Coping with unforeseen or disappointing circumstances is such an individualized process that I never cease to marvel at how it’s done. Sometimes the crippling of grief is handled with grace and other times the disappointment in unaccountable forces is fought against as blindly as the emotions fueling it are rocketing about. Both circumstances produce a spectacular sort of show. Fascinating, because I experience none of these.
I am not cruel nor sadistic, although somehow the macabre image persists in its ties to me. I can appreciate the life getting too real and overwhelming, and I value the feedback to my methods. Even if it is always overwhelmingly negative.
It is understandable. Because when someone we know, and maybe even love, dies, where are we supposed to turn our rage and grief? There’s many times no entity to blame for death, a failing of the deceased’s body sometimes all the criminal there need be. But what if there was someone to blame, to rally against, to pit all of our hard felt emotions and unhappy tidings. What if there was an corporeal manifestation known as Death? What would you say to him? I’m listening.
So much for putting this all off my mind and settling in for a good night of sleep, I soon realized. The cup in my bag had been the last straw for my nerves. And so I did what I always do when I feel guilty at still being alive as others much more qualified at living than I have died. I called my mother.
My mother moved back to Florida and retired from her job with the post office after I finished college. It was where she had grown up, and the warm air, the tangy strangeness of the people, and the habitual beach bum attitude that seemed persist no matter how near the coast you were seemed to suit her. She’d call me once a week to update me on her fight against the native fauna and flora of the area she lived in, sometimes even casually mentioning how she had seen an alligator in her backyard garden pond. Much to my chagrin and anxiety, I might add, as it always left me to wonder when my 5 foot-nothing, 65 year old mother was going to come face to face with a toothy reptile. Though, I worried for the animal if it got between her and her gardening and koi pond maintenance.
“Hello,” her only slightly accented Spanish voice answered. She was second generation, Puerto Rican, and had moved to Florida with her parents from there when she was still in diapers.
“Hello Momma. How are you?”
“Jorge?” she asked. “I did not expect a call from you this late. Are you well?”
It was only 9p.m. I’d gotten home, fidgeting with trying to clean my apartment and calm myself by reading a book, found no solace in either and gone out for drive thru fare that had left my stomach in an even worse predicament. It was late to a retiree who woke up when the sun came in her window, and normally went to bed when it got dark. I had taken a gamble in even trying to reach her at this hour.
“I’m fine, Momma. I just had…a tough day. How are the fish?”
“The fish! You call me so late. I answer and think someone has died, and then you ask me about the fish?”
My stomach felt the full greasiness of the large double meat burger, large fries, and large soda I had ingesting an hour ago as she mentioned death.
“The fish are good. It’s getting colder, even here. So they are resting at the bottom of the pond most days, waiting for the warmer days. How are you sleeping?” she asked.
“Fine,” I lied automatically. Scared that she’d hit so close to the issue bothering me.
“You never did sleep so well as a little boy,” she said, as though I hadn’t answered. “You would cry and fight me before bed. You were so scared to go to sleep. And, you know, it was just me to raise you. I did not know what to do. I asked my friends and the others at the post office, and one of the clerks told me…’take him to a doctor. he is sleep sick.'”
I had heard the story many times from her, so much that it almost had the lulling effect of a bedtime story with the food sitting so heavy on my gut still.
“Well, I took you, and they hooked you up to the machines with the chords and the suction cups on your body. I slept in a chair beside your bed at the hospital for two nights and I was so scared to look at you like that while you slept. I thought for sure they would tell me there was something wrong with you to make you scream and cry in your sleep like you did. But no, they said that the nightmares were just strong. They gave me the medicine that you take and you’ve been much better since.”
But have I, Momma? I wanted to ask. Instead I say, “How old was I when I started to have the sleep problems?”
“Oh…hmmm…” she paused in consideration. “You were about seven. Yes. That’s right. I remember it because it reminds of me of one of the few things your father told me about himself. He said he didn’t like to sleep, and he’d had nightmares about black things since he was that age.”
This was new information for me. Mamma didn’t like to talk about my father. He had died shortly before I was born, and she said talking about him made her sad. But I wanted to press my luck on this, because if my father had nightmares like I was having, perhaps I had something genetic. I was still taking my medicine on a nightly basis, but maybe they could up my dosage to help me sleep again. Hell, after last night’s dream, I’d even consider brain surgery to gauge out that imaginative portion of my sleeping consciousness.
“What did he do about the nightmares?” I asked.
“I think he just came to see them like scary movies. He’d go to sleep and watch the horrible things that he had cooked up that day as he slept, and when he woke up he’d remember it was only just a movie. I blame his job. He would see so many things when he went off to fight the fires, and some things that he could not fix. It would give me the nightmares too.”
My father was a fire chief of the local fire hall in Macon, Georgia where I still lived. And one day the fire got to be the chief over him, crushing him and the woman he was trying to rescue in a small, smoke filled bedroom where they were trapped. His picture still hung in the firehall, but I never went there anymore…not since I was a teenager. I got tired to hearing the war stories about Dad every time I went in there, and wondering if I was supposed to miss someone I’d never known. I didn’t blame Momma for not wanting to talk about Dad, also a Jorge, because it made me sad and uncomfortable to hear about him too.
“But you sleep well now, right?”
“Oh yes,” I lied again. “My medicine is very good. I…I only worried about it today because one of my co-workers had an accident at work, and I can’t stop thinking about him.”
“Oh Jorge,” she said, and I instantly felt guilty for making her worry about something so silly as me being able to sleep when I was so far away and a grown man besides. “Were you good friends with the man?”
“Sort of. I just…I wasn’t ready for him to die,” I said, shocked at myself for this divulge of feelings. Emotions and their expression had always been a tricky spot for me.
“It is a hard thing to be ready for, even on a good day,” she said. “You feeling sad and shocked about this is natural. Death is natural. We don’t know this until it happens to us, but when it does, it’s as easy as falling asleep. Don’t worry about your friend. He is at peace.”
Shockingly, Momma’s comparison of death to sleep did not make me feel any better. We exchanged a few more lighter words, and then I wished her a good night. I turned from the spot I had been staring at while I talk to her, a milky ring of wavy wood where a cup had waterlogged the surface of my night table, and I looked to the already down turned cover of my bed. My bedspread of crimson on the outside and black on the inside. It looked like a mouth turning inside out, and it was ready to swallow me. I was fighting the pressure on my eyes, while wanting to succumb to the feeling of dissolving sleep as well.
I felt silly. I could not be afraid to go to sleep. It was a child’s fear. I opened my nightstand drawer, flicked open my orange prescription bottle, and put on of the little pills on my tongue, feeling it already dissolving as I tried to swallow it. It felt worthless as it went down, although that seemed like a delusion of paranoia rather than an actual medical assessment. I stood and flicked off the light, letting darkness take the room. I laid down on my back, heard the heating unit click on and whir in the next room, and I closed my eyes; hoping for the best.