“TIME”: Monday, November 11th (night)
It’s Saturday afternoon and I get a text from my mom. I’m running late, tying my shoes. “Call me when you have a minute,” it reads. “Important news.”
My oldest sister, Zoe, is pregnant. Her due date is fourteen days away. I assume she’s in labor. Every time anyone in my family calls, I think Zoe is in labor. It’s my first question but not the answer.
“Your cousin Anna is in the hospital,” my mom starts. “Yesterday, she was running at the gym and she had a heart attack and then a seizure. We aren’t sure how long she was unconscious or how long her brain was without oxygen. The EMTs revived her and brought her to a hospital. She’s in an induced coma. This is a morbid picture, but her body is naked and she’s lying on a bed of ice at 35 degrees.” My mom tells me that it’s for the swelling, most importantly to prevent her brain from swelling. “She has tubes in and out of her body. She might’ve broken her jaw and she damaged her mouth when she fell, biting her tongue.”
I’m told she could wake up and walk away. And I’m also told she could never wake up. Best-case scenario, my mom relays, is that she’s in the hospital for weeks recovering. “By Monday, she should wake up and we’ll find out,” mom tells me. “They are slowly raising the temperature of her body and taking her off the coma medicine. It takes a while,” she explains.
Not much information spreads over the weekend. It’s hurry-up-and-wait kind of news. I speak to my mom a few times and Zoe, who is pretty freaked out by the whole thing.
It’s Monday afternoon, 2:22, and my phone rings. It’s Zoe. My body still pulses with excitement for the birth of her daughter, but I know that’s not the reason she’s calling. Not this time.
She tells me that my parents are driving from South Jersey to New Haven. “Anna’s brain isn’t really showing any function,” she says. “They started to take her off the medication and she started to have seizures again. They’re thinking of taking her off life support.” She asks me how I’m doing.
“To be honest,” I tell her, “I’m feeling very blank about the whole thing. I didn’t know Anna. I feel guilty because we weren’t really a part of each other’s lives. I feel more for Aunt Darcy and Uncle Bruce than anyone. You know. We’ve always had such a weird relationship with our cousins. We see them once a year, it’s awkward and that’s just how it is.”
“Yeah,” she tells me. “That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.”
I change the subject. I try to keep her happy, that’s what we’ve all been doing. I ask her about her daughter, she says she’s moving around like crazy. “My god, Sarah,” she laughs, “You should’ve seen my stomach last night. It was like a freakin’ dance competition in there.”
At 3:15 my phone rings and it’s my mom. She asks me how I’m doing. I repeat myself. “Anna is Darcy and Bruce’s reason for living,” she says. “I’m not sure how Darcy will survive this.”
I picture my Aunt Darcy and the complicated life she’s had – through divorce, addiction and recovery. All she wanted was children and she couldn’t get pregnant, so they adopted. Anna was born in Bogota, Columbia to a fourteen-year-old prostitute and almost died at birth. She had horrible asthma all through her adolescence and was allergic to everything. My mom tells me Anna had just got new, stronger hearing aids to help further correct her hearing loss – which was at 80%. Darcy and Bruce spent their life devoted to Anna. They were a family unit unlike any other. Anna was so kind and gracious for everything despite the shitty cards that were dealt to her. She loved to travel but didn’t have a driver’s license. She couldn’t hear and did immaculate comedy impressions. She never had heart problems. Congenital heart disease is common in young twenty-something adults. But you’re already gone before they know what it is.
My mom tells me to look something up online. “I’m not sure if it’s the day after or 24 hours after Jewish people die they need to be buried.”
It’s 24 hours.
“Is that something you want to be a part of?”
In my head, I answer no. “Of course I will be there,” I say. “I need to be there for you, Darcy and Bruce.”
“And you need to say goodbye to Anna,” she says.
I pause. “Yes. Of course.”
“How are you doing?” My mom passed the phone to my dad. “OK,” I answer. He’s all business, as usual. “You don’t need to go into Manhattan to get the train,” he tells me.
“I know,” I remind him. “I can take the Red New Haven line and be there whenever.” “OK,” he says. “Find a train station and take a taxi there.”
At 3:48, I get a text from my mom. It reads, “We just heard from Bruce’s brother, Phil. He said D&B want us there to say goodbye to Anna before they “decide the next step.” We are within an hour to the hospital and I am trying to prepare for what I am about to see and do. I love you!”
At 5:33 my phone rings. It’s my second older sister Kyle who lives in Colorado. We hadn’t spoken since either of us got the news. 2,000 miles is like that.
“How are you doing?” she asks. I repeat myself. I can hear a wave of tears in her throat but it never peaks.
“You know what’s weird about this whole thing,” I tell her. “Mom was telling me about this. Do not repeat it to Zoe.”
My sister’s mother-in-law, Rachel, believes in anthroposophy. It’s a spiritual religion where they believe that all spirits are always present on earth. And when one person dies that spirit enters another body. And that’s their cycle of life.
