there is no goodbye, only see you later

“There’s fire in them bones yet,” a singer friend said of my grandmother, just after her 83rd birthday. She’d recently defied at least two brushes with death. It was an astute observation on his part, having only met her once.

I was headed to Chicago to see his band for the second June in a row. Between caring for my gramma, my own band rehearsals and the stress of a new job, I was looking forward to the break. The time I’ve spent there over the years has shaped the city into home. After a ten day concert-going adventure the previous summer, I’d become accustomed to the comfort of one friend’s creaky-floored apartment, to her quirky cats, to the moisture of Midwestern air.

Two nights before I flew in, her mother died unexpectedly. The text of her words swirled and my guts twisted with the news. It’s a buzzing that sets in, too much blood to the head, a clouding of vision, all previous plans and perspectives upside down.

Mere hours prior to the singer’s show, my friend stood before a room of pews and delivered a flawless tribute to the woman who’d infused in her an unshakable obsession with music. She wove their shared love of Pearl Jam with the truths found in the words of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Fittingly, she revealed that the source of her mother’s passion mirrored the very reason I was in town at all — salvation in sound. The joy that drives us through. We stood sweating in the mid-day sun as guests shoveled dirt onto the casket’s glinting surface. I cracked inappropriate jokes with my eyes trained on the growing mound of earth. Her body was in there, but she was not. Where was she? What had taken her? Why now?

During the encore that night my friend received a quiet dedication, and we danced, singing at the top of our lungs about how to make every day your best day. The ultimate catharsis.

Backstage I bid the singer farewell and was met with a smile and the words, “It’s never goodbye.” This lit in me like hope – a reminder that to serve the present moment is not to shun the next, but simply to have faith that it will come.

He echoed this months later, after a show in a different city, as I left to catch my flight home. “Don’t say goodbye,” he challenged again. Right. “See you later.”

This year I found myself departing for Chicago for the third consecutive June. Same familiar apartment. Same sunshine and humidity. Same band. This time, two days before, another good friend’s wife lost their twins prematurely. We’d planned to spend time together when I arrived. Above the clouds I released my sorrow, my sickness, and too the excitement I’d had to see him.

There were two gigs, the first boiling with an intensity that caught me off guard. Colours emanated from the singer, around him, above him. Purple, green, gold. When I woke I saw them spiraling from my own chest, like metal shavings from a drill. I received an email from my mother — my gramma had suffered a stroke. I carried this quiet unease to that night’s lake-side venue. As the band played a thick fog rolled in, the elements teaming with sound to obliterate outside thought, to obscure all but the now. “It’s okay,” I said to the singer over whiskey, with a peace I did not know I possessed. “It’s her time.”

She had struggled continuously since a bout of pneumonia several years previous. Surprising mostly myself, I was there for much of it.

Within a short period of my childhood, all visits from my dad’s side of the family ceased with his mother’s passing, and all connections to my mom’s side – including my grandmother – unintentionally fell prey to a rift between my aunt and my parents. I decided blood ties were meaningless. I built a family of my choosing.

15 years went by and my band was in need of a rehearsal space. After the death of my cousin and my aunt’s subsequent relocation to New Zealand, my gramma found herself with an empty house. She missed the din of his drumming and offered the use of her living room. We installed ourselves there for several months before renting a home nearby. From this gesture she and I forged a relationship I never foresaw, one that became unspeakably important.

During her recovery from pneumonia I was jobless and walked the few blocks daily to fix her lunch and maintain order. I’d have dreams she’d go suddenly and I’d be weighted heavily with regret. I started to view them as warnings not to leave anything unsaid.

After a while my band began rehearsing there again. She’d nap through the racket, or offer her opinion – always blunt, always truthful, with a sharpness that would make me laugh.

The two of us would sit many nights, she in her blue chair, I sprawled on the couch, and she’d tell me about her father who’d fucked off, her mother who was young and irresponsible, and the endless generosity of her grandmother, who’d raised her. She’d tell me about dancing and singing in movies as a child, the autographs she collected, and show me clips of her parts in the old films on YouTube. She’d speak of the violence of her husband, the way he’d thrown one of my uncles into a glass door, and the trip to the ER that followed. He was an alcoholic. “He was a mean man.” We would commiserate in wonder, the description of her kids’ upbringing so resembling my own.

