When someone dies, even someone you didn’t know that well, don’t you feel like everything kind of… stops? For a moment?
Like the whole engine of the world that is made up of all the people connected to that person stutters for a second?
When I was in high school, freshman year, first month of school, a guy who was a senior and who I didn’t know personally was killed while crossing a highway. It was unclear why he was trying to cross Route 27 on foot. I don’t remember the details. I don’t even remember his name. What I do remember is that there was this pause—both in the rhythm of the school and in my mind. Inside me somewhere. I didn’t even know him and yet I felt it.
Maybe it’s a thing about being human. Or alive. Maybe animals feel it, too. By virtue of being alive we sense the thing that is death.
When we have a “moment of silence” for a person, maybe that’s what it’s trying to do, to share that feeling. To acknowledge how everyone. Just. Stops.
If it’s someone really important, maybe the entire engine grinds to a halt for a while, but for most of us it’s a momentary thing. You feel the pause, the shudder under the hood, but life’s momentum overcomes the loss of that cog, that wheel, and just keeps going. When it was someone like John Lennon, a whole city, a whole industry, stopped for long minutes, with radio stations broadcasting dead air, and thousands of people holding their breaths in Central Park.
My world came to a dead stop when I heard about Jordan. A ton of things were going on around me: Mel trying to burp Ford, all three of my sisters arguing, my mother being my mother, Remo eventually arriving on a delayed flight, Jake showing up for Christmas dinner… I’m sure drama of epic proportions was being played out in every corner of Janine’s house. It all washed past me like water over Niagara Falls while I was still stuck on a rock.
Remo gave me a pat on the back and an I’m-sorry, but he only knew Jordan in passing. He wasn’t really affected. And of course the rest of them didn’t even know who I was talking about. Well, okay, Court did, but she was deep in the mother-sister brouhaha that was brewing, plus it wasn’t like we got a chance to talk.
The emotional stakes on the gift exchange that had seemed so high a few days before now seemed insignificant to me. I know it took place. I know I was there, but it was like it was happening on the other side of glass. I didn’t cry. I was too stuck. I had a couple of quick phone conversations: Carynne, about whether there would be a funeral or what, and Chris, because I couldn’t reach Bart. Christian asked if I was okay and I said I was: what else are you supposed to say? I wasn’t literally bleeding to death.
There are supposedly various phases of grief people go through. You’ve heard of them: denial, bargaining, anger, et cetera. They’re not in any particular order, though, and it isn’t like you necessarily “finish” with one phase and don’t ever go back to it. I guess that initial shock where I couldn’t even comprehend what Sarah was telling me was my denial phase, but it didn’t last long. Before I even got off the phone with her I was already in the state of knowing that reality had changed. She kept saying over and over “I can’t believe it” but I guess I did believe it. I don’t know if I’d call that “acceptance” though. It just… was.
I wanted to know more, of course. Like where he was, who he was with, all that. But mostly I just felt like my brain was stuck. Brain, mind, heart, just… everything sort of shut down.
At one point I realized Ziggy was kind of wrapped around me on the couch. I didn’t really know what to say, so I just put an arm around him. He wasn’t crying either. A little while later I guess he felt better and he went back to interacting with everyone else.
I really don’t remember much, until dinner. I didn’t eat much. The food isn’t what’s memorable about dinner. The fight is.
Do I have to tell you it started with Janine? “Pass the gravy, Daron.”
“What? Oh, here.” It was sitting right next to me.
“Jeezus, it’s like you’re not even here,” she said as she took the bowl of gravy from my hand. “All over some drug addict getting what he deserved?” Nancy Reagan couldn’t have said it better.
“Jeezus yourself, Jan!” Court snapped. “He was Daron’s friend, that’s all that matters! Have some fucking sympathy.”
“Well, I see we’ve fallen right back into our profane heathen ways,” Lilibeth said, pouring herself a healthy splash of wine and knocking it back like you would a shot of whiskey. “So I don’t exactly see you looking pure as snow, Jan.”
“Are you serious? Taking the Lord’s name in vain and getting hooked on smack are not exactly in the same class of sin.”
“Chill out, Jan.” Lilibeth’s hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail. Her hair was as straight as mine, but dark blond. “I’m not condemning you for it. It’s clear we’re all going to hell in a handbasket so I for one am done with trying.”
Claire just sighed, then bristled, then sighed again. Mel sat there with Ford in her lap looking like she wanted to jump in, but was unsure still who was on whose side.
“The chunks of turkey in the stuffing came out great,” Remo said in an awkward attempt to change the subject.
Therein followed the tale told in multi-part cacophony by my mother and sisters of how I’d left the turkey on the back porch and how the replacement turkey hadn’t thawed very well (but turkey number three, which we were having for that meal, came out fine I’ll note). There was polite laughter at my expense for the escapade, but you could tell it was strained. For people as wine-soaked as we were, even with all the interpersonal tensions, that story would have normally put several of us under the table with laughter.
I myself was barely able to smile about it and I decided I needed to wash my face, which felt quite hot. I wanted to defend Jordan against the accusation that he was a drug addict, but I really couldn’t, could I? That would just be asking for a fight I couldn’t win. “If you’ll excuse me for a minute.”
I went to the upstairs bathroom and splashed myself with water and then stood there with my face in a towel for a while.
Ziggy eased open the door. “You all right?”
“I dunno. Am I?” I stuffed the towel back through the rack. “How can I tell?”
He closed the door behind him and then hugged me. “Look. We can’t do anything about it.”
“I know that.”
“So let’s stay focused on what we’re doing here. It’s Christmas. There’s enough going on without dragging everyone down.”
