Mapping the coordinates: so much happens in a week
What is lost when we lose someone. What is gained when we let the soul speak.
And what if I just throw the pile away? And what if I trust that I will remember what needs to be remembered? Lately, I have been worrying about cognitive decline - worrying that perhaps, I may be showing early signs of … slipping. It’s made me panic a little bit (but in a quiet way that no one around me would notice unless they were looking at my bookshelf, which is where I seem to stash my anxiety, in titles like: The End of Alzheimer’s and The Wahl’s Protocol.
Last night I dreamed several times that I was mapping, perceiving the coordinates of time and space and getting them down on paper. In one dream, we were mapping out a neighborhood. In another, I was urgently supervising a team of assistants - we HAD TO get it done and fast!. The team included a young man, with whom I was supposed to merge consciousness. There was a magnetism between us. This was important.
I woke up full of urgency and also, a sigh. Oh, yeah, right, I realized. Quarantine. Almost a year in and I am still having to remind myself that the only urgency I will be able to actualize is on the interior.
This is not a bad thing. Actually, quarantine has granted me the wide, wild time that the urgency that I’d put off for so long needed. Space to expand, to open, to let ‘the urgency’ do what it had to do so that I could complete something about myself.
I’m not yet sure what that something is. And so, I seem to be mapping.
In the meantime, outside the window, life keeps moving forward.
It’s snowing again. Big heavy flakes sifting over the incompletely shoveled drifts already on the ground.
So much has happened in one short week. Almost three feet of snow. All kinds of dreams. I switched from NOOM to KETO again, and filled the refrigerator with groceries. Also, two days before that, there was a funeral.
Three days ago, I sat with Suzi on Zoom and I wrote about my quarantine eating project. I wrote about losing 21 pounds before my son’s wedding and then, during the wedding, gaining back six. I wrote about eating whatever the hell I wanted. But then, while I was writing, I realized: Oh, I am writing about food because I don’t want to write - or even think - about Sam.
And again, I don’t want to write about it.
He was buried on the coldest day of the year - last Friday. It was the cold that made me cry. Thinking of him lying there, without a blanket, without the warmth of his heart pumping blood through his body.
I didn’t want to write about that. Or about how, after the prayers were spoken and the tributes said, his mother stepped forward and started shoveling and shoveling and shoveling dirt into the hole.
In Jewish tradition, the rabbi had explained, we turn the shovel upside down in order to demonstrate how difficult it is to bury someone we love. We dig into the dirt. We lift our upside down shovel and the soil falls off. It’s slow going. No progress. The tradition goes that after the difficulty, we turn the shovel over, add two full scoops to the grave and hand the shovel to the next person in line.
The whole thing is symbolic - and literal. We stand alone and struggle with our inadequate upside down shovel. We hand it to the next person. We cannot do this alone. We don’t have to. The community struggles and works together to fill the hole where a person should be, to comfort the family - and one another as we say goodbye.
When Sam’s mother started shoveling, everyone stopped moving. The rabbi stopped speaking. Everyone waited.
The day before, when my son called from California to tell me that his friend had died and how it had happened. Opioid overdose. Oh my god, I gasped.
He asked me to find a photo of Sam. He remembered one of the two of them in their baseball jerseys, he said.
I pulled out the photo boxes that I’d purchased years ago when the children were small. The boxes which, as it turned out, I’d never filled. Not until quarantine, when I finally had the time to empty our worn out photo albums into these boxes, imagining the next step of my quiet contemplative project: sorting them into order in brand new books. I hadn’t gotten to that step yet.
And so, looking for Sam, I opened the lids onto the disordered chaos of my own family’s history. Snowdrifts of photographs, completely out of order. Here’s Katie at 13, a radiant bat mitzvah girl, in silver-grey silk. Here’s her older brother’s birth, fifteen years earlier and me, fat and loopy with pain meds, in a hospital bed. Turn to the next image and I’m serving birthday cake, surrounded by ten year old girls.
Flip. Katie’s graduating high school. Flip again and she’s three. Flip. A campfire. Flip flip. Max is a doctor. Flip flip. We’re in Puerto Rico, middle-schoolers in scuba masks, with braces on their teeth, diving into and out of green waves.
In this weird tossed salad of out-of-sync memory - this everywhen and everywhere all at once— I found three photos of Sam. In the first one, he and Max are seven. They lean into one other with goofy grins, toasting the camera with plastic cups of apple juice. Sam’s chin is smeared with pizza sauce. He’s winking. Max, sitting with his friend, is overjoyed.
In the second shot, they’re ten. Sitting at a dining table with Jason. There is bread and maybe lasagna. In the third photo, they’re older. Sam, who’s had more sun, is browner. He’s bigger, too, more muscular than Max, who hasn’t yet filled out. They sit at a picnic table piled with plastic boxes which probably contain food. There was always food. Mostly pizza.
The photo Max asked for is missing. And there’s one more which I remember but could not find. The one at the swimming pond when the camera caught them from behind. Barefoot, towels slung around their necks, boy torsos bare, they walk toward the exit, two boys on their way somewhere. Probably involving food.
The day after Sam’s funeral, my husband and I sat, over breakfast, remembering him - and the bitter cold at the grave site. How it looked and felt to my husband, who attended in person. How it looked to me, on Zoom: 59 little boxes - two screenloads - each containing a person or two who’d loved Sam. I saw familiar names. Family names. Lissa and Merrill, Derrick’s parents. Suzi and Corey. There were so many people - cousins and uncles and grandparents. “I can’t even imagine…. “ I said to Matthew. “Can you imagine a world without.. “ and I could not finish the sentence. I could not add our children’s names to that question.
This morning, I am sitting by the window, watching the snow.
In the next room, my husband speaks into the phone. On the other side of the country, my son honors and releases a friend.
This morning, I am thinking about story and about a little boy named Sam who loved pizza, who smiled with a glimmer of mischief in his eye. I am thinking about my own children and my little sisters (now 50 and 46.) I am thinking about the beautiful man I married. He interrupts this writing to tell me he is driving to Brooklyn this afternoon to dig our daughter’s car out of the snow. I was just thinking about his gentle and generous heart.
I was thinking about devotion. Between fathers and daughters, sisters and brothers, devotion of one friend to another. I stare a pile of Kodacolor memories scattered across the carpet. I turn toward a pile of papers, which I am probably going to discard today.
I am wondering if I can trust myself to remember. I am sitting by a window. Snow is falling. I am remembering.
“The children that we were are not left behind” - she was vulnerable in an earlier epidemic, wounded in an earlier epidemic. She - I - learned to survive by being in isolation after contracting polio and now here we all are in isolation. It’s familiar, and now I see why. Thank you Amy for opening this door
Oh, Amy. Sigh. So layered with truth, and feeling. I'm so sorry about Sam.