“Do You Have a Plan?” by Mike Karpa
Mike Karpa (he/him, mikekarpa.com) is a queer San Francisco writer and translator (from Japanese and Chinese). In recent years his writing has appeared in Oyster River Pages, Tahoma Literary Review and Tin House (featured in #MemoirMonday). His 1990s-throwback Tokyo novel Criminals is forthcoming this summer from Mumblers Press.
My housemate Lynette had badgered me for a month to attend her 12-step meeting and I had said yes. We walked into a suburban California community room paneled in manufactured wood. A mix of people were arranging metal chairs into a circle. Lynette had told me the group focused on people who’d grown up in families that could be called dysfunctional, a brushfire term burning over the dry hills of the 1980s. I took a chair in the now-complete circle, among strangers filing in who might be friend or foe but felt dangerous either way.
I quickly discovered two things happened in the group, talking and listening. The group had a rule: no crosstalk. When you spoke, you had the floor. No one interrupted. No one challenged. No one questioned. It was awful.
For several weeks, I sat without a word through their turns speaking—“shares,” they called them—and stood without a word through the coffee and cookies afterwards. Although my dad was an active alcoholic and my mother had been through a years-long stretch popping amphetamines like candy, Lynette was wrong about me belonging there. My story was not dramatic enough. The last time she saw her mother, for instance, her mom was shitfaced behind the wheel of a car, demanding 14-year-old Lynette and her younger sister get in. She refused and physically held her sister back. The mother drove away, crashed over an embankment, and killed herself.
What did my alcoholic parent do? Nothing. My father drank a couple bourbons after work and fell asleep in front of the TV, surrounded by his family. The big tragedy of my childhood had been when Cub Scouts started meeting on Wednesday nights and I had to miss Get Smart.
But Lynette did have one thing right: I was unhappy. My days were filled with thoughts of being ugly, useless, incompetent. And other things not starting with vowels, starting with, say, a G or B or maybe even a yet-to-be-rehabilitated Q.
And I was drawn to these people. I had never been brave. But I aspired to bravery. Sitting in a circle, I wanted to speak, to join, but week after week I did not. Then, a pause came after a share: my chance. I was ready to spill everything.
Hi, Mike, they said in unison.
Silence opened before me. I became my father, master of not-talking. My mind was empty. Too empty, even I knew that. I had nothing to share, only sounds. These I described: the clink of ice in a glass, the glide and glug of Old Crow being poured, the delicate metal scrape of screwtops rent and spiraling open. These were the sounds of evenings, of nights. My mouth dried. I had betrayed a confidence. I stared at the flattened fibers of the sticky mauve carpet, waiting for criticism or correction. But I heard no fidgeting, no dismissive sighs, no awkward coughing.
They were listening.
That’s all, I said, and it was someone else’s turn.
They told me to return. “Keep coming back,” they chanted, holdings hands in a circle. “It works!” I remembered the feel of those strangers’ hands clasping mine. Often, Lynette would suggest going out for dinner afterwards, as a group or with me and her friend Saskia, a mid-twenties woman with long blond hair who carried a good 250 pounds on her five-foot-two frame. But I always slunk off home.
Yet I came back. Every week. I was then, at twenty-seven, tiptoeing into the waystation (for me) of bisexuality. I didn’t share that with them. It was an entirely straight group, and an entirely straight world. I’d only ever met one gay person in my life—someone introduced at a party, glimpsed from across a room. I wasn’t going to be the solitary faggot raising that banner on the ramparts.
That didn’t leave me much to share—just angst about my job (translator) or character (shy)—but I would go sleepless the night before, imagining I would find the courage to say something more consequential, and sleepless the night after, berating myself for cowardice if I hadn’t shared or fearing ostracism and retribution if I had. My shares were pauses connected by a few words, each forced out, heart pounding, and each share ending with disappointment at how much I had veered away from. But also with a sense of victory. Though I said little, it was more than I’d ever said before.