I think I shuddered. Or stiffened. Something that made him let go of me and look me in the eye and say, “Right? We’ll get through this, dear one. But you have to work with me here.”
I had the same uncomfortable prickling sensation when he said that as I did when my mother said ridiculous things. “Work with you.”
“Jordan’s not coming back. There’s plenty of time to freak out or mourn or whatever later. Let’s just pretend we didn’t get that phone call yet.”
“Of course I’m serious.” He looked at me with concern, like I’d just broken out in spots.
I might have felt nauseous.
“Just put it away for a little while,” Ziggy said. “Come on. If I can pretend to be the perfect son-in-law, you can pretend to be the perfect whatever.”
“Godfather-brother-son?” Now I definitely felt ill. “Like I know how to do that? If I knew how to act like it, wouldn’t I just try to be it?” Shit, though, I realized Remo probably really needed some help getting through tonight. But so did my mother, what with Remo’s wife sitting right there at the table, and my oldest sister basically bent on fucking everyone’s shit up so that we’d at least all be as miserable as her…
Well, I was definitely that. Pain. Right. That was actual pain I was feeling and there was no real way to make it stop. No aspirin I could take.
Jeezus. Do you remember Jordan telling me never to do heroin? As I thought about it I had to double over and hold my ribs to keep from losing whatever I’d eaten. God. He’d told me, he’d made me promise, but I’d never put two and two together. Jordan, who always seemed so in control of everything and everyone around him, had been speaking from experience about that addiction.
“Don’t do this now, Daron,” Ziggy was saying. “Come on. We can fall apart later. I promise.”
I think the anger phase kicked in right then. “What the fuck do you want from me?”
“I need your help getting through the minefield that is your family trainwreck,” he growled. “Come on. In another hour the kids will go to bed and we can say our goodbyes without adding to the pile-up, all right? Let’s put on our happy faces and–”
He smoothed his thumbs over my cheeks. He was trying to be affectionate and loving and I just wanted to pull away. “It’s a mask, dear one. A role. It’ll get you through.”
I did pull away. I did before I started to hyperventilate. “I can’t.”
“Sure you can. It’s not that har–”
“No.” That wall of glass that separated me from everyone was suddenly very thick between him and me. “You don’t understand.”
“I’m just trying to protect you.”
“I can’t.” I touched his shoulders so he wouldn’t think I was pulling away from him–even though I was. That was as much dissembling as I could manage. “It comes naturally to you, Zig. I know it does. But I’ve had to fight and claw to get the fucking mask off my face so I wouldn’t suffocate and I can’t just put one back on.”
“This isn’t about that.”
I’m not sure which “that” he thought I meant, but I said “Yes, it is,” anyway. “You think I can put on any kind of an act for these people? That is, literally, the thing I’ve been learning not to do for the past five years. That’s why I’m alive.”
“Don’t be overdramatic.”
Oh, god, what a wrong thing to say. “I wasn’t overdramatic when I tried to hide from everyone in that water tank. Was I?”
His gasp was so sharp he almost choked on it. “Oh, shit. Dear one–”
“How could you understand me so well then and be totally missing the point here?” I was trembling with anger and fear that everything was falling apart and grief and all that. The ultimate fear: that I didn’t really know him, that I never would, and that our happiness and relationship was just a convenient role for him to play…
“Daron.” He was gripping my hands now, and I was gripping back hard. “If you can’t, you can’t. Listen to me. Do you want to stay up here for a while and I’ll go do what I can with them?”
But I wasn’t ready to let go of the argument yet. It felt too important. “No, you listen to me. You want to be whoever you want, or whoever they want? Fine. Go you. There’s only one thing I want to be and that’s myself. And it’s a struggle for me, do you understand that? It’s a struggle to be myself. To be happy with myself. To feel like I deserve to be happy with myself.”
He swallowed, but he listened.
“And you think I don’t know that me being a downer on everyone else is bad for my self-esteem, too? I do. But pretending to be something else would undermine it even worse. And knowing that they’re all hating me for different reasons doesn’t help, but my only armor against it can’t be to try to be what they want. Maybe that works for you, but all I can do is try to be even truer to my… my… my core.” I didn’t even have the words for this. “Otherwise I am… nothing. And, you know, maybe I am anyway.”
“You’re not,” he said, rather vehemently.
“Shit. I really didn’t expect to end up in an existential crisis. I just wanted to wash my face.”
He took a slow, calming breath and I took it with him out of habit. Then another one. Then he spoke. “Whenever I question why I’m here or whether it’s worth it to exist, I think about you. I think about us. And I stop questioning.”
Right. Oh, right. My knees gave out and we ended up on the ratty bathmat, hands still clasped. I had a kind of life-flash-before-your-eyes moment, except it wasn’t my whole life. It was a string of moments: my eyes falling out of my head in park that day with Bart when he sang with us the first time, him crying his eyes out in my arms at Madison Square Garden and the bottom falling out of my illusions as I realized how much I loved him, the bottom falling out of my world when he fell from the stage the next night…
“Shit,” I said, and held him like Fate might try to rip him away the way it had delivered him in the first place. “Me too. I’m just… Yeah. You. Us. God, Ziggy.”
He seemed to understand I was saying I agreed with him. He laughed a little, and then I realized that I was crying, that we’d both been crying for a minute, actually, that the tears that had refused to come all day had finally arrived.
(I confess I don’t actually like a lot of Pearl Jam. I know it’s because if it were me, I’d have done a lot of things differently plus I just don’t like Eddie Vedder’s voice. You know whose voice I prefer. But of all their songs this is one of the ones I like best. -d)