seven months

unnamed

The date took me by surprise today.

I was scribbling down my schedule–I travel so much these days, it’s hard to keep the days straight–when I realized I’d forgotten what the day was.

Grief is funny like that. It’s taken seven months, but here I am, finally at the point where it’s no longer piercing my prefrontal cortex. It’s sneaky, hidden in muscle memory, and when I thought “oh, oh, that’s why I’ve been so upset,” the pen fell out of my hand.

Last month, you hid me a message in a fortune cookie. And because this is how grief works, I knew, like, deep-down, gut-deep knew. Something was coming. I hoped it was good, and it was.

The car eats up a lot of miles these days. I traverse a circuit between Greenville and Asheville, and the only time I stop moving is when I’m asleep. I work, I write, I struggle, ineptly, to build new connections in a new city, and work toward the idea of living the life I want to live.

It’s hard, without you.

There’s that stretch of 25 through Flat Rock and Fletcher, right after the NC border, where you and I first talked about moving up there. We were on our way to a book signing, to meet authors who were the exact sort of people we wanted to be. It was a time when I believed without a single doubt we’d get there together. 

Seven months now of struggling toward that without you.  It still doesn’t feel right, but I’m doing it anyway.

Listen, I know you were worried, but the advice you gave me last year about staying soft was solid. 

You’re the armor around my heart, now. And I’m doing just like you said. It isn’t easy. I’m not the person I was. Everything is new. Everything is awkward. I feel helpless at times. 

But this softness isn’t helplessness. It’s a conscious choice to not be anything other than exactly what I am. To stop hiding, and own this thing that bleeds in plain sight.

I have always been this thing, I just…

I couldn’t be honest about it. 

That was the first lesson, and the hardest one.

Every defense I had was useless. Everything I’d ever used to keep myself safe didn’t work.

I’ve been helpless in various ways in my life, but it never felt as awful as it did to stand and hold your hand and know I couldn’t do a goddamned thing to save your life. The only thing I had control over was how I chose to let you go.

I tried, good buddy. But I’ve lost so much. I have lost so many people. So many things. 

Loss doesn’t make you better at losing things. It makes you worse at it. Because you can logically know exactly how it works, but the heart doesn’t get it. It never gets it.

You held my hand as long as you could, because you knew losing you was gonna smash me to bits. And it did. Exactly as much as it had to, exactly as much as was necessary.

Losing you could have destroyed me.

But here I am, trying to build. Continuing forward despite the unknowns. 

I’ve always been intimately acquainted with death; it’s always passed me by. It always chooses someone else. It brushes past me, and every time, every single time it’s like I go running after you. All of you. In my heart, I’m still that seven-year-old kid, returning to the same back porch night after night, hoping that maybe, just maybe you’ll come back. 

But I can’t do that anymore.

I got that offer you told me about.

This fall, I’m going to move. Me! Agoraphobic me, who’s never been able to move away from Simpsonville, who’s always been afraid. Who never had faith that I could take care of myself, that I could take chances.

I sure have taken on a lot of them since you left. Ugh. I know you had a cackle or two. I’ve got some scrapes, yeah. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I never did this when I was supposed to. I’m stunted. All those years of bowing over, braced for the wrong death.

God, I never thought it would be you.

And I never should have stopped living the way I did, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to survive the pain.

You were a shelter through the worst of those years. You understood, you knew why I couldn’t leave. Maybe you know my heart a little better, now. All the times I wanted to tell you just what that meant, but choked on it. 

You were part of my purpose, you know?

You were a reason I was here. Why I stayed here. Alive. You know it, now. I know you do. Whatever you are now, however you exist. You’ve seen my insides. You saw the full map. You know.

You know why I can’t stop moving, these days. Why it’s so hard to lay down and sleep.

It’s hard. I don’t know what I’m doing, exactly, but I’m doing it, based on a dream I refuse to let go of, even if you’re not here anymore.

Listen, I couldn’t tell you this while you were alive, but you don’t have to worry anymore.

I’m sorry I walled myself off the way I did.

I was in so much pain. No one could touch it. It was just this agonized knot of wrongness in the middle of my chest. Walking away took every ounce of willpower I had, and it just kept sapping me of everything. Every dream. Every hope. Everything I’d believed in. I crumpled in a way I never had before, and no one, absolutely no one could truly get inside my heart.

