I’m angry. Its early morning and I open my eyes to a foggy grayness that I sometimes sense inside my head. But not today. Today I wake up instantly alert… and angry. I feel the anger in my ribs as they grip tight around my heart.
It’s three weeks short of the third anniversary of Jesi’s death and I am furious at time. How dare it keep moving onward, further and further away from her. How dare it take me with it.
But I don’t have time to be angry. I need to get up and move further into the day. So I take a reprieve from my angry self and race around my apartment collecting my belongings to leave for the weekend to care for a Scottish Terrier in Cambridge.
The following day I am driving past Mt Auburn Cemetery. It is a gloriously sunny morning; the air infused with a soft balmy feeling rather than the blinding white of summer. A gentle breeze rolls in through the open window of my car. I suddenly find myself visualizing Jesi’s coffin and her sweet sixteen self just as I last saw her resting peacefully in it. Sadness swallows me and absorbs the journey I am on to a meet another dog trainer. How can this have happened? How could I have borne the pain of losing her? Accompanying her coffin to the cemetery, helping push it off its roller bed into the crematorium fire. My finger pushing down on that switch knowing it would ignite the flames that would engulf her body. I could never ever do that again. How could I ever have had the strength to have done it then? Chosing to be with her until her physical body was no longer and she was fully transformed into spirit.
The remainder of my drive is ambushed. My car drives on. I am living a different world, a different time.
This is the beginning of the darkest month, I later write in my journal. August 20. It was on August 23 three years ago that Jesi’s mind began to leave us. Her brain cruelly sabotaged by alien cells rendering her unreachable to us. She knew something was happening to her. That final night with me, she reached for my hand, our arms entwined and circled, skin touching through the bandage board attaching her to her IV therapy. Our fingers making patterns on skin. Mine on hers, gently, so gently. Her long slender fingers, nails painted blue ever so softly on mine. It was her good bye to me and I never even knew it.
I have replayed that night in my mind a thousand times since to feel her with me again and each time I come up with an empty hand, a handful of dreams and the knowledge that Jesi is gone forever from my touch.
That’s what Kari screamed at the top of her lungs when Jesi drew her final breath.
J-E-S-I I-i-i-s-s G-O-N-E.
And we have been living it ever since.
A text comes in on my phone and saves me. The other trainer has arrived and is waiting for me. Back to the work of working with dogs.
But the darkest month won’t let go.
I leave my Scottish Terrier a second time that afternoon. This time dressed to attend a formal event. It is only when I join the line at the that it dawns on me that I should have chosen more muted colors, not the pastel blue with floral print dress that I am standing in. I consider going back to my car to at least find my grey jacket to throw on top, but do not want to lose my place. The line extends outside the funeral home and onto the street.
The last time I remember a line this long extending outside a funeral home was just over three years ago when well meaning friends kept whispering in my ear, asking that I be mindful when greeting the hundreds of guests that had come to pay respects to Jesi that there were probably over a hundred of people still waiting to see us.
When I agreed to come today it had not dawned on me what it would feel like to be standing here, alone, almost three years after losing Jesi. It had not dawned on me that inside my blue dress I would feel my skin shrinking into my bones and my heart collapsing into my lungs and my legs weakening at the knee joints. I consoled myself by repeating in my head that I no longer cared that my dress was pastel blue. That it was good enough I was standing there in it at all.
But of course I would never have contemplated not coming. Not for this particular teacher who had been so kind to Jesi, who had gone out of her way to give so much when Jesi had been sick.
I would have come knowing it would have felt this way in any case.
So I stand in the line feeling conspicuous and alone with these memories increasingly flood my mind.
A woman in black approaches and for a moment glances at me before she stops on the step above me. “You’re Mrs Watson?” she looks directly at my face.
“Yes,” I manage to respond.
“We were hoping you would come.” I notice a slight hesitation as she says this. But she goes on. “We met once, at the PMC for N. I’m Mrs X.”
“Oh yes.” I did vaguely remember a conversation and this woman’s face is taking on a familiar shape in my mind. It was the year Jesi was in hospital waiting for her transplant that Kari and I went to the PMC kids ride in Bedford on her behalf. She and the other boy from her school were joint pedal partners.
“How are you?”
“Fine,” I force the word out, desperately trying to make myself feel strong and willing my voice not to betray me. Yet I might not have bothered. I hardly have time to mutter the words before she has turned her back to me so she is facing the young woman standing above me. This woman is noticeably younger than both of us and her eyes are watering. She hugs her and starts talking. I lower my gaze and stare at the lines in the sidewalk.
It seems that a very long time passes before the line moves. I begin to scan the crowd for faces I might recognize. I scan once, twice, perhaps three times, seeing no-one.
