A Police Station. A Hospice. An Empty Womb.
One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet. – Proverbs 27:7
For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. - Jesus
We face off under sallow fluorescent lights, him and me. I thought maybe he’d have the silver badge on, but he doesn’t – just a gray polo shirt and no expression. Supposedly, we have the same objective, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. He says he’s sorry about my sister but he stares me down. He is perfectly relaxed and impassive while my restless hands unwittingly assume a hundred different beseeching postures atop the gray metal table between us. They retreat into my lap in stunned stillness as stony words march out of his mouth.
“Maybe she had cancer and had to give herself injections,” he shrugs, and his casual speculating grinds dissonantly against my shock. “Maybe she had diabetes. I never said the word heroin.”
“She didn’t have diabetes and she didn’t have cancer,” I spit, angrily. My hands appeal to him again. “We would have known.”
He shrugs again, waits, giving me silence to reflect painfully about how there’s so much we didn’t know at all, so much that Lia hid, how much she’d always hid. The hair she’d shorn from my trusting 4-year-old head and tucked beneath her pillow. Money and coins, ferreted away throughout her room. And later, the shady boyfriends, the blackout drinking, the knife collection, the DUIs. The cache of my school pictures, from kindergarten to senior year, that we found in her room after she died, which I held in my hands while I wept like a child because they meant maybe I was wrong after all and she’d loved me better than I loved her.
And the needle marks between the fingers on the hands that held my daughter less than a week ago.
He glances down at my hands on the table in a way that is calculated to make me notice that he is looking. I think of those needle marks between her fingers and I realize there’s some kind of game afoot, some kind of psychological ruse being employed on me. I’m suddenly self-conscious and feel under suspicion even though my hands are clean and even though I came, guileless and shellshocked, for answers and for comfort.
But I haven’t eaten in 48 hours and they shake, these hands, and I wonder if he’s noticed the tattoo running down the inside of my middle finger, the straight blue line I paid twenty bucks for one day on a whim more than a decade ago. All of a sudden it feels criminal, that blue line. I withdraw my hands to my lap and stare hard at the table.
Later when I tell my mom about this disorienting hour, she balks. “He was trying to Columbo you, Ashley!” she says. “Honey, he’s not a therapist, he’s not a pastor. He’s a detective and he was trying to figure out if you knew anything.”
But I don’t. I don’t know anything, only that my sister was found dead two days ago and yesterday a detective called and introduced bewildering new phrases into the lexicon around her death, ugly phrases, news story phrases that become alien and harsh because they are suddenly so close: needle marks between her fingers and “elsewhere on the upper extremities”. Loaded syringes. Homemade sharps container.
“But how?” I ask, my hands now folding and unfolding a sodden tissue. He’d cleared his throat uneasily and pushed the box across the table when I started crying. I pause now, realizing I have to qualify my question as a mere hypothetical: “If it was heroin, how does someone hide an addiction like that?!”
He shrugs for the last time, a blasé dismissal. “A lot of people can. I’ve seen bank presidents that have hid their addiction from everyone until they spiral down to the point where they can’t anymore.”
Finally, he sees. I know nothing, and he is bored. I know he’s just doing his job. I’m sure he’s good at it. And what I want he simply cannot give. He seems utterly unmoved by my entreaties, my desperate pleas for explanation, for details, for some semblance of warmth and sympathy. Something Good. But there is nothing, just some facts icily delivered and some obligatory form-letter conciliatory phrases.
When I leave the police station a few minutes later and walk out the shaded doors into daylight, I am a dazed somnambulist bewildered by the noxious sunlight and dissonant noise of life being lived. Thinking of the detective, I feel some war of attrition has been lost. I feel worse, which I didn’t know was possible.
Eight short months later, again under anemic fluorescents, I sit with my dying dad in the hospital. Five decades of smoking are finally demanding their full debt and each breath is besieged, the inhale and exhale both quick and heavy as though he just ran a mile. I remember laying in bed between him and my mom when I was little, watching the moon through the row of high windows just below the pitched ceiling and marveling at how almost three of his sleeping breaths fit in one of mine.
I am so tired. I am more tired than I have ever been, more tired than I knew it was possible to be. Three days of adrenalized wakefulness heightened by cup after Styrofoam cup of tasteless coffee and punctuated only by brief, hallucinatory dives under the veil of sleep compound the surreality of it all. An infernal chorus of monitors beep and blip and his ragged breath, assisted by a machine, passes in and out in an uneven rhythm that I can’t stop listening to, can’t stop hearing. I don’t trust these electronic sentinels. I must be vigilant.
We watch, we wait.
I pull the pulmonolgist aside and try to get a straight answer but he dances around the fact of dying with words and platitudes.
We watch, we wait.
My dad’s stomach distends painfully from the C-PAP machine and he moans and I run into the hall to find the nurse for more antacid. I want the suffering to be over but I’m scared.
