Slowly Like Snow

you said take me home
to the sea and
i promised
i would

neither of us imagined then
on those last days of
pain patches and tireless visitors
the weight
of a carry-on bag
with ashes

i tried to lift it
into the space above
my seat on the plane but
couldn’t
the gentleman who helped
eyed me strangely

when the plane took off pointing
toward the endless Atlantic, i
reached for your hand
i really did
but your hand wasn’t there
it was in tiny pieces in
the overhead compartment
and i had only air
to hold on to

i cried then
as we lifted
everyone could see me

you said take me home
to the sea
and i promised

i went down into the water
with your teeth and
your bones pressed into
my skin
and watched
as the tiny pieces
fell slowly like snow
around me

Lambrate

Lambrate.

I find it on Google maps. It’s on the other side of Milan.

I’ve never been to a crematorium. The only picture I have in my mind of a crematorium is Auschwitz, and I know this is not going to be like that. But I know what happens in crematoriums and I know that my husband is there. His ashes are there. How is this possible?

I’ve waited for 29 days. 29 terrible days. First the sickness, over in 4 months. Then the death with the futile fight at the end. Then 29 days of waiting for ashes, for the legal papers that will release them to me for international travel. He told me and everyone that he wanted to go home to the ocean in Costa Rica after this was over, for the remains of his destroyed body to end in the ocean. So I wait.

I have an app on my phone that tells me how to get anywhere I want to go in Italy using public transportation. It tells me which buses and metros I need to take to get to Lambrate. The public transport system is easy. I’ve been in Italy now for 5 months–I’m not a beginner. I’m concerned about which side of the street to catch the bus on, but I have extra tickets so if I catch it going the wrong way, I can get off and wait for the same-numbered bus on the other side.  It would’t be the first time.  I am more worried about choosing the right stop to get off the bus. How will I know? And, provided I pick the right stop, how will I find the cemetery where the crematorium is located? I don’t expect giant signs to advertise it. Am I going to have to stop strangers to ask the way? What if I cannot speak?

I find the bus stop. It’s cold here on the shady side of the street. I’m early. I’m sick to my stomach–sick with fear that something will go wrong, that I’m supposed to bring some type of document that I don’t have. I have nothing in my hands except my passport. My brother-in-law told me that the funeral parlor said they have taken care of everything and all I need to do is go with my ID. Everything is ready. I do not have any faith that this is true. But I have nothing to bring. So I am empty-handed with an exploding heart and a knotted gut.

If they tell me I must leave without his ashes I will crumble to the floor and they will have to carry me out. I know it. I have nothing left. I can’t anymore.

My attention shifts back to the present. To the street corner I am standing on, to the thin stripe of sun I am trying to stand in, to the growing group of passengers around me waiting for the Lambrate bus.

Suddenly a chilly wave of relief sweeps over me, something warm like love kindles in the center of my frozen chest, and I know I am going to be alright. I will find the right bus and I will know the right stop to get off. I will find the cemetery and the crematorium.

I know this because I realize that I am standing in a growing cluster of old women. Furrowed faces, pea coats, gray hair, gnarled hands. In their arms, they carry flowers.

On this lost street corner in Milan on the last morning of October, my new tribe surrounds me. These are my people. Each of these grandmothers, one day, has done what I am doing–made her first trip to the cemetery at Lambrate. We are widows. We are waiting in the damp sun-striped shade to go to our husbands. I am the youngest, the newest. I have arrived earlier than usual to this place, to a bus stop on the route to Lambrate. There are men among us also, solemn-faced and wrapped in scarves, but largely, we are women.

The time is wrong. The place is right. I am in good company and will not be lost. I am not alone. My pain, perhaps fresher, belongs to all of us. I am home here in this unfamiliar place.

When the bus comes, I get on and stand in the aisle, allowing the seats for my elders. I stare out the window  at the ancient city as we travel, trying to breathe, envious of the serenity of the women and of the flowers. When the bus slows and the hunched passengers stand, I follow them out the door and down the street, through the gates of the cemetery at Lambrate, and follow signs to the crematorium.

More di Gelso

i nonni stanno piantando
i fagiolini li
nei loro giardini al Parco
dei Fontanili
i pesci sono tornati
a nuotare nel fiumetto
sotto il ponte
la lavanda comincia a
fare i fiori violi, profumando
l’aria, chiamando gli appi
ma tu dove sei

eri qui, ne sono sicura
avevamo camminato qua
insieme a la mano
guardando i piccoli fiori del castagno
rubando le more di gelso

Purple is Like That

I’m supposed to be shamelessly promoting my book that’s soon coming out, but this week it’s not going to happen.

Instead, it’s time for another letter from the road nobody wants to travel on. Nine months in. Yeah.  You say, “Oh that’s so fast. How can it be 9 months? It seems like yesterday!”  I say, “Lucky you.” It must be nice.

I don’t really like the word “Grief” because I don’t understand it.  Just the word sounds like throwing up.  It makes me picture someone crying so much they can’t move.  Which, for me, is not one of my choices.  It’s spoken of as if it were a sickness you come down with then get over, yet often referred to as a “journey.” Maybe it is like a sickness—I don’t know. I’ll let you know if I get over it. But it’s the only word we have for being really sad for a long time about something big, so I guess I’ll have to break down and use it.