I began joining Lynette, Saskia and others for dinner after meetings. This took some resolve, as I was uncomfortable in groups, even the occasions it was just Lynette, Saskia and me. Seated in one plastic-covered booth after another, we got to know each other in a different way.
Many things need to be said outside the veil of confidentiality, where you can pretend your concerns are less weighty than they are. Lynette became more than a random, twenty-something housemate with an aversion to eye contact. And Saskia turned out to be a veteran of support who shared her details freely, with anyone. Her dad was an alcoholic. Her mom had died of cancer when she was in high school, and Saskia had lived for months in a cancer clinic in Tijuana, where her mother could get Laetrile. Saskia hung out with the younger cancer patients, attending their support groups while her mother got a useless drug made from apricot kernels. One after the other, her friends died, her mother died. But she survived. Like Lynette, Saskia was a survivor.
I had survived no such events. But my parents had—Dad a veteran of Nazi forced labor, Mom a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. They would certainly have had the right to speak. I shared in Group about them. (“Group” had by now earned a capital letter.) My parents were a restless pair, moving constantly, willing to go wherever the job demanded, neither wanting to ever repeat the poverty of their youths. The places I’d lived numbered in the low thirties at that point, more than one per year.
As people listened to me, with interest that still disconcerted me, I debated how to count such places. This seemed trivial. I told Lynette and Saskia at one of our diners that I felt shame for wasting Group time. Saskia told me to trust that I was bringing the subject up for a reason. There was always a reason. Having heard her shares in those early months—way too insightful for a twenty-five-year-old—I trusted her.
So I kept talking about cardboard dishpacks, new towns and schools, packed station wagons, and later, as my refugee dad rose through the native-born ranks, moving company stickers—blue and white for Bekins, green for United Van Lines, cheery orange for Allied (my favorite). Was there a period of time required before you could say you lived in a place? A year? A month? Mere weeks? I devised a rule: you lived in a place if you were not going back to the last one, with the proviso that you had to be at the new place at least a month.
But there seemed to be another rule, because the summer my sister and I had spent in South Texas with my grandmother when I was eight surely counted, despite the rule of no-going-back. I tried to work out why. At the start of that summer, as I shared in Group, my grandmother had come to California to help out my pregnant mother. As I recounted this, I remembered the two arguing, my mother throwing a hairbrush at my grandmother (her mother). Memories of other objects thrown at other people at other times flashed across the stage of my mind as I spoke: a bowling pin, a knife, a butter dish that crashed into a wall, leaving a circular oil stain that never went away, or rather, we went away first.
In the middle of this share I went quiet. I was seeing my sister duck that butter dish. In my mind’s eye that rectangular dish hit, yellow butter flush to white wall, again and again. This time I heard some fidgeting. People were confused. I wasn’t talking, yet I hadn’t said I was done.
The clock was ticking. I knew I had to get some words out. I couldn’t remember where this oil stain had happened, where any of these events had happened, but I did remember one particular evening, so I shared that: I had heard something upstairs from my basement room. I crept up the open stairwell toward the main floor of the house, where the rest of the family lived. Eyes at floor level, I saw my mother on the kitchen floor, belly showing six months of pregnancy. She was unconscious. She had had a seizure disorder since her adolescence, and I was familiar with what a seizure looked like, but this time she was weirdly still. My grandmother and father hovered over her. The next day, my grandmother packed my sister and me up and we were off to Corpus Christi, not to return until after our baby brother was born.
I nodded that my share was done, and someone else said their name.
I hardly heard his share. I remembered Saskia’s words: there was always a reason we brought things up. This remembered fragment, I was thinking, was what I had been working toward.
I told my sister about the memory. (She is two years older and generally remembers more.) Oh, my sister said, that must’ve been the time she tried to commit suicide.
