The Great Dying

Sachie is sick. His breath clogs in his lungs, rattling like a trapped animal in a pipe. His skin is first cold, then hot to the touch and covered in a sheen of sweat. There is silence for hours apart from that laboured breathing, and when he speaks little of what he says makes sense. He strokes Theresa’s hair, talking in Czech. He grips my hand, he thinks I am his dead brother. Jan’s car is waiting to take him to the hospital, and slowly, the three of us lift him up from his bed and get him downstairs. He does not want to get into the car, he is watching the snow fall out of the sky and gasping with relief when the tiny flakes hit his skin. He is pointing into the void, he says something in English about flowers.

At the hospital, he is taken away from us. The nurses are kind and brisk. They talk softly to him, lifting the dark hair plastered to the back of his neck. Theresa and I stand motionless in the white corridor for a while. We are as blank as the walls, as blemishless and without distinction; we’ve had our strings cut and no longer remember how to shift our limbs. Jan is as shocked by Sachie’s sudden deterioration as we are and he drives us home, he is as quiet and firm as the nurses, warming our cold rooms with his sense of purpose as he makes tea in the kitchen. Theresa and I sit on the divan and we don’t avoid one another’s gaze, as such. It is as though she is not sitting next to me at all; there is a shell of empty clothes there, inexplicably upright. A directionless rage is building within me, oppressive as thunder; we are both drowning in blame even as we breathe easily under the heavy water. My organs are cringing away from one another inside my body, such is the force of my loathing. What if he dies.

‘He won’t, they’re a wonderful hospital. They’ll take care of him.’

I realise I must have said that out loud. There is no boundary between myself and the surrounding air anymore, anybody can read the thoughts inked across my brain, they can tear into the secrets printed on the inside of my heart as though my body were made of glass. Jan comes in with the steaming cups of tea. He is saying something comforting, trivial. I want to strangle the words out of his throat, slap them out of his mouth. I want there to be silence as I wait for the harsh bird call of the telephone. I wish Mona was here.

It is pneumonia, in both of his lungs, and the infection is complicated. We visit him, but he is hardly ever conscious. One day he is awake, but his eyes are glazed with the effort it takes to breathe. Antibiotics are being pumped around his veins through a tube that goes into the back of his hand. He doesn’t speak to us, although sometimes he says words in Czech, disjointed sentences that we cannot understand. I don’t think he knows we’re there, now he inhabits a world of restless shadows lingering at a crossroads we are privileged not to see. Theresa and I are his only visitors but for Jan, who looks in out of a peculiar sympathy. He is not Sachie’s friend, but he was witness to his fall and so he feels strangely obligated to be here. He does not bring useless gifts, just himself, and his hand in Sachie’s, and I love him a little for it. I take the sick air of the place into my lungs and hold it there, making wishes. There are hours when we are not allowed to see him. There are hours you are not allowed to look on the faces of people resigning from life in their halfway houses of thin cotton sheets, even when they are your best friend. Even when they are leaving you.

He dies at 03.46 on Monday morning, when neither of us are there. Theresa and I go to his funeral dressed as swans; white feathers hang from our shoulders, they are wrapped into our hair. Our faces are covered with thick white make-up from the theatre, so are the backs of our hands. You are not allowed to leave flowers on Jewish graves because it is not well to mix the worlds of the living and the dead, but you may leave stones. Theresa and I leave a piece of deep amethyst where the headstone will go because he loved the colour purple, the crystal is fractured inside and reflects tiny rainbows and I hope it remains in the ground with him forever.  At night, whether my eyes are open or closed, I see him laughing at one of Millie’s parties, surrounded by a halo of electric light. I see him roaming the sterile hospital halls, holding hands with silence.

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For a little while, everything comes apart. I realise the true nature of grief. It is not quick; a bursting bank of tears that flash-floods your life and then recedes. It is a hundred electric shocks to the heart per day. I see a bank of tulips opening in the park and I want to tell Sachie, to bring him there, but I can’t because he will never take my calls or receive a hasty note shoved through his letterbox again. It is as though we have broken off a long talk and I am yet to realise that he will never reply to my questions. He has shut the door, thick enough that he cannot hear me, and will not open it. In my dreams, we are walking side by side down one of the alleys in the Jewish quarter at three in the morning as we so often did. I turn my head, waiting for him to renew our conversation but he never does. He stands with his hands limp and natural by his side and when I shake him by his shoulders he does not respond, and soon I am left clutching cold air. In my worst dreams, I am watching his coffin being lowered into the earth when I think I hear him pounding on the wood. I try to alert the mourners to the sound but they do not hear it. He is covered with earth even as he kicks at the coffin lid and I scream soundlessly into Theresa’s face. I wake then, drenched in sweat and terrified of something in the room I cannot see.

Theresa is patient with me. She listens to my endless protestations of guilt. She comforts me, she does not feel the burden of his death as I do. I accuse her of being unfeeling, of cold. She is like a mother holding the thin shoulders of a child lashing out in his ignorant innocence. Of course she is distraught, and guilty, and cries when no one is looking, because that is Theresa’s way. I want to suck in her quiet strength but I am too angry with it. I am dizzy with rage. Sometimes I fall in the street and gaze at the cuts on my hand without understanding the force of my own defiant blood, seeping through the miniscule abrasions on my palm. People are kind and solicitous, they want to know if I’m alright after my fall, but they are just moving their mouths and no real sound comes out. I think I push them aside and keep walking, head down, measuring my steps by the number of breaths I am conscious of taking. I feel as though I should always have a hand held firmly over the flesh of my chest to keep anything from spilling out. The flowering trees of the city creep shyly out in their new dresses and I don’t notice any of them, I feel as though I am trying to staunch an exit wound with a clock.

