Bereavement by Lauren Teller

*Featured Artwork: “Memories” collage and dry point etching by Barbara Mellin

Afriend, or a date, or a stranger who spotted him lying in the street, a person brave enough to touch a seizing, unconscious man, would search Eric’s pants for an ID and call the house. It is kind of a stranger to do that, but we are not kind to the stranger: the phone drops out of Mom’s hand and there’s shouting from the dangling receiver. Are you Mrs. Kramer? Hello, hello are you there? Anybody there? I grab the phone, write down the details, give them to Dad, find Mom. She’s in bed. I could be thirteen or twenty-six or thirty-five or fifty-two because things that happened in my family happened over and over. I never think to run away. I think: stay. I draw the blinds, lay beside her in bed, tell her stories.  A daughter knows what the Mother wants.  I still remember the way her room smelled: familiar. It is the smell of sour from her colitis attacks, and the musty way valium smells when you crush it up and mix it with applesauce, with a blast of fresh air from me opening the window.

Later that evening, or in the middle of the night, or the next day, Dad is back with Eric. Those of us at home stand at the door and appreciate his new cast, his broken tooth, the bloody rise of stitches across his cheek. There are so many ways to get hurt. Eric takes a seat at the kitchen table and I fill the ice bag. I learned to add water to the bag, to make the cold colder. Eric expounds on the theory of relativity, or translates quotes from Nietzsche, or transforms my word problems into algebraic equations. I make everyone American cheese on challah. There’s always lots to do.

When Eric married, he and his wife moved in with my parents. Because mortgage rates are too high, no one can afford fifteen percent, was the story Mom told. I’m not much for stories, I’m fact-based, and it’s well-known that humans rarely abandon a sick child, in fact, they devote enormous energy to ensure its survival. Dad applied what he called “political muscle” to get Eric evaluated by every prominent physician in Boston. Nothing much came from those visits. Mom investigated off-beat cures, diets, and medications. When she got interested in pills available only in Russia, Dad found a guy who knew someone who knew someone and one night a man in a full-length fur coat wearing an impressive-looking fur hat knocked on the door. He and Dad spoke in Russian.  He handed Dad a bottle of pills; Dad handed him a stack of hundreds. It made Mom happy to try, although, as I recall, the pills made Eric ill. In our house, Eric’s seizures were a sign of his genius. At dinner I slipped in tidbits about Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Napoleon, Edgar Allen Poe, Dostoevsky, geniuses all! I never said the word seizure, I described them as having brains touched by lightning.  By that time, Eric had stopped teaching, stopped writing, and promised me he would stop driving. When I saw a new dent in his car, I took his car keys and buried them. If anyone asked me how’s your brother Eric doing, I looked away. I learned to get their questions out of my ears, get the truth off my tongue. I buried all that too.

The morning things changed, when it was more than Eric falling in the street, was the morning he was hit by a train. When something happens, do you find it hard to know where to begin? I didn’t know it at the time, it took months for me to realize I was waiting in line for coffee while a train was severing Eric’s leg from his body. I got coffee that morning, light, no sugar, and skipped the doughnuts.  I must have been drinking the coffee while Eric was in the ambulance. Whatever time it was, when I got the call, the coffee I spilled all over my legs was hot. My thighs were burning as I drove into town. When you hear your brother’s name after Boston Medical ER calling, you keep driving.

The trauma surgeon says: We have to cut off more leg in order to save the stump, and asks: are you OK with that? I answer: Yes.

Eric’s on a gurney, hooked to a drip, his tongue visible where is front teeth were. A flat spot where the rest of us have a left leg. I smell blood and engine grease. I ask: How are you, Eric? He answers: That is the question I cannot answer, sister Lauren.

A well-dressed detective asks me questions. I have trouble hearing him and answer: this is not attempted suicide, he’s epileptic. I clamp my hand over my mouth but not in time to catch the vomit. It spews through my fingers onto the detectives’ wingtips. I have said what I cannot say.  Then the day blurs into years of hospitals, prosthetic laboratories, and a court case for damages I handled for the family. There’s a certain day in the winter of 2009. A day Eric didn’t notice, a day I can’t forget. The day the judge said the plaintiff has a history of seizures, no one is liable, case dismissed. He banged his gavel so hard I bit my tongue.

