May 6, 2009
By Molly Silverstein BRONZE, New York, New York
Molly Silverstein BRONZE, New York, New York
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Sometimes loss feels like a cool stone on the back of my neck. Or a rosary I finger throughout the drawn out days. Yet an absence is not nearly as steady and clean as a stone, and you can’t pretend the monotonous ache of a death is holy. Loss seems to have breathed me in. Sometimes loss is like a warm womb, and it soothes me. But when loss is raw, it hurts the skin where it touches. Loss hits you like a brick or a scrap of metal, and then it folds itself over every inch of your life like air. Then you are left groping like a spilled food or drink; groping for a power or a purpose. I cried like a wounded bird when I realized she no longer existed; now the grief is just an itch, and I spend my days curled into myself, blanketed by loss, entertaining my memories.

She was the shortest, fattest woman I have ever seen, and her face was shaped like a plum. Buried under creases and folds of flesh were large brown eyes that flickered like mirrors and curled up sometimes, above a tiny nose and mouth. A face that knew it was beautiful, and also knew the person beneath it did not care. She was vital – so alive it was almost embarrassing. Vitality surged from her eyes and her mouth; she was so dynamic that it hurt to look at her sometimes. Strange – by now, she is an ache. Death does not suit her. She is weak and feeble in her absence, and in death she is static and stony. How does time bake things in its oven until they are dry?

I walked to her home very early in the morning. A song was ringing in my ears, and the world around me felt manic. The sun was bright and seemed to illuminate all the hidden bits and buried pieces of me. I felt so exposed that it tickled my throat, and my skin itched with heat and fear. The whole world felt like a fever dream that morning – swirling and shuddering with temperature and busy noise.

She was enveloped by a heavy mass of people: husbands, dear friends, people who fancied themselves dear friends, ex-lovers, current lovers, followers, devotees, hanger-ons, mentors. The loyal, the disloyal, the givers, the takers; they were all bottled up in her bedroom, sitting on the carpeted floor and stroking her heaving head like mothers. She was so far gone by this point. She was deep in a comma and it hurt her lungs to breathe. She wasn’t a memory yet – but I knew she was no longer real. She was a wisp of a woman, and I was terrified.

Perhaps she was dreaming; I remembered that she told me once that she had never had a nightmare, that all her dreams were pleasant. I shrugged her off at the time – everyone must have nightmares. But I knew if anyone could pick their dreams, it would be her. She could command the wind if she chose to; she could anticipate its tricks, and eventually it would commit itself to her purpose. She could command any of life’s wild ruthless forces, even the confusion of a dream. Yet when she frowned and struggled against the confines of her body, I knew she was not dreaming. Her breath shook her like an earthquake, and she jerked electrically when she inhaled.

We sat in a stunned silence for a few hours. There was a thick tension in each of us, but there was also a shared feeling of contentedness. We were where we needed to be. We had missed some moments in her life, and we had probably missed some moments in our own lives as well. But we wouldn’t miss the moment of her death, when all that vitality would flow and dribble out of her. Maybe we would collect some of it for ourselves, and we would become like her – plump and necessary.

Finally, we all marched out into the living room to drink coffee and sprawl ourselves on couches and floors, leaving our matriarch to her battle. We knew she was not fighting to live – she was fighting to die. She was trying to command her death like the conductor of a symphony, but her vitality was so fierce and full that it fought against her insistence on death. I knew she would win – I always knew she would not let life or death come to pass without a consent. I remember thinking that she probably willed her own conception, her birth, and every other seemingly inevitable moment in life.

Even from the living room, we all sat and stared at walls and ceilings in awe. We were in awe of her in the frenzy of death, just as we were in awe of her in all the monotony, profundity, and confusion of life. Her dignity and vigor were so great that she refused to live the kind of perfunctory half-life she knew was in her elderly future. She was too proud to be alive in death. This was unspoken – we all shared this knowledge, and were ourselves profoundly proud. Perhaps this strange pride in her pride helped brace us against our giant fear of everything and anything unknown.

An hour went by – or maybe it was only a minute. Time was a dull buzz in the background of our congregation, and we didn’t pay much attention to it. There was a bestial struggle taking place a few meters away, and time was so secondary – a societal convention, man’s invention in the quest for an order that ultimately does not exist. Time and other empty abstractions certainly did not exist in her airy, golden apartment filled with people, paintings, old books, and … something else. The rooms were full of something else altogether, and I soon realized – these rooms were filled with every woman she once was. She was dusting the shelves, pouring lemonade into a clean glass for a frail husband, eating chili at the dining room table, preparing speeches, writing books, fixing her soft curly hair, stretching on a chaise lounge chair reading W.H Auden, dragging her fragile bones across the living room, supported by a heavy walker. I wanted to reach out and touch her, until I realized these versions of her were present merely to fill a void inside her now, and to remind us of how delicate and real she once was.

When we heard the sound, all of our ears pricked up like we were cats chasing mice or shadows. It was a horrible sound – gasping, guttural, and somehow bottomless. Like a vacuum sucking up an infinite pool of liquid very slowly, with violent force. We rushed into her room and slowed down when we entered, like she was a wild animal with the power to pounce at her will. She still shuddered with the intensity of each breath. The room was stuffy and cluttered with air – she didn’t seem to be breathing in much of it. And every time she inhaled, that sound shuffled around our ears and made our stomachs stir. Some covered their ears; others left the room. The sound felt infectious and heavy, like a deep cough or a ragged sneeze. Her lungs were filling with fluid.

We sat on the floor, our legs folded under us, speaking to her in quiet voices. Some of us seemed to be praying for her; some of us were praying to her. Some faces were bathed in tears while others sat and smiled up at her thick frame. Some stared with eyes like glass while some squeezed their eyes tight and steadied themselves with their hands. I was near her face when her breathing got shorter. I moved a finger over all her dents and dimples, and I sat up to press my body onto hers. She was quiet now – the atrocious noise had ceased, and the only sounds in the room were our restless shuffles and drops of faucet water from somewhere far off. When a tall thin man with a beak nose felt her pulse and pronounced what we all knew just as well as we knew our own beds, I pushed my face into the crook of her arm and tried to find her somewhere deep in there.

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