It is a strange thing, keeping vigil for a death that does not belong to you. The loved one of a loved one hovers between living and dying, and you sit hundreds of miles away and wait. The family gathers at the bedside and stares at monitors and the breathing man before them who is not there. And you are at home, at work. You are on your couch, at your desk. With your phone. Your email. Your Facebook account.
Waiting with them.
Text, with Joey, who’s waiting for his flight to depart
Me: I am at the post office. There is an uber-gay, uber-skinny, uber-jewish guy in a yarmulke mailing, i kid you not, like 40 packages.
Joey: Are you crazy? Take a photo
Me: :-) can’t. would be soooo obvious.
Me: I can’t. Already gone.
Joey: gay and orthodox?
Me: No sideburn curls, so conservative or orthodox. he’s a RAIL. benji. i’d guess 26, tops.
Joey: if he’s a redhead get his #
Text, with Joey, at the hospital
tubes are out
Me: I can’t find the best words to ask how you are
Joey: Very tough
but we are going to survive
Me: Yes, you will. and there will be happy days, and there will be joyful days. I have, no kidding, 50 people working on making that happen… just in case.
Joey: we need it
Me: no shit
you have my entire church choir (grandparents, all but 4 of them) and whatever random people get the prayer requests from the online form
jack, my sisters, my mother, for the love
my mother is praying for your family from ireland, by the way. we’ve spanned the globe!
Me: It’s all I can do
Joey: that is plenty
I slept with my phone beside me, inches from my hand so that I could snatch it immediately as any message or call came in. I slept in fits and starts, every waking moment wondering. Did I have it right? The circumstances? The condition? Joey, if not his whole family, had left the hospital to go back to the house. Michael’s blood pressure was up, his breathing was shallow. But he was still here. Only not really here.
Text, with Angie
Angie: FUCK, that’s early!
Angie: Did u get joey’s text that the funeral is Monday at 11?
Me: No. did it say anything else?
Angie: Nope. Just funeral is monday at 11. Meg got it too.
Me: You know, I admire Mary Ann’s efficiency, but come on.
Angie: Right? Ouch. Hey, she’s got a busy week; things to do!
I could not stop thinking about Michael, about Joey, about their mother, Mary Ann. As I sat before my computer, trying to be productive, I found myself wandering to Michael’s Facebook page. Friends had been posting messages for days. I traced them back to the day of the accident. Hopeful posts full of cheery words of encouragement and casual affection. Full of the expectation that Michael would one day wake and read this page, laugh at the inside jokes, the Super Bowl predictions made before game one of the regular season. And then, a slight shift. More sadness. Posts about how much he was loved. It reminded me of those vigils on the news, for teenagers at high schools, dead from some similar tragedy. Posterboards full of pink-inked messages and hearts drawn between them. Thursday night, a benefit, hastily arranged with auction items and two live bands, held at the bar where Michael worked. By Friday, Michael’s page was just heartbreaking. A girl, Sara — the most frequent poster all along, professing how much she loved her friend, telling him he has to pull through, telling him she can’t wait for him to wake up and see how much he’s loved.
At the end of the day, she posted again. “I’m fucking begging you,” she said.
I was frustrated by these messages for reasons it seems unkind to explain. I wanted these friends to understand that Michael was not coming back, that their posts on his page may only magnify the pain his family was feeling. I knew that their messages would serve as a kind of guest book. I understood their hurt, but I wanted them to stop hoping. They seemed so young. They didn’t seem to know that sometimes hope is the unkindest thing of all.
My eyes kept going to Sara’s photo. Michael is in it with her. I don’t even know this girl and I’m worried about how she’ll take this. She loves him. It is clear from just a few words in a handful of posts scattered between other people’s sentiments that she loves him. I later learned that she had been his girlfriend until two months before.
Saturday, late morning
Text, with Angie, Meg and Will:
Me: Joey just called. he’s totally annoyed with Michael. “you’re just draaaagging it out, aren’t you?” he’s saying his bp is up, breathing is shallow but because his heart is strong he can hold out for a while. apparently there’s a plan to stick w/monday if he dies by 5pm. omfg, right? it’s about the obit deadline. oh, and grandma fell on her face yesterday and is all bruises. joey called her a drama queen.
