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.

 

***

 

IMG_3365

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.

My Christmas In Exile

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Harrods During Christmas. Photo courtesy of anee.baba via Flickr.

The undoing occurred at the gourmet cheese counter at Harrods.

It was Christmas Eve afternoon, not quite dark enough yet to see the elaborate lights display all around the exterior of the store, though that didn’t stop the throngs of tourists outside from taking picture after picture of the barely visible illuminations. Inside, in the cavernous Food Hall where the sound echoed at a deafening volume, I shuffled through the nearly solid mass of people, past the bakery, the charcuterie, the Middle Eastern prepared foods. I had also come to see the holiday decorations, and was wasting time until sundown, when I came upon the cheese counter.

A piece of Gouda with black truffle caught my eye, and then its scent filled my nose, so I took a number and made my way to the front to order a piece for the next evening’s dinner. Just enough for a single sandwich, I told the girl. “Is this for you, for Christmas?” she asked me.

It’s the simple question that stops you in your tracks, that causes your breath to hitch and your heart to clench. That undoes you.

Because if you have to admit to the British girl working at the cheese counter that this single piece of truffled Gouda is for the grilled cheese sandwich you will eat alone, for Christmas dinner, you have to admit it to yourself.

You completely screwed up.

******

I used to love Christmas.

The rituals, mostly.

Digging into the heap of presents beneath a huge, fragrant tree we had decorated as a family, my mom directing the placement of the lights (only white ones!) and the ornaments, the ones we had made over the years in school, and the glass ones my dad received annually from work. My grandparents, always sipping their coffee, smiling indulgently as I exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted” into the video camera in my dad’s hand. My mom, making waffles from scratch that we could smell from the living room, and heating the plates in the oven so the waffles stayed warm.

Later, in a new house, where I insisted earnestly that New Kids on the Block had the best Christmas album, and our new kitten ran crazily from the dining room to the living room any time the doorbell rang, sliding through the foyer and climbing up the decorated tree. My grandfather there to hear my big solo in O Holy Night in the winter choral concert, and my grandmother closing her eyes when we sang her favorite carol, A Welsh Lullaby. My mother, making the special chocolate Christmas cookies, that I could sometimes convince her to undercook just the way I liked them, and my father trying to put together a Barbie Dream house for my sister.

My family, together. My family, in love.  My family, happy.

Every year I’ve recalled these memories, these ghosts of Christmases past, these portraits of a family that I think once existed. The family in those home videos, forever immortalized on tapes too small for our VCR, that we could play back and watch through the camera’s viewfinder. I could make believe that all of our Christmases were perfect, that our family was perfect, as long as I could call up those images.

Until this year, when I finally couldn’t recognize those people any longer.

The splintering happened gradually, with little pieces of wood breaking off from the whole every year, until what remained was cracked and sharp-edged and just a fraction of what once was. Yelling. Hospitals. Criticism. Age. Dismissal. Death. Divorce. Lies. Addictions. Letdowns. Estrangement. The things that happen to families, I guess, over time. The things that, eventually, break them.

This year, I couldn’t bear it. The going through of motions, the pretending.

So I fled.

To London, and a friend I had met exactly once. To one I hadn’t seen in 20 years. To one I had worked with, sort of, at some point in time. To one I had loved once, who didn’t ask me to come. To one who was friends with my boss, a yoga teacher, who chastised me for “holding back”.

I fled to ones with whom I shared no past: no hurt, no pain, no guilt, no regret.

The trip began encouragingly, with cozy dinners in pubs and happy trips to the theatre. Kindness was the saving grace of those days, and I was met with it everywhere I turned, in everyone who tried to save me from myself. The friend who planned things she knew I would like, who listened and provided thoughtful guidance, and whose daughter climbed in my lap to brush my hair and asked me every morning to play with her. The friend who met me despite my scheduling changes, and the yoga classes that welcomed me into their fold, giving me comfort in something familiar. Even the taxi drivers, with their chirpy commentary and pointing out of sights, tried to keep me smiling.

It wasn’t enough to stave off the loneliness though, which crept in slowly. It tiptoed into the yoga class and rested in child’s pose next to my mat. It sat behind me at the theatre, kicking my seat and begging to be acknowledged. It hopped onto the train at Oxford Circus with me, covering my hand as I held onto a pole, although I lost it when switching to the Northern line at Stockwell. I thought I could outrun it, or outsmart it, or just outmaneuver it.

But it finally found me, forcing its way through the crowd at Harrods to catch me at the cheese counter, and it would not let me go. There was no more running, no more outsmarting, no more outmaneuvering.

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been, it seems. Sitting alone on a couch in my self-imposed exile, with a grilled cheese sandwich for Christmas dinner, 3,500 miles away from my family, the loneliness finally settled upon my shoulders and around my neck, like a cloak that threatened to choke me. So this is what it feels like to break your own heart, I thought. This was my punishment, I assumed, for leaving my family and ruining Christmas. I was meant to accept it gravely and stoically, while telling everyone I was having a jolly old time in England.

