Each day is allotted 24 hours, no more no less. In spite of this, around suffering and death, time goes elastic. Even as it’s happening, you know it can’t be right. Days when things seem more or less okay are bright confetti catnaps, papery and light; brisk, filmy collages of favorite things scented with salt air and snow and cooking smoke. Snap your fingers and they’re over. Days when the big-bad is nigh become dark expanses like dying stars imploding in real time, roaring like a gun blast next to your ear and the sound hurts in your eyes and everywhere. So impossibly long as to seem without end. The ten days beginning with my 36th birthday were a jumble of these two sorts—alternating dim and manic and each pregnant with the end and the beginning of all things possible.
Day 1. I’d meant to be in Barcelona. Or at the very least in Houston from where Lev and I had just returned sooner than expected. The second opinion of the world-class doctors there was medium-grim. Lev’s prognosis is shaky as ever, but not anything we’d not recovered from at some other point in his life, right? Right. I’m crying this night, but not because my son is sick. I’m crying because the man I’ve been seeing for nearly a year has forgotten my birthday and I’m not getting laid and I’m pissed. I’m pissed in that way where all you can do is sputter and wail and clutch at pillows and fistfuls of tissues. As I cry, I uncover infinitely more and better reasons to cry, and I cry for those too. I let myself sink into it and really wallow. Because I know. This is it. I’m done. Lev’s done. It’s all done. Fuck it.
Day 2. Joss flies back from Arizona with a shitty cartoon-guy Halloween costume in his suitcase. I tease his hair into some rendering of this anime character he shows me on the package and we go trick-or-treating in our old neighborhood. I spend my first night with Joss in over two weeks. It feels like not enough.
Day 3. In the ICU with Lev. Draft break-up email to guy who forgot my birthday. Talk at length with Lev’s doctors. Rewrite break-up email. Talk to more and different doctors. Rewrite email again. Skip my writing class. Hit send on email. Wait. No response. I’m there with Lev for the night. He’s not sleeping well. I’m tired and exasperated and I wish I could fix it. I can’t.
Day 4. The nurse taking care of Lev on Tuesday has known him literally, his entire life and has never been one to get frantic. This day she endlessly wipes the sweat from her upper lip and tries not to curse under her breath while implementing the rapid fire changes ordered one after another after the other by Lev’s doctors to try and stabilize him. They’re sure he’ll declare himself in a few days and we’ll know if it’s reversible. This time, though, the doctors insist we need to make decisions about whether to let him go if things go haywire. I announce, naively, at a conference table with all of the doctors that my mother’s instinct tells me it’s not over. That he isn’t done. It isn’t time. I’m not worried. On Friday, Lev was laughing and talking and charming everyone in Houston. I’m thinking, how could this time, with his hair back and fiery, with his words back and hilarious, with everything so beautiful, how could this be his death throe?
His dad and I hold it together. We take a walk and we decide. On this day, we decide together that if and when Lev’s body tells us it’s ready to give up, we’d let him be ready. We aren’t ready. We’ll never be ready. But we would let him go if he told us he was ready. And he did. That night.
That night, I was supposed to go home to Joss. Twice I tried to leave, but Lev asked me not to go. Maybe he knew. I don’t know. Around 9 pm, something happened. An “event.” Every alarm rang, the room filled with doctors and nurses and panic. Lev had declared himself. Lev was dying. This was it. And when they asked, we told them what we’d decided. And the doctors and nurses who’d cared for Lev his entire life had to shift from saving him to supporting him—and us—as he died. They had to make it okay for us, for themselves to lose this child who had become family to them over three years of growing well and sick and well again in some or another unit of that hospital. And they did a beautiful, poetic job. They supported him with oxygen and morphine, made him comfortable, moved his crib out and a big bed in so we could lay with him. There were drinks and food on a cart. There was silence and peace and space to fall apart. We called our mothers and we told them Lev was dying. They each came to say goodbye, trading out with one another while the other kept watch over sleeping Joss. The nurses from the cancer unit came down and wept with us, held our hands, and went back to caring for children who were not dying that night.
Day 5. Lev hung on through the dark part of the night. At one point, he woke up and asked for water and talked to me for a minute. I don’t remember what he said. I wish I could remember what he said. As the hours wore on, he slipped further away into his Morphine drip, but it was night, and he should have been sleeping, so it felt right. At about 5 am, I walked over to the couch to rest for a moment and I felt the nurse stir my leg and she said: it’s time. It’s happening. And I crept over to the bed where his dad was cradling him, holding his hand. And I held his leg and his foot and he took a gasping breath and he was gone. The instant when the life of a person is gone from them is palpable. Every bit of energy left the room. No one even tried to make us move for what seemed like hours, but must have been minutes. Dozens of the nurses and doctors who’d cared for Lev came to his room and paid tribute to this baby like you would a politician lying in state. The stream of mourners was continuous until the colors were gone from the sky and the light was clear and blue and bright outside the window.
