I wore a short blue wool skirt with thick brown tights. I remember nothing else I wore. Because: One day, many months later, you told me you’d fantasized running your tongue from my ankle, all the way up beneath that itchy, electric blue skirt. That is all one needs to remember.
You walked me home. You said, at the corner of 14th and R Streets, near the Union Mission. relocation of union mission 14th and R, what year? You said, “I am trying hard not to kiss you.” And I said, “Don’t try so hard.”
LATER, STILL BEFORE
A lot of it was them sending you places that I couldn’t go. To the X-rays, to the first biopsy, to the MRIs, to the wing of the floor of the hospital that was off limits after 8 p.m., to anaesthesia, to pre-op, to post-op. There were other places I was allowed but couldn’t find at first: the new bed in the other wing or the old wing, or many rooms with dividers made of glass, me on this side, you on the other, or me allowed on your side, and the technicians on the other.
On the morning of the day that they told us what it was, what exactly it was, what its precise Latin nomenclature was (like a demon we had to name before expunging), we were crowded into a small exam room at George Washington University Hospital, in a building now demolished and replaced with a glossy glass castle of light. We were in that room with your two doctors and your brother and the Board-certified oncology specialist we’d begun to call The Grim Reaper for his saturnine bedside manner. The baby, Mona, aged 6 months, had just gotten the hang of solid foods. I had her in her portable car seat, snug underneath an Eames chair because she liked being under stuff in those days, and I was spooning oatmeal and bananas into her mouth as the doctors talked. Hepatocellular carcinoma, in general population. Treatment. Cure rate.
When you were diagnosed, you asked me what would happen if you died. Would I remarry, you wanted to know.
We were in an Asian take-out buffet near the doctor’s. Our baby, nestled in the snuggly against my chest, ate grape halves one by one from my hand.
“I don’t know,” I told you. “But I don’t think I could live in our house.”
At other tables, people lunched efficiently. Any of them, observing us, would assume we were lucky people. You were an adorable man, slender and tough, witty, with a bright clever smile and happy crow’s feet already at your eyes, even though you were not yet 34. I was new at being someone’s mother, but getting good at it pretty quickly. Our daughter settled against my heart and went instantly to sleep after eating. We continued to discuss your death over her head.
Stop all the clocks. How on earth would we continue, and what would our days be?
Later, much later, alone in our bed, I told you I wanted to change my last name to yours. We’d been married almost four years, yet I wanted to change it now. “Why?” you asked. “Why now?”
I said, “Because I belong to you.”
All this happened a long time ago.
I can’t remember certain things about that day. I can’t remember, precisely, everything. I remember, imprecisely, some things. I can remember Rebecca’s voice reading to you in our living room—The Thirteen Clocks, your childhood favorite. I can remember the yellow tulips your face was turned toward, tulips Richard dropped off. I remember I was cleaning a counter in the kitchen, and that it was noon or so, with an air of expectant waiting. We knew it wouldn’t be long, and also that we felt eternity deep in the old house’s bones. We felt as if the afternoon would stretch forever, and that we would always be on the unadorned edge of losing you, as we went about our ordinary business of the day. Then I remember the silence when she stopped reading.
Perhaps she said “oh”—very small, very calm. I can’t remember.
things that are lost are all equal.
I can’t remember.
The tears of sorrow last forever.
Late that last Friday night, some days after you could no longer even crawl upstairs, I lay on the floor at your feet like a dog in the dark. To pass the long night, I imagined another pair, a young couple of us upstairs on schedule with our lives, the baby between us sleeping. As it should be. It was so vivid, there in the dark on the new-bought oriental rug next to the sofa we hadn’t yet paid for. Your deathbed. I saw this other couple so vividly that we were not alone. Another you, another me, upstairs. Baby breathing between us, and tomorrow just ordinary. Lucky us.
All as big as you think, all as far as you believe. How does the heart parse these many ones? These many only ones?
Everything lost the moment it’s gained, ordinary time sweeping all away with its great velvet paw. A child said it, and it seemed true.
Stop all the clocks.
After you died, a lot of slights and impolitenesses on my part. I was mean to people, put it that way. I was loathe to go on, and I held others responsible. Stop all the clocks. My friends, my family, also held me accountable: for the baby, for my own health, for some goals. My internet held me in place.
A few weeks before, when it was clear we couldn’t manage on our own anymore, they started the listserve. Peter ran it, and Rebecca set the guidelines. Different friends took different days, made a meal, or came by to check on us. They told us to use a signal: cooler on porch meant no visits today, no cooler meant come on in. tips for helping friends through illness
Our friends sent us what they would have wanted. Meals. Sweets. Books. Flowers. Movies. Music. Letters. Toys for Mona. It was overwhelming. I can’t remember.
I rocked the baby to sleep at night in the rocker your parents had given us only a year before. Two pigeons had started a nest over Mona’s bedroom window. I listened to them coo in the near-dark and watched the light from the street play across the clouds we’d painted on her ceiling. A face emerged from one shadowy cloud, a gaping mouth and skull eyes regarding me from the wisps of white against the sky blue we’d painted 13 months before. Never dreaming of this. Oh there you are, you were there all along, grinning skull, hiding in our plans.
One night we went to a party where a friend predicted, “This new thing, the Web: It’s going to change the world.” Years earlier, before all this, I spent nights following the prompts of the blinking green cursor on a black computer screen dominated by text. I spent my nights inching through the threads of a list serve called Pendulum for people like me who are bipolar. You hated it. You didn’t understand what I saw there, or why it was more real at the time than you were, lying in bed waiting for me.
