Every now and then I have moments where I understand that Doctor Stewart is dead. Not just that I know he’s dead, but that deeply and viscerally I understand he no longer exists.
In a sense, the deaths of my grandfathers are still not real to me. I feel bad in acknowledging my lack of emotional connection to their dying. When my Aunt Suchie died, it was similar. I know they are all gone, that I will never see them again, but in a sense I always knew they would die. Similarly, to each of them I had a chance to say goodbye.
Before Suchie died, I visited her in the hospital. It was a strange decision to make–one of my first decisions as an adult. I asked my parents about visiting her. I was in university and somehow came to know that she was dying. Not in the sense that we’re all dying, but that, very much, she was at the end of her life. I flew down to Florida–we’re Jew/ish/–by myself. Another picked me up from the airport and for a few days I visited my dying aunt.
This was after my grandfathers had died.
My mother’s father had always been a part of my life. He was the first to go. His death took years. He and my grandmother–Savie–moved to Florida in a house that at times seemed untouchable. There were parts of it I could live in, and parts of it filled with these non-childproof parts–a hand-painted cabinet from Japan (or was it China), sculptural trees and flowers made out of rose quartz, jade, and amethyst. We’d eat Klondike bars and seven layer cookies because it was vacation. Pop-pop and I would watch My Fair Lady and sing along. He had a great smile–the same one I would later see when I was in Korea, on the faces of children as they came to see something wonderful for the first time. There was a mango tree in the yard and lizards under the furniture.
Pop-pop had a stroke at some point in my childhood. I don’t remember when. After that, it became known that he was going to die. Strokes, to me still, are a sign that your entering the very last period of your life. He, as people who have strokes tend to, lost control of parts of his body. He had trouble trying to recover them. At the time, I didn’t understand why he and Savie would fight about his exercises. Now that I’m older, I know it’s because he didn’t want us to see him struggle. He didn’t want us to think he was weak.
My freshman year of high school, he died shortly before finals. We went to the funeral. We drove. I read Orson Scott Card books in the car. My mom wore cut up black ribbons on her clothes for a week afterwards. It was the most Jewish I’ve ever seen her. It would have made her father happy.
While we were in Florida, I saw Grandfather Peter for the third time. Our relationship was marked by funerals.
Grandfather Peter was always Grandfather Peter. It was a detached, formal name. It separated him from our family–from my family. It made him an image, a force, not a person. I first met him at a funeral for someone in our family I never met. I don’t know why we met him there, but we did. He was in town for the funeral, and it was near where we lived. He didn’t come over, or hang out with us otherwise. We saw him, briefly, at a funeral. Years later, when driving to Florida to visit Savie and Pop-pop, we stopped in Savannah where Grandfather Peter was with his wife on a business trip.
We had dinner together.
After Pop-pop’s funeral, we drove to Ft. Lauderdale where Grandfather Peter was getting treatment for his liver cancer. The cancer was devouring him. All of the energy and -mass- of his body, which I have since come to learn people loved about him, had moved to his stomach. He was not the handsome, quirky, charming man I’ve heard about. He was thin and his skin trying to keep from falling off, clinging to his bones in hopes that it might be full again some day. My parents told me to let him hug me. He smelled like smoke.
He was dying. He knew it. It colored everything he did. Everything he said. Every movement his body took acknowledged that it might never take such an action again.
He died a few months later. Dad went to the funeral. We did not.
With all of these people, I can’t remember not knowing they were dying. When I was younger, I was scared of Pop-pop and Suchie because it was hard to deny that death was following them. No one told me this, but I recognized it. There was a fragility in them that scared me, not because I was afraid I would catch it–which I inevitably will–but because I didn’t want to be the one to break them. In getting to know them, I knew I would say good-bye. And with each of them I had a chance to. With the final kiss on Suchie’s cheek, I knew it was the last. When I saw Pop-pop for the last time, he brushed his scruffy cheek against me and called me by my mother’s name and I understood he was gone. When I last saw Grandfather Peter, there was that smoke-filled hug that felt like the first and the last at the same time.
When I last saw Doc, he hugged me and said he’d see me later. When I walked into his office, the last thing I did before leaving Pittsburgh, he smiled at me the way he always did when I would walk in. That look of working and stress would go away and be replaced with a smile as he looked up. He said “see you later” as a promise, not a valediction. In our last correspondence, he promised to talk about something with me the next time we actually talked, rather than just shared e-mail.
I never found out what that was.
Before Doc died, Moses died. Moses was a friend of mine from middle school and high school. He was a Spider. We called ourselves the Spiders from Mars. It was sort of like being in a gang. Once a Spider, always a Spider. I remember the last time I saw him, at a Winter Holiday party in 2008 that the Spiders had. He spun music. He was good. He’d mixed songs together just for us. They were good. He talked about his leukemia–it’d been in remission for years–and continued to fail to hide how much he loved us all, in spite of the years and spaces between. He’d twitter at me. Facebook message. We followed each other on the internet. It wasn’t in the same way you follow your best friend, but it wasn’t in the same way you follow someone you just met once either. With each thing of his I would read, I would remember him and take comfort in knowing I would in fact see him again. All of our meetings ended with hugs and more promises of the future.
And then he died.
In thinking about Doc’s death, I inevitably think about Moses’s death. They impacted me because I didn’t expect them. I never got closure because there was no chance to close anything. Instead, something, a potential, will exist that really can never be fulfilled. I hate cliffhangers. I hate endings that aren’t endings. I hate the window in my mind that will always be open, stuck by miscommunication, failure to communicate, loss of ties, death. Occasionally, unbidden, wind will blow through it and across my mind, seizing my thoughts, emotions, and body. At these moments, every part of me understands that these possibilities are empty. That Doctor Stewart–and Moses–is dead.
This happened to me when riding my bike home the other day. My throat got tight and my eyes strained. The tension, pressure, built up. I swallowed hard and one set of tears from each eye rolled down my cheek, along my neck, and under my shirt. They were cold.