You tore one hell of an exit hole through me. It completely destroyed all of that. All the parts of me that felt wrong. All the parts of me that felt unlovable.

How could I be the thing I thought I was, when you held my hand like that at the end?

Thank you for still taking care of me.

Thank you for helping me protect this heart.

I thought I’d lost it, but you took me straight to it, you know?

Yeah, the fighter still remains.

And now I’m gonna move to a new city, read my work to strangers. Be an extraordinarily small fish in a big pond. I’ll work a lot, and write a lot, and keep at it till I get to see “For Pru” in print, in a physical book I can hold in my hands.

These days, I imagine my heart as an open cage, a ship in my chest. Door hanging open, so all the people I’ve loved can traverse freely. But when I think of you, I imagine you small, sitting in the doorway, your legs swinging cheerfully as I walk, as I continue, as I keep going.

For you, I’ll stay soft.

For Papa, I’ll keep trying my best to be “Miss Super Fantastic,” who could take one more step.

For Rosanne, who taught me kindness, and Mary Lou, who taught me how to laugh.

For Zeppy, Miles, Tober, and Pitiful. I’m trying to be the human you saw me as. For Tiffany, who should have had more time. For Gramma, who I think of every time I bake. For Big John, who sat me down so many times and told me to keep at it. For Eddie, who told me I had a bookstore with my name on it, and so much money I’d never be able to count it.

This list will grow longer. That’s just how this is.

I don’t know how much time will pass before I see you again.

But I hope when I do, I’ll have learned to love the way you did. 

I hope I leave the world better than it was. 

Asheville is going to be different than anything else I’ve ever done before.

I wish we were doing this together, on the same timeline. Maybe in another life.

Thank you for still being here inside me.

Thank you for the heads up about where I was going and what I’d be doing next.

Did you see Good Omens?

If you haven’t, I’ll tell you about it when I see you again. It’s gonna be a while, I think, but I know you’ll be there waiting, so I’m gonna keep trying to become the person you had faith I could be.

I miss you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

how I am

“How are you?”

This is a dangerous question, today.

On the way to work, my knuckles, already OCD-torn, cracked and bleeding, are white with strain. I pinch my nose. I do all the things I know to keep my mascara on my eyelashes, not all over my face.

It isn’t easy, because today marks exactly one month.

Today, it’s been thirty days since my best friend died. Thirty days since I walked in aimless circles outside fourth floor ICU waiting, trying to keep myself from ripping apart the two Christmas trees next to the elevators, breaking absolutely everything in sight. I shook. I trembled. My bones rattled as I stood and watched my best friend’s husband get to his feet and walk to the desk, and talk to the clerk, who opened the doors. And I watched him cross that threshold knowing he had to go and do something I couldn’t bear.

I just rattled in place, knowing that it was time, and that he had to tell them yes, it’s time to take them off life support.

And I couldn’t do it.

I ran away.

I went home. I sat and waited. I couldn’t sit. I got up and paced. I hadn’t slept more than two hours in days. I paced more. My mother just watched me and cried, because it was awful to watch no matter what distance you stood at, no matter what angle you watched from.

 

It didn’t make sense.

It still doesn’t make sense.

 

On November 30, my best friend contacted me and Archie, another best friend, for an emergency Stonehenge meeting.

Stonehenge was a friend name, a thing that was what we were for each other: a big old bunch of rocks who were always there and always had been, and, as far as we’d known, always would be.

It’s a hell of a thing when your rock tells you, “So, basically, I’m Deadpool.”

“I’ve got no sense of humor right now,” I told them. “What does that translate to?”

“Turbo cancer!” This, said with genuine, honest humor, because that was the kind of person Pru was. “It’s basically everywhere.”

“It’s metastasized?” I think my eyes watered over at this point.

“Pancreas, lung, spleen, liver.”

My heart did an awful nasty thing, hearing “pancreas” and translating to “pancreatic cancer,” which meant “going to die within two weeks.” So I asked, “What kind?”

Melanoma. Oh! Well, then, there’s time. They’ll run the tests, do targeted treatment, and we’ll all throw in together to help clean and cook meals. Keep everything going while they got better.

I clutched onto Pru’s leg anyway, because I was the one who was a mess, and I couldn’t joke about it. I was and never have been the stoic friend capable of maintaining composure under emotional duress. It’s either the best thing about me or the worst, but regardless, Pru had wanted me there, crying or no.