I said nothing. That couldn’t have happened, I thought. My response was habitual—to immediately and silently reject what scared me—but this time I noticed what I was doing, and now I’d learned a name for it: denial. And with that naming I began to remember. Hadn’t she threatened and hinted? Hadn’t I raced home from school every day, wondering if I would find my mother dead? Or rather, if this would be the day she’d be dead? But no, she’d be lying in bed, reading a book. Or perhaps she would have made oatmeal cookies, a not uncommon treat. What a lovely childhood I’d had! Cookies, hot from the oven, sweet with raisins and brown sugar. I felt a hole burning itself in the side of my gut, where it always did. Who, day after day, expects to find their parent dead in bed? A crazy person.
I shared this in the next meeting. Not just what my sister had said, but also the gut-burning confusion—what was real, what was crazy? In the chatting over snacks and coffee afterwards, Saskia urged me to find out more. One of Saskia’s therapists had told her that fear, rather than something to be shunned, could be enlisted as an ally. Fear could point to the locations of our problems. And their solutions. If I wanted to be brave, this was how.
So I screwed up my courage. I asked my mother: Have you ever attempted suicide?
She paused, thinking it over. Hmm. No, I don’t think so.
I don’t think so. I brought this answer back to Group, a precious little gift. Yes, it was information, of a sort, about my half-remembered past, and it was a milestone in personal daring just to ask, but most importantly it was currency I could spend on the greatest prize of all: belonging. I told the group, my snarky words now coming easily, no seeking refuge in silence. They laughed. Oh my fucking God, was I in the right place. Finally, I had found my people. I asked them: Who attempts suicide, and has it slip their mind? Oh, how we laughed. These people got it. We got it.
But amidst the laughter and camaraderie, I had to note: Hadn’t it also slipped my mind? Denial wasn’t just my tool. Should I not grant my mother the same forgiveness for poor coping skills that I was just now beginning to give to myself? Intellectually, the answer had to be yes. But feeling as bad as I did it seemed a mighty big reach.
I’d like to say we were all teaching each other compassion, but it felt like we spent more time complaining about how awful our parents were. It took some time for me to notice that our stories were usually not just our own. When we spoke for ourselves, we were also speaking for others who’d gone through things they couldn’t yet talk about: When you drove drunk with me in the backseat, I was scared. When you mocked me, I felt small. When you beat me with a belt, it hurt. When you touched me and I didn’t want you to, I felt like my body was not my own.
We needed our complaints, if only to be able to articulate the idea that just maybe it wasn’t entirely our own fault that we struggled through embarrassingly constrained lives.
These stories were not over, after all. Saskia’s dad was still drinking. Seeing the uncle who’d sexually abused her walk down the street, unfettered, provoked over-eating. Unlike Lynette or I, Saskia was also in an addiction-centered group: Overeaters Anonymous, or OA. Over our diner meals, she began talking about this. Eating with others made her anxious. She felt silently judged. Or not so silently. The weekend before, a waitress had made a crack about her fatty food choices. “I just said to her, yes I’m fat, but you’re ugly and I can lose weight.”
So Saskia could stand up for herself. Of course, once she was home that night, alone, she had binged. She had felt ashamed, she said, but I thought she was damned brave. I told her so. Trying to match her bravery, to be worthy of her friendship, I began sprinkling hints of my same-sex attractions here and there.
My parents’ dramas were likewise in full swing. Amidst their glacially slow divorce, my father had lost his job in Alabama due to drinking (I assumed) and moved in with me, occupying an odd little hallway in my “room,” a converted glassed-in porch that was hot in summer, cold in winter. It sucked in the screeching arguments and thunks of thrown high-heels that woke me as tequila-sloshed straight couples flowed out of the corner restaurant/bar at closing time. Meanwhile, as my parents separated their diminishing finances, my mother was having full-blown delusions—hidden surveillance devices, people breaking in, gaslighting. On bad nights I would drive over to talk her down. On bad days I might don a bandana over nose and mouth to wiggle my fingers through her disintegrating attic insulation, probing for the fiber-optic cameras she was sure had been installed.
To calm her, my sister, my brother or I would stay overnight. One night, on the screened-in back deck of the one-bedroom house she rented, I was awoken by a bright flashlight. I looked down the deck stairs. Police walkie-talkies squawked about an intruder. A gun-carrying officer approached.
