What Is Left

My mom asks which tie I like best as we stand over the open drawer. She asks me variations of the question all day: when do you think we should have the service? What verse should we use for the prayer cards? Which casket do you prefer, the bronze or the silver stainless steel? I’m afraid to offer my opinion, lest someone use it to make a decision.

My aunt found my grandfather this morning, on his back in bed, still warm, robe on, hands clasped over his waist, almost like a prayer, almost like a gesture of ok, take me now. I was sitting at my mom’s table, drinking tea, when her sister called to tell us. We had gone to see him for dinner the night before.

My eyes pass over the maroon paisley, the navy stripes and land on a red tie whose pattern is made by texture, small raised and depressed squares. It’s familiar. Did I give him this tie? Did I give it to my dad or stepfather and it got passed along to him when they were done with it, much like the cotton sweaters and old Polo shirts did?

I wanted to write a eulogy for the service. I had, in moments of morbid prescience, taken notes for one after some of our weekly phone calls, the calls we’d had regularly since I moved to California. The calls I would make on my way to work, as I sat in traffic on the 10, or on a Sunday, as I drove up the PCH for lunch in Malibu. The conversations where I got to know my grandfather as a person and not just my Grandpa.

The signs were there at his last dinner, if I had looked at them. He had difficulty eating, taking slow, disinterested bites of mashed potatoes, of his single slice of turkey garnished with cranberry sauce that came from a rectangular package like the jelly containers you see in a diner. He didn’t want dessert. He kissed me goodbye, told me he loved me, and patted my arm when I said I would see him next month, a placating gesture offered to an oblivious child.
I would have picked the red tie, but my aunts choose the more traditional maroon print. They put it together with the suit found hanging in his closet, which he’d had tailored recently to fit his shrunken body, skin hanging loosely from his bones. It’s a funeral suit. He has left numerous copies of his death directives in various places throughout the house. There are so many logistics of dying.

In our last phone conversation, his voice was more upbeat than it had been for months, maybe since before my sister died nearly a year earlier. I heard the smile as he told me that hospice would be starting soon, that Meals On Wheels was already delivering lunch and dinner every weekday. I put him on speakerphone as he described what he’d eaten that day and texted a friend who is a grief counselor to ask if there was another kind of hospice that didn’t mean the end. She wrote back while he was still talking about pot roast: no. 

I burst into shaking sobs as we stand around his bedroom discussing his burial outfit, much like I did in that phone conversation when he told me he was ready, that he’d had a good life, that he had accepted it. Five hours after he is gone, surrounded by what is left behind from his good life, I still have not.

 

***

 

The next door neighbor’s cat, who had left white hair all over my grandfather’s lap the night before, paces on the front stoop, insistently meowing when no one will let her in. She looks ragged, fur matted and clumped in uneven patches, as though she has been in some suburban street fight. We are late for the funeral home, holding the maroon tie and tailored suit, and leave the cat sitting on the top step, staring at the closed door.

I remember so few details from those phone calls. Just: the softening of his tone over the years, impatience giving way to tolerance. Also: the encouragement and support when I quit my job, telling me I would be successful no matter what I did. And: the mmm that eventually changed to I love you too, that finally became I love you, initiated by him, at the end of every phone conversation.

The day after we visit the funeral home, planning visitation in New Jersey and a burial in Pennsylvania for the following week, after I have written my third obituary in a year, I drive by myself to Connecticut for the writing workshop that has brought me back to the East Coast. Much like I went to one in Italy a few weeks after my dad died, and like I traveled to Australia a few weeks after my sister died. I worry that there is something inherently wrong with me that I can keep moving after they no longer can.

The sun beats down on us at the cemetery in Pennsylvania, feeling almost as hot as it did in July, when we brought my sister’s ashes up to my grandfather’s family mausoleum. The caretakers swept the dirt and spiders from the marble room before we arrived. The smooth box holding Kelly’s remains sits on the windowsill beneath stained glass, exactly where we left it. I drape purple and pink flowers from today’s arrangements on top of her, careful not to cover the plaque that bears her name. I slip one of the prayer cards from my grandfather’s service through the seam of the box without opening the lid. My mom adjusts the ceramic purple butterfly I brought back from Guatemala that is hanging from a framed picture of her on that sill. It slides through her fingers and shatters against the marble floor.

All of the notes I emailed to myself, the makings of his eulogy, have disappeared. I search my entire computer by key words: Grandpa grandfather Joe 94 95 96, all of the ages I might have referred to him as in these emails. There is no record of anything ever having been written after our phone calls. There is no record of the stories he has told me. There is no record of anything.