Later that night, I tried to go home, and I couldn’t. I drove in a circle. And then I started screaming, and I punched the steering wheel, screaming “no no no no no no” because “cancer” and my best friend’s name were not allowed to exist in the same sentence.

But now they did.

Days went by. Tests, but no treatment. Conditions worsened. They worried. A motley of us tried to reassure that we had time, that it wasn’t over till it was over.

My best friend, crying late one night in the stationary aisle of Walmart, telling me “I’ve got to leave something for the boys,” me reassuring that they’d still be here. That there was time.

There wasn’t.

December came, and by the fourteenth, it was hospital time again. So they went, and they were admitted, and hooked up to tubes and bags and drugs and by the time I saw all the scary physical warnings, the things I recognized, just did not, would not accept…

I swapped gears. Shifted over into disaster-crisis, where I could be okay, be helpful, hold my best friend’s hand while we walked straight into hell.

“It’s okay. I’m here. You can sleep, it’s okay. I’m here. Craig’s here. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.”

There comes a point where that’s all you can do.

I was on my way from work to the hospital when Molly sent a text that I didn’t need to stop by CVS. And then I got another, that Pru’s vitals had crashed and they were rushing them to ICU.

I stared at the numbers.

I drove too fast.

I didn’t really think about it. I just ran. South parking, down the stairs, then across. Then into the hospital lobby. Then the elevators. Trying not to think about what might happen. Just that I needed to get there. And when I did…

God, you know, it was a terrible thing, but sitting in ICU waiting, watching everyone coming in. Waving from the glass. There were so many of us, the desk attendant had to tell us to shut up.

Watching all the people who loved my best friend walk into ICU was the only thing that made the waiting bearable.

Eventually I got to go back.

You notice the weirdest things in hospitals. I saw a lot of them as a kid. Sickness, then heart surgery when I was nine. You’ll never see red paint on hospital walls. Just calming colors.

The ICU was spring green.

I walked for the longest time, till I got to a room set up like a surgical theater. And then I stopped, and I looked at my best friend in that bed. The no-longer-conscious tilt of their head, the yellow tinge of their skin. I stepped in.

I walked up.

I teared up.

I said, “Hi, buddy,” and my voice broke.

I searched for my best friend’s hand, and I grabbed it, and I recited everything I could see. Described everything I could see, everything it meant. Googled it. Recited numbers on screens. Blinked fast, blinked hard, because those numbers were not naturally possible with organ failure.

But I watched my best friend fight the numbers back up, digit by digit. I held tight and said “You’re fighting, I see it. There, you did it again. It’s going up. You’ve got this. You’ve got this.”

I held on until my turn was over.

In the morning, I returned. Called work, because there was no realistic way I could leave. I knew myself. I knew I wouldn’t.

I knew I couldn’t.

I kept coming back and standing in that room, hoping it would get better, but it only got worse.

I couldn’t do anything about it. The most I could do was call over nurses, or keep Pru from ripping out IVs, saying, “I know it’s awful, but that one goes straight into your heart. Please don’t touch that one.” And the pinch, one more piece of whatever a heart is breaking inside me, when they stopped more for the pain they heard in my voice than whatever discomfort they felt.

It’s a terrible thing, watching someone you love in that much agony.

I thought a lot about drastic actions. Stealing a bunch of morphine, pulling out all the IVs, and hightailing my best friend out of there. Things that tricked me into feeling better for five minutes, better than the realization we’d already passed whatever threshold would have allowed for a more comfortable death.

Half of me knew.

Half of me would have fought God, the Devil, or both if I could.

Eventually the family was called back. I hesitated at the door, unsure till Craig said “You’re family. Come on.”

That was the morning I watched a dialysis machine running in a futile figure eight, noticed one of the catheters was gone, and another had stopped collecting anything.

The vitals were stable, steady.

But the doctors said “let’s talk about this in another room,” and Pru fought through whatever fog they were in enough to say “Where are you going, I don’t like this, I don’t like this secret meeting”

And I said “We’ll be right back, right back, it’s just loud in here, we’ll be right back”

 

I didn’t come right back.

I sobbed in an anteroom while two doctors laid out what was happening. That it was time to bring in everyone who wanted to say goodbye.

That it was time to say goodbye.

 

So I called an emergency meeting of Stonehenge, and the three of us held each other’s hands. Pru’s eyes were clearer, more lucid.