I ducked my head and hit the floor.
“I’m her son. I’m supposed to be here,” I called out, lying flat on the nubby indoor-outdoor carpet, too embarrassed to voice what I was really thinking: Don’t kill me.
Mom bought a shotgun. Who would she use it on, I wondered: herself, the gas man, me?
I asked her to give the gun to me.
She laughed, mocking my non-Texan lack of manliness.
You know, Mom recounted, when I told my brother about the shotgun he only asked what kind.
“Oh, a Mossberg,” my uncle had said—with great affection, judging from my mother’s imitation of his voice.
I rolled my eyes.
She scoffed: I know my way around a shotgun!
OK, fine, but when she threatened a neighbor with Mossie and got the cops called on her, I renewed my demand. Uncharacteristically, I refused to let it drop until we worked out a deal: she would keep the shells and I would stow the Mossberg in my closet. Ironically, she was worried about me using it on myself.
My alarm got through to her. She checked herself into a mental hospital. Granted, she checked out the next day (“talking is not for me”), but she now looked to hospitals as a potential long-term solution to the distress surging through her. We siblings took turns escorting her to a series of weepy intake sessions. Depression was the usual assessment. That wasn’t enough to get her admitted, though; you needed to be bleeding to secure in-patient status. But eventually her delusions earned her a diagnosis of late-onset paranoid schizophrenia. I gulped when the clinician trotted out that one—had she been schizophrenic all along?—but also felt relief. They agreed to admit her. Now I could sleep at home in an actual bed.
Once she settled in for what would become a four-month stay, I joined her for multi-family therapy, where I learned a lot about suicidality. There are a series of questions clinicians use to assess risk.
- Are you feeling hopeless about the present or future?
- Have you had thoughts about taking your life?
- When did you have these thoughts?
- Do you have a plan to take your life?
I deduced Mom’s earlier suicide attempt—if that’s what I’d seen from the basement stairs—was likely due to her coming off amphetamines. She’d quit cold turkey in the 1960s with no support—what in Group we called “white-knuckling”—and hard-core depression is a part of coming off speed. Her current symptoms were likewise primarily a reaction to the stress of divorce, with the consequent financial worry, her history of childhood abuse and adult amphetamine use setting her up for the schizophrenic episodes. Despite the strain I felt from her continuing emergencies, I began to feel real compassion for her.
Still, Mom wouldn’t open up in these multi-family sessions. She’d just say she “had a lot on her plate” and become combative if pressed. But the other participants floridly disgorged brilliant sprays of trauma, serving as Mom’s surrogates, as we all did for each other in Group. I watched, mesmerized, as another fiftyish woman sat on a wire-frame chair talking about wanting to die. In my mind, she was saying what my mother was thinking. The woman’s husband and daughter did nothing more extraordinary than tell her they loved her, yet she cowered from them. She sat, back turned, limbs gathered, like a rat in a corner, knowing she had to go left or right but unable to choose. And I somehow couldn’t blame her. I, too, wanted to escape the earnest, united front of her family’s blame-tinged love and barely disguised desire for their own lives to get easier. That night the woman found something sharp and slashed her wrists.
The woman survived—that day at least—but counselors arranged sessions to touch base with the other patients. With me present, they questioned my mother, advancing through the suicidality checklist, ending with the question, Do you have a plan?
I shared this with Saskia and Lynette at the diner. All three of us had flirted with suicide. Well, Lynette didn’t so much flirt as protest too much: she would never do that to her sister. Saskia maintained therapy had allowed her to move past suicidal feelings. But I knew what her plan would be: pills. She was prescribed quite an assortment.
So technically, I was the only one who had a plan: I would jump, and had picked out a building high enough to succeed. I’d long felt worthless, and still did. I thought about my plan from time to time. But I told no one, not even Lynette or Saskia. I could not burden others with that threat, the way I had been burdened. Plus, even on my worst day—worst night—I knew I wanted to live. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to not be alone. Sure, I had a Mossberg in my closet, but, enjoying the luxury of self-evaluation unchallenged by the scrutiny of others, I didn’t feel I was at risk.