 

***

 

I wonder how you prepare yourself to die. What kind of fortitude it requires. How long it takes to accept it, whether you ever really do. I wonder if you can simply lie down with your hands clasped over your waist and think, I’m ready now, and that’s it. I wonder what it feels like when you know you are leaving people behind, people you know are not ready to be left.

On one of those calls last year while I drove up the PCH, he asked me what I assumed was the beginning of a silly riddle. If you take all of the things I have done in my life, and subtract the things I can no longer do, what is left? I waited for the punchline, another of the ridiculous jokes he told that I would roll my eyes at. When I didn’t guess, he repeated himself, so I humored him. I don’t know, what?

Just me.

I think about all of the labels my grandfather could have used to describe himself that no longer applied when he posed that question to me on the phone: son, brother, husband, musician, president, carpenter, fixer of everything. I think about all he had lost. I think about the labels that remained until the end: father, grandfather, great-grandfather. I think about how he told me they were the most important labels. I think about how they still weren’t enough to save him, how nothing was enough to save him, nor my dad, nor my sister and I wonder how we can all just go on, knowing that we can never save anyone, knowing that we, that I, eventually have to accept their loss, and keep moving. Just me.

 

***

 

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Joseph Francis Pancheri 5.24.19-10.30.15

***

 

 

These Are The Things I Have Forgotten

These Are The Things I Have Forgotten:

The way my Grandmother smelled

I remember the way my sister smelled, of menthol cigarettes and cheap, overpowering body spray that lingered in a room long after she left, and permeated the DNA of her green Camry.

I remember the way the cat smelled, like spilled tears and comfort and my mother’s house. I pick up the new cat who is not so new anymore, and bury my face in his soft fur. I want to force that smell on him, but he won’t cooperate; he barely tolerates me. He accepted Kelly’s scent when she held him—of course, he was her cat—but he won’t accept Hobbes’ no matter how much I wish it.

If I can remember how the cat smelled, shouldn’t I remember Grandma’s smell?

The taste of mustard

Or mayonnaise. Or pickles. Or all of the other things that I’m sure I hate, so much that I cringe or shudder when they are mentioned. 

What my recorded voice sounded like

The video of my senior recital was taped over, or lost, years ago. There is no footage from my college performances. The cassette tapes from high school concerts are useless—who has anything that plays a cassette tape? I kept a Walkman for years, just in case I wanted to listen to one of those archaic tapes, but eventually, it too went the way of the rest of our obsolete 80s electronics.

Kelly’s recordings were done on CDs, so we could easily transfer them to our laptops and phones, and play them at her memorial service or in our cars. It’s her voice that I hear now when I remember songs we both sang.

The books I have read

Including those I studied and referenced on my AP English test, the ones catalogued on the “Best 100 Books of All Time” lists (did I actually read 1984, or do I just think I did?) and almost every book I read on my iPad.

The first time I saw a sun set over the ocean

Maybe it was on our first family trip to California when I was fifteen. Did I notice it there, when Kelly and I walked by ourselves down to a wharf theatre to see You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, in a rare moment of camaraderie due to the freedom of being without our parents for the evening in an unfamiliar city?

Or maybe it was when we went to Bermuda the following year. There is a picture of us on a golf course at our resort, the two of us, with windblown hair and terrible 90s clothing. The sunset is behind us. Did we ever turn around to see it?

Maybe it was even later still, on our last trip together as a family, to Captiva Island. I have the fewest memories of this trip, beyond the sand whipping around on the beach in a weeklong windstorm, and the long, solitary drive across Alligator Alley from Miami. It feels that much more tragic since we would have no subsequent trips. I would travel again with my mom, with Kelly, with my dad, but never again as that original foursome.

When I had my first kiss

I think I used to lie about it, and now I can’t remember what is the lie and what is the truth. The same with when I lost my virginity, a night whose details I remember down to the perfume I wore (Estee Lauder Pleasures, which I hated but he gifted me) and the CD in my stereo (Toni Braxton, Secrets) but whose date I cannot confirm with any certainty. The lies I told other people became the lies I told myself.

