Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Brief History of Grief Delayed

Thirty-one years before, a few minutes after eight o’clock in the morning, a four-ton bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, on the island of Honshu, Japan. Thousands of lives incinerated in the space of a few moments. The blast obliterated office buildings, homes, cooking bowls, contracts, goldfish, trees, bicycles, fences, temples, schools, eyeglasses, photo albums, a small pot of marigolds sitting on a brick step.

August 6, 1976. That day, early in August, Aunt Ruth is taking a bunch of us to the trailer at the lake. Me, my little sister Nancy, my brother Chris, my cousin Jeanne, and our neighbors, the Sharp boys. Aunt Ruth asks me to clean out a Styrofoam cooler so she can pack it with ice and food.  I rinse the cooler out with the hose in the back yard and I get the idea that I can empty the water out faster by spinning around in a circle. In the middle of my spin, the cooler flies out of my hands, hits the ground and splits with a crunch, a big jagged cut in the white foam.  Aunt Ruth is going to be so mad. I go inside and tell her and I am surprised and relieved when she isn’t even angry. I am eleven.

August 11, 1976. Five days after my brother Christopher and sister Nancy died, I am in the hospital with a dislocated hip so I don’t go to the funeral.

August 6, 1977. One year after Nancy and Chris died, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Phil take Jeanne and me to Disneyland. My hip is all better - I don’t even limp. We do not mention the day.

August, 1978. Two years after, I go away to Girl Scout overnight camp for the first time. 

August, 1979. Three years after, I go with my cousin Sally and her parents on vacation to Michigan. I kiss a boy in the windy dark, on the damp sand of a beach on Crystal Lake. The radio music at the beach campfire makes my heart pound with sexy daring: “My Sharona.” The Cars, “Let’s Go.”
Driving home from Michigan we listen to another song. “I can see Daniel waving goodbye.” A few days later, I get my period for the first time. I fly home with two secrets: I made out with a boy and I got my period. One secret thrills me; the other does not. I don’t tell Aunt Ruth about my period for days. I am afraid. And sure enough, when I do tell her, she is angry. I don't why. 
“What have you been using?”
“I folded some toilet paper.” 
“Oh Cindy,” she huffs with disappointment. She gives me a pad with long paper straps on the ends and a belt. It is confusing to figure out and uncomfortable to use. I throw it away. 

August, 1981. Five years after, I backpack in Colorado with Girl Scouts from other states. Two girls have come all the way from Mexico.

August, 1983. The seventh summer after, I travel to Branson, Missouri, to ride waterslides, see The Shepard of the Hills play and go horseback riding with two girlfriends. I work as a counselor at an Ozark Girl Scout camp. I go to Royals baseball games with my friends, swim at Lake Jacomo. We watch fireworks and eat Kentucky Fried chicken in a parking lot on the Fourth of July and ice cream at Winstead’s after Rocky Horror and drink rum and cokes and grape-flavored Malt Duck and I make out with Greg in his brother’s attic. We kiss while I sit on the softly vibrating dryer in his brother’s laundry room. We sneak into the cemetery and we T.P. houses and write shaving cream messages on driveways, throw deodorant in the front yard of the girl we know, laugh and laugh our asses off. Tonya, Kyla, Chuck and I get dressed up in clothes we found at a vintage store, hats and gloves and heels and we go to the Kona Kai because they don't card. We nervously order Mai Tais and laugh hysterically over our sweet and sour shrimp. 
“I will have a sweet vermouth, please,” I tell a waiter, enunciating carefully.  I’m eighteen.

August 6, 1985. Nine years after, I’m in college but I don’t write about them, not in diaries, not in essays. THIS IS A LIE – THEY SNUCK INTO STORIES I WROTE. I keep saying, “It hasn’t really seemed to affect me.” The girl across the hall from me, a psychology grad student, looks at me when I say this. She is silent, then points out how vulnerable the ages of loss were -- at four and on the cusp of adolescence. I listen but I'm not sure what else her words mean.

August 6, 1986. Ten years after, I’m in New Orleans doing service work.  I hand out cans from the small food pantry in the closet of a Catholic grade school classroom. I chat with sweet and obese African-American ladies with white-streaked hair as they work on their double-knit quilts for the parish sale and we watch The Price Is Right in the air conditioning. 
I think constantly of the boy I met in the spring, in London. He’s working in Washington D.C. all summer as a congressional aide. We write long letters back and forth. 
“This city is moody and atmospheric,” I write. “Now I know why they call it the Deep South.  Everything here is so green and slow moving, it feels like you’re underwater.” 
I’m going to see him again at school at the end of the summer. Thinking of the end of August, even a thought in the vicinity of that idea, makes my stomach buzz, a low electric thrill.

August, 1987. Eleven years after, I’ve graduated college and I don’t know how to look for a job so I’m going to film school at the end of the month.
I’m back at home again, spending nights in the blue bedroom on the rack. I think constantly of the London boy. I cry every day. I fight insomnia every night. I stay up until four in the morning, sleep until three in the afternoon. I cry, listening to “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “Oh the Pain of Loving You,” but I can't even laugh at the utter seriousness of the twangy voices belying their cornpone tragedy. NO - I DID LAUGH.  MY SENSE OF HUMOR HAD NOT ABANDONED ME. A few notes of Dolly Parton’s sweet high soprano and I am sobbing. 
In the springtime, I had asked the boy what he was feeling and he said “Nothing.” I knew what that meant.
Hell has three circles, the first is remembering every stupid thing I had said and done; the second is knowing that he had witnessed them; the deepest circle is imagining that he was now forgetting those stupid words and the girl who said them.