Finally the line shuffles forward and I follow the two woman in black through the open doors of the funeral home. An employee nods a greeting to me and I gratefully smile back. The similarities between Jesi’s visitation just over three years ago and this memorial are striking. In the room to my right people gather around a TV screen. I see handkerchiefs dabbing the corners of eyes and hands grasped together, knuckles clenched so the skin covering them is drawn and white. Despite my resolve I am still obsessed with clothing and scan for women not dressed in black. Here and there a colored dress or shirt is covered in a blazer. Everywhere small groups. Nowhere does one lonely person stand unprotected from their own emotions. I turn away but to my left elevated on a stand is a large poster displaying photos. I am looking at each individual photo praying there will be none of this wonderful teacher with her class or the students she cared for. I am not sure what I would do if I saw Jesi smiling at me. Thankfully I do not have to find out. As I shuffle through the room and sign my name, my scratchy black scrawl along the line which seems to jump out of the page in its unbelonging, the women in the line ahead of me are joined by a few others and they form a small group. They seem to move out of the line to chat and I want to ask them to move along as I am getting more and more unnerved, or ask if I can go on ahead. Neither feels appropriate. I wait and eventually we all shuffle into the main reception room. Inside the door, a table is set up with memorabilia. A pair of tap shoes, photos of smiling women crowded together laughing and in formation on stage. I had no idea, a voice in my head says as I look at the smiling faces picking out the familiar face of the teacher. Message jars of good feeling notes in a handwriting I remember from school projects Jesi bought home…
When I finally leave the funeral home I know it was the right thing to have come. My blue dress fades in the evening light, the faces of the women who know but don’t know me blend into the hum of muffled chatter in the rooms adjoining the reception room. It is in meeting the family that I have felt the greatest kinship. We share a sense of knowing which bonds us together in a way those who have not experienced the death of someone in their closest circle do not understand. And we know this without words. It is impossible to express the feelings, to put into words the route that the journey through loss that we have all embarked on will take, to know how long it might be and how many u turns there may be. It is as individual as each soul that has left us…
and no matter how many years pass, it continues to baffle and surprise with its tormented twists and turns.
Now, when I think about it, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at the sudden appearance of anger pushing at my heart that morning. If I look back at photos I would have realized it has been brewing. My fridge with its display of photos sporting updates of Chris and Kari, no longer nineteen and sixteen as they were when Jesi left them. They have grown even faster away from her than I with my greying hair. But the photos of Jesi. All I have is those she left me with of her sixteen year old self. Her smile even then, ages older than her sixteen years. But who would the now young woman be behind that smile?
I often wonder what type of relationship would have grown between us. We built such a unique bond during the unnatural time of her illness. It fostered an inter-dependance between us in which I learnt how to truly love and give of myself, tending to her bathing and caring for her physically as her mother and her nurse, dressing her many wounds and administering her meds and IV therapy when she was home from hospital. And what she gave to me! Insight into her courage and strength, the lightness with which she faced the most awful treatments, singing her way through total body irradiation, laughing so hard she would go into coughing fits at Kari’s jokes and musical theater acts or my attempts at puppeteering with her stuffed animal friends.
I remember leaning on my kitchen countertop one morning during Jesi’s last year and telling my therapist, “I don’t know what I will do if Jesi doesn’t make it. I don’t know if I can go on without her.”
We knew even then, before the transplant that there was a possibility… But who wants to think about that…
Around this time last year, when Kari’s contemporaries were all heading off to college for their freshman year, I bumped into another mother of twins in Lexington center. Her daughter was with her, her son, the twin of the tall young woman standing behind her was not. She asked me how I was and we started chatting. She told me how at the high school graduation the class president, who had been one of Jesi’s good friends, started his speech with ‘One of us is not here today, and she should be…’
I had been told the story before but I could listen to it a hundred times. How this boy, the class captain honored Jesi at the graduation as being part of the graduating class. (Kari had moved high schools after Jesi passed away so essentially our ties with the local school had ended in Jesi’s death.) We continued talking for a while, and I asked after her twins. The mother lamented about her son choosing a school in the mid west, “But at least X will be close. She is going to North Eastern. I couldn’t bear it if they were both going to be far away,” she ended. I remained silent, though there were a million responses going through my mind that if I had not vetted could have tumbled out. Then, in asking after Kari and what she was going to be studying and what Chris was doing she mentioned Jesi. “So I suppose you’ve moved on…” she said, as if the fact I had another daughter might not ever have existed. My little dog had been standing patiently at my feet while I had been talking. We were on our evening walk. I didn’t answer the mother’s comment. I didn’t forget it either. But I did move my little dog down the street away from the direction she and her daughter were heading.