Lucid enough to ask, “Am I dying?”

And lucid enough that when we said yes, they sighed and said, “Well, that fuckin’ sucks.” Strong enough, there enough to tell me “None of that” when I started crying, because our time was limited, and they had many, many more goodbyes that would need to be said.

Even in that state, Pru remembered that I could not, can not handle the word “goodbye.” It was always “see you later,” or “see you soon, good buddy” or “I love you.” We were both prickly as hedgehogs, and we danced around each other’s spines a good bit, but “I love you” was holy. There were a thousand reasons why those were the only words I wanted to be the last I gave, they last they heard.

Even while dying, Pru remembered.

“I love you. I love you so much.”

That was the important thing. There would be time to grieve later. Now, we had the space for one last, good memory. One last good moment together.

Eventually, thirty minutes ran out.

I was holding Pru’s hand.

Time was up, but they didn’t let go.

Everything they had. One squeeze after another. It must have been ungodly painful, but they didn’t let go. I cried. I said “I love you” over and over until it ran together, stopped making sense.

Pru didn’t let go until they went unconscious.

Archie caught me as we walked away. As I folded in half with knowing that was the last time.

That was the last time we’d tell each other “I love you.”

That was the last time I’d hold my best friend’s hand.

 

 

It was.

 

 

 

Sometimes, I want to go back. I get this feeling, like if I go up there, sneak into the ICU, if I can somehow go back there, I’ll find the door they exited through. Like something out of a story I could write, that door would appear, and I could have another five minutes, another day, another conversation, another hug, another “I love you.”

But I just end up screaming in the parking lot, punching the steering wheel, till the scream turns into the cry, and the cry turns into a plea, and the reality of it settles back over me.

I could say a lot of inspirational things here, about how we keep the people we love alive within ourselves. How we take them with us, how we honor their memory by living, by doing, by loving in their stead.

That isn’t what happens.

What happens:

I clutch onto the wheel like I’m drowning, and I talk to Pru, because all I want in that moment is to feel like I’m close enough to have a conversation. And I say the things that I can’t help but say, because I can’t keep them in:

“Please stop being dead, just stop being dead, please”

“I wish you could come home”

“I miss you”

The same things I text late at night, when I can’t sleep and I’d curl up on a grave if there was one, because the ache feels like it’ll kill me, too.

I wake up, and sometimes I forget. I forget, till I remember, and it starts over again.

Some days, it’s easier. Some days I remember these tiny, funny things, and I share them with people. That was the thing about Pru—there was something about them that even a stranger can tell what a god damn delight it was to know them. How lucky those of us who got to know them were. Because it’s unmistakable.

Dozens of people, crowding ICU waiting.

Nearly four hundred people in the group Pru initially set up to coordinate our voluminous efforts.

A hundred plus at the comedy benefit.

And the pouring out of people at karaoke after.

I’m glad I made it through that song for you, good buddy, even if it resulted in the loudest, ugliest scream-cry I’ve ever had in public.

 

It hurt.

It still hurts.

It’s always gonna hurt.

But we promised, didn’t we?

Til the end of the line.

 

It feels like you’re gone, but…

You left behind quite a legacy, you know?

I’ve got a lot to do, to make you proud.

And even though it’s fucking agony, and absurd, and I’m fairly certain I’m gonna scream-cry my way to and from work for a few days, well…

I’ve got to keep going, no matter how hard it gets.

Even though every step forward feels like it’s taking me away from you.

Even though every tick of the clock makes me wish I could make it run backwards.

Even though it feels like I’m leaving you, somehow.

I know you’re waving. Cheering me on. Cheering us all on.

I know.

 

 

I know.

I will, good buddy.

Just let me stay here a little longer.

 

Thank you.

 

It’s busted all to hell, but you gave me my heart back.

I won’t let this harden me.

All the armor fell off, watching you die.

You’ve done a pretty miraculous thing, cracking me open like this.

I’m not the only one.

A lot of us who were lonely aren’t lonely anymore.

A lot of us who kept shutting people out aren’t shutting anyone out anymore.

The thread that was you cinched through us and drew us all together, simply by merit of being people who loved you.

There are so many of us, because there was so much of you.

It was more than enough.

You were always more than enough.

 

 

I love you, Pru.

 

We all do.

 

We can’t stop.