It was a week past Easter Sunday, a week that we had lived in the hospital, taking shifts from bedside to waiting room. Now the entire extended family crammed into the tiny room set aside for families to hold their tragedy, every hand clutching tissues or tiny Styrofoam cups of something warm, tasting tears. It must have been two dozen people, but the room was full to bursting with more than just physical bodies.
We were barely 19, my high school sweetheart and I. But here we were, deciding whether to remove his father from life support.
He had woken up on Easter Sunday with paralysis in one side of his face and arm. The day of resurrection, for this devoutly Christian family, was the last day anyone would see him rise. He’d been having some numbness in his arm, and was due to see a doctor the next day. Instead, his wife rushed him to the emergency room of the closest hospital – which, being in a poor ghetto, was also one of the most understaffed and under-equipped hospitals in the area.
He sat in the ER waiting room for hours before they finally admitted him. Hours, following the stroke. Hours which sealed his fate.
The first visit, he had some awareness of who we were. He reached with his fingers for his son’s hand, looked me in the eyes with a sad knowing plea.
The first seizure stole all that, and sent him to the tubes and the machines.
Mostly I remember the feel of the room, and the smell. It wasn’t a worldly smell – it was the smell of loss, of Death stalking near. Something that, once you recognize it, you can never forget. No hospital antiseptics can cover it up. No flower bouquets banish it.
I remember feeling so isolated and alone, with this huge family that I barely knew and had no clue how to be around. Extended family was foreign to me; something I’d never known and hadn’t really allowed myself to wish for. It seemed my only value was in the role of supportive girlfriend.
When we went home, I watched him seethe. I watched him eat his rage and pain, stuffing it deeper and deeper. I held my grief for his loss, and my loss. His father had always been so kind and accepting of me, as opposed to his devout mother who was at best wary of my presence. I cried alone in the closet so he wouldn’t know of my grief, and then would beg him to talk to me. I wrote. He drank. I eventually found acceptance. He found the silence of the eye of the storm.
Ultimately we never recovered. Our relationship ended 8 years later – many years later than it should have.
We don’t talk about this, in our culture. How do you bury a parent when you are barely an adult yourself? How do you cope, looking down the long hallway of adulthood, mourning the milestones that aren’t even here yet, that they won’t be at either? How do you carry the burden of grief on shoulders that have barely held life? How do you say goodbye when you can’t even accept that they are gone? How do you fill shoes that were never meant to be yours?
How do we hold each other in our grief?