#

Eric lived for fifteen years after the accident. Seizure upon seizure, the rhythm of his life. He was confined to a wheelchair, a resident in a nursing home when he died from the novel virus Covid19 on April 15, 2020.

#

We watch from the car.

Leaning over the dashboard to see I say, The casket looks too small.

It’s the angle you’re viewing from, Michael says.

            Did they put his fake leg in too? I ask but Michael’s answer is drowned out by heavy machinery. I taste something sour and retch into my mask. I wipe it out with a tissue and a spritz of hand sanitizer.

We are silent in the car.  Everything looks far away. The highway is a conveyer belt, empty except for us: an old married couple driving back to from where we came. In the hallway, we step over cards. The nice postal workers slip them through the mail slot every day. I am not nice. I yell Don’t step on them! at Michael. Condolence cards are supposed to arrive after the funeral. The Rabbi said, Follow the laws the best you can. With tradition cracking, I had made up a new one: no opening sympathy cards while the dead lay unburied. Now, back from watching a bulldozer dump six feet of earth on top of Eric’s pine casket, I have to open.

One card is faded blue. A friend must’ve searched to the way back of a desk drawer. ‘In Sympathy’ is embossed on the front. The bottom of the S is missing. No one cares. Inside, the message was cut out and replaced with plain white copy paper. In perfect script, her note:

Dear Lauren,

            I remember meeting Eric at one of your Yom Kippur break-fasts. He poured me juice, it was so refreshing. I am so sad to hear of his passing; what a difficult time this is to lay someone to rest. My heart goes out to you.  I hope wonderful memories of your brother in your life bring you peace and when we get out of quarantine, please, lets do lunch.

                                                                        With Love and sympathy,   T.

                                                                                               

Another is a tiny card with a frayed bit of black and white kimono silk taped on the front. Inside the sender writes about our shared love of fabric and the tear as symbolic of endless loss.

An oversized card has a bright sun on the front. A sympathy card with a sun on the front, people make do in quarantine! She wishes brighter days and sends love and a promise for a picnic and a beach walk.

Every card is soothing. Each a space to mourn. Last night I remembered how I used to call him Ricky and then I cried. This morning, cards spread open before me on the table, I notice something about all the handwritten ones: a similar format consisting of the salutation, a sentence or two about Eric, an expression of love and sorrow, a suggestion of an action for the future. I google how to write a sympathy card.

Michael, you won’t believe it, there’s a blog that tells how to write a sympathy card. I know a lot of people who’ve used it!

            That’s terrible.

            Why?

            It’s insincere.

            It is not. I hold the cards up, they spill onto the table, bright reds, yellows.

They don’t look like sympathy cards, Michael says.

People had to improvise; you don’t risk getting Covid to buy a sympathy card. People went to the trouble of looking it up. I feel seen, loved.

The sympathy card blogger suggests sending a note in return. It’s taken me weeks to regain my strength. Here’s a sign of me getting better: I ordered five pounds of triple 000 flour. Triple 000 makes the best pizza crust. Eric loved pizza. I asked Michael and he said it’s not necessary to reply to condolence cards, but it is!

Here goes:

Dear Friends,

                        I’m sorry I have not sent a note. I plan to but every time, the quarantine quiet draws me in and God knows there’s a lot of it. I work every day, but never for the whole day. When I feel hopeless, I bake.

            Last night, during the storm, I opened the windows to hear the rain and watch the lightning flash across the sky. I was all night alone with your cards spread out before me. Thank you for your kind words and images. Alone together so much is shared.  Comfort depends on where you stop things, and it’s enough for now.

Love,  Lauren.

Contributors:

Lauren Teller has had her writing published in national publications such as the Boston Globe. She is a mother and a wife and she trains people to answer phones on the national suicide hotline. She lives in Boston with her husband and dog.

Barbara Mellin is an award-winning artist/printmaker and writer. She holds a graduate degree in Art History from Harvard, where she received the “Crite Prize” for her thesis on the American artist Frank Vincent DuMond and is currently working on a book about that artist. She writes frequently about the arts and culture for international, national and local publications. Her artwork has appeared in numerous literary and art magazines and has been featured in juried exhibits throughout the U.S. Mellin is a member of the Women Painters of the Southeast and Oil Painters of America, Associated Artists of Winston Salem, Artworks Gallery and AFAS. She relocated about 10 years ago to Winston Salem, NC from the Boston area, where she had taught art classes for more than 25 years.

 

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