This is what I want to tell you about Grief, in case you come down with it too, someday, or you have another, less-vocal, friend who gets bitten by the bug:

1. The “journey” metaphor does not work for me AT ALL.  At least not so far.

I love all trips categorically–heck, I even like getting on the bus–but I do not like this one bit.  Geez. If this reveals itself later to have been a journey, I’ll let you know, but for right now can we not refer to this as some type of trip or pilgrimage I have decided to take?  Pretty please?  It’s more like a case of malaria.  If this is a journey, it is The Trail of Tears.  It is a forced exodus from a war-torn country.  It does not feel like being on a journey. It feels like being suspended in time.

2. You get used to things.

I’ve said this already, but here it is again. You get used to things you cannot imagine you could get used to. You just do. Walking in the door and talking to an empty house. Doing absolutely everything for yourself. Eating by yourself. Taking up the whole bed. You get used to the person who’s not there being not-there. You get used to trying to remember what it was like when they were.

You also get used to doing whatever the hell you feel like whenever you feel like with or without a good reason. It’s very selfish. It might be the only perk. You never have to share anything or explain yourself. You just leave when you want to go home, buy something because you feel like it, pour another glass of wine or skip it entirely. Nobody asks you anything. You can go to bed ridiculously early if you haven’t got anything better to do.

3. Being around the wrong people is worse than not being around the right person.

Make no mistake: People in the middle of Grief are not necessarily desperate for company. Or maybe that’s just me being a Scorpio. I wouldn’t know. I’m just saying: being alone is not the worst thing. Not just any human being is a suitable replacement for the one who’s gone. A person experiencing grief may not want to be alone. Or they may prefer it to any other option they can think of. Don’t take it personally. If you propose something and your grieving friend gives a weird answer that sounds a little like they might be putting you off, they probably are. Maybe this is because we get used to being selfish.

You might need way more down time than before.  I can become thoroughly miserable if I give myself something to do every night of the week.  It’s too much.  I just need more space between things.  And at 9 months, I am WAY better at this than at first!  Oh man.  Way better.  At first, I needed a day of hibernation for every hour out of the house.  Emotional overload is like dengue fever–it takes a long time to get your strength back and it doesn’t come all at once.

4. You don’t want people to pity you.

I will say that I make/have made a concerted effort not to seem pathetic. Sometimes I feel pathetic, but It’s not ok with me to show it. I save pathetic moments for when it’s just me and the cats. I don’t mind appearing to be sad, but I don’t want to inspire pity for any reason. That bothers me.

5. You never mind talking about it.

I’m checking back in on this subject. I remember writing before that it doesn’t bother me to talk about Pio. I expect it never will. I don’t mind talking about him when he was healthy or telling you about when was sick. It’s not like I forget about it when I’m talking about something else, right?  And no, I’m not going to lose it on you.  I don’t want you to pity me, remember?

6. Your life does not go on. It stops and starts over.

Lots of people, when they want to be encouraging, say things like, “Life goes on,” or talk about “Getting on with life.” This, in the literal sense is true. Life on the planet does indeed go on no matter what happens to any of us—there’s no arguing that. But YOUR life–when your husband dies or some such thing–your life as you know it? It’s as over has his is. And it would be nice if somebody would warn you about this, that way you will know you’re not going crazy when that’s the way you feel. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die now, too. It means that life is over and whatever happens next is going to be part of a different one. How you feel about that—whether you like it or not—is irrelevant. It just is. You’re welcome.

7. It’s very hard to reach out, so you hope other people will.

This is another one I’m better at now than I was at first, but I’m including it in the list because it belongs here.  It takes more nerve to reach out to people than it did before, even for a extrovert like me.  A person in my shoes is probably not going to call you, ask you how you are, and see if you want to go out to lunch. Because you have a life, and what if you’re busy? I don’t want you to have to tell me no. Or say you’ll call me back and then you don’t. I would rather eat my sandwich in peace and not set myself up for disappointment. I’m not going to ask, and then ask again.

When your friend is having a time of Grief, it’s your turn, and it might be for a long time.  And if they make some lame-sounding excuse, it’s ok.  Try again later.  It might just not be the right day.  Or the right week.

8.  You get pretty good at the art of being happy and sad at the same time.

Maybe they’re opposites on the vocab test, but in real life, they’re not.  In real life, they’re like red and blue:  when you mix them, they make new color.   That’s the color of your new life.  Just because one day you’re happy doesn’t mean you’re “over it.”  And because two days later you’re having a complete and unexpected meltdown doesn’t mean you weren’t really happy, then.  Happy things can make you very sad.  Sad things can be very comforting.  It’s ok.  Purple is like that.

