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Anticipatory Grief

Misty Kiwak Jacobs

He may be six foot two, although I’m normally sitting on a table in front of him, or on a chair with him behind me as he runs a slick ultrasound wand down the side of my face, across my neck. He slides needles into my spine as gristle crackles inside my head. When I subconsciously lean away from the needle, he says, “Do not run from me; I cannot chase you.”

He wears neatly tailored dress pants on his very long legs, a bow tie. I did my best to flirt with him at our first meeting, saying he looked like my side of the family, asked him to take his mask off so I could see his face. He obliged, expressionless. I had been married twenty-six  years. I had never flirted like this in my life.

I tell him in Russian that I speak Russian, which he forgets by my next visit, yelling at one of his children in his native tongue over the phone. “What happened two weeks ago . . . your mother said [indiscernible]. . . I don’t have time for this stupidity.” Glupost is the Russian word, a nice word, fun to say. To speak it is to feel stupidity in one’s mouth.

I see a deliberate, focused man tidily dressed, whose bank account is never overdrawn because it would be illogical to budget poorly. And when he looks at me? Nerves tangled in a stack of wilting vertebrae, the “decreased sex drive” box I check on the pain management chart. Degeneration. I want to connect with him, with tall silver-haired men from the old country, serious men.

I told a joke at my last visit. “What’s the difference between God and a neurosurgeon?” He didn’t laugh, but went on and on explaining why the premise of the joke was incorrect.

OTVYÉT VOPRÓS!” he barks at his child who is being evasive. ANSWER THE QUESTION! He wears no wedding ring.

The price of a neurologist’s acquaintance is pain. I was a chaplain at the bedside of a prisoner when the pain first hit. Patients in hospital prison units have no visitors. The guards are cruel. Men diagnosed with terminal cancer can’t seek comfort from anyone—usually their mothers—’til Friday. One call a week: Fridays. Prisoners love chaplains, their unconditional positive regard, their listening, their warm absorbance of all transference: your mother offering unconditional love, your lover accepting every lie, God incarnate. Chaplains are all things to all felons.

Midstream in one man’s story, it fell on me, pain like a cartoon anvil dropped from cliff heights onto the top of my head, the worst headache of my life. I began to weep. “I’m so sorry, I’ll be right back.” Dragging my chair out––we were not allowed to leave chairs in the prisoners’ rooms––my eyes met his as they shifted blank and glassy with rejection. In the hallway just outside his door I dropped into the chair, doubled over and sobbing.

From deep in hollowed pain I heard the nurses debate calling a code gray. A code gray is called when an employee or a visitor has a medical emergency, and transporters and security guards and an emergency nurse arrive. A chaplain arrives. I had been the chaplain at code grays. “No, please don’t,” I pleaded as the nurse took blood pressure. “If it’s high you have to do what I say.” 185 over 120. I weep with my head in my hands as I am pushed in a wheelchair to the ED.

My mother unloaded artifacts from when we were a little happier: saddles from before the divorce, first-place trophies engraved with the names of horse shows, turquoise and silver Navajo jewelry smooth and cold. I wandered through the asphalt parking lot, looking at peacock feathers and clocks made of glossy petrified wood, Mexican blankets, sand paintings. A pink beacon of femininity called to me from tables away, a stuffed French poodle with coils of silky fur. I was eight years old. I wanted that poodle. We were poor enough that we hoped to leave a flea market a little bit better off, but not poor enough to buy a secondhand stuffed animal. “It’s unsanitary,” said my mother, a woman who lived with black-widow webs strung in the corners of her apartment, dust thick as Miss Havisham’s dressing table, and garbage seeping through paper grocery sacks stacked on the dryer.

Somehow I paid five dollars for an antique padlock the size of my hand, maybe with one of the five-dollar bills my grandmother sent in birthday cards, my grandmother who raised seven children working in a glove factory back in Indiana. The lock was caramel colored and battered. A thin, steel key sat in the keyhole, the head of which was clover shaped, a hole in each petal of the clover. A loop of discolored cord ran from the top of the key around the shackle of the lock, a flat curved band a half inch wide and a quarter inch thick, misshapen as if sculpted by hand. The lock was heavy, like my mother’s turquoise jewelry. At Christmas, I wrapped it and gave it to my father. He liked it, and it sat in his living room for the rest of his life, sometimes on the bookshelf, sometimes on the side table. Pride of place.

