after the fall
Remembering the image in my head ~ the memory ~ before I write it down is a sacred form of writing before the writing exists. A beckoning to relive, flashing in and out of the body. I wish I could reproduce my brain’s blooming of events, but they are just mine. Reproduction is for other people. Sometimes I swear I will never write about something, but that is usually what I want to write about most. I want to write about the girl alone in the ICU waiting room and the man in the curtained-off room with the swollen face attached to tubes. I don’t know anything about them besides the image. I want to write about my dad attached to wires in the ICU to look at his brain waves and then we brought our own wires to play music, Bob Dylan songs, in his ears like a stream of hope. A calling, a comfort, a determination, for us more than for him. After all, the music was too harsh for his mind. Sometimes it’s hard to admit that music is painful. I remember listening to “Simple Twist of Fate” on the plaid couch, and I haven't been able to listen to it since. Sometimes when I think of words before I write them, I start to cry, but then when I write them in the physical space outside my invisible imagining, they don’t pull me down into their waters anymore. The words float at the top, harmless. The words inside my thinking of the writing are more painful than the physical written outcome. Outside my body, the images neutralize -- white wires and earbuds lifting into my dad’s ear. A girl watching tv on a chair in a dark room with other chairs. A room for families to wait, a transition area for the attached, where my sisters and I talked about details of our private lives. Why not tell each other who we really are? We could die never knowing each other except for the image.
My grandma experienced a small injury to her head a couple months ago. She fell during a physical therapy session that was supposed to help her with her balance. She and my aunt told me the story: the therapist said, hold onto the bar and try walking with your eyes closed. My grandma knew her body wouldn’t respond well to this and she refused. But the therapist insisted, and so she closed her eyes – her hands escaped the banister, and she was on the ground. She told me that she was so scared. My grandma used to be a nurse — she knew she needed to stay on the ground and be checked, she knew she needed to go to the hospital to find out if she had a concussion. On the back of her short whitened hair, she showed me – a bruised and scraped knot, like how bumps appear on heads in cartoons.
I was so scared, too. I was off work, I was in St. Louis, I was called to come over to her house and so I did. I was the only family member who didn’t have any responsibilities or plans. I could be there for her, my biggest desire and biggest guilt. When an old person falls, I’ve been told this is the most dangerous thing that could happen. My grandma, my matriarch. In a text I received, my family reassured: she is doing well. “All is well” — a text my grandma told me that she exchanges with my mom almost everyday.
Through loss and damage, people find each other, Maria Stepanova said, in her book ‘In Memory of Memory’, which I am currently reading like a textbook.
Once I was at my grandma’s house, she asked if I wanted anything to eat. It was a question she would’ve asked me on any other day, as if she hadn’t just been at the hospital getting scans of her brain for bleeds. I let her sit while I cut up cantaloupe for myself. We sat at the dining room table, snacking on the slimy orange cubes with our fingers, talking about the physical therapist. Then she excused herself to close her eyes for a bit on her reclining chair. I didn’t really know my purpose. Was I just there to be there? Was I supposed to watch her as she slept? Was I there for her comfort of another body for company and attention, or was I there for the comfort of the others, the family as a collective trembling worrier?
I sat on the plush white couch that she sometimes drapes with a bath towel, something she does to keep her couch clean. Writing this detail, I start to cry. My eyes often burn from the sudden realization of objects, so personal, like people. Other memories sift around — her showing us how to lay down a flat sheet on the couch to keep cool, a trick from before air conditioning. I also remember getting a bloody nose at her old house, soiling the carpet, or it could’ve been my twin sister’s bloody nose, and then I think of the brown tiles of the old kitchen and the brown wooden chairs.
Soon, I will be teaching an online course through the county library on writing memories. I feel queasy about this, because this type of writing is so important to me, I want to get it right. I want to be a good teacher, and I’ve never taught a course like this before. The responsibility feels weighty - how do I empower people to write about their lives?
Maria Stepanova wrote, “There is too much past, and everyone knows it. It is beyond control and beyond description.”
On my white notepad, I sketch and plan:
What is a memory? -A surface-level visual image in our heads. -A remembered event, leading to a remembered emotion. -Pieces of our lives we keep for some reason. -Can be distorted by time, warped in our concepts. -Not all memories are shared, some die with us. -Therefore, sharing a memory is a powerful act.
