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.
These Things Happened.
In the space of My Darkest Year, in no particular order, these things happened. My younger son died. My marriage ended. A rabbi and renowned jazz musician whom I’d only met once performed my son’s funeral. People applauded. I fell in love with a blond poet suffering from PTSD. It didn’t work out. My divorce was granted. The only Jewish funeral director in town admitted to me, unbidden, that her life’s passion is improv comedy. My ex-husband threatened my boyfriend’s balls via Facebook. I fled—and sold—my dream house. My older son lost his first tooth and entered kindergarten. I performed stand-up comedy. People applauded. I fell in love again. I realized I’m not afraid of anything.
In corporate America, business people go on outward-bound adventure retreats to try to be better at annihilating their competition through the conquest of rock walls or to learn to excel at firing people via the exhilaration of zip-lining across a ravine. For me, living through four years of being waterboarded by life afforded me the skills to be better at everything. I can’t track how one event led to another. That’s not the point. The point is this: the crucible in which I found myself during My Darkest Year had everything to do with my not giving a fuck about fear any longer. Don’t mistake my lack of fear for lack of feeling. I cry so often that sometimes I don’t even realize I’m crying until the tears on my laptop make the mouse work funny. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself gut-punched in the gaping hole left by my son’s death.
From the moment we found out before Lev was born that he had serious heart defects—and named him after the Hebrew word for heart (‘Lev’ is also Russian for lion)—until he died suddenly in the wee hours of a Wednesday in November, I lived for this kid. I lived to overachieve at being his mother. I lived to make sure I knew more about his staggeringly complex medical self than anyone else, even more than the doctors. I lived to make sure he always had his favorite food or book or movie or shirt at the ready. I lived to administer IV medication 3 times a night at home so he could sleep in his own bed instead of in the cancer unit. I lived to puzzle over adding pureed veal to fruit smoothies so he could have clean protein. I lived to watch an endless loop of The Muppet Show and make it all okay when we were trapped in the hospital for months at a time. I lived on adrenaline, caffeine, and hospital cafeteria pizza. I stopped sleeping. I stopped writing. I stopped hoping for anything. I learned to speak the language of actuaries, of Medicaid administrators, of people with advanced degrees in medicine and nursing. I spoke the language of motivational speakers, of chaplains, of grief counselors and spiritual healers. Still, I began to have, in the confusion of early morning snooze-button half sleep, guilty dreams of airports, of flying, of leaving. And despite all of it, my hilarious red-haired 3-year-old son died. He took a deep breath and he died.
It’s a keen irony that the one thing at which I was exceptionally talented in this life was being the mother of this child who is gone. And the talent lay not only in navigating the complexity of his illness, but in intuiting what this rare bird might need because he was nothing like me or his father or anyone I’d ever known. It was like learning to raise an endangered species. This child, as a personality, as a companion, was incredibly easy. He knew how to make a stranger feel immediately comfortable. He could gauge a sense of humor and put anyone at ease. He grasped not just the timing, but the value of a good fart joke before he was old enough to speak. He was the instant best friend of everyone who met him. And I was his mother. I was the keeper of the awesome.
Since Lev was born, and since he died, my older son, Joss, has been a beacon in the fog. Joss is a lot like me, which is to say he’s neurotic and abstract and sensitive. He has a dark sense of humor. There have been times since Lev’s been gone that the only reason I’ve gotten out of bed at all was because Joss needed something. One day in the winter, after Lev died, Joss built a pillow fort around me in my bed when I couldn’t stop crying.
The all-crying days have grown fewer and farther between. We are simpatico, Joss and I. Parenting him has largely been an exercise in humility and sighing and trying to stay a step ahead of a tiny male version of my own id. With Lev, I felt no such kinship. Instead, I felt something like total bafflement as to how I got so lucky. Seems absurd, throwing around the word “lucky” given that the boy had multiple heart surgeries as an infant, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor at 2, and eventually died at 3 from cancer that had spread throughout his body—but it’s genuine. Everyone who knew him was fucking lucky and they knew it.
The morning Lev died we lay in his hospital bed together. I held onto his foot. His dad held his hand. There was nothing I could do to help him or to save him. There can be nothing worse than that feeling. That experience was the worst thing that could ever and will ever happen to me. So what else should I fear? What would you fear?
He died, and then he smiled. I recognize, realistically, it was some process of decay that produced that smile. But metaphorically, it felt like a tiny middle finger to the universe—the last laugh. It was Lev reminding everyone that he would always be the funniest one in the room. It was grotesque. It was perfect. Lev’s sickness, his dying, the toll it took on everyone who knew him, was abjectly awful. I can’t make it less so. And I can only spend so much time in the deep sea where all of this awful dwells. The rest of the time, I’m fishing in the shallows.
In the hours after Lev’s death, I was consumed with making the transition from grieving the presence of Lev—his suffering, his pain, the worry—to grieving an absence: the absence of my beautiful boy. But I realized somewhere during that first day, the absence is not a void, but a vessel. It’s a vessel that’s mine to fill with wonder and experiences and joy for the rest of my life. And THAT is an incredible gift. Originally, I imagined the vessel as a cup, a vase, a bowl—something with an edge to overflow. But now, I see the vessel as a great cargo ship with Lev as its captain, sailing the sea, peering through a spyglass, looking for the next destination, the next treasure. Watching. Keeping me from wrecking on the rocks. This is where Lev lives for me.
My vessel, thus far, is filled with men & jokes. Both satisfy my need to plumb the middle depth between the sparkle of the surface and the blackness of the deep water. In sex and stand-up, there’s a letting go, a desire to float, to dive but not drown. The first time I stepped onstage to tell jokes, I clicked into the rhythm of the crowd and began to figure out what they liked. It was not unlike a seduction. To have great sex is to excel at connecting on one very specific, very important, level. To excel at comedy, you need to make something like that connection with an entire crowd. You need to be in the moment together, feeling the adrenaline and endorphins and chemistry. When I’m performing, there’s no propriety. I’m no one’s ex-wife or grieving mother. It’s not about my insecurities or personal failures or indulging my anxiety about the future. I mean, unless, of course, there’s a joke there. Then, I’m going for it.
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