Meg: Wow. I don’t think there are words. Um… so, exactly what should we be praying for now?
Joey couldn’t sit in Michael’s room on Saturday. He told me during a phone call that he’d sat there for six hours Friday. “It’s awful. I’m staring at him, and then I’m looking at the monitor: ‘Oh, look, the line changed.’ ‘Oh, it’s down to 27.’ ‘Oh, now it’s 50.’ And then I look at Michael. “
I thought of my uncle, and how we had done the exact same thing, how staring at the monitors and almost willing the lines to flatten had felt like such a maudlin thing to do. How wondering, every time he exhaled and held still, whether he had taken his last breath. And then he would take another.
“He’s not there,” Joey told me. “I know it. He’s just… this isn’t him. He’s gone.”
Saturday, early afternoon
Text, with Sister 2
Sister 2: So, do you think there’s a trip to Ohio in your near future?
Me: well, i’ve already booked an early am flight monday, return tues afternoon, rental car and hotel. so this whole michael not quite dying thing is a bit awkward now.
Sister 2: Hahaha. Oh man. That’s what u get for being proactive.
Me: this is the problem with joey’s mother’s efficiency. she doesn’t mess around. she’s done this before and she wants it over. so she set the funeral for monday @11a. but now it’s like, “michael, you have to die by 5p or we’ll miss the obit deadline for the paper and we’ll have to postpone your funeral.” rude.
Sister 2: Oh my goodness. I thought u just assumed when it would be or something. That is so totally awkward.
Me: it really is. as i was booking it i was kind of like, “what if…?” so now it’s all, “So, like, uh… what’s your deal?” and michael’s fb page is a disaster. i can’t look anymore.
Sister 2: people saying their final goodbyes via fb?
Me: some goodbye, some hang on you can do this, some begging… it’s also odd b/c he’s 32 but a lot of these people seem younger.
Me (2): and joey says people are sending condolences and then coming back saying they didn’t realize he hadn’t died, maybe there’s a chance, woohoo, and joey’s like, “he’s brain dead. stop.”
Sister 2: Huh. That’s terrible. I’d stop reading that pronto.
Me: and so I did. also I just realized i accidentally sent that last msg to joey instead of you. so that’s awesome.
Sister 2: I am leaning on the washing machine guffawing at your misfortune. and what did your follow up to him say? so sorry, am letting my sister know how things are going… awkward death vigil emoticon?
Me: I thought about sending an oops sorry text but then i thought, “screw it.” i’m leaving it alone. fortunately i did NOT send him the one that I sent to angie and meg in which I quoted will: “next time, wait til he’s dead.”
Text, with Angie
Angie: aaaaand TIME.
Me: you are seriously not right.
Me(2): it’s like you put an expiration date on his expiration date. that said… I’m hovering over “cancel trip” on travelocity…
Angie: Ooh. Can they do a full refund? Just got Joey’s text.
Me: why am I not getting these mass texts he’s sending? what does it say?
Angie: FWD: “No change… We are in limbo and it’s exhausting and sucks. Funeral will be Tuesday at the earliest now… stay tuned.”
The internet can completely confuse any situation with its information. I looked up “brain death” and searched for a credible source. I was wondering what part of the brain controls heart rate and breathing. The information I read told me that if his heart was beating and his lungs taking air (however shallowly), he technically was not completely brain dead.
Which was awful news, in a terribly twisted way.
I wondered. When Mary Ann and the doctors agreed it was best not to reinsert the feeding tube, had they done something merciful, or had they missed their chance? If the latter, a chance at what? Was there valor in preserving life that couldn’t live in hopes of a miracle, or just a clearer conscience? Suddenly life teetered on a thin line not of breath and beat, but of liquefied nourishment, withheld. What would take its toll first: the relative lack of oxygen in lungs inhaling but not filling, slowly dissipating in his blood, slowly shutting down his functions? Or starvation and dehydration? Which was crueler? Without consciousness, without cognition, was either cruel at all?
