I’m driving around my neighborhood delivering Yahrzeit candles. As I drop the small bags that each contain a candle, a comforting prayer, and well wishes from their community at doorsteps, I am rotating phone calls with my cousin and aunt helplessly brainstorming questions for doctors, paths of treatment for their daughter/sister and my other cousin’s cancer. We are in a bad place right now. Or I should say my cousin is in a bad place, and all we can do is distract ourselves with commiserating conversation to prevent the helpless and hopeless downward spiral. So, we talk seriously, and we talk frustrated, and we talk exhausted, and we talk nonsense, while the strongest woman we know lies in a hospital bed losing the fight for her life.
The scene resonates. Three years ago, I watched my father die of cancer, then six months later, my father-in-law was gone as well. All the talk in the world couldn’t save them, and I don’t know if it will save my cousin. Although I pray to God, the mountains, my dead grandparents, and the universe that it does. A beautiful 55-year-old with an eight-year-old daughter who has fought and clawed her way to amazing career success and finally the joy of motherhood should be able to appreciate the fruits of her labor. To hold her daughter’s hand. To watch her grow. But the world is filled with tragedy, suffering and death. It happens every day. Has been happening since the beginning of time. And yet, we are so ill equipped to handle it.
“How’s it going?” I ask her best friend who has been sitting with her today at Sloan.
“It’s going,” she says non-committal. “The nurse she has today is an asshole.”
I am familiar with hospital workers who are assholes, and those who are God sent. The problem is that you are at the mercy of whoever you get. It’s a tough job caring for the sick and suffering, but that is the job, and you shouldn’t do it if you can’t see the human in the bed in front of you at a time when you most need to be human.
I want to ask my cousin what her plan is for her daughter should the unthinkable happen. I want to ask if there’s something she wants me to do. I want my aunt and her sister to have conversations about it, so that they can all rest easier knowing her wishes. But I can’t ask, because asking means acknowledging the possibility of death and even writing it feels like a betrayal. As if saying it means you have no hope or somehow will make it happen. So, we all think it quietly and painfully to ourselves, outwardly projecting smiles that would probably scare small children.
My cousin’s kidneys are working at half capacity. Her lungs are filled with fluid that they are draining every third day. Breathing is painful. She said it feels like an elephant is on her chest. The elephant in the room is killing her whether we say it or not.
I drop another bag of gloom on a doorstep and dart from the porch back to the safety of the car before someone spies me. I cross the name off my list, then plug the next address in my Waze app. I recognize that my community service of the day and my cousin’s current crisis has a morbid bend to it. Ever consistent, I also started watching the final season of the Kominsky Method on Netflix this morning, and while Alan Arkin, Michael Douglas and the cast are brilliant, it is depressing as hell. Grumpy old best friends talk shit about life as they wobble and hobble, curse, almost cry and criticize each other to the bitter end. Michael Douglas reminds me a bit of my father. It’s the white hair, and commentary as bristled as his scruff. The weary and worn acceptance punctuated by bursts of defensive rebellion. The intelligence that knows better but still fucks it all up. In any case, I seem to be doubling down on the depressing. Strangely, it’s a comfort.
We are taught how to live. We have parents to raise us, friends to support us and religions that set down all the rules. There are endless books covering every inch of the topic. How to act, eat, speak. How to walk and talk. How to be loud. How to be quiet. How to make friends, find love, succeed at work. How to fix everything, cook anything, build, destroy, empower, create. It’s all there. Just not how to die. Or at least how to talk about it. You would think that thousands of years of dying might force us to adopt an understanding and acceptance but instead we bury our heads in the sand. We pretend. We pray.
Maybe it’s the best way. Sometimes not knowing is a good thing. I would say it was for my father-in-law. He believed he would be spending the winter season in Florida right until he slipped into unconsciousness. The bubble is good if it’s warmed by visions of the sun and sand.
I don’t even know what any of this means. Except that death is scary and we all run away from it. Except my grandmother. She told me years before she passed that her bags were packed and she was ready to kiss her old ass goodbye. She had already watched so many of her friends and loved ones die. She had lived a good long life and wondered why she was still around while so many others were not. She was unafraid and waiting. If it didn’t happen soon, she joked, she would need new luggage.
I, of course, didn’t want her going anywhere. She was the strongest person I ever knew and I admired and loved her deeply. But of course, it is when someone’s time is up that we realize control is just an illusion.
I arrive at the next address to deliver a candle and see a person outside. Instead of stopping and handing him the bag, I look straight ahead and drive on. I don’t know this man. I do not know his late loved one or his grief. I am afraid of it. I am afraid of the awkwardness this seemingly kind gesture might create. So, I avoid it just like I know I shouldn’t, reinforcing the stigma around the topic.
Run away, my brain says. Run, run as fast as you can. It reminds me of the gingerbread man. And we all know what happened to him. The only way through this is to face it, so I circle back. The man is still in his driveway. “I’m from the temple.” I say, placing the bag on the ground near him. I am wearing my mask (and am vaccinated) but still maintain a comfortable distance. “We are delivering yahrzeit candles in memory of your loved one. I believe you have an anniversary this month.”
He bends down, picks up the bag and nods. “Thank you. That is very kind.”
I return the nod with a small smile, then give a wave and head back to the safety of the car. That was uncomfortable, but also felt good to break through my fear to reach out to another human. I think, if we could train ourselves to face these small moments, maybe we wouldn’t be so unprepared for the bigger ones.
When I see my cousin now, I am always surprised that even in this health crisis nightmare, that she is herself. She is the same 16 year old girl who I watched with 12 year old fascination as she curled her lashes and lined her lips in deep colors and then told my horrified ears what boys really liked. She is the second strongest person I have ever known, even if now every time she adjusts her position, the pain takes her breath away. She yells at me to stop wincing, but I can’t help it. It is painful to see her pain, but I will because love means showing up even when it’s hard. When everything is not fair. And there’s not a Goddamn thing you can do. So, I bring her Carvel thick shakes that she mostly doesn’t drink, hand her bags when she needs to throw up and sit on the floor by her bed telling nonsense stories hoping to distract her, entertain her and comfort her. It’s nothing. It’s everything. It is all I can do, so that’s what I do.
Alisa Schindler is a mom of three growing, growing, grown boys and wife to Mr. Baseball. Her essays have been featured online at the New York Times, Washington Post, Good Housekeeping and Northwell Health’s The Well, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, twisty fiction novels. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.