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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Message from My Sister Antoinette

Friday, December 20, 2019, I was settled in to that comfortable slough between dispensations. The cup-shaped curve in the year's parabola is especially pronounced for teachers. Fall semester had just ended. Days before that Friday I was being inundated by contact with students, each of whom had a super-urgent request that I must fill or the earth would crash into the sun. Did I want students to write on both sides of their final paper or not? I NEED TO KNOW RIGHT NOW! If only students had this urgent need for their teachers all semester. Come finals time, students are suddenly as focused on someone they had previously ignored as are dying penitents suddenly insisting on plumbing the mind of God.

Friday, December 20 I was making out Christmas cards and looking forward to well-earned days of blissful cookie baking and rewatching Bing, Danny, Vera and Rosemary in "White Christmas." I was really looking forward to having time to sleep and clean thoroughly.

I checked email. My boss wrote to let me go. I am an adjunct, and my continued employment depends on student enrollment. When the economy goes south, college enrollment increases. When the economy improves, enrollment goes down. Today's full employment means fewer students means more adjunct professors fired.

It was a gut punch. I'd been at the same school for fifteen years. I have since learned that not only was I let go, but the entire department I used to teach in might itself disappear. Breaks my heart.

My parents had enough of a work ethic for five modern-day Americans. It's a Bohunk immigrant thing. They would work within days of major surgery. My mother worked two full-time jobs when I was a kid, working in factories during the day and cleaning offices at night. Her presence was the sound of the backdoor opening when I was drifting off to sleep, the pot of mush in the double boiler left on the stove for my breakfast in the morning.

In the past years of multiple catastrophes, hurricanes, forced evacuations, cancer diagnoses and deaths, I have missed exactly two days of work. One for a broken bone and one for a hospital-acquired infection that caused dramatic and unattractive facial swelling.

So I immediately got another job. I realize now that that wasn't the smartest move. If I had just cried a bit and let myself bounce back I could have devoted some time to finding the best job, not just any job.

And it gets worse. I committed to the new job, a distant commute away, a commute I make in a twenty-year-old car, for half the pay I used to make. And the very day I committed, I got a desperate phone call from my boss. She wanted to offer me a class! Someone she had kept on let her down and dropped out days before the spring semester was to begin. I would never do that. I would have loved to have taken that class, but it was too late. I had promised the new employer my services. Nothing had been signed yet, but I made a commitment. An expensive one.


There's another challenge to the new job. The commute is the exact route to my sister's home.

I had never traveled that route till my sister moved there. I haven't driven that route since the day, five years ago, I rubbed the soles of her feet as she breathed her last breaths. The only association I have with these roads is my sister.

My brother Phil was killed on my seventeenth birthday. My parents did not comfort me. I can't remember being hugged or stroked or kissed or complimented or calmed by either one of them, ever. And of course they had their own grief work when Phil died. My friends were, like me, teenagers. Regina was very kind to me at the funeral, and I remain amazed at her kindness to this day. Other than that, though, I was on my own.

What I realized is I can go on living if I just put the grief into a tightly sealed box and totally ignore it. Never indulge it. I think of Phil once a year, on my birthday. When I do think of him, my tears are as fresh as they were over forty years ago. In that box, I have not aged a day past 17. I have learned no lessons. Phil's death is an intolerable an outrage as it was the day he died.

I've worked hard to do the same with Antoinette.

Last night, for reasons I can't even guess at, I just couldn't take it anymore. To hell with discipline. I ripped off my carefully maintained straight jacket. I raged within my head. I walked into the kitchen, all by myself, and said all the unsayable things. How lonely I am. How much I miss her. How irreplaceable she is. How great is the wound. Huge, gaping, bloody, meaty, purple and red. How I'd be maimed by grief till the day I died, and how carrying grief like this makes you count the days till death, which is closer than it has ever been.

I need a woman to talk to. The way I talked to her. She could talk about *anything.* Some primitives yelp in syllables. Some average Joes manage the occasional sentence. Really refined people, the kind who could never get elected president, people who may turn up as guests on NPR's "Fresh Air," can speak in paragraphs. Antoinette spoke in essays.