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Somehow, Claudine hears. She sends me a letter, I burn it. I remember without wanting to the talks I had with Sachie about her. Her serene and celestial presence, her yellow hair that haunted me so that I chased women I did not know down the street, trying to get a glimpse of their faces all because they were blonde. I remember his peculiar grimace, the clown-like contortion of his features when he swallowed really bad table wine. When I realise that I will never drag him by his collar into a cafe again, I fall in upon myself. I am like him when he was drunk, I become a collapsing wall. I say the word ‘dead’ to myself over and over in our rooms when I am alone. I cannot comprehend it. What is dead? Where is he? Has he gone, as he used to say, to the arms of God? If he has, then can God not release him for a moment so he can let me know that he’s alright? Why is he so unreachable when all that separates us is death, that upstart we used to joke about in our morbid cups? I want his God to understand that for me this is an extinction event, the Great Dying, and like people chasing the mystery of the dinosaurs I will dig and dig until I get my answers.

***

Sometime in the spring, I decide to return to London. I pack what little I’ve remembered to salvage from the ruins of our life together. Theresa and I pass each other in the kitchen, the corridor, like ghosts now. I don’t believe she will even notice my departure; perhaps she will bump into my spirit in the hallway as I so often bump into Sachie in my sleep. Perhaps she will continue to speak out loud to me although I am gone, as I do to him, as though his shade lingers close to my body, listening. At night, the people across the street flick off the lights and their window goes dark in an instant. I wonder if that’s what it was like; darkness falling like a velvet axe across the dinner table, when the guest of honour has left for home.

Ordinary Pain

Grief is a glass jar.

I said this to a strange woman in church once, as we sat and stared at the colours bleeding through a window as the sun went down. Green stems snaking around an angel in robes of red and blue. I looked at the detail in the golden feathers of the angel who was standing under what I think was a lemon tree – although I have never seen a lemon tree so perhaps it wasn’t – holding an open book. Nothing legible was written there.

I can’t remember the kind of day I’d had, but I know that church well enough to know that I don’t go there when I’m in a good place. I go there to wrap the silence around me, to breathe in the dusty skin of all the compassionate stones who remember some of the worst days of my life. They swallow my footsteps the same way the gentle earth outside has swallowed the footsteps of almost everyone in this parish and washed them down with more stone.

‘Grief is a glass jar in your head, full of a terrible rotting black liquid, and the aim of the game in our society is to walk around without spilling any because if you do, it will seep down through your brain and onto your tongue and everything you think and say after that will be stained with it.’

The woman was silent, just shifted on the pew as the thick muffled thump of the clock hands boomed above us.

‘Your breath becomes foul with it, and once it’s on your skin it never washes off. Everyone you used to know avoids you in the end. What happened to processing this stuff? What happened to wearing black for a year and eating bread and salt and wearing a necklace out of their hair?’

The quiet stretched out ahead of us both like a road. Then the woman reached over a took my hand. Hers was wrinkled and spotted brown like a hen’s egg and her hair was a brittle cloud tinged with the blue-violet of an oncoming storm. Her son’s name was in the book of rememberance on the far wall and she had been eating bread and salt for years, and she knew the weight of the glass jar and the taste of that rotting fluid very well. We said we’d get a coffee sometime, but addiction ate me the same year and I never did.

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Years later I’m sitting in a semi-circle of addicts in DBT, the faux leather chairs are wipe-down for those moments when someone’s detox overtakes them and they vomit up the jacket potatoes that are part of the wallpaper of days in the clinic. The booklet held in front of me says that immersing your face in cold water can be a calming physical coping strategy for dealing with ordinary pain.

I spent the rest of the day wondering about those words. I guess ordinary pain is not getting the job, or realising your ex has moved on, or breaking up on your birthday, or realising you shelved your dreams to have the children you weren’t sure you wanted but felt you should have, or watching an old friendship become distant and awkward, or falling in love with someone you can’t have, or your house burning down.

When I got out of treatment I sat in a meeting where a man’s mother had died only a few hours before. He said he could have been in the pub but he preferred to be with us. He could have talked all night and that circle of people would still have been there, like the petrified, ritualistic mummies sometimes found in ancient caves. A circle of frozen addicts, in awe of the sacred.

His face had the same stain as the woman who’d lost her son, as so many faces I’ve seen across the years. Etched like battery acid by that foul corpse fluid of grief, embalming us while still alive, draining us into premature age with the effort it takes a heart to pump stagnant water. I thought about that booklet then, watching him collapse. In my mind’s eye I saw him putting his face into a sink of icy water. I thought of all the counsellors who would tell him there was no out-of-order death, we expect our parents to go before us, so what he was experiencing was just ordinary pain.

I’m sure that booklet has many valuable things to say, I’m sure it can help many people reconcile conflicting thought patterns and find better coping mechanisms for their individual problems.

I tore it up when I got home.