Every Friday evening after he closed his saddle shop, my father picked me up from my mother’s. During the thirty minute drive to his tidy house in the desert, he listened. We were suspended alone in that endless accumulation of hours as the Sonoran desert whisked past, the bright green desert broom near the road, the creosote that unleashed its scent when it rained, the pale, muscular palo verde, the rare black mesquite and steady wash of blue sky, the purple mountains embracing us from every side, flash of desert wildflowers in the spring. I asked how much mountains weigh. I asked his favorite color. Blue. When we studied the Great Depression, I asked about that. His father, whom I never met, owned a grocery store at the time, that’s how they survived. I asked about his father, a Russian immigrant. “A big, barrel-chested man.” A stern man who made the farmhand eat outside on the back steps. “I felt so bad about that.” Whose only show of tenderness was the day he cried as my father boarded a train for World War II.

When I was small, our first task upon arriving home was my hair. He would sit me down on the edge of his bed and painstakingly detangle my baby-fine hair. Pulling thread by reluctant thread he unraveled the knots and mats woven in the week’s disinterest and neglect. In stillness and attention he realigned me. What is prayer, but stillness and attention? What is the presence of God but care?

February 2022. My best friend in Arizona, Maria, texts me about her husband: “Gary has cancer. It’s bad.”

As a new Christian in my twenties, I had aspired to be a nun, and so acquired the requisite spiritual director, an old Spanish priest named Father Marcel. I wrote him letters from college, and once a month I sat in an old wooden phone booth on the ground floor of a campus mansion in Bronxville, New York, and called him in Arizona to talk about what I thought God was doing. What God was doing, at least for a time, was calling me to live among nuns in white cotton saris, living in poverty and orderliness, praying on the floor and sleeping on thin, lumpy mats covered in blue ticking for six hours and forty minutes a night.

Each morning the aspirants and sisters prayed Lauds, scattered like dropped handkerchiefs on the chapel floor. Across the hall the kitchen sister quietly lined cutting boards on the counters, each board with a vegetable, carrot or onion or cucumber or pepper, just a bit chopped or diced or minced or julienned as an example, so that after morning prayer, we could enter, don aprons, and begin working wordlessly. When I raised my children I told them to move lightly about the kitchen as if the nuns were praying in the chapel across the hall. Now grown, my children are angry with me for a number of things in their childhood, but for some reason this is not one of them.

Years later, after I had already entered and left the convent, Father Marcel was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. To arrive at a deathbed uninvited seems like gawking at someone’s private interface with God. At someone else’s ultimate humility. I am a chaplain and soon to be, God willing and the people consenting, an Episcopal priest. I have been at dozens of deathbeds. When invited as a chaplain it seems like the natural order of things: reduced appetite, more sleep, visions of dead relatives, oh, and here’s the chaplain.

Father Marcel died six weeks after his diagnosis. I never went to his bedside. It was when Father Marcel died that I first knew, really knew, my father would also die. I wept and wept and wept.

Maria texts again. Gary has pancreatic cancer.

What began as civilized foreplay with fine needles in my scalp becomes more sadistic. I am

taken to a new room where the neurologist and the assistant stand stiff and straight as nutcrackers in blue lead aprons. I lie on a table, face down, a table that does not accommodate my breasts. “I can’t lie like this,” I say, “it hurts too much.” I get back up, gown slipping, kneel, teetering on the table, trying to rearrange storied flesh, lie back down. All in front of the nutcrackers.

There is some sort of X-ray above me I cannot see; it clicks intermittently. The neurologist announces in spurts to me and to the assistant: stop breathing, forty-five degrees, now, okay, breathe again, head down, don’t move.

