No Fear of Flying: Kamikaze Missions in Death, Sex, and Comedy
2011 COLUMN CONTEST
Michelle Mirsky is strong but not tough. She hates being told no. She loves to say yes. She’s always in love. She likes whiskey, listens to fortune cookies, and collects knee-high boots and classic modernist chairs. She’s probably a good mother. She lives in Austin, TX where she works an earnest 9-5 job and sometimes tells jokes on stage—kind of like a superhero with a secret identity. Only not super. Or secret. This column chronicles the year following the not-unexpected death of the author’s son. It’s mostly deadpan. It’s sometimes funny. It’s rarely hyperbolic.
I am consumed most moments by a feeling of sham adulthood, of profound adolescence. Always a late bloomer, I’m dubious as to whether this re-teenaged state in which I find myself is a function of grief and renewal or whether I’m just now finding my way for the first time, admitting that I was never really all that grown-up. Of one thing I am certain: I am not the person I was before Lev died. Nor am I the person I was at the end of the first year, the 365 collected days of which, I was supported, carried, sometimes to the point of feeling suffocated – childlike. I became very nearly the ward of my wider-world and filled with some kind of crazy uncharacteristic peace and faith in the universe, never alone by accident and never alone by choice.
In year two, the world went back about its business. Lev’s tiny legend faded. The well-meaning sympathy of acquaintances soured into something like pity. People listened a little less patiently when I talked about sad things; A feeling of otherness crept on me and fogged me all up, shut me down. I stopped talking about Lev so much. I began to make choices when meeting new people, whether to tell them about Lev at all. I need to decide within a few moments of meeting someone if I want to know that person beyond our introduction. And if I do, I must then find the words to explain my loss and how it’s going to be okay. They need to know it’s going to be okay, so I tell them it will be. I can tell the whole story of Lev’s life quickly and without crying, with a smile, even. But it doesn’t get easier. It never gets any easier. More often, when meeting new people, I tell them I have just one child (a child with an implied unremarkable medical history). They don’t need to know all about me. Lev gets redacted in the interest of everyone’s comfort.
For five years, I’ve shown up to work every day in a beautiful, world-class children’s hospital. I have a unique unicorn of a job advising the hospital on the experience of being a parent of a patient, working with medical professionals at the top of their respective games, people who are the best in their field at healing children. We work together every day to figure out how to build a better mousetrap from the inside out. I work with men and women of all stripes, from housekeepers to hospital executives to doctors and everyone in between. My job was challenging while Lev was living—switching hats between mother and employee, between problem and solution. Talking with the doctors at Lev’s bedside about his heart medication and pacemaker settings and cancer treatment and then meeting those same doctors at boardroom tables to talk about construction projects and hospital policy changes. Sleeping in Lev’s room at night and tumbling bleary down to my office in the morning to host family coffee hours for parents of patients, to learn their stories, to feed them back to the system. I used to tell pieces of my story to help parents contextualize the experience of having a sick baby. I was just like them. With Lev gone, I’m two years into my role as the worst-case scenario. As the mother of a child who couldn’t be saved, I am a constant reminder of what no one likes to remember: you can’t win them all. Like one of the former Soviet republics, the ones whose names you never hear, I’m a casualty of the wider war—a shambled diplomat. I am the ambassador of Deadkidistan. I smile and nod and listen and ask questions. I don’t tell my story to the parents anymore.
In the first year after Lev died, the ladies who worked the cafeteria check-out line would occasionally catch me off guard by asking how I was holding up, how my parents were doing, or telling me they missed seeing my sweet boy. Once and again they would tell me their own stories of grief and ask my advice in solidarity. I’d feel bad in these moments that I didn’t know all of their names. I didn’t know anything about them. But they knew me. And they’d known my son. They knew the sad ending to our story: my son died of cancer and heart disease in a room one floor up from where they serve lunch; one floor down from the gift shop. He died just down the hall from the sunny courtyard where he’d met his brother for the first time 3 years earlier. He died in a bed a short elevator ride from my office where I’m about to eat a $4.00 salad for lunch. Thank you. Have a nice day.
One month to the day before Lev died, I was at a friend’s baby shower in Los Angeles. The hosts of the shower arranged the services of a Tarot card reader for the party. The guests were abuzz. When the ersatz soothsayer arrived, she looked to be in costume. Dressed in striped thigh highs and a tutu, her hair in pigtails, she approximated a stripper version of a circus sideshow gypsy: clownish without winking, a performer. The filmy veil of artifice, an extension of the one that mostly envelops my beloved L.A., made me tired on top of tired. No need to make a party trick of predicting my future. My path was clear. The day before the shower, Lev’s doctors had confirmed a relapse of cancer, and I spent much of that happy day hiding on the sun porch, trying to keep it together, crying dryly on the phone with Lev’s dad. I’d been ruminating on a way out of ruminating. I knew our story had an end, but I didn’t want to see it quite so clearly. At the alarm of the relapse diagnosis, I woke up to what Lev faced. I hadn’t known I was sleeping, but I had been fast asleep, complacent. Facing the universal truth—just because a lot of bad shit happens to a person doesn’t stop more bad shit from coming—helped to put everything in line. The dam between the present and the next place had burst. A river of shit was coming for us harder and faster, nowhere to go but under. I demurred on the Tarot reading. I flew back to Austin early the next morning to begin the end run.