Facebook, with Joey
Joey: so over it
Me: I know honey
we cleaned out his room and such
my family is exhausted
Me: it will be over eventually
there will be an end to this part
a mother in law lasted TEN DAYS
Me: WHOSE mother-in-law?!
Joey: some woman
Text, with Angie, Meg and Will
Me: FYI, i cancelled the arrangements i booked. will rebook when we KNOW plans. i’m fb chatting w/joey… he’s “over it” and @ home eating pasta.
Meg: Oh my. if he has resorted to carbs, it must be bad.
Text, with Sister 2
Me: So… michael has missed his print deadline. :-/ i’ve cancelled the trip i booked on travelocity (full refund – woot!) and i will rebook when we know for sure.
Sister 2: I was so totally just wondering how to word my question about whether or not he made the obit print deadline. Hooray for full refunds. Is joey texting u frequently or infrequently right now
Me: we’re fb chatting. he’s “over it.” he went back to the house to eat pasta. (he never eats pasta.) Ps don’t worry about wording. angie texted me at EXACTLY 5:00 and said “aaaaand TIME.” last night she asked me if we had an “official lights out” yet.
Sister 2: So, recap. Joey had another bro who already died? or am i making that up? and michael and how many sisters
Me: okay, here’s the tree. mary ann and ed had joey, michael and emily. they divorced early 80s. mary ann married tom mid-80s. his wife had committed suicide in ’82. he had melanie and jacqueline. mary ann and tom had david together. tom was an abusive alcoholic who shot himself in the head in 2001. david, who was 13 or 14 at the time, found him. he lingered for 5 days before they took him off life support. david was killed in a car accident in november 2010, three days after melanie got engaged. michael’s accident was four days before her wedding. his pneumonia set in on her wedding day and that’s what spiked the pressures, swelled his brain and led to the stroke. meanwhile, jacqueline and melanie are fighting mary ann over their father’s trust. and then there’s joey and emily.
Sister 2: I’m going to pitch their family story to Lifetime. They’re dropping like flies.
Me: we’ve decided that mary ann is basically the heroine of a steinbeck novel.
Sister 2: how do we feel about melanie’s marriage? seems cursed. and the fighting over the trust… so this is super awkward.
Me: oh it’s super-duper awkward. joey doesn’t believe jackie and melanie would have initiated the legal battle if david hadn’t died b/c he had a vote too and would not have allowed it. they started it just weeks after he died. see, melanie’s new dad-in-law is a lawyer.
Sister 2: I need to see this in a diagram of some sort
Me: took me years to get it right.
The way we love our friends is sometimes more powerful than the way we love our family members. It is not a matter of intensity, or depth, or sincerity. It is a matter of movement, of ache, and the odd frustration of not sharing fully in the grief, and therefore not knowing how much right we have to feel it. It was natural but disconcerting, being so consumed with thoughts of Michael when I had barely been choked up at the death of my father’s uncle two weeks before. Sitting with this, I understood that this was simply, and horribly, a case of too much suffering for a dear friend and his family, and two young men gone far too soon. My great-uncle was 87. Joey’s brothers had been 24 and 32.
I could not sleep.
Text, while I am en route to church to sing at a 9/11 memorial Mass:
Joey: Michael died at 8:30am this morning. Funeral is Tuesday.
I cannot cry, because I have to sing. I turn off the 9/11 memorial services playing on the radio. Later, I do cry, but it’s after church, and I am not quite sure whether I am crying for Michael and Joey’s family, or for thousands of others.
Joey and I spoke for a while on the phone that afternoon. He told me he’s sort of angry at Michael for dying on the anniversary of 9/11. Now his family can’t even own the day; it’s overshadowed, upstaged by national memorial events. I told Joey his feelings remind me of an interview I heard on NPR the other day, with a woman who lost her husband on 9/11. She feels that it’s odd and intrusive that the whole nation puts her through the day all over again every year. It’s such a deeply personal loss, to lose your husband, and the whole country claims him as their own. It takes away. “I find ‘Never forget’ to be a sort of odd thing,” she said. “If you want to move on, you have to forget.”
