No “And Then”

A long time ago, a newlywed couple regularly ordered Chinese food as a matter of course when working late or stressed from life’s woes in general (one suffers life’s woes much more in one’s 20s and Chinese food is so very comforting).

The phone order taker seemed instructed to state the following after each item was requested:
“And then?”

It was done in a sing-song fashion, abbreviating each item we ordered with a rhythm, so the person placing the order followed it like trailing a leaf down a river’s current.

Husband: “Two small Hot and Sour soups”.
Order Taker: “And T-H-E-N?”
Husband: “One large Mo-shoo pork”.
Order Taker: “And T-H-E-N?”

The ebb and flow continued until you were caught with nothing left to order. You wanted to, felt compelled to keep her singing her “And  T-H-E-N?” But for the sake of prudence (gastronomical and economical) you simply had to stop. But how to stop? She did not seem to understand: “That’s all” or “Nothing more”.

So my husband cleverly replied to her with her own words:

“No ‘And Then’.”

Comprehension reached. Order completed. Song over.

Two decades later we still joke when we (much less frequently) order Chinese takeout and have added the routine to indicate when “enough is enough”. For example, when it’s time to leave a party, when one of us is simply too tired to play another set of tennis or after too much vacation sightseeing.

“No ‘And Then’” came to me recently when I was feeling sorry for myself because so many people I knew had died so closely together.

Five dead in 20 months. Five wakes. Five funerals. Three funeral luncheons. Ninety-six mushroom burgers, 73 pints of ice cream, 87 cannolis, and 241 sleepless nights.

I had some idea I was losing my grandmother. Her health deteriorated over two years, starting at age 88. She waned before our eyes slowly the way a candle does at the beginning of a dinner when you wonder whether it will drip ruinous wax all over the table by the time dessert is served, and then rapidly are astonished that you can barely distinguish the faces across the table by the meager flame’s flicker.

Before she became too ill, we spoke daily of cooking, family and animals—particularly our cats; but also she took pleasure in my describing (during the final spring before her life became a round trip between hospitals and nursing homes), the progress of a family of Canadian geese and their offspring as they developed from tufts of down to awkward, green gangly teen-geese to when their parents were finally alone.

About 15 months after she died I was able to remember her without longing for all the little things I missed. I was able to remember the things about her which drove me crazy, our disagreements; she finally lost sainthood and became a human again. A human I lost, but loved, and I accepted it. I deleted her phone number from my cell phone.

Then my father died in a car accident.

We got along well enough, he was technically my “step” father but I was never one for formalities and it never seemed to matter. I called him Henry and he called me his daughter. Simple arrangement for us, we were the same like that. He came into my life when I was nine, and having had my biological father walk out when I was a few months old, my grandfather (“step”grandfather) had filled the role well enough. Very well indeed. So much so that Henry knew to never try and be a replacement but be a good and loving man married to my mother. He took me to father-daughter dances and walked me down the aisle when I got married. He was always there. Until one day he wasn’t.

We were not very close until after my grandmother died and he became the new “phone” version of her. Two or three times a week we prattled on about what we had each cooked for dinner, our cats’ antics, squirrel raids on the meager holes in their attic, my brother’s college escapades, my fears about my husband’s job and health, and complaints about my commute.

It was a Sunday morning. His car crashed into a tree. There were signs of a swerve but not details. He was on his way to work. There was no  resolution to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of his accident.  No closure like I had seen people get on TV. Just a photo my brother and and I identified at the morgue.

It’s funny what you miss about people after they die. I realized he would never make my favorite ginger ale and cranberry drink or my husband’s favorite salad. There would be no more check-ins about our cats. He would never repeat the details of my brother’s hockey games. We would no longer squabble over politics.  There were simply no more conversations left.

No “And Then”.

Three months later, my Aunt Claire died. We morbidly ‘joked’ with my cousins that we “had to stop meeting like this!”.  She had been sick for so long that, while losing someone like her—who took everyone’s side in an argument and had a laugh that wrapped around you like a whip—it was understood her death was a release from suffering, and we all truly meant it.

Wakes are like weddings without the presents or music.

One develops a wake repertoire. After a while, it’s a well-oiled show: the handshaking, the “so sorry for your loss”, “what a terrible shock” (to be replaced with “even though s/he was so sick, it’s still a shock, a terrible loss”, as appropriate), “people are so thoughtful at times like this” (to be replaced with “forget what s/he said, people say the dumbest things at times like these”, as appropriate), “who sent those lovely flowers” (the perfect subject-changer), greeting someone as if you’ve known them your whole life only to turn to your closest relative and ask, “who the heck was that?”.

Two and a half months later, my Uncle Tony (Aunt Claire’s husband) died the day he was to be released from the hospital. His children sobbed with such longing that even though I was numb from the previous deaths, I had to walk away because their yearning was like a vacuum.

Three weeks later, the mother of my dearest friend died from a several-year battle with a Parkinson’s like degenerative disease. The months of prayer to relieve her from her pain were followed in the weeks after her funeral with a longing for her mother that one only sees in a ravenous child.

Over those months of loss, I was consumed with these deaths and what they meant to me. I had pitied myself, numbed myself to it (mostly with food), vetted anger at helpless victims (my apologies to most people commuting on the number 5 train downtown), and trivialized the other events taking place in my friends’ lives (job promotions, divorce, unemployment, moving).

I allowed myself to gorge on the emotion of loss.

Then one day I felt fat. Not just the weight accumulated from the self-destructive eating-as-comfort, but also bloated with a loathing of what I had become emotionally and mentally. I gave in to every feeling, every craving. I had become apathetic, narcissistic, and pessimistic simply through losses that I refused to accept.

No matter how much you long for the people in your life to go on, to keep being there in a comforting way that you need them, at some point they have to go (it would be a pretty crowded and gross planet if we didn’t). You simply cannot fill yourself up with them any more than you can pig out on an endless menu of Chinese take out.

At some point all things must come to an end. But if you keep holding on to someone’s loss then you are not leaving space for something you may gain.

I learned a valuable lesson from this: Don’t get so caught up in what isn’t there that you leave no room for what could be next.

*N.B.: I posted this a while back but decided to resurrect now (sorry, pun not intentional).  I just discovered the loss of another relative I didn’t know had passed away–during the same time as those above–and started to reflect on how I feel about this, and the price of the feelings of mourning.*
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