Movies. Directors, stars, scripts, themes. No holds barred. Valentino to Driver. Genes. She'd go on for hours, days, about genes. I never had any idea what she was talking about once she started talking about genes. I'd smile and nod. She barely needed that encouragement. She'd listen to me talk about birds and she'd kick in a tidbit or two. She wanted to know the name of the shagbark hickory.

Women so often emotionally blackmail. Once a female Facebook friend deleted my post because I stated the simple truth: 2017's "Wonder Woman" was a dumb, boring, comic book movie that didn't offer a lick of feminist uplift. Deleted my post, without even telling me. Slyly silencing a transgressive voice. A man would have had the decency to yell at me and invite me to thrash it out with him. The woman goes behind you and slips it in where you can't see.

Antoinette wasn't like that. She had the best quality in a conversationalist: no verbal scruples whatsoever. No idea, no question, no vocabulary was taboo. You can, and should, tell the truth about anything, from the hot lava percolating in the volcano of your soul to your take on the latest politics.

Why is it so hard to meet a woman who can talk like that?

Antoinette used to joke that she and I had been raised to be good men. Strong like bull.

Again, I don't know why I let fall the dam last night. But I did.

This morning I did the same, as I was driving to new job. This whole time I've been driving with blinders on. I refuse to see the side road that leads to her house … not her house … somebody else's house. I refuse to wonder if they allowed the pink dogwood, the one she bought at Skylands, after she knew she had cancer and would never see the tree grow … I refuse to ponder if the new owners hacked it down or are letting it grow.

This morning as I was driving I saw all the landmarks. Felt them all.

An Indian restaurant, where her daughter and son-in-law bought Indian take out for us to eat as we sat around waiting for Antoinette to die. A different restaurant, a Mexican one, where Antoinette and I ate our first meal together after I moved back to New Jersey from Indiana. The bookstore where I bought her daughter a birthday present, a tarot deck. The car dealership where I bought this car, the first car I owned in over thirty years, expressly so I could drive to her house during her final months on earth. The museum of artistic furniture she was excited about. The side road I drove from Antoinette's house, from Antoinette's deathbed, to a party I'd been invited to. I walked into the party shell-shocked. No one spoke to me. Fuckers. I turned around and left. You can do that when you came in your own car, I was learning. The apartment complex on a hillside she griped about because she wanted to live in a part of New Jersey that was still green.

Once I started recognizing how many landmarks there were, I was overwhelmed by their number and the potency of the memories. I had been ignoring all these in my commutes. For good reason.

But this morning, I was feeling it all.

And under it all, of course, anger at God. God, you effed up. You blew it, God. Her death was a big mistake. A big mistake in your creation, just like suffering and houseflies.

And suddenly, even as I was thinking this, just that quick, my hand moved to the car radio, and I changed stations, from classical music, to WOR, a right-wing talk station. And I heard Michael Riedel, a New York theater critic, Trump supporter, and morning-drive-time radio host say, "The Monkey's Paw." And I nearly lost it right there.

"The Monkey's Paw" is a short story. My sister read it and told the story to the family as we were gathered in the kitchen of our childhood home.

Right before Antoinette died, I re-told the story on my blog. You can find that blog post here.

The moral, or one moral of "The Monkey's Paw" is that death is not God's mistake. It may look that way to us mortals, but our vision is limited. The moral is that death comes in its own time, for reasons bigger than we can imagine, and we best not wrestle with it – not with death, not with its timing.

Why did Riedel mention "The Monkey's Paw"? I have no idea. Again, I just switched stations rapidly, on a whim that surprised even me. And all I heard was Riedel asking if his cohosts had heard of "The Monkey's Paw." I think Riedel mentioned that it is a creepy short story. And then they moved on the lentil soup recipes, not knowing that they had knocked a bereft little sister in New Jersey on her keister.

Do I believe that that was a message from Antoinette? Come on. You think that that was mere chance? That on the very day I finally let go all my self-indulgent kicking at Heaven over my sister's death a capriciously summoned radio talk show host would mention the very story Antoinette herself, if she were still around, would use to argue the counterpoint with me? Being an atheist takes more gullibility than I can muster.