After Group one day, I was the one to suggest we go for a meal, the first time I’d done so in the five months I’d been going.
Do you have a plan? Saskia asked.
We cracked up, and this became the punchline whenever one of us suggested dinner. It was very funny—ha ha—but like my mother, I knew I couldn’t keep on the way I was. While Lynette was unable to look anyone in the eye, and Saskia over-ate, I drove around in the evenings, having bought my first-ever car, burning gasoline for hours, heading nowhere, only comfortable alone, in motion, with the doors locked. Twenty-eight thousand miles of nowhere the first year I had my car. Something had to change, if only to cut my gas bill.
I couldn’t do much about my parents’ situations, but I could do something about my own. I came out to Saskia. Halfway. I told her I was bisexual. I didn’t think this was true, but as little information as I had about gay men, I had less about bisexuals, so who knew? Maybe I was one. I’d previously had sex primarily with women, after all. Saskia took this in stride. She told me about her other gay friends (not bisexual friends, I noted). I felt better. I’d made a start. Honesty brought relief, and maybe even a little pride.
Saskia was also moving toward greater openness. Her father died. Agitated, she asked me to meet, away from Group, apart from Lynette. By then I had witnessed enough passive-aggressive digs from Lynette to know Saskia didn’t feel entirely safe with her. I felt honored to be trusted. Saskia’s dad had had a bad heart, and had told her that should anything happen, to immediately (and illegally) clean out his safety deposit box so she’d have something to live on. Saskia told me, trembling, how she’d pillaged the box, an hour after his death, unable to tell the bank manager—a close friend of her dad’s—that her father had died. I hugged her. She regained calm. Telling the story to me helped her stay grounded, she said. Like coming out had done for me. For us, talking was working.
Lynette became angry. She had brought me into Group, and now she said I’d stolen her friend. And she was right. Saskia and I were now regularly socializing without her.
Lynette turned mean. My father had recently finished a recovery program and rented a place of his own, but even with my porch-room to myself the apartment began to feel claustrophobic. The sliding glass door to my space locked on the wrong side, meaning I could be locked out of the rest of the apartment but Lynette could not be kept out of my room. When I traveled for work for the first time, she entered my room and listened to all my phone messages, recording one of her own to proudly tell me she’d done so. I felt like a piece of food, being licked to claim it.
Saskia invited me to her dad’s Tahoe cabin, which she, not her uncle, had inherited. She wanted to stay there, but feared her uncle would show up uninvited. I asked if she was sure she wanted me to be her support person. And I didn’t say so, but wasn’t a night together, alone, a classic seduction? I was calling myself bisexual, but already I knew I did not truly want to sleep with a woman. I realized how arrogant these thoughts were. Saskia wanted moral support, not my body. And a weekend with Saski sounded like that weird thing I’d heard tell of: fun.
Left-behind Lynette glowered from the door when I went to pick up Saskia. Saskia and I enjoyed the day, driving to Emerald Bay, skipping stones from a cold lakefront beach, eating a discounted steak dinner in a clanging casino. At night, she offered me my own room or said we could sleep together. I recognized it was a risk for her to suggest this. I couldn’t let her down. And being trusted by a person who knew my secrets and hadn’t rejected me was a disorienting first. I joined her in the bedroom. We had sex.
The weekend was, in fact, fun. Sure, we didn’t make sense as partners, but maybe that was the point: we were safe for each other. We both wanted futures that included love, sex, and closeness, and this made it feel possible. The only hiccup came when packing up. Her father had posted a checklist for closing up the cabin. In addition to shutting down the cabin’s electricity and water, we were required to take all our trash with us. Like any good Northern Californian, I started sorting out the recyclables from the one big trash bag.
She told me not to bother, getting more and more heated as I explained why I was pawing through the trash. She snatched the bag from me.