“It’s about what Rachel believes in.”
“Oh, God,” she said. “Mom said the same thing to me.”
“Before mom even finished the sentence, I knew what she was implying. It’s majorly freaky.
We both agree to never tell Zoe. I go on.
“It’s morbid to think these things, but I can’t help but think about Zoe’s pregnancy. It’s a shame that her daughter will be overshadowed by Anna’s death. Here, Darcy could never get pregnant. And the week after her daughter dies in a bizarre, awful situation, Zoe has her own, healthy daughter. I hope Darcy doesn’t’ resent Zoe’s daughter her whole life.”
“No. No. She would never do that.” How fast Kyle replies reassures me. “But I was thinking the same thing,” she says. “It’s comforting hearing someone else say it aloud.”
7:05, my dad calls. He tells me that they just left the hospital. The neurologist said Anna doesn’t have much brain function. Bruce and Darcy are still there and they’re going to take her off life support.
“Bruce and Darcy didn’t want anyone else in the hospital when they stopped the respirator. There’s no telling how long she’ll stay alive on her own. Likely, she’ll only be alive for a few hours.”
My dad speaks in short sentences with long pauses between each one. I had to say something, something to let him know I was there and listening.
All I can do is gauge how much time should lapse between my redundant response of “OK.”
I sat, staring out my living room window into darkness. The sun had been down for hours. People five stories below were still coming and going. The hot sandwich I just made for dinner was still on the stove, burner off, with a cover on it.
“I called you first because these plans interrupt your life the soonest. I’m going to call Zoe next and then Kyle. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“FIRE”: Tuesday, November 12th (morning)
I’ve been thinking about fire a lot lately. Red is a quintessential color and not the first choice for me. But fire can be any color. The hotter the flame, the more blue it is. The deep blue of a gas stove or a Bunsen burner in high school chemistry – those are my favorite colors. It’s a blue so dark that you have to point it out to people when you see it. I own a winter coat that color and it almost doesn’t fit me, but I make sure it always does.
Yesterday, my cousin Anna died. She was 24. She was running at the gym and had a heart attack and a seizure. Three and a half days of induced coma with her body on ice to prevent swelling, and now she’s gone. There’s still no explanation for it.
The color of ice is also the color of fire. They are both so blue. And sometimes so hot they’re white.
Today is Neil Young’s birthday. He’s 68. His line “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” is about fire. It’s also about heroin and the friends he’s lost to it, but mostly it’s about red.
Nothing else seems relevant. I tried writing about black, but the darkness only led me into a rambling state about hip hop, race and my racial identity. None of it made sense and none of it matters.
It’s the color red right now that makes my palms sweaty. It’s not the hot coffee or the heat that’s not quite on. It’s the line “now your crosses are burning fast.” It’s a line of revenge about Lynyrd Skynyrd. But mostly it’s about fire.
This morning I woke up earlier. I lie in bed and read my email. It’s junk. There’s a reply piece of advice from a friend who read a draft of my previous homework color of choice. She confirms that it has no point. There’s also one in there from my mom containing an early draft of what she wants to say at the funeral. I don’t reply.
My family is made up of early risers. We’re business. Between the time I wash my face and get to the kitchen I have a missed chat that defaulted to an email. It’s from my mom. They got snow flurries at home. I look up and see snow crusted on a few tree branches. It’s gathered on some cars but won’t make a difference in our day. The white is unfamiliar and welcome.
I chat my mom and tell her we have inklings of snow too. She’s home from work. Her replies are intermittent. She asks me what I thought of her speech for the service. I stare across the kitchen, my back to the wall. I watch the blue flame under the yellow teakettle. Its spindle legs cup the bottom, flickering their tips along the edge of the flattened round. The burner breathes easy. I tell my mom it’s perfect.
I haven’t cried yet. I’m not sure when I will. Will it be my aunt’s tears? My grandmother’s sobbing? Or my mom and dad’s embrace. I think about the loss of a child and I think about my pregnant sister. She’s due in ten days. I miss my family. It’s not the cold weather or Neil Young crying into my headphones.
“Everybody’s going out/and having fun/I’m a fool for staying home/and havin’ none/I can’t get over/how she set me free/oh/oh/lonesome me.”
“There’s gotta be a way I can lose these lonesome blues/forget about the past/find someone new/I thought of everything from A to Z/oh/oh/lonesome me.”
“I bet she’s not like me/she’s out and fancy free/flirting with the boys/with all her charms/and brother don’t you know/I’d welcome her right back here/in my arms.”
After The Goldrush is a dark record. But it’s full of color, of fire and blue. The front is an outlined photograph of Young, all in black with bits of white, passing an old woman on the street. Just the title is in gold.
An hour has passed since my mom told me we’d know more plans from the funeral director soon. I’d had an entire French press of coffee to myself. I think about breakfast and turning on the stove again. The blue fire catches on the bottom of a wide frying pan in a different shape. My frying pan is red.