We watch, we wait.
And suddenly on the third afternoon he seems to get a miraculous fresh wind, his cheeks flushed and his personality back. The life which had been waning has waxed again, just a little. “About that way,” he jokingly answers the nurse who asks him how he’s doing. He smiles.
And so for once we don’t wait and watch, we go and eat pizza and drink beer, my brother Sean and Steven and I. The mood is very nearly celebratory. We feast, we laugh, we fill the hollow of the last few days. Sean starts talking about flying back to California soon because maybe this isn’t the end after all.
But when we get back to the hospital, a bomb drops, a leaden weight in the gut. The respiratory therapist either ignored or misinterpreted the pulmonologist’s orders and had been giving my dad an inordinately high amount of oxygen, an amount that was artificially sustaining a body that was on the threshold of dying. They lower the oxygen immediately and tell us he will die within seven hours.
We watch, we wait.
But they are wrong and he doesn’t die, not yet, though he is quieter and when he does wake he says things like “It’s going faster” and “It’s getting blurry.” We decide to transfer him to the hospice, relieved to escape the hospital with its serotonin-suck, its constant artificial day and the pings and clicks of its monitors like a quiet and drab casino.
I put a framed picture of Lia on the shelf in the hospice room across from his bed. “See, dad?” I say, through tears. “Lia is here, too.” He nods, a weak, fading nod.
He dies the next day, and on my watch. On my careless solo watch, while I sit on the couch watching some comedy routine on my phone and thinking to myself “this guy isn’t even funny” when suddenly I look up and realize the room is silent. The ragged breathing has ceased. I can’t even say the exact moment it happened because I was watching something stupid on my phone that I wasn’t even enjoying.
And all through, month after month of an empty womb, of a dream being eroded little by little, of the creeping realization that reversal doesn’t always mean reversible, that a birth control decision made in haste and with arrogant certitude five years ago might be, in fact, fully permanent. There may be no more nursing, no more sweet downy pinchable baby rolls, no more precious baby laughs – I’m no musicologist, but may I call it the fluttering piccolo trill in the symphony of the universe? - no more wonder at feeling a bud of life unfurl.
They told you. You can’t say you weren’t warned. But you were so different then, so casual toward the miracle of life, as though it were no miracle at all but instead merely something to be managed. The only dissenting voice came from a friend who worried a vasectomy would hinder Steven’s chi flow. There was no one to say that a few short years later you would yearn for a full womb again and suffer almost debilitating pangs of nostalgia for the simple if exhausting days of nurse, sleep, nurse. Life seemed simpler then, purer. You know it’s likely a delusion and yet that season seems to glitter like an eternal springtime in your mind, encapsulated in that one perfect May day your oldest was a toddler testing his limits and wandered farther afield at the park than ever before and kept turning back and laughing his coy, cherubic laugh and you felt so impossibly, so achingly full of love for this little creature that tears of joy wettened your cheeks. You even start to feel nostalgic for birth, for the volcanic surges and the excruciating cleaving of your whole being, that terrifying moment of “no, no, I can’t” when somehow you clench your teeth and roar your most beastly roar and a baby is suddenly present, inexplicably, it seems. How in the hell did that just happen?! I remember marveling, my entire body limp with relief, washed out and washed up like a piece of driftwood on the shore of something resembling new life.
You already have two children, the Voice of Reason scolds. Some people don’t get any.
But somehow this doesn’t diminish the longing, doesn’t scold you into contentedness. With a flush of hot shame you remember crying when you saw that second blue line seven years ago, the line that you didn’t want to see – not now, not yet, maybe never again - but which led to a treasure of a girl with blue eyes flecked with gold and the gift of laughter, a goofy little comedienne.
And you wonder why, why pregnancy when you didn’t want to be pregnant, and barrenness now when you desperately, tearfully, achingly do? Why the gift I didn’t appreciate then, and the withholding I can’t bear now?
Not fair, my heart rails. I don’t deserve this, my heart rebels. Hope deferred makes the heart sick – You said it, not me! And then I flinch and spill out regrets, repentance, apologies. I know You are Good. But why then? Why no new life to soften this onslaught of death, of endings? Mercy, Lord.
My prayers push air, they storm heaven, they bleed desperation, they dig down with raw fingers into black earth, into the compost of death. Past the shallow canned answers, past a faith that once felt unshakable. This is life and death. Where is this blessedness in mourning? Where is this comfort? My soul howls for what is real, what cannot die, what cannot be taken away, because it feels like everything is being taken away.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. I can’t escape it. It surfaces again and again in my head, sometimes eliciting a sharp bitter rueful laugh - yeah, right – and sometimes a frisson of wonder, of nascent hope: blessed. Blessed. Could it be true?
I watch, and I wait. I wait to be blessed, I wait to see the blessing. I wait with bleary eyes and a battered heart and a faith that feels less substantial than a mustard seed, but still, I watch and I wait.