The After-Bill

Saturday, 1/1/22, 3:04 p.m.

The phone rings. I’m shoving wet clothes into the dryer, so I let the answering machine pick up. Dad says, “Just checking in for the day. I just got back from playing Jeopardy. It was fun. I did well. I guess that’s about it for the day. Oh, I had exercise this morning. Guess that’s about it. Happy New Year to you both. Call you tomorrow. Love you, Sweetie.”

Saturday, 1/2/21, 2:36 a.m.

The phone rings. It’s a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Albany, New York, where Bill has been a patient for a week. My heart drops into my stomach. “Is this William’s wife?” she asks. “No, this is his sister.” “William is getting CPR, he is in cardiac arrest, and it isn’t looking good. We are having trouble reviving him.”

She is right. It isn’t good, and Bill does not revive. At 2:47 a.m., surrounded by nurses and doctors but none of his family (COVID restrictions), he is pronounced dead.

Saturday, 1/2/21, 2:50 a.m.

I call my father and then Tom, my younger brother, to tell them Bill is dead.

The After-Bill

Tom, Dad, and I start all those tasks you need to complete when your brother/son dies. Some of it is straightforward: divvying up the notification calls to family, friends, and work colleagues, completing the death certificate information, verifying cremation details, writing the obituary, and driving to his house to make sure it is secure. It’s not. The emergency personnel we called to check on Bill when he didn’t show up for a Zoom call left the front door open, not unlocked, but open, in upstate New York in the dead of winter, when they loaded him up and transported him to the hospital.

Much of it is not straightforward: like planning an in-person and online memorial service in the time of Covid (thank you, Christy Kempf and Tony Ferri in Saratoga Springs for being so kind and helpful); accessing accounts, and going through decades of accumulation in his house.

Some of it is downright torturous: like figuring out how to pick up managing an uncle’s estate that Bill was executing, or getting accounts moved (brokerage firm, I’m talking to you, and your 75-minute holds and non-answers).

However, with more than a little help from friends and family (thank you, Claudia, Lisa, and Kevin), we plug gaps and find ways to do what Bill did for Dad: provide daily guidance on a myriad of topics, shop for his groceries, unload his groceries, take him to medical and dental appointments, persuade him to buy a motorized wheelchair, and then a few months later, persuade him to purchase a regular wheelchair for appointments since the motorized chair is too heavy and cumbersome for transport.

That’s the easy stuff.

Here’s the hard stuff: coming across voicemail messages from Bill on my cellphone when I go to delete a full inbox, swiveling around in my office chair and seeing Bill’s pending trips (to national parks in the west, to Switzerland) taped to the bookcase behind my desk, reading the daily newspapers and physically stopping my hand from underlining items to discuss with Bill, sitting in Dad’s apartment knowing Bill is not going to show up for the first time—ever—forgetting to take a family photo with us “left-behinds” when we gather for Bill’s Memorial Service, not wincing when well-intentioned friends, family, and strangers utter tone-deaf platitudes meant to comfort, walking down the path to the beach and seeing a cruise ship on the horizon knowing Bill will never again set sail.

What I didn’t anticipate

Six things:

  1. Hundreds of condolence messages and the clear impact Bill had on so many lives.
  2. What an integral part he was of my foundation. All that shared sib history. I fully expected that Bill and I would grow old(er) together. Now that he’s gone, I picture myself like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, about to set off down the yellow brick road, but instead of skipping down the road, Toto running ahead, I stumble and trip over missing bricks on the path.
  3. The depth of my despair. Some days, I am sick with missing.
  4. Not having a clue as to what will trigger grief.
  5. In the first six months, I will tell total strangers that I feel like someone is stabbing me in the heart with shards of broken glass.
  6. How the great world continues to spin and doesn’t give a shit about my puny, little life and paroxysms of sorrow.

What Helps

Four things:

  1. Caring friends and family in it with me for the long haul like my dear friend, Sandra. She not only remembers the anniversary of Bill’s death, but she makes a charitable contribution in his honor.
  2. The $12 worth of flowers Jim buys from Publix each weekend. The bouquets of reds, purples, yellows, and sprigs of piney green lift my spirits as I snip stems and arrange blooms in favorite pottery vases purchased long ago on a work retreat in Maine.
  3. Critters: the domestic Lambdin/Henze cats, Cayce and Catsby, of course, but also the bunnies that hop closer and closer if I stand statue-still on the path to the beach, the mutant raccoon with tufts of fur sticking straight up in a mohawk on a head attached to a naked body, the shorebirds skittering in and out with the waves, and the crabs waving a claw at me when I venture too close.
  4. Stories by Jennifer Finney Boylan, Katherine May, Margaret Renkl, Ann Patchett, and David Sedaris. I read them and weep, cackle with delight, and underline passages that are just too good not to highlight.

What’s Next?

Who knows? Some days, it feels like an elephant is standing on my chest. Other days, despair, lassitude, and confusion are with me when I arise but are gone by noon, like fog burning off in the bright sunshine. I wonder: is grief a kind of chrysalis experience? Will I emerge at some point from the miasma of grief transformed?

Meanwhile, life goes on, and new habits take hold. One of Bill’s responsibilities was to answer the daily call from Dad. On the cusp of 97, Dad lets his kids know that he’s still on the green side of the sod. Now that’s my job. Most days, Dad remembers to call. When he doesn’t, I call him, and so far, all has been well.

Reader’s Invitation: Thanks for reading! Please share your thoughts and feelings on this post.

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