I am an English teacher and I live in Italy. This work and life has made me excruciatingly happy. It has also broken the hearts of family members and friends who feel far from me and wish I would come home.
Recently I was facilitating my monthly conversation course group: There are six lovely students who meet once a month for four hours talking about everything while sitting around a table of pastry and salty treats, exploring grammar and phrasal verbs, bringing themselves to the table, but in a second (or third) language. There is a lawyer-newly-married-mom-to-be, a mountain climber and only child who is a caretaker to her elderly grandmother and parents, an engineering student who is in love with NASA, a rhythm and blues singer, a nurse from Romania, a seamstress from Hungary, and, a sometimes member who joins us for our company only, as he speaks lovely English, having been born 65 years ago in Holland. A recently retired oncologist, I told him the news about my sister, who died two months ago from pancreatic cancer.
I shared some of the moments I have experienced and talked a bit about mourning. Then, I explained that I had actually found myself marvelling at the way my sister’s body shut itself down over the two weeks after her diagnosis in which her daughter and I were at her side, waiting for her to die. Considering that I have been clinging to these poetic moments, choosing to focus upon them as opposed to the tragedy and sadness of the event, Ernest offered a simple explanation of this phenomenon, informing me that my response was an effort to protect myself from the horror of the situation.
This was not especially news to me. But it made me look back on those two weeks in a Lincoln, Nebraska hospital and later, in the hospice, searching for others who had embraced the poetry, like me. I could not think of one.
I also have clung to this. You see, it makes me different, unique, solitarily open to the artistic side of life (and death) that gives me the strength to move myself forward. Yes, the way I am absorbing this is important to me. It is EVERYTHING.
I have not been to grief counselling. After our brother committed suicide in 2000, I went to one session with my sister who was following the process with a therapist who specialised in loss. There, also, I had expressed my relief that our brother's suffering was over, rejecting the anger and abandonment my parents and sister felt, opting instead for what I considered to be a more philosophical view: every morning, I rose from bed with a new appreciation for life and the day to day moments that made up my existence. I was doing fine. I would learn from this. I would embrace life (Even more than my usual embracing!) and not take anything for granted. My brother did not want to be here anymore-could not be here anymore, but, I did and I could. That is what I hung on to. I felt cleansed after the hour in that little room with one window and a rubber plant in the corner. And, I felt better than when I had gone in.
Another friend who is in group counselling (she lost her father to heart disease last fall) was kind enough to explain the waves of grief that have since passed over me, rendering me weakened, fearful and drained: it seems these moments of grief 'spike', hitting us in the middle of a street or class or while writing a paper on the Enlightenment or, while trimming our nails (Valerie had such beautiful nail beds. I cry.). You see, we cannot mourn for 24-7. So the pain and loss spike, linger and then fade, allowing us to get on with our day or night. And, by the way, Ernest says this will most likely last for two years, comfortingly adding, that one day, I will be able to think of her with a smile.
This is fine. I can take it. I can. I CAN.
What I cannot take is the fear.
I am not afraid of anything. This is my M.O. When fear of any sort pops into my consciousness, I talk myself out of it by asking a stock list of questions, outlining the worst thing that could happen, running over all the tough times I survived, pinpointing the moments in which I arose up and out of the ashes of molestation, broken hearts, verbal and physical abuse. I am not afraid.
Now, there is something different. This December experience is starting to define me more than I would like. And the sign of this is the fear. Those little moments of self doubt that I cannot rid myself of so easily. And I hate this part.
When Scott died, I imagined the scene in the bathroom of his one bedroom apartment. He had filled the cats bowls with food and water and put out clean litter-enough to last until they discovered his body, locked in the bathroom where he had blown his head off with a pistol. Yes, I imagined that scene again and again and it disturbed me. Sometimes I would breach the topic with Valerie, just to see if she, too, had gone there. She had. Scary shit. But nothing like the scary shit I feel now...
Now I am older, closer to death. Is that it?
I talk to myself and can usually return to my centre, breathing, calming the jitters and absorbing the isolation. I take my dog in my arms and kiss his wet head-he does not seem to mind when I cry all over him. Then I pick myself up and dust myself off and return to blossoms and wind chimes and blood oranges and the smell of the rain and the lovely life I have made here.
My sister said that she was not angry, only disappointed.
I am not disappointed nor angry. I am raw. Raw again. The way I was raw in my twenties when a photograph could make me weep. I have worked many years to not feel everything all at once. Now I am working it out again.
Did death shake me up? Yes. Did it scare the hell out of me? A little. Did it give me pause? Most certainly. Was it poetic? Assuredly. Am I gonna be ok? Yeah. Meanwhile, I have camomile tea and my Chihuahua and my parents and niece and friends and work and the lovely light of February in Tuscany. And I am still here. That is something.