 

That’s what I can tell you from here, 9 months after my life stopped and started over.  And I have one last piece of advise for you when talking to your friend who has lost something immense:

Do not say “If you need anything let me know.” Have I mentioned this? Either offer something concrete, or say, “Have a nice day.” This invitation to “anything,” certainly stated with all benevolent intent, is SO ANNOYING. What exactly is it supposed to mean? It’s so open, it means nothing. Is it an offer of money? I don’t think so. You’ll drive me to the hospital if I get bitten by a snake? If I run out of milk or eggs you’ll be right over?  I should call you instead of the fire department if my house catches on fire? I don’t get it.

Try again.  You want to offer something? Offer it. Hey, do you need a ride to the grocery store? Wow, my lemon tree is loaded to the ground—want some? Want to have breakfast tomorrow morning? Need anything from the hardware store? Those offers I can manage. But that “ask me for anything” thing—it doesn’t work. At all. I will probably not ask you for anything, even when I need something. And you probably know that.  I will probably just figure it out on my own.  Which, unavoidably, is the New Normal.

 

 

Watch the Horizon (A Picture of Time)

I go out surfing in the morning. The ocean is warm and crystal clear–so clear I can see the ripples in the sand two or three meters below my feet as I sit on my board. Waiting. All I do is wait. I wait and wait and wait. I had no idea you could wait so long and still have so much time left. To wait.

The sun climbs. Sets of waves come. When I’m surfing I’m thinking about surfing. That’s all. Watching the horizon for a movement or a slight change in color that means the next set it coming. No more, no less. Most of surfing is waiting. For waves. For the right wave. For the right moment to paddle and stand. At least when I’m surfing, I know what I’m waiting for. Maybe that’s why it’s so much of a relief. Sometimes I surf well, sometimes I don’t. Sooner or later I’m thinking about breakfast.

I ride back to the shore and lay on the sand. Above me in the blue are clouds. I think about water. So much water. In me, around me, above me. I think about Pio and how he filled up with water. I think about how ashes are what’s left of a person when all of the water is gone. I wish it would rain on me right now and the water would be him. The same molecules. I supposed it’s not impossible.

Everything aches. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little.

Eight months have gone by. Compared to the whole rest of my life, it’s nothing. It’s already been an eternity. I wait and wait and wait. As if, if I wait long enough… What? He will come back? I don’t think so. He’ll send me some kind of sign? For what? I’ll die too? Well there’s hardly any debating that. But is that what I’m waiting for? I don’t know. I’m waiting to find out what I’m waiting for. It’s taking such a long time.

I look at pictures of us and we have the same eyes. We have the same hair. I look at us and now I see why some said we looked like siblings. At the hospital in the last days, Pio’s roommate thought he was my father.

Time is not obeying the rules. Or maybe I’m finally learning to understand it. It doesn’t just go, it stands still, thick as giant waves of salt water. A friend tells me I seem to be moving forward. I say I don’t know about that, but thanks. I say thanks because I can tell it was a compliment. I don’t want to move forward. I want to move backward and I can’t. I don’t want to do anything. So I wait. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m moving any direction. It’s the same day over and over and over. I wait for a different day, but every day when I wake up, it’s the same one. So I wait.

Waiting is hard work. When you don’t know how long you will have to do it. How hard it will rain, how much the wind will blow. When you don’t know what you are waiting for. But it’s the only thing that seems possible, so you do it.

I don’t know what “grief” means, how it’s different than just being sad. What it looks like. How you do it. I don’t know what “healing” means either, how it’s different than “feeling better.” I don’t want to feel better. Except when I’m surfing. It doesn’t go away, but you learn to live with it, another friend says. Wise words. I don’t want it to go away. I want to live with it. If my sadness goes away from me, there will be nothing left of me. I will be water vapor like Pio. Clouds and ashes.

I sleep deeply. On cool or rainy nights, the cats cry to be let under the mosquito net with me. We have the whole bed. I eat. Don’t worry about that. Then the morning comes and it’s the same day again. I don’t mean to say that I am bored or depressed. I don’t think I am either one. I’m drawing you a picture of time. Eight months. Is that a long time? I don’t know. It’s the same as 10 years. Is ten years a long time? Not really. Eight months is much longer. There’s no use asking how long I have to wait. Waiting is just waiting. Watching the horizon for a movement or a slight change in color.

    Pio and a friend waiting for waves on a flat day in 2009.

First Rain

remember last year how we
watched it rain?
remember how we
ran outside the
first night we heard
drops hit the roof
and stood on the front porch
embraced
watching silver gold rivers
pour in stripes
to the ground?

we knew it was lucky,
that the year’s first rain
deserves recognition
I kissed you
the jungle around us
opened its thirsty mouth and
swallowed deep

remember how you
were tired,
achy in the middle?
I didn’t like the
new pallor under your skin
and I bought you
electrolytes for better
hydration

it was already too late then to
stop the storm
that was coming

remember the thunder
so close
the roof peak cringed and
the cats flicked their ears?
remember the lightning?
we hugged each other
tighter feigning fear

remember how you could
warm me then, when
the dampness made me cold?

water filled your body
and finally
everything stopped
remember me petting
your hair as you
fell asleep?

the rains have come again
the thunder, the lightning
disturbing the cats

we sit together
on the dark porch
in silence
watching little rivers
form at my feet,
trying to understand
this distance