Were we fighting? Had I done something wrong?
She would sort it later, she spat at me.
Chastened, I left it at that.
When I returned to my apartment, Lynette was seated at the kitchen table, rage barely contained. I can’t believe you spent the night with her, Lynette said, having assumed way more about this trip than I had (and more perceptively). Have you looked at her? She has body parts that don’t even have names.
I didn’t at first know what she meant. Then I did. The folds of fat hanging from Saskia’s body.
Aren’t you repulsed? Lynette spat.
I was. But not at Saskia’s nameless folds. I moved out.
I left Lynette custody of the group (which I downgraded to lowercase). After a year bonding with these people, it was a lot to give up, but Lynette had been there first and I had to get away from her. And even without the group’s support, things were looking up. I had my own place. My parents were both out of their institutions and living independently, with support groups of their own—to talk about surviving childhood for Mom and to not talk about being kidnapped by Nazis out of high school for Dad.
I had now told a number of people—my parents, my siblings, Saskia (but not Lynette and not the group)—that I was, you know, maybe bisexual, which I think everyone interpreted (correctly in my case) as being too afraid to say I was gay. It was an excruciating process, but I no longer thought about jumping off buildings. I still had my moments of being flattened by feelings of worthlessness—one thing Saskia and I shared was that neither of us wanted to look in a mirror—but as my friendship with Saskia thrived, even that was beginning to hold less terror.
Her therapist gave her hell over the sex. We weren’t dating, but were occasionally having sex. This was the 1980s, and a bisexual guy was the epitome of evil, contaminating the precious sanctity of the heterosexual realm with our virus of death. (Not that I’m bitter.) Nevermind that I hadn’t had sex with a guy in over ten years, which meant if I had been infected with HIV you would have been able to quickly tell by me being, you know, all dead and shit.
After a therapy session, Saskia came clean to me about the Tahoe trash: she was bulimic, and after our casino dinner she’d made herself throw up into a coffee can. She hadn’t wanted me to find her vomit. Her bulimia had gotten worse since she got access to her father’s money. Now, she could afford to eat all she wanted. What’s more, she confided, she was addicted to prescription drugs. On the advice of her therapist, she thought we should not have sex again. I agreed that sounded like a good idea. I didn’t want to find her dead or even passed out on a floor. And frankly I felt relieved at the thought of not having to have sex with a woman ever again. She checked herself into a rural recovery program, ironically the same one my father had gone to the year before.
I told her I’d see her on visiting day. She was my only friend, really, and without the group, I struggled with the isolation that had formerly been my refuge. But on the drive up I dawdled. I felt guilty about wanting her to bolster my shaky psyche when she was the one in crisis. I shouldn’t go, but I should go, but I shouldn’t.
I was an hour late.
She was crushed. Her parents were dead, she had no siblings, and she never wanted to see her uncle again. No one else was coming. She had had to sit in the waiting room while every other person was picked up and released into the wild for the afternoon.
I was surprised. To me, it was good to be late, because that would shorten the time she’d have to deal with the ugly, deficient person that was me. Watching her anger soften to relief, then forgiveness, and finally gratitude, I realized that my picture of myself might be drastically wrong.
We tooled around a nearby touristy town, getting our palms read. The wrinkles on the side of my hand had me down for four children while Saskia was slated for none. (She frowned; she wanted to be a mom.) We looked through a junk shop, her mood lightening through the day. We considered an early dinner: do you have a plan? Over the meal, she told me she was clean of vomiting, drinking, and abusing prescription drugs. She felt cautiously optimistic. I dropped her off at five and visited again the final weekend of her twenty-eight days. And this time I wasn’t late.
She stayed off both pills and alcohol thereafter, though eating remained a challenge—you can’t quit food. We didn’t sleep together again, and she went on to meet a genuinely heterosexual guy she liked. They dated. I met a man. He and I dated. The four of us even did things together, Saskia and I vetting each other’s choices. Saskia’s man proposed. She accepted. My guy and I went to their wedding. The bride and groom drove to the reception in a mauve Rolls Royce. She stepped out of the car, her hand in her new husband’s, in a billowy white wedding dress. My date and I toasted Saskia and her husband’s happiness and we all danced. We had survived.