On the reclining chair and white couch, my grandma and I discussed Covid booster shots, and then we discussed when she used to be a nurse in the polio unit. I mentioned what she’s told me before, which is that back in the early 1950s she was also treating St. Louis Holocaust survivors who were victims of Nazi medical experimentation. She added that some of those people were twins who were experimented on. I had never heard that before. Had she kept that detail from me last time, when I was sitting next to my twin? The painful silence of kept-away reality. I then asked her to tell me the entire history of her nursing career and she did. My notebook was nearby but I didn’t write any of this down. I will have to ask her again soon, to be the recorder of her records.
A couple months before, after I had recovered from the delta variant, my twin, my sister N, my mom, aunt, grandma and I attended the funeral of our great-aunt Marian in the Jewish cemetery. I remember it was hot and we let the old people sit in the chairs under the shade of the tent where the rabbi was speaking. We were all wearing masks, which we removed to wipe our noses as we cried. The rabbi said something about how it’s good to cry – crying is the communication of those in grief. Crying means something.
Unlike the Zoom funerals I had attended that past year – for my great-uncle Norman and my great-aunt Rita — this time, I was able to walk to the grave in the physical world. I held the shovel, pressed its blade into the chalky earth, and watched as bits of mud thudded her coffin. The family is a collective hand, leading the dead to darkness, to rest.
I remember my grandma didn’t want to stay and schmooze, she didn’t want to attend the shiva afterwards. I don’t know if her immediate departure from the funeral had to do with her safe covid protocols, or my assumption that these events are very hard for her.
In her condo, my grandma had laid a long stretch of embroidery over a chair. It depicted butterflies, although now I’m doubting my imagistic memory – were they flowers? I complimented her on it, and she told me she made it many years ago from a pattern, stitch by stitch. Then she went to a drawer in the giant piece of furniture that holds some of her pincushion doll collection and pictures of her grandchildren in dual glass doors, bookending the slot for the TV. She handed me a piece of stitched cloth, “Here, do you want this?” Yes. I’ll take whatever you want to give. It was a challah cover her mother made in the 1940s. It was simple — ivory cotton hanky material, light yellow thread and light blue, making x’s to create shapes of a stout kiddush cup, rippled bread, and Hebrew words. What is the Hebrew phrasing, some kind of sabbath song? I can read the letters without vowels and feel a tickle of familiarity, like something I learned and sang a long time ago at camp or Hebrew school. I still need to translate it. Everything comes back to translation. I am translating this reality into a typed form, my lettering for someone else to decipher.
Here, do you want this? I want an object to keep. I want to keep you. The family is stitching, writing, keeping busy with our hands to forget our troubles.
Like I mentioned before, it was a hot day at the Jewish cemetery. We had driven all the way there, somewhere between an hour and 30 minutes outside of St. Louis, into a quiet bed of former farmland turned cookie-cutter suburbs. These places of death and names are always placed on the outskirts of cities, Maria Stepanova noticed in ‘In Memory of Memory’, so that we do not see them in the peripherals of our daily lives. There’s a societal flinching of death, we don’t want to deal.
Well, we were there, dealing, so we wanted to make the most of it. After Aunt Marian’s service, my sister N had the idea to search for my grandparents’ shared grave, my dad’s parents who died in the early 2000s. I hadn’t seen their graves since we were placing soil on them, back then. N had a text from our aunt as directions: the gravestone is by the path, where there is a bit of flowers or foliage landscaping. Not to make grand declarations of character, but my sister N and I are terrible at reading maps and finding things we’ve lost. I spent at least 20 minutes, fast-walking on the grassy lanes in-between families, reading their names on the gray surfaces. The graves flew by my vision like little stone doors to the earth, topped with rocks, as jewish tradition, like little stone eyes, stone mouths, kisses, xoxo. I looked for tiny American flags joining the graves, since my grandpa was a WWII veteran. Finally, my twin H found the grave – she is actually good at looking for things.
I thought about this memory later as an image: three sisters rushing along the organization of Jewish St. Louisans of the past like a corn maze. Looking and looking for our family members, since we couldn’t remember where they were. In literature and nonfiction, it seems, people are always searching through cemeteries for a dead loved one or a famous person and getting lost, unable to remember the grave’s location. These moments of longing and desperate searching become easy metaphors for the absence of the dead, for us missing them, losing them.
I did have my notebook at my grandma’s condo, but I didn’t write anything down about that day. I am remembering this all from memory, from the vivid moment of being close to her in her home, something I never do alone. My grandma explained to me how you can use a frozen bag of peas for a headache or head wound, since the kernels in the bag shape around the curves of your skull, a personal fit. She rested and I moved to the dining room table to write. What I wrote were quotes from a book I had just finished and didn’t want to forget, ‘Obit’ by Victoria Chang.