I witnessed her decline. After each fall she lost a little mobility, and with it memory and clarity, presence, patience. The initial sickness took the use of her hands, and she could no longer paint. Her cataracts got worse. She was able to do less; she became withdrawn.

On that recent Chicago morning, the news of the stroke didn’t surprise me; despite my sadness, it was a relief. Let her leave this failing body. It would have been strangely apropos – the city, the timing. Instead, unbelievably, she stayed in a rehab centre for two months, accumulating words and phrases, but mostly unable to communicate. She couldn’t eat solid food, could barely move, and often stared somewhere into middle distance. But she would squeeze my hand, she could say she loved me. And she would utter occasional observations in her brash fashion, with startling lucidity.

I showed her a video of my singer friend. When they’d met he’d offered her a ticket for my aunt in Auckland, which she’d always remembered with such fondness. She raised a finger and touched the screen of my phone, lighting the room with a rare sudden smile.

She landed back in the hospital both sooner and later than anticipated. That night I sat with her for hours, as she alternated between wordlessness and incoherent babble. Something was different. The peace I’d felt initially with the thought of her passing was replaced by low level panic. Nothing seemed particularly wrong, no more so than usual, but I didn’t want to leave.

What was the plan, again?

Cellularly, molecularly, I knew.

“Okay, sweetheart,” she said eventually. We’d been waiting for a nurse, but with her cue I stood to go. She repeated a request for which only she had context, pressing her wrist into the bed sheets. “Help me remember.” My heart pounded with uncertainty. The brain does funny things. “Will you remember?” I paused. “They’ll be here soon,” I assured. “Okay,” she managed. “Bye.”

I turned away with somersaults in my chest. “See you later.”

By morning she was in the ICU. The next evening doctors ceased all meds but morphine. It could be 30 minutes, they told us, but she dug her heels in at every turn. Fire, indeed. It became a 55 hour marathon, waiting for something so arbitrary, so unpredictable, such a mystery.

Death has always been the unannounced guest. It lurks on the periphery, averting its gaze. This time I went chasing it. If it was going to take my closest tie I wanted to look it in the face. I wanted to deliver her to its arms.

I wasn’t the only one. There followed a steady stream of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. For the final 22 hours we didn’t leave her — a lifeless breathing body, sinking further into itself. Captivating, fascinating, grotesque.

Why? Fierce loyalty, yes. The wrenching thought of her being alone. But it was also as if we were there because we believed we’d uncover some secret, that we’d find answers to unanswerable questions.

And we were there, unequivocally, because this would not happen again. There is but the present moment, and to serve it you must show up. The next that replaces it so seldom brings what you expect.

Time in the small room spooled and unraveled. The world beyond the windows receded, and the walls pressed closer. The longer I spent in there awaiting death’s indeterminable appointment, the more I simply wanted to live.

It came down to my aunt, a cousin, and me — 5am, wrapped in two blankets and stretched across three chairs, confessing and connecting, catching up on 20 years.

Maybe she’s enjoying it too much to leave, we said. The chaos, the gossip, the dark humour. The innate connection that must be blood. Maybe she orchestrated it, I added to the growing list of theories about what might be keeping her. But I understood, too, that we weren’t to understand. That there was a clear divide between what she was experiencing –distant, silent, outside time– and the very business of our breathing. I went there to feel death, to glimpse it, to know it, but it is quick and slow, loud and soft, dark and bright. It sneaks in through the back door. I began to wonder if I’d recognise it.

Until, “That’s different,” I noticed, and we squeezed closer to her side.

“Goodbye, mom,” spoke my aunt with utter grace. “No,” I whispered. “See you later.”

With these words came her last shuddered breath, and a rush of vibration from my feet to my torso — a pull, a tremor, a cyclone.

It is not death itself that’s gruesome, but the final acts of living. In the end its face was more beautiful than even hers, to my earthly eyes but a remnant in her slitted lid of a thin beam of pale blue light, a surge of the purest love.

© 2020 courtney lavender

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