August, 1988. Twelve years after, Iowa is hot in the summer. I get a job on a movie called Zadar, Cow from Hell. I think less of the London boy. I don’t cry every day like I used to. And the thought that I think less of him, the thought that I am crying less, makes me cry anew. I wonder why I got over Nancy and Christopher but I can’t seem to shake this. I don’t want to shake this. Because even the agony is feeling something and I don’t want to stop feeling something that is caused by him, is close to him even in that way. 

August, 1989. Thirteen years after, I have a dog and an angry writer boyfriend. The boyfriend has a genetic disease, a children’s disease. The medication he takes to manage the symptoms includes steroids that later I will understand cook up his mood swings, rampant jealousies, his furies. The steroids, yes, and perhaps his own internal battles with mortality.
I love our dog passionately. Little Lady is a purebred chocolate lab, the runt of the litter, poorly behaved despite repeated obedience classes. We are all going to move to Boston at the end of the summer as soon as I retake my comprehensive exams and finish a paper on the German film Deutschland im Herbst. The movie is dark and grim. I will pass my comps this time, but I never do finish that damn paper and I fail the class. I don’t care. NO, I DID. I’m going to Boston. 
I still think of that London boy. I do.

August, 1996. Twenty years after, I live in Chicago. The man I live with has bought a company with some friends, a company that makes TV commercials. One of Randy’s partners slips the alderman and the cops a hundred bucks each and they let us close off half the street for a block party. A DJ plays on the loading dock and we dance crazy in the heat, arms over our heads.

August 6, 2000. Twenty-four years after, I am in Kyoto with Randy, my groom, my husband. After dinner Randy and I walk to our ryokan in the rain. I dodge puddles to save my green silk mules with the embroidered flowers on the toes. We laugh and laugh, talking over this adventure, high on excitement, Kirin beer and the beauty of Kyoto.

August 6, 2001. Twenty-five years after, the twin towers still stand.

August, 2005. Twenty-nine years after, I have given birth to two daughters. I am starting to understand all sister can mean. The girls giggle and hug in the tub. Their bond forms before my eyes.
I try to tell a therapist about the day Nancy and Chris died. I sob, saying, “In the emergency room, I heard someone crying, screaming in pain. I don’t know if it was Christopher.” 
It is agony to say this. The fifty minutes are up and I leave feeling horrible. I go home and ask Randy, “What was the point of that? It really hurt and nothing came of it. It’s not as if I’ve never said these things before. It’s not a breakthrough. I say the words and poof, there’s nothing there. Nothing’s changed, I haven’t done anything. It just hurts.” 
I start to write about my family. I have much work to do.

August, 2006. Thirty years after, I have put flowers on their stones. I have written everything I can remember about them, the games we played, the trip to the apple orchard, the fights we had, the quality of their voices. I will plant a tree, order a plaque. 
Jeanne and I have talked about the worst day of our lives and she tells me it was not Christopher in the emergency room. He died next to the car. We cried and talked. 
I have visited one of the the neighbor boys who was in the car with us, now married with two boys, happy in his faith, a scuba diver.
I have sent pictures of Nancy and Chris to the Kansas City paper for a memorial. In her photo, nine-year-old Nancy wears her shiny chocolate hair in braids. She leans back on her hands so her shoulders are tipped up fetchingly close to her ears. Christopher grins straight into the camera, the hood of his old worn sweatshirt covering his curls. He is fourteen in the photo and looks close enough to touch. The photos are printed on the thirtieth anniversary of their deaths with the words below, “You are always in our hearts.”  Learning how to grieve is learning to put on the traditional clothes of mourning, sinking into their richness and comfort, bearing their weight with a not unpleasurable sense of duty.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve.  THIS IS NOT TRUE.  It never stops.  THIS IS TRUE.


Jeanne Ambrose said...

I cry reading what you have said..i carry the grief of surviving everyday of my life...how do you deal with something like that i don't know..I grieve everyday of my life over that day, that one day that changed our lives forever...I miss them so much, i remember you and Nancy playing and dancing around together with that sister bond that i had never had...I look at you as my sister and i feel very blessed to have you as my sister.. I love you Cindy, with all my heart!!

Gillian Marchenko said...

Stunning. Painful. Beautiful.

~j. said...

Thank you.

Technoprairie said...

I remember that summer too. I remember feeling stunned that Nancy was there and then she wasn't. And thinking, what do I say to someone who just lost her sister and brother? Do I talk about it? Do I not talk about it?

I also remember going over to your house and playing cards and drinking root beer and how glad I was when you got your cast off. Do you remember the Girl Scout campout at Claudia's house that fall? We made sterno cans out of tuna cans and paraffin and cooked our morning eggs on them in Claudia's backyard.

Cindy Fey said...

I do remember that overnight! I've got vivid memories of the eggs on the coffee cans and what a gorgeous morning it was. I considered teaching my Brownies the same skill but I don't know how we didn't burn ourselves!

CLJ said...

Beautifully written Cindy. You are so talented... I remember that Summer of 83 fondly... lots of hopes and dreams, and grief to come...

Thank you.

Wendy Parris said...


This is absolutely beautifully written. You are very talented. My heart goes out to you, and I wish with all of my heart that you can take comfort in your happy memories of your brother and sister.


Anonymous said...

You are an inspiration. Thank you. I think all the work you're doing, in all of its forms, pain, and beauty, is therapeutic. Thank you for sharing.