I started reading the book as an ebook in a hotel room at 2 in the morning, the night that we saw Bob Dylan with my parents in November in Bloomington, Indiana. My twin and I both couldn’t sleep – I was hyped up on all the snacks and the margarita I got at the restaurant after the show with my mom and dad and H — and she had just found a literal bed bug on the hotel room sheets. For some reason I decided to pull up the poetry on my phone to calm me down, and I didn’t realize the book was all about a dad recovering from a stroke, and a mother’s sudden death. In my notebook, a week later, sitting next to the butterfly embroidery, I wrote: Notes taken at my grandma’s house, 11/16/21, after her fall. My notes:
-“To acknowledge death is to acknowledge that we must take another shape” -“Our sadness is plural, but our grief is singular” -“The way grief needs oxygen. The way every once and a while, it catches the light and starts smoking. The way my grief will die with me.”
And circled in the aqua fine-point pen that N got me for Hanukkah, a belated emphasis: --“The way grief is really about future absence.”
It was recently the last day of the year, another year of my life, and the beginning of another isolation and quarantine period from out-of-control viral damage and capitalist America’s healthcare collapse. My twin and I had oddly enough just experienced a covid testing site scam, a red-faced blonde Gen X dude wearing scrubs trying to collect people’s personal information outside of the Dollar General in my neighborhood. Feeling violated and nihilistic from this experience, and feeling dizzy and nauseous from what I would later find out was my second-round of covid, I laid down on my bed and cried. My roommate was downstairs, cooking a vegetarian wellington and about to serve martinis for the new year. I needed to rest and cry in order to enjoy the night. Unlike the collectiveness of the funeral, in my room, crying is private and solitary. I don’t share my crying except for the writing of it. In the moment, there is no communication, only relief of my body flooding out. A flush, a proof of the matter: I was crying because the world felt like it was over. I don’t want the world to be over. I want to keep.
Around dinner time, my mom arrived at my grandma’s with stuff to make an ideal comfort dinner: grocery store rotisserie chicken, green beans, and a salad. I helped her snap the ends off the green slender pods, and I chopped up some cucumber. My grandma doesn’t keep salad dressing in the house, so we added some of her vinegar slaw from the fridge to dampen the leaves. My mom seemed fresh and upbeat — a little bit of needed time away from my dad, maybe, and she said she ran into an old friend at the store.
My mom’s positive attitude, filling up the condo, reminded me of a time during the Bob Dylan trip, when H was driving us around frantically. We were trying to find a restaurant in downtown Bloomington with a wheelchair accessible entrance, on a time crunch before the concert. It was an incredibly frustrating experience — we had found parking a couple times, only to walk up and see the steps leading down or up. These are failures my parents probably experience regularly, but I was so upset: the lack of accessibility and rights for disabled people in this country. In the darkened car cutting through the alleys, I was on the brink of tears, and my mom said to us, “Isn’t this neighborhood so beautiful? My sister lived here for a semester once.” I was in awe in this moment of her patience. With her words, she redirected, she focused on the calming exteriors of the houses, she focused on a memory. She didn’t panic, or didn’t show it, and we found an Indian restaurant with a ramp soon after.
My grandma and mom and I chatted for a moment at the bar counter separating the small condo kitchen and dining room, elbows on the stone countertop. My grandma told us something about how my uncle’s girlfriend always calls her to unload about her life. Maybe she sees you as her mother figure, I said. Maybe so, she said. I think about this brief gossip circle of three generations, a throwaway chitchat scene, and I cherish it. I keep it.
After I finished picking at my food, with giant bulbs of strawberries for dessert, my mom asked me to leave and check on my dad. I opened the door to their house after driving ten minutes down the main road of the suburb. My dad was watching the news, drinking a beer. We caught up for a sec, but we mainly watched the same screen in silence. The news, in my opinion, is garbage of unhelpful information (“this is the pandemic of the unvaccinated!”) and my mom has admitted that she doesn’t like watching the news with my dad. But I find it fascinating, and I enjoy being there with him. In another essay I wrote, three years ago when he was newly recovering (now the recovering isn’t new, are we longtime recoverers? it still feels new, recovering is always hot on my cheek), I wrote about how much I wanted to watch tv with my dad and eat snacks. My hopes are simple enough. I write them down. My words mean something to me now, and will mean something different to me in the future. I just want to be in the same room as those I love, sitting on the couch, even if we aren’t saying a word. Our communication always feels like it will come later, or encased behind our objects, fabric we mold to each other’s outlines.