After The Gold Rush plays on.
“Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load/and the buildings scrape the sky/cold wind ripping down the alley at dawn/and the morning paper flies/dead man lying by the side of the road/with the daylight in his eyes/Its only castles burning/find someone who’s turning/and you will come around.”
Castles burning and red appears again. I picture castles made of sand, like the Hendrix line every time I hear Young’s version. Can sand burn? I’ve never seen it on fire. I can’t imagine it would be easy to torch. I wonder if it would get hot enough to turn blue.
Blue is in pockets all over my kitchen. It’s my ceramic, teal French press and the periwinkle shear curtain gathered on one side of the window. It’s the oven mitt on the microwave, the soymilk carton in the fridge and the cutting board leaning on the counter.
But instead I’m drawn to the red on the wall. Our frying pan hangs over the sink. I pull it down and put it on the stove. I wait for the flame.
“LOVE” (in-class free-write, random word prompt/unfinished): Tuesday, November 12th (afternoon)
It’s hard to think about love.
I’ve never been in love. I’ve seen it, but it looks complicated. Relationships are hard. Love is hard. Neil Young says, “Only love can break your heart.” I wonder what else it can do, what else it can break.
It’s not that I don’t want to find love. I’ve never gone looking. Sex I can find, but love is a project. The only people I’ve been interested in have never been interested in me. And visa versa.
I miss my family. My sister is due any day. (10 days.) I’ll be spending a lot of time with them this week. Unexpected time. Unhappy time. I don’t know how to feel. I am blank. I am lost. My family is my way.
I want to find love. Because of nights like these, when you’re feeling super alone, you want to sleep next to someone. I want to be the little spoon. At best, I’ll get a hug instead.
Love and loss, love and forgiveness, love and sex, love without sex. I want to feel something else.
“EARTH” (unfinished): Monday, November 18th (night)
The last time I was in a hotel room, I was having sex with a college friend. He was on the radio staff I managed and two years younger than me. He was in town visiting his younger sister at college. I invited him to my brother-in-law’s birthday party.
It was cold for March. And as soon as he showed up I knew something would happen between us. Our conversation clicked and we fell into old patterns, talking about Wilco and Tom Waits, about California and New York and friends that have since become strangers. We drank liquor mixed with komboucha, my brother-in-law’s personal specialty, served in jars.
Then I took him to The Red Room Bar where Television and T. Rex are on the jukebox and where the bartenders know my face. They give me a double and charge me for a single. Cash only. We played pool with strangers. It was one of those nights that don’t hit you until it’s too late.
My memory is fuzzy except for the fact that we laid around each other all night. It stands alone as a memory of sleeping and screwing with someone I care about and trust.
Now I’m alone in a hotel bed, my mom snoring in the bed next to me. It’s a rhythmic, loud breathing and it keeps me up.
I replay the day in my head.
Earlier that morning I was sobbing in an empty rest stop ladies room. Before my parents stopped in New York to pick me up, I had been alone with my thoughts and writing. Now I was alone, staring at my reflection in the stall door and David Grey was playing on the PA system. I came out to find my parents waiting on line at Dunkin Donuts for coffee. My inability to look at either of them and my red eyes gave me away.
That afternoon when we checked in, I collapsed on the bed and pulled my winter coat over me. My dad parked the car and my mom fussed around the room while I started to sob. I eventually got up threw my arms around her, anxious that Anna was a year younger than me, that she had never been in love and that I hadn’t either.
It was clear blue out and the sun stained the room. We were at The Silfka Center on the Yale campus. I sat with my dad, he asked me about school and the conversation ended as it always did, with The Beatles. Darcy could barley walk down the isle and my Uncle Bruce held her up. She reached the front and gasped, “Oh, Mommy” at my grandmother and my dad went rubbery and put his arm around me. My mom fled to the front to hold up her other side. I sat shoulder-to-shoulder and hip-to-hip with my dad. Occasionally whispering to him that I missed my sisters. He’s always been warm blooded. Even though I was wearing layers, he kept me warm. I twisted my scarf in my hands.
Everyone who spoke on Anna’s behalf cried in and out of their paragraphs. When my Uncle was speaking he snotted onto the microphone. His crying jags were the hardest to bear. My mom’s younger sister, Amy, was next to me. Her eyes were wet too and my uncle Ed’s permanent waft of cigarette smell drifted over.
All day I had to physically stop thinking and remind myself why I was there. And why the faces in my family were red and swollen. Everything is unrealistic. “Anything can happen” is no longer a happy sentiment.
It might’ve been the cold that stopped my crying. Or it could’ve been staring at the mountain of dirt that was to be shoveled into the grave. Whatever it was, all of the sudden the surreal became real. She was really under there. I watched family and strangers assertively and delicately strong arm the earth onto the pine box.