To approach my invisible friends on Pendulum, I first had to log on to the picture-rich AOL screen, then hop along a typed trail into the darkness beyond: the binary universe of the open Internet. I can’t remember how it felt anymore. The graphics-drenched social media have overwritten my memories, as some 13 years of happinesses and misfortunes and banalities have overwritten the starkness of the year 1999: the year that began with Mona’s birth and ended with your death.
You dreamed a turtle was stuck in our bathroom. It was a great giant sea turtle who needed to be freed. You negotiated the unwieldy creature through the second-floor hallway, released it through the upstairs window in Mona’s room, and used elaborate ropes and pulleys to try to lower it to the ground.
It didn’t belong in the house, and you wanted to get it out.
I tried desperately to find messages and meanings in everything. I was wild to unlock an answer, sure that a cure lay in our dreams themselves, in my touch on your skin. I saw the traces as I moved my fingers, as filaments of gold connecting me and you, pathways for rebalancing. In the end, I gave you only a scattered few hours of relief. That would be enough, if you had lived.
The sea turtle, the great sea turtle, trapped in our bathroom. Lowered to the ground, where then would it go? How would she find her way to sea? Was it, as I imagined, a female, full of eggs? That’d be an apt metaphor for the cancer. I saw her that way, as the thing we wanted to eject from the house, a thing not malevolent in its own being, but a thing that did not belong. habits of sea turtles
THEN AND NOW
I can only remember the intensity now, sitting in the dark before the shimmering screen, getting a glimmering of the future, of the many nights ahead spent typing my heart out to strangers. status update
Like now. Right now, in fact. Typing my heart out to you.
The you who loved me and who died. If you came back, would you still know me?
The you reading this now. I have such faith in you.
You are not beautiful, exactly.
This isn’t me alone that all this happened to. What happens to me happens to you, to us all.
The you who held us up and carried us through. You, our family and friends. The Internet.
The keepers of the calendar for us were no strangers: your cousin Peter, our best friend Rebecca (who had fallen in love with your brother Andrew, meantime, and has now been my sister-in-law these 11 years since). No strangers to us, yet they had to navigate the new house rules engaged by a young father’s sudden dying. None of us knew how to conduct a death vigil, when it finally came to that. Rebecca decided it might involve organizing the kitchen. I myself was partial to an enormous purchase of white towels, the only request I could think of to make of our friend Jamie, the day that the day finally came.
Turns out, there are many ways to navigate. Turns out, it is not navigable by any one person. Turns out, you need a wide net.
One day a week before Christmas, 1999, with Mona a week from her first birthday, you were due for an MRI. Something compelled you into the worst panic I’d ever seen in you. You begged the doctor for help, and the doctor gave you Valium.
I can’t. I can’t remember. You took too much Valium, a mistake, and it never cleared your system. And you really never came back. Then there was the second and final MRI after you said you wanted hospice. I can’t remember what happened when or how. I have fragments: me addressing Christmas cards as we are waiting to go in, you so zonked you are practically unconscious beside me. How did we even get you in? They let me stay that time, stay beside you on the patient’s side of the glass, but you had to go into the machine alone. The unholy noise shook the room and rattled our bones. It paralyzed time and matter, the way the bat in your bathroom in Providence did, in 1986. A sonic assault. Like that. Terrifying. characteristics of bat sonar
After, I took you to sit in the wintry church garden at 18th and P Streets. Nothing was growing there. It was the most, the only, peaceful place I could think of. You went along docilely, but you had no investment in anything much after. Your bones and your spirit parted company that day, or rather, they co-existed politely for a few weeks after, trying to negotiate their growing estrangement.
One night, a few nights before you actually died, I was folding laundry calmly in the same room with you when I had the distinct feeling I was alone. I was facing you, only a few feet away. You hadn’t moved or changed. You were just mostly absent, and then just as suddenly you were back. You were practicing to be gone.
For a long time after you died, the loss was so acute. It was a physical pain, and it did not relent. Then later it swept over us at the most unexpected times. We’d have the wind knocked out of us, we’d be unable to continue. Then of course, we would continue. Or we’d suffer a low few days of peevishness growing to disgust, and only afterward would we recognize it was losing you that had unmoored us from our good temper.
Now, more than a decade since, we still enact the words of mourning but your presence is a vapor, and what I miss most is simply on your behalf. I invoke you, but I am disconnected. How much you have missed, how much you have missed. These sensations aren’t substantial anymore, just a distant atoll of regret.
In the mornings, I start the coffee and sit in front of the shimmering screen, the weak winter sun and this blazing rich newsfeed full of my friends. But the sun is not weak just because it is far away, and this screen’s light is not stronger even though I am right before it. It is my distance from them that determines my perception. If this screen dimmed now, my day would change. If the sun dimmed, there would be no day at all.
“The worst day with you is better than the best day with anyone else.” This is what I say to John, whom I will marry in the summer, and what he says to me, on any ordinary day. I do mean it, and it is true. Yet it is also a lie, as any superlative is a lie. It’s the kind of little true lie lovers tell. It’s like a parent saying to a child, “I love you more than anyone in all the world.” It’s not precisely true, it is imprecisely true. Just as there is only one moon, and many moons, as the princess says: a moon for each day, and for each person a different distance to the moon. Is there string upon string within the heart, too, all the alternations resonating, all the possibility?
“Stop all the clocks” is quoted from W.H. Auden’s untitled poem.
Lisa Schamess has written most recently about diarist Samuel Pepys and social media for Creative Nonfiction, as well as about the quantum status of S&H Green Stamps for Defunct Magazine. Her fiction and essays have also appeared in Glimmer Train, Antietam Review, and the anthology Gravity and Grace (Paycock Press). Her novel, Borrowed Light, was published by SMU Press in 2002. Sheblogs sporadically about money and culture at cheapbohemian.net.