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2010-01-13 - 8:19 a.m.

dying

This will cost you a lot of money, even though you will not be financially responsible for the wake and funeral, or for medical bills. There will not be any particular large expense. But you will order take-out food more often than not, and when everyone is gathered in the living room, you will want to treat every single one of them to the fanciest things from Starbucks. You'll keep running to the store for gentle baby wash, or lotion, or some magical food that might make him feel better. None of these things make a difference, but you'll keep trying. On New Year's morning, when almost every store is closed, you will buy overpriced balloons, colored tissue paper and a shiny birthday banner, so his last party will not look so fucking bleak. You'll put these purchases on your credit card, and when the bill comes due, you won't be able to afford them.

You will realize how hard it is to find a birthday card that does not mention good wishes for the coming year.

This will start to feel like a Wes Andersen movie, and the feeling will only intensify as you pass the time in an old house filled with circus memorabilia and loudly ticking clocks. Your grandmother will say something that doesn't quite make sense, just as the little wooden cuckoo pops out of its cabin in the cuckoo clock. "A little heavy-handed with the symbolism, aren't we?" you will think, sarcastically. Your grandmother has middle stage Alzheimer's, and he's been prompting her and cueing her through social situations for years.

Your mother will be on the phone, begging social services to send hospice care now, today, this minute. It should have been in place a week ago, a month ago. He's dying before our eyes. He refuses to go to the hospital. We don't know what to do. It's tough, they say, to find anyone around the holidays. They say they'll call back, but - like yesterday, and the day before, and last week - they won't. Behind her, there's a circus poster and a small statue of a capering clown.

He says he wants his old bullhook cut down to make a walking cane, but it's clear from his color as he's half-carried up the stairs that he will not be walking again, cane or no cane.

Your parents will forget to pick up their disabled neighbor from his job at the Shop-Rite, and he will leave a series of messages on the answering machine.

In the car, Elliot Smith will come on the radio.

In the shower, your sister will faint and have a seizure. You will try to keep her body from crumpling wetly to the floor as she simultaneously shits and vomits. Usually, all her muscles are tense and stiff, but now she is as limp as a fish with no bones. Later, you'll tell your mom what happened. She'll say, "My poor baby. This is so hard for her." Your heart will be moved by how well your mother knows you.

Your father will yell at the emergency workers who attempt resuscitation. Your uncle will yell at the priest at the funeral. Amazingly, no one else will yell at anyone.

With your cousins, you will sort through old photos to make a display for the wake. Your grandmother will help, suggesting pictures she likes. Her favorites are all of friends, none of family. You will have no idea who these people are.

At the wake, there will be flowers, and a model circus wagon on the side table. In his younger years, he'd driven a circus truck from one town to the next, following paper arrows tacked to trees and telephone poles. Someone will put a paper arrow on the sideboard, pointing upward. The arrow will topple and fall to the floor. "Quick!" you'll whisper, nudging your brother, "Someone pick it up before he gets confused!" "Or maybe that's the way it should be," your brother will whisper back, and both of you will momentarily choke and splutter on your laughter.

Your grandmother will be sitting in a big chair at the side of the room. Every time she rises and wanders toward the door, someone will guide her back to her seat. She looks so little and lost and old.

You will sit down with the priest and your cousins to select the readings and hymns for the funeral mass. You will want to knee the priest in the balls if he tries to hug you again.

This is complicated.

Your sister will melt down at the funeral, her frozen face giving way to hysteria. You will take her to the back of the church, where she will pull herself together. She was his favorite, and you were fourth out of twelve.

You feel relief, more than anything.


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