Joey, as a New Yorker, will forever be conflicted about how to grieve that day.
Joey said he thinks Michael and David are deeply upset by the Steelers’ loss. He’s sure it’s ruined their reunion plans for the day. He knows I don’t like the Steelers. “Don’t bring that up when you’re here,” he said.
“No, I won’t. There’s already been enough tragedy without me bringing up the Steelers.”
Sunday, late afternoon
Facebook, with Joey
Joey: Was it gauche to ask the girls to bring ice cream?
Me: Absolutely not. I love your specificity.
Joey: Um, YEAH
last thing I need is to waste the opportunity on some weird flavor
Though the sweet corn and blueberry is amazing.
Me: I’ve heard about that. And something with lavender…?
Joey: Oh, the lavender honey is delish
less of an ice cream and more of an apertif
Me: an amuse bouche
I think I am going back on Wednesday
so I can celebrate my birthday at the beach
Me: ah, good man. I wondered what you’d do about your birthday.
Joey: I love it when you talk like Judi Dench.
Me: There is nothin’ like a dame.
Joey: MA is very much “back to normal.” Plus our limit is five days. It gets ugly.
Me: I hear ya. How is your father?
Joey: Oy. He’s driving me insane. He’s trying to chase down an urn. He’s OBSSESSED.
“You are NOT staying in that hotel. It’s FOUL,” Joey declared at me.
“Joey, I know, but–“
“No. We’re not having it. You’re coming here. You’ll stay at the neighbors’.” He dropped his voice conspiratorially. “Mrs. Baker is a little put-out. She thought the others would be staying so she’s done all this work and now she wants a houseguest.”
“Well, if you–“
“My mother wants to talk to you.”
Oh, God. I haven’t offered condolences and she’s going to light right in to why I shouldn’t stay at the hotel. Don’t put her on the phone. “Jo–“
The phone is handed over.
“You are NOT staying in that hotel, that’s ridiculous. We have plenty of room. Come here. That way when we party all night tomorrow night you don’t have to drive back to that horrible hotel. Really. A hotel? Stay here.”
“Well… if you want me to stay there, I appreciate it. I just wanted to give the family room,” I tried to explain.
“We have TONS of room!” came from Joey in the background.
“We have plenty,” Mary Ann agreed. “You won’t be with us. You’ll be at the neighbors’. It’s silly. Stay here. You’re staying here. That’s it. Cancel that awful hotel.”
The night before the service, when I rang the bell at the lake house, I could hear Joey excitedly declaring my arrival through the panes of glass along the side of the front door. He wrapped me in a tight hug as soon as he opened it and thanked me for coming. Mary Ann mirrored her only remaining son’s reaction to my presence.
At the table in the expansive kitchen were three sets of neighbors, and Mary Ann’s partner, George. Introductions were made with those I had not met before. I was the first friend of my generation to arrive. They fed me. Grandma came, and was hard to look at; the way her injuries had settled themselves in her 86-year-old skin after her fall had left her entire face purpled and greened, from forehead to jawline, on both sides of her nose and all the way across to her temples. But she was smiling right up to her eyes behind scratched glasses.
Around the table, stories. Wine and laughing. So much food. Life, in stop-animation, with the understanding that it would go on, however heavily, after this. I kept looking at Joey and Michael’s sister Emily, who looked so much like Michael. She was the youngest, since David had died. I kept wondering, as she sat quietly listening and smiling, how she would do from now on with this grief. Mary Ann said a family friend, who is a doctor, had looked at Michael’s CT scans from between the bicycle accident and the stroke he suffered as a result of the injuries and pneumonia. “It was bad from the beginning,” Mary Ann said. “There was too much damage. We made the right choice.” It almost sounded like she did not need to convince herself.