I ask, from now on, to have help from the female nurse. I advocate for myself, in modern parlance. When I am alone with her she helps me get up, reorient myself, get dressed. I say, “I am cutting them off this summer.” She laughs. “No, really I am.” I envision warm, overripe fruit falling to earth with moist thuds, the freshly unburdened branch from which they fell springing back up toward the sky. Liberating the tree for another rotation around the sun. Giving the tree more time. Giving my spine some more time.

My body has become a future corpse I tend to like a failing garden: The mole removed from my face that aged from beauty mark into a colorless mound of malformed flesh. The teeth I straightened, bleached, veneered. The hair I color. Botox in the corners of my mouth to prevent it from turning downwards like fire and brimstone when I preach. My knees injected with hyaluronic acid so I might walk. The continuous tilling and refining of detritus.

I remember my mother, when we still spoke, recounting her endless doctor visits. I remember saying, “Stop going to the doctor. Just live your life.” My neurologist expresses regret that I will need surgery, “but it’s not an emergency, unless you fall.” As simple as a fall. As a fender bender. When traffic slows I tap my brakes, pleading with the cars behind me: tap tap tap, spinal stenosis, tap, tap, tap, occipital neuralgia, the thrust of a molten anvil crushing me top down. Hazard lights, if you hit me my neck will shatter into red and white bits like a dropped candy cane.

All the vertebrae in my neck will need to be fused. Of course I look this up online, so I might better catastrophize. Once vertebrae are fused, eventually other vertebrae weaken, needing further fusing. I picture a run in winter tights, stopped by a drop of nail polish, the run slipping past the hardened drop to continue running ever onward toward irreparable ruin. “Just live your life.”

My father was frugal but house proud. I would wake Sunday mornings, his only day off to find him crawling along the floor by the walls, balancing an open can of white paint while touching up the baseboards. Or hoeing the weeds around each palo verde tree on his two and a half acres, creating a desert landscape as pastel smooth as a cover of Arizona Highways. Inside on the walls were paintings and sketches of horses, gifts from artists he knew through the saddle shop or antique hunt prints he and my mother had bought when they were married. Touching the thermostat was forbidden. When I left the lights on he’d ask, “Do you have stock in the electric company?” I had no idea what that meant.

Like a nomad readying to leave, he was always decluttering. Once my older half brother rescued an old toolbox from the junk pile at the back of the property, discarded among the skeletons of old Christmas trees, appliances that had stopped working, broken chairs. “It was our grandfather’s!” my brother protested. Our grandfather was born in 1895 in Russia—who knows how old the toolbox was. Our father had no use for the sentimental, but somehow he kept the padlock I gave him for a lifetime. I suspect the lock endured because he noticed that I noticed him, that in my deep unhappiness with a five-dollar bill at a swap meet, I wanted to make him happy.

One day in eighth grade, outside the cafeteria in the white hot Arizona sun, standing with a friend, I pulled up my shirt to reveal a lemony-plum bruise the size of my mother’s fist rising over my ribs. Girls of the time were not schooled in agency and self-advocacy. We were immersed in beauty and flirting. We whispered the secrets of eating disorders like nubile witches casting spells over one another’s bodies. I didn’t expect my friend’s help. I just wanted her to bear witness to my grappling with living, with cause and effect, with how a body responds to the vicissitudes of this world. Perhaps this is why the old complain about their ailments. Or why I am writing about my spine.

In 2003, a week before my father died, pain roiling like a tempest in my gut pulled me to the

floor. I knelt, my face in my hands, as a storm of grief roared out of my throat like rage. My small children in the next room were terrified by the sound. For three years after my father died, I could not speak of him without crying, but I would never cry like I cried that night when he was still alive.

I was at my father’s bedside when he died, the worst moment of my life. In the two hours I stayed by his body, eternity wafted in briefly displacing grief. Given my commitment to Russian pathos, I am almost reluctant to admit that in my worst moment of loss, eternity briefly broke in with peace. But it did.

After my father died, and before my sister showed up at his house like museum acquisitions with a moving van, I walked through his living room and slipped the antique padlock into my pocket.

On March 15, 2022, Maria sends me a picture of Gary in a hospital bed: his first chemo treatment.