What it felt like to hug my Nana

I was ten the last time I saw her, in a wheelchair at my uncle’s wedding. There must have been a fragile maneuvering around the medical equipment, gestures involving patting and kind words. We saw her less than we saw our other grandmother, whose embrace and fragile body and soft skin I can remember like she squeezed me just this morning, rather than over a dozen years ago. My dad’s mother was tall, and sturdy, before the cancer. I wonder if I would have grown taller than she was, had she lived longer. I wonder if I would have wrapped my own strong arms around her, if I would have been the sturdier one. I wonder if I will someday be the formerly tall, formerly sturdy woman in a wheelchair at my son’s wedding, who dies later that night having seen all of her children wed?

How to play the flute

How to play the piano (mostly). How to sing a harmonic minor scale. How to transcribe a melody. And likely every single thing I learned in my 4th semester of music theory.

What my grandfather’s poached eggs taste like

I know that they were the best we ever tasted. I know Kelly still wanted him to make one for her when she visited him last year. I know that I hate to order them in restaurants, certain they will never be as good as his (the way I know linguini with clam sauce cooked by anyone else will never match my mother’s). But I cannot conjure up the taste, only the recollection of the perfect amount of runniness in the yolk, the perfect firmness of the whites. I know that I will never again ask my grandfather to make one for me, because that was her thing.

My natural hair color

 

Why I hated the first day of school videos

My mom took them every year until we moved to Basking Ridge when I was in fifth grade. We started on our front stoop—Kelly, me, Michelle and Aimee from next door, sometimes some of the other neighbors—and walked down the long, rocky driveway and across the street to the bus stop. I was the only one who refused to play along when my mom asked us what we had in our lunchboxes that day, or if we were excited about the first day of school. I was the only one with the scowl, or walking too fast for the camera to follow. Kelly was just happy to be included, even though most years she would be left behind with my mom, at home, after the big kids got on that bus.

Where I left my first pair of earrings

The gold hearts with the diamond sparkle. The ones I’d been hanging onto since I got my ears pierced nearly thirty years ago. The ones I thought my future daughter might one day wear.

My last words to my sister

I know my last words via email: “Have a good Thanksgiving with Dad.”

I know my last words via voicemail, before she left for Arizona that August: “I love you, bye.” I’m not even sure I meant them at the time. I was angry, and only left the voicemail because my mom asked me to call her. I mean them now, but I don’t know if that matters.

I don’t remember the end of our last phone conversation. I don’t remember our last in- person conversation. I’m not even sure I remember the last time I saw her, some time in early 2013. Can that really be possible? Can I really not remember the last time I saw my sister?

Everything else I couldn’t bother to remember; everything else that I have forgotten.

My beloved Grandma (and Grandpa) on the 13th anniversary of her passing.

My beloved Grandma (and Grandpa); yesterday was the 13th anniversary of her passing.

Our last Christmas; my last clear memory of us together.

Our last Christmas at home in 2012; my last clear memory of us together.

Hamilton Island

On a beach in Hamilton Island, I try to write my way out of it.
But I don’t know any suitable words,
Only woefully inadequate ones that mean nothing: sunscreen, seagull, oyster.
Grief’s vocabulary fails me.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the thoughts come out fragmented, disjointed,
Blowing around and reshuffling themselves in the ocean breeze.
The sentences refuse to assemble.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the unrelenting sunlight blinds me,
Leaving behind only opaque black dots in my vision.
They refuse to be blinked away.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the silky, burning sand caves in around me,
Lodging in my hair while slipping quickly through my fingers.
The scorching powder eludes a foothold.

I try to write my way out of it.
But sudden raindrops plop down on my paper,
Bleeding blue ink into circles, and trickling tiny pearls of water southward.
They slow dance down the page with my tears.

I try to write my way out of it.
But a crashing wave from a passing Jet Ski knocks me over,
Stealing my breath and acquainting me with the jagged rocks below.
Their edges scrape my palms and slash my notebook.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the undertow is too strong,
Dragging me out to sea by the ankles; the now brackish water has a firm grip.
My pen is replaced by seaweed, slimy strands that wrap around my fingers.

I try to write my way out of it.
But they tell me there is no out;
There’s only through.
And through is unthinkable.

 

Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island

Lavender Roses

I never noticed them before;

I see them everywhere now.

Four times already in Sydney,

Halfway across the world, and they are here.

You are here.

 

How can that be?

How can you be both everywhere,

And nowhere?

 

One of your songs plays on the radio,

On a taxi ride to Drummoyne.

I barely hear it at first,

But then it becomes the only sound.

You are here, too.

 

What does it mean?

(Does it mean anything?)

Is it really you that I am hearing?

 

Now it is my voice instead,

Speaking your name,

Over and over.

 

Kelly loved lavender roses.

Kelly loved Josh Groban.

Kelly loved.