Saskia went on to have my promised four kids with her husband. My budding relationship foundered, but I went on to date other men, and began to learn what it meant to exist as an openly gay man in the hostile America of Reagan, Bush and, yes, Clinton. My sister married, my brother married, my mom regained her sanity, my dad got lung cancer. And died. I meanwhile discovered that I was neither ugly nor worthless. And what’s more, that reflexively denigrating oneself weakens, not strengthens, a relationship. And hey, that being happy with yourself is of way more use to others than being their servant, their caretaker, or their sex partner when you don’t want to be. As I moved closer and closer to the queer heart of San Francisco, Saskia and her husband moved farther and farther into the country.
Her kids grew.
After some years, Saskia and I had a falling out. I was driving the two hours north to see her, but she pushed the time back an hour, then another hour, and then … well, the details were not what mattered. I think we both needed to stop focusing on the past. Our estrangement wasn’t bitter, though, as my friendship-ending spat with Lynette had been. Years later, we reconnected, assisted by phone calls and the internet. We traded friendly, supportive messages and photos. By this time, she lived in small-town Oregon and I was married (legally married!) to a wonderful, genuinely homosexual guy and we had, not four kids, but a feisty and affectionate poodle-terrier mix.
Depression still bothered Saskia, however, and she announced online that she was checking herself into a hospital for some needed quiet. She’d connect again when she was healthy enough to do so. Six months later, I went back online at my in-laws’ house outside Boston, sitting in the pine-paneled kitchen as we were all getting ready to go out one morning, to wish Saskia a happy birthday. I saw messages about “angels in heaven” and “wishing you were still here.”
She couldn’t be dead, of course. That wasn’t possible. But the disconcerting messages made no sense. I called. Her phone was disconnected. I didn’t have her husband’s number. Who could I call? That’s the problem with a one-on-one relationship: when the other person dies, there’s no one left but you.
Later that day, her oldest daughter, a sophomore in college, posted a couple of lines saying how much she missed her mom, her best friend. I accepted that the feelings I was having were denial. The messages had made perfect sense: Saskia was dead.
My mind went wild. Had Saskia overdosed? Deliberately? Accidentally? Had her heart given out, no longer able to support her obesity? I tracked down friends and asked. I never did find out exactly what happened to her except that she had died at home, in her sleep. Who had found her? One of her kids? Her husband?
I remembered helping the coroner carry my dad’s body to the van, an hour after he died. (I’d moved in with him when he entered hospice.) I hadn’t wanted him to be carted off by strangers, even in the plush purple bodybag they’d brought to zipper him into. I wondered who’d done that for Saskia. I’ve been a pallbearer. I’ve picked up my mother’s dead weight after a seizure and moved her paralyzed body—in a team with my husband—when she, years after my father died, moved in with us for hospice (also for cancer). Other people are fucking heavy. Saskia had been given so much grief over her size in life, I hoped that she had been picked up that final time with care, not treated as a burden. I hoped that she had been revered as someone who’d battled a long way and only fallen when the battle seemed won.
I’d fallen, too, but for the oldest trick in the book. I’d seen that billowy white-satin dress and thought we were out of mortal danger. I had thought we were past the reflex of thinking we were not good enough, of carrying around the voices of others telling us we were deficient. I’d thought we had gotten to the place where we could connect openly and honestly with other people and accept a picture of ourselves as good people. Not ugly, not worthless, not burdens or detractions, but good. Good. Because we were. Someone may have told her, told Lynette, told me, something different from that. But it wasn’t true. It had never been true. For all our faults, we were brave and beautiful and compassionate. Once taken to heart, a false message is hard to rise above completely, and perhaps Saskia hadn’t. But while the truth is that not everyone makes it out alive, the truth is also that, with the help of our brave and beautiful friends, some of us do.
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