“He’s still the handsomest man in the world,” I text Maria. Flattery as deflection of death. I text a picture of Colin Firth. Gary is tall and thin and serious, like Mr. Darcy. Like my neurologist. I book a flight to Arizona.

I text Maria, “I’m settled in the hotel.”

“Today is not good, very tired, vomiting. Tomorrow a long day at clinic. Maybe Wednesday.”

On Wednesday, I sit across from Gary. He is in his Swedish armchair, wearing the Yale sweatpants I sent him. Minutes into our conversation I unintentionally nudge him into a life review, a thing chaplains do—boilerplate stuff—to help the dying make meaning. I do not mean to do this. No one has admitted he is dying. Maria has said privately, “We have to hope.”

Gary was always reading, reading in his Swedish armchair, reading on the back patio when it wasn’t too hot. When he and Maria had lived with us for a couple of weeks when they were between houses, it surprised me how he found the right chair and the right light, tilted the lampshade just so, for reading, reading that I didn’t do, occupied as I was with children and cooking and perfection.

Gary says it was reading that first gave him an inkling something was wrong. Hillary Clinton’s thriller was by his bedside. He read it and then couldn’t remember the plot. He can no longer read.

I express regret having left Arizona eight years before; our old middle-class tract home is now worth over a million dollars. “We could never come back.” This sounds like materialism, but it is displacement. Which is grief.

“You had to go,” Gary says, his voice weakened to almost a whisper. “The things you’ve accomplished since you left.” When I left Arizona I was a Catholic housewife, striving and frustrated and invisible. I say a little about my life now, like a child seeking affirmation. I suppose I will always be like this, hoping for someone kind to notice me, to know if my ribs are aching. “You never could have done that here,” he tells me. “I’m proud of you.”

A compliment from the dying, or from the dead, is no faint praise. After Father Marcel died, he came to me in a dream and said, “I liked you very much.” Not the Great Commandment that he kept, his job description. Gloriously less. “I liked you very much.” Those words his imprimatur on my grief.

My son is twenty-five and still lives in Arizona. He likes Gary very much. He visits Gary with me the second day. Gary tells him, “Your whole life will change in an instant.” A cliché and it’s true. He shares that even before he was diagnosed, when he was eating a little less, sleeping a little more, he had begun to see beauty everywhere. On cue a bird outside tweets its sharp and clear assent. In the silence that follows we smile at each other. “Like that?” “Like that.”

Now that Gary is so sick, my son is reminded of the terrible secret all parents know the day our children are born, that we must leave them. My son is furious.

The night I return home from Arizona, I crawl into bed and sob unrestrained and choking sobs. I sob for Gary, for his kindness and goodness and peacemaking. I sob for Maria, a woman who sprouts grain on her counters and brews her own kombucha, who is always handing others tea and little plates of perfect fruit or slices of homemade Austrian cake, not too sweet. Who soon will be a widow, a mother of grown children. For whom will she care? I cry because Gary and Maria, the collective noun, are an anchor to Arizona, a place and comfort and origin.

I cry because I know if Gary is dying, that means I am dying, and my husband is dying. That night I dream of Gary and one of his children; I am hugging the little girl who was my youngest child’s best friend—she’s a young woman now. Maria sends me a livestreamed picture of her college graduation as I write. Maria and Gary can’t be there; Gary is too sick to travel. Maria is weeping.

I am not recovering from the last injection. When I sit up and the neurologist walks toward me, I see double, like in the movies. Half of him breaks off and stands behind the whole of him. When I mention this, suddenly I am on my back; he is holding my feet in the air and the nurse is putting the blood pressure cuff on my arm.

“I’ve lived a full life,” I joke. “It’s okay. Let me go.” And also not joking, an homage to a lifetime of depression. And also the desire to please, to be amenable, like how I try not to cry out as the needle presses hard through the back of my neck, pain splicing through my bones like a hot arrow.