Except I found that I couldn’t. This time I couldn’t pretend that things were fine. I couldn’t continue to post pretty Instagram pictures and wrap up this trip with a bow and say, “Just what I always wanted”. I couldn’t act as though I was having the trip of a lifetime. I couldn’t get on yet another flight, to go to yet another city, alone. I couldn’t even leave the flat. I didn’t know how to rescue myself from this situation I had created.

I didn’t know how to undo what I had done.

Kindness, it turns out, saved me again. Kindness from the friends who said it was okay to simply give up on this trip, cut my losses and go home. Kindness from the father who answered his phone at 6am, and picked me up at the airport later that night without question. Kindness from the mother who changed the sheets to the ones I like, and tucked me in to sleep like I hadn’t abandoned her. Kindness from the grandfather who never mentioned my Christmas absence, and just hugged me a little longer instead.

Kindness taught me that you can go home again. Maybe not to that perfect family, or that perfect Christmas, frozen for all time in those old videotapes. But to the family that remains, who loved you through New Kids on the Block albums, and long holiday concerts in an overheated auditorium, and lies, and judgments and all of your other screw-ups. The family who plucks you from your loneliness and reminds you that you are never really alone.

They are your real Christmas.

Confession: I Have a Dream

Last night I had an incredibly depressing sex dream about Bradley Cooper.

Yes, apparently that IS possible. I’ll let that sink in for a second.

We were on the set of a movie in Vancouver, though it remains a mystery why I was there. Bradley Cooper and Keri Russell played star-crossed lovers in a politically charged 1960’s drama. They couldn’t be together in the movie because they worked for opposing campaigns. They couldn’t be together in real life because she is married. He was in love with her. It was written all over his face and in his puppy dog eyes. The crew members looked pityingly at him, at BRADLEY COOPER (!), in love with a girl who would never return his love, on screen or off.

So instead he settled for me. He invited me into his trailer, made halfhearted efforts with wine that was too spicy and candles that made me sneeze. He went feebly through the motions, almost maintaining eye contact, almost convincing me that it was really me he wanted. I accepted this. I didn’t ask more of him. I didn’t show him who I really was.

I was the stand-in for the woman he really loved, and I knew it. Who knows why I stayed, in this dream of mine. Sometimes it’s just easier that way. Sometimes it’s easier to settle for what we’re offered than to fight for what we deserve. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore that little voice that whispers, “You are more than this”, to pretend we don’t really hear it, to imagine that it must have been speaking to someone else.

I can’t go back and ask my dream-self why I stayed. What I know is that I shouldn’t have. What I know is that it’s terrible to not stay true to yourself and what you know you really want.

What I know is that it’s pretty awful to be a stand-in in your own sex dream.

I went to dinner earlier this week with some of my favorite clients, including a few I have known for over ten years, since the very beginning of my career. One of my faves was celebrating her 55th birthday that day, and we were lucky enough to share it with her. She radiates light, and glows with energy. You just feel better when she’s near. We spent much of the evening catching up and telling stories about the “good old days”, when she turned the conversation more serious with one question for the rest of us: “Who and what do you want to be when you are 55?”

I sat there silently, watching everyone else’s faces as they thought about who they wanted to be at 55. I could see it was not easy to articulate. For some maybe this future was too far beyond what they had yet considered. For others maybe they found themselves confronted with a present that was not what they wanted it to be. I tried to listen to their answers, but my mind was racing, wondering how I would be able to share just what I wanted for myself, the way I hadn’t been able to do in my Bradley Cooper dream.

What if all of my dreams are ridiculous? What if they thought so too? What if what I want is just too much? What if they thought I was crazy for even thinking they were possible? What if they really weren’t possible?!?

What would happen if I just…put them out there?

We never made it all the way around the table for me to share that night, and a part of me was rather relieved. But the other part actually wanted to see what would happen if I admitted, to myself and to my friends, who I wanted to be at 55. Who I want to be now.

It’s safer to keep your dreams inside, hidden from the world, secrets stashed away in your heart. If no one knows about them, they won’t know if you fail at them. They won’t see rejections and steps backwards and knockdowns and heartbreaks. Of course, they also won’t be able to offer condolences, support and love along the way either. They won’t realize how much it means when you start to pursue and then achieve them.

And I’m now realizing that the likelihood of any of them actually coming to fruition while they’re squirreled away somewhere, unseen to the world, is probably pretty slim. This is where you have to take the chance to make the magic happen. This is where you have faith that your friends and your family and the Universe will listen without judgment. This is where you trust.

So here goes. Who I want to be at 55:

I want to be in love.

I want to be a world traveler.

I want to be an accomplished novelist.

I want to be a mother.

I want to be comfortable in my body.

I want to be singing.

I want to be someone’s first choice.

I want to be happy.

And there it is. It’s out there.

What happens when you admit what you really want? What happens when you refuse to be someone’s backup plan? What happens when you say, “this, what I am now, is not enough for me?” What happens when you open yourself up, take the leap, and accept what comes?

I guess I will find out.

Oh and just one more to add: in my next sex dream, I want to be in the leading role. Preferably with Bradley Cooper as my enamored co-star.

“Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.” ― Anaïs Nin

“Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.”
― Langston Hughes

xx,

Katie