Will arrived, toting a hundred pictures of the five of us friends from college, which were shared around the table. Then he, Joey and I went down to stand on the dock that jutted into the lake from the backyard. In the glow of the light from the house, we talked about the fight over the trust fund, and cast the movie version of the memoir Joey was now sure to write.
In the morning, in the Bakers’ kitchen, Mrs. Baker fed me breakfast casserole and good coffee and we talked about the unbelievable tragedies that had befallen our dear friends’ family. “We’re all so close,” she told me as she described the history of this nestled side of the big lake, houses propped next to each other separated by mere feet. She told me how, when everyone’s kids were young, there were community meals, dinners shared all together, almost every night, breakfasts almost every morning, each neighbor taking a turn until it cycled back around again. She told me how her son Nathan had been so close with David, how they had grown up together, and how he had an interview for medical school two months after David had died.
“The interviewer asked him, ‘So when you go home, what are you going to tell your best friend about this day?'” The tears came quickly and her throat closed, and she needed a moment before she could continue. “Nathan couldn’t even speak to answer the question.” She wiped her eyes. “That was the worst,” she said, mostly to herself.
She told me how angry she was at Melanie and Jacqueline. She said Mary Ann had told her two nights before, “A year ago, I had six kids. Now, it looks like I only have two.”
But the day was beautiful and the lake was sparkling, and the funeral service was just as one should be. It was hopeful, it spoke of joy far more than sorrow, of gratitude far more than pain. Joey eulogized his brother perfectly, but worked in a very pointed reference to Michael’s valued preference for family harmony – a sentence for which he leveled a steely gaze directly at Melanie and Jacqueline, who had called relatives to explain their side of the fight before the funeral; who ha arrived minutes before the service and who left immediately following, with their husbands. I had spotted Sara among the large crowd of mourners, her eyes swollen and red. I wanted to hug her and tell her I was heartbroken for her, a girl at a loss for where to sit in a world that seemed to have crumbled so quickly for her. The church, it was noted, in some ways resembled a teepee, which was a fitting representation on this occasion, given Michael’s deep passion for Native American history. There were windows all around the sanctuary, and we seemed to be celebrating Michael’s life in the middle of nothing but trees. Angie and Meg had arrived from their long drives a few minutes before the Mass began, and the happy sounds of Meg’s 10-month-old daughter echoed in the church.
After the luncheon, those closest to the family went back to the lake house. In the soothing breeze of a September day, in the sunlight that bathed the lake and the lawn, there was serenity. Friends sat circled. We five occupied steps and lawn space, the first time we had actually all been in the same place at the same time since Angie’s wedding seven years ago. As I walked into the house to gather my belongings and begin my goodbyes so I could make my way to my flight, I turned back and saw my college friends, framed by the French doors, backed by the shimmering water. “You’re not leaving,” Joey mouthed at me – a gentle restraint rather than a question or a complaint. And I wished I didn’t have to. Despite 16 years of friendship, this was the first true glimpse I had at our future, at knowing that we would do this again and again for each other.
“You know how to find us now,” Mary Ann’s partner, George, said to me, his hand on my arm. “Will you find us again?” I told him I hoped I would.
“Joey needs…” he searched for a word. “Support. Is that a good word?” I nodded. “We weren’t nearly over David,” he finished. “Not nearly over David, when this happened.” And for the dozenth time, I had no idea what I could possibly say that would sound at all graceful or right.
As I drove to the airport, the song that had been playing over and over in my head since Sunday returned. I had seen James Taylor perform it in a brief amount of coverage I allowed myself to watch of the 9/11 memorial in New York. It is a song that ruins me on a good day, for reasons I have never understood. On Sunday, with the weight of sadness that comes from the indelible memory of the attacks and Michael’s death compounding it, the song seemed fitting and absolute. I will never hear it again without thinking of Michael, and of the gut-wrenching event now known simply as September Eleventh. But I hope I will also think of a sun-drenched home on a sparkling lake, and a day when love between family and friends was as tangible as the grass on which we sat, in honor of a young man who deserved his own remembrance. And I hope, through the sadness, I will smile.