In the end, we were in the room with Lev for nearly seven hours after he died. I couldn’t stop kissing his marble-cold forehead. We met a rabbi and a funeral director. Someone made the call to have Lev moved to the funeral home where he’d be cremated. The chaplain came and told me a story about a friend of hers who had died and who visited her as butterflies. Someone brought Joss to the hospital to see me in a playroom outside the ICU. He asked if Lev would be a zombie or a ghost or if he’d see his skeleton. It all seemed normal. Joss wanted to go to preschool so someone took him there. The rabbi—a stranger until that morning—who came, at the behest of a treasured physician friend, to console and to guide us, walked me to my car, waited while I sent a text message, and watched me set out alone. When I got to my house, all I wanted in the world was to throw out every scrap of Lev’s sickness. So I pulled it out of every drawer, box, cabinet, and the grandmothers took it all away. I went through piles of paper, piles of clothes, piles and piles of piles. I pulled everything out of where I had hoarded it. And I made them throw it away. My dad dismantled the crib at some point. Everything must go. Everything.
That night, at the apartment, my mom woke up in a panic from a nightmare and I thought she was dying too. I called the paramedics and I followed the ambulance to the hospital. It was 3 am before they let me take her home.
Day 6. Lev’s dad had made plans for us to sit together with the Jewish funeral director and make the necessary arrangements. I put on a pretty blouse and makeup for some reason. And I strode in there like I was being interviewed by the media. At some point, there was coffee. We chose the urn and discussed the sort of service the rabbi might perform and she awkwardly suggested how much we should pay him.
The funeral director listened to us tell stories about Lev’s humor and recounted what others who’d known him had told her about him. She said aloud what we all were thinking—above all, the deceased was a funny kid. And then she paused as if to say something important. So we sat forward and listened intently. And she said: “I feel like we’ve shared a moment here, talking about your son Lev. Something wonderful. And I’d like to share something with you. I feel like I can do that. Because of Lev.” And we were right there with her. And she continued: “The work I do is, obviously, incredibly serious. And over the years, I’ve needed an outlet. And I have developed a passion, which I think you’ll appreciate.” We nod. “And that passion.” A pause. “Is improv comedy. I perform in an improv comedy troupe. I’ve never shared this with anyone. But I feel, because of Lev and how funny he was, I felt that I had to share it with you.” Holy shit. Lev just made his first visit. And he brought gag gifts.
Later that day, while on my way to buy new boots for the funeral, I was approached by a depressingly clean-cut panhandler. Instead of my usual side-eye, I gave him a ten-dollar bill I had in my pocket. He asked, startled: “Are you sure?” I nodded and mumbled that I’d had a hard couple of days and wanted to pay some happy thing forward. He asked if he could pray with me and I—the atheist—nodded again. He took my hands and he prayed aloud that he didn’t know what had happened in my life, but he prayed that it would get better. And as the light changed and I turned the corner into the plaza where the Nordstrom Rack awaited me he said: “I just know it’ll all be okay for you, ma’am. Do you know of any jobs in construction?”
I parked the car, dropped by keys into my purse, and I wondered where the fuck I got a ten dollar bill. And then I remembered: In my sorting rampage that morning, I had pulled it out of a long-forgotten birthday card someone had sent Lev. Lev wanted to make sure I didn’t spend his birthday money on trashy boots. Good for him.
I’ve theorized that maybe the weight of a day, the length of the sprawl of any given 24 hours is connected to its peculiarity—which part you can’t process. You hold on to every bit of incomprehensible data in hope that you’ll someday find the decoder ring and make sense of it. You keep only the Cliff’s notes of the mundane days and you hoard the encyclopedic catalog of rarities and oddities. Except for a hail of bright fragments, though, I cannot remember the day of Lev’s funeral, which was, without question, a day of epic strangeness.
Day 7. Like snapshots pinned to a clothesline, I can rearrange the images of this day a thousand times and never fill in the space between. I know what I wore (grey jacket, black skirt, black boots). I remember listening to the Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light” in the car on the way to the funeral home. I remember Lev’s dad clutching my arm as the rabbi spoke, helping me stand. Helping me not fall. I remember afterward, sitting in my backyard in the sunlight. Someone hands me scotch. I remember hugging the heart surgeon in his beautiful suit in my kitchen. There were pink frosted cupcakes in a white box. Joss is wearing a striped jacket. When I hold him close, he’s fuzzy and warm. I remember my girlfriends sitting very near to me, touching me all of the time, carrying me on their wings as if I were a baby bird. I remember eating sushi at happy hour. I remember a cocktail, a French 75, at a bar later in the evening. And a hooker. And a taco. And I remember laughing. I must have gone to sleep at some point. But I don’t remember where I slept. I don’t remember the day ending or beginning. Why can I make the detail knit together for Lev’s death, but not for his funeral?
A few days later, after being told by another friend that he is frantic, I will reunite with the man who forgot my birthday. We will cry all afternoon in bed, warm together. I will miss an appointment to get my haircut. That’s all I remember. It’s enough.