After Lev died and the rushing stopped, I took comfort in the idea that life without Lev might be something like filling a cargo ship with experiences, like a treasure hunt; sailing the blue-green ocean of all-things-possible. The image became a totem for me: my life as a boat with Lev as its captain. The first year after Lev’s death, I bobbed along drowsily in this gently waved and salt-scented dream. I wasn’t particularly curious about the future. I was hungry for it, ready for all of it. I took it as it came. I began to write again and I chronicled year one in a bubble of self-reflection and gratitude, reveling in possibility and potential.
The second year was different. Murky. My vessel felt exactly like a spacecraft hurtling though the blackness of infinity, of possibility to the Nth degree. Too dark for me to see a way forward, propelled to the next place by physics I didn’t understand, I faced the permanence of the loss I’d experienced. The future was a nebula. A vacuum. The void. This is Major Tom to ground control. I’m stepping through the door. And I’m floating in a most peculiar way. And the stars look very different today.
Two full years out from Lev’s death, I feel lost. Which is to say, I feel like myself again: armored, dukes up. I’m past the year of firsts—first birthdays and holidays and anniversaries post-Lev are all past. Everything is old or brand new. Nothing has more meaning than it should. Yet, nothing about Lev’s absence has lessened for me with the passage time. I don’t know that I expected my grief to grow smaller, but perhaps I hoped it would grow more manageable. More stable. If anything, living with the pain longer has meant more pain, compounded pain. But one becomes accustomed to the feeling of living with ghosts, gets used to being haunted. I dread the day, soon, when Lev will have been dead longer than he was alive, when I will have lived longer with his ghost than I did with my darling boy.
In the second half of my second year without Lev, I met a woman I’d previously known by reputation and admired, a true renaissance woman; a character and an open book. Event staging! Silversmithing! Painting! Artist modeling! Hunting for (and dealing in!) rare antiques! Officiating weddings!—Angeliska is a woman of all these many talents and more. And yet she manages to be the opposite of intimidating, so warm you feel instantly that you’ve always known her. She and I had met only once in the backyard of a dive bar and our rambling conversation touched on death and grief and love and grandiosity of all sorts. After we spoke, we corresponded for the better part of a year about various bits and dreams, half-heartedly planning to reconnect, life always intervening. We’d not yet found the time to have coffee or cordials or to gossip over steaks, but we knew we’d meet again. I’d long known that one of her trades was doing tarot card readings in a 1940’s Spartanette trailer in the backyard of her rambling house. The inclination to have a reading done for myself had never so much as flickered, until suddenly—with my birthday and Lev’s second deathiversary looming—I found myself seeking clarity with some mounting degree of desperation. Feeling humbled and hopelessly stuck, I was aflame with the need to gain some direction. It was time to close the loop. To feel focused on the future again, instead of always feeling the unrelenting suck of the past, I would face my fortune.
When I sat down with this lovely woman on my lunch break from the hospital, on a crisp and windy Friday afternoon, I felt nervous and teary and self-conscious. She poured me a glass of water and took my hands in hers and we began the series of rituals and careful shuffling choices that make up a reading of the tarot. She wore a head wrap and a sweater befitting the weather and giant claret colored rope braid earrings that brushed her shoulders. She was not in costume. She was herself, a real gypsy witch: one in a million. The reading Angeliska offered was full of parables and pragmatic interpretation, more like therapy than like a visit to a mystical realm. The array staring back at me was indisputably mine. She suggested I take a photo of the cards all laid out and so I did. The grief card, the hermit, the moon. Rulers and gifts. Wands upon wands. Swords upon swords. The practical and the silly and the divine. “Do this thing. Take these steps. The universe has gifts for you. It’s all right here…” Year three.
I’m terrible at learning from the past. I make the same mistakes over and over. I wish could take everything that’s happened and synthesize it into something great, something sage, some wisdom I can apply to parenting, to living, to love, to writing. I live with all of the decisions that made me; the choices that got me here to this place of alternating needless and needful worry, this place of adolescent rumination, of camping out inside my head doing nothing but damage. Right now, it all feels like a scrambled Rubik’s cube. I want to twist it into rightness, feel the parts click into place, see the colors line up. See them fall into order because I know how to fix it, not because I made the surface look right by switching the stickers. Believe me, I’ve tried. I learned a few things, though. I learned that Aces are gifts from the universe. I learned it’s easier to meditate with two swords than to hold three in your heart. I learned sad song lyrics are accurate predictors of how love will turn out in the end. I learned people are inherently good (except for assholes, who are everywhere). I learned that sometimes a job is a vocation and you do it despite the pain it causes you. And I learned where on the Internet to find photos of firemen putting oxygen masks on kittens, because sometimes you need to remember that good things happen every day. Every day.
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