When I sit up again, the neurologist puts out his hand, palm up, chest height, obliging me to take it, palm down. “Like prom,” I say as soon as I think it. “Shall we dance,” he says, pure straight man. Be still my heart. Today he is actually—and regrettably—dressed like a seventeen-year-old boy going to junior prom, narrow-leg black jeans, black button-down shirt, neon pink and blue floral bow tie. I could fix that, I think, within the confines of Holy Matrimony. All things done well and in the proper order.

After twenty minutes, Geoffrey, the stout, tattooed assistant walks me through the office to see if I am stable. “How’d I do?” I ask.

“Seven out of ten.” Geoffrey stays with me in the big recliner room in case I pass out. Twenty minutes later I am still too dizzy to drive. For the first time in a dozen visits, I call my husband to drive me home.

I look up from within the fat, doughy recliner at my rumpled husband in old jeans and the fleece he wears to chop wood, a hole burned through the sleeve from tending the wood stove. He is standing next to my well-heeled, junior-prom neurologist. They are like before-and-after photos, side by side looking down at me. I realize I am ridiculous. Words I wrote in my thirties pass through my mind. I am a woman, almost dignified, not a girl almost pretty. That was twenty years ago. Almost has run its course.

My husband drives me home, stands behind me as I climb the steps to the house. The rest of the blurry day I intermittently ask, “He’s objectively handsome, right?” My husband asks me to stop asking that.

My pain medication isn’t working. I would love to be drugged to oblivion and this is my legitimate chance. But I am a woman of a certain age in grad school who preaches at a fancy Episcopal church with pews full of professors: physicists and classicists, political scientists and authors. I can turn up the corners of my mouth with botulism toxin but I cannot dull my brain. The neurologist asks if I have ever taken Topamax. “I took it twenty years ago for depression,” I tell him. “I called it the Scottsdale drug. It made me skinny and stupid.”

“You could use the skinny,” he says, humorless Russian accent. “It would help your neck.” This is not a love story.

If I flirt with my neurologist and endlessly daydream about him then ours might be a romantic comedy and not a common interest in a degenerating spine. Like old men who leave their wives for young women, I had mistaken this last flush of desire for immortality.

In that fancy Episcopal church I am soon preaching on the gospel scene where Mary, Martha

and Lazarus, Jesus and Judas share a meal a few days before Jesus dies. Breaking bread at one table are a body resurrected, a body grieving, a body about to succumb to ultimate hopelessness and a body on the cusp of a flesh-goring, lung-crushing death. Oh, and a body serving a meal she had cooked. I almost forgot about her, because she is invisible.

Hospitality of the time dictated the washing of guests’ feet with water, and the anointing of their heads with oil. Instead of dabbing Jesus’s head with a touch of oil, Mary is all excess. I believe she is overcome, has accidentally overturned the nard as she crumples to the ground, spilling the whole precious bottle. I imagine her struggling to compose herself, weeping as her hands and knees slip on the oily floor, caressing Jesus’s feet with her hair, reluctantly using her hair to wipe his feet dry. Judas sneers at the spectacle, at the waste.

How does Jesus respond to Mary’s tears, to her embodied sorrow, to Judas’s disdain? He sees her and says, “Leave her alone.” Leave her alone with me who in a few short days will suffer and die, when again bearing precious oils and brokenhearted, Mary will make her way to anoint my body.

Leave her alone, for soon all earthly accounting of nard and the natural laws of life and death, bodily suffering and the dark power of the grave, all these constraints will be obliterated on the third day. Leave her alone in her anticipatory grief.

Lazarus is there, observing, engulfed in the intoxicating scent of spilled nard. He eats his meal. Only days before he had woken wrapped in darkness soft as winding cloth, in a poultice of silence, smooth and sweet as spiced oil, his flesh strangely softening and rank. Somewhere in cavernous unawareness he heard the scrape of stone, the call, Come out!—the words of Jesus laying a path of amber light. Lazarus, come out! Somehow Lazarus stood, stumbled, pantomimed what walking is, weak from stillness and decay. Grave clothes trailed behind him taut as plumb lines orienting him to death.

Lazarus does not weep. He is not grieving. Eternity is still sparking in his bones.