 

Your name pours from my lips,

Like an upended glass of water;

Unstoppable spillage.

 

Your flowers,

Your song,

Your name.

 

You are everywhere.

You are nowhere.

You are here.

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Confession: I Cried Today

I cried today.

I woke up too early. I called my dad. I went to work. I took conference calls and did a presentation for clients. I went to the grocery store. I skipped yoga. I packed for a ski trip.

And in between, I cried.

A beautiful little boy, I don’t actually know him, is slowly dying. I see his sweet face when I go on Facebook.  His picture pops up in my newsfeed, sometimes in the form of people asking for prayers for him, sometimes as a profile pic. I can see his huge eyes, focused on something past the viewfinder of the camera. Focused on something we can’t see, that probably only he can, in spite of his blindness (or possibly because of it). The light that shines on him seems otherworldly.

I don’t know this baby and yet I cried for him today. I cried first for him, and then for everything else. For my mom and my grandfather, facing the anniversary of my beloved grandmother’s passing this week. For the 4 year old girl we dedicated yoga to last week in New Jersey, just diagnosed with brain cancer. For the one I never talk about, the one who would have been 23 this year, the one whose name I don’t say.

Sometimes it’s just too hard.

M was 2 when I met him during my freshman year of high school. He had a host of medical problems; it was apparent in the way he looked, in his development. I don’t know if I ever understood exactly what he was dealing with medically, or if I’m just not remembering now. But I knew it was serious.

The light that radiated off this kid was blinding. He was universally adored by anyone who spent time with him. If he said your name, you melted. You felt like a chosen one. He didn’t look like everyone else, and I think now, of course not. He was too special to look the same. He was the best of all of us.

He was my idol’s son. I can call her that, because I actually worshipped her. She was the one I put on a pedestal, the one whose opinion mattered most. If she asked, the answer was always yes. I believed my every success was due to her. When I was 17, and M was 5, she asked me to babysit for him over the summer. I knew this meant that I was special. The answer, of course, was yes.

We did a trial run or two, making sure I was strong enough to lift him, knew how to feed him and clean his trach after lunch. He was comfortable with me. She made a recording of him asking “Katie coming tomorrow?” the weekend before my first day.

I babysat once, on a Monday. That’s all I can remember, though maybe there were more times. We read books, we taped ourselves laughing, we wrote stories in a journal, we talked about Elmo and how silly Elmo was. He loved Elmo. He loved being silly. I repeated the same jokes over and over again until they were ours, just for us.

The next day he died.

His heart just slowed down and stopped beating in the bathroom that night. When his mother, my idol, called and woke me with the news the following morning, nothing made sense. My mom handed me the cordless phone and I knew, even in my sleepy haze, that something had happened. But not that.

The summer was a blur. The school year started again and it was all the same but everything was different. The ones who loved him were all different.

The distance happened after I left for college. Distance would have been natural anyway, as 1200 miles will do to people. I didn’t realize until after it happened that I had been written out of the end of this story. There would be no tearful reunions, no coffee dates to catch up after a semester away. There would be nothing, just an end; not even acknowledged, just observed.

I tried. I attempted to write myself back in. I begged really. Please don’t cut me out of your life. Please still love me. How could someone I loved as a mentor for 5 years just walk away? How could the person I picked up off the floor and propped up for a year of hell see through me as if I wasn’t even there?

What I didn’t know then was that I had been written out of the beginning of the story too. There could be no happy ending because I didn’t exist in the beginning anymore. I was simply erased from the record books, stripped of the medals earned loving this child and his mother. When I got a blank stare, it’s because she really didn’t see me anymore. I wasn’t there.

I don’t know if I will ever understand why my part was eliminated, why I got killed off like a character leaving the tv show before the end of the season, easily disposed. Maybe she thinks it is my fault. Maybe I do too. For 15 years I have wondered, and no answers ever materialize. I am resigned to this. As my friend would say, “And so it is.”

I stopped grieving back then. How could I grieve a little boy who I loved when it didn’t feel like I was allowed to have loved him anymore?

So I shut down.

I stopped visiting his grave, I stopped acknowledging the anniversary of his death, I stopped reaching out to my idol. I accepted this new story that was written.

I don’t anymore. I can’t write myself back into the end of this story, but I can claim my part in the beginning. It’s time.

Today I cry for Ronan, and pray for his family. I cry for my mom, and my grandfather, and that little girl in NJ.

And I cry for M. I loved you. I’ve never forgotten.

You will always be part of my story.

xx,
Katie