December 31, 2001

the school of dreams

I wake up before I leave the OR, before any pain medicines hit my veins. I wake up with a hurt so strong I wish they would kill me--take me back in and kill me. The agony is unbearable.

Because the surgery takes nearly seven hours, the anesthesia is light toward the end. You cannot hang that long between life and death, while anesthesia balances the body there as the soul dances in and out of the light.

This is a state of dreams. Of needing to leave behind a pain so intense that to not leave will kill you. So it's not surprising that I wake up too soon, before they wheel me into recovery, with the rawness of every cut and stich so fresh I can only gasp, "help."

the school of the dead

As I waver between life and death in my own hospital bed, 30 years after his death, on his birthday in fact, I am somehow not surprised. Terrified, yes. Facing death is not something I'm prepared for. My new baby is just 9 weeks old. How did I get here?

When you lose a parent early in life, you wonder if you'll make it past the age they were when they left you. Every child of death wonders this. That's why I'm not surprised to be near death myself at 36, the same age he was when the luck of the Irish eluded him.

In my hospital bed, hemorrhaging uncontrollably, I am violently enrolled in what Cixous calls, "The School of Dreams." Because I don't die; I live. But in walking the line between here and there, I dream. Images as vibrant as those five-year-old memories, scenes that will carry me through the next half of my life.

Bleeding to near death. Watching helplessly as my lifeforce leaves my body, playing tricks with my mind and taking small pieces of my soul with it, my sanity too. The emptiness is unfathomable. As a new mother, instincts of self-protection battle with the responsibility of caring for this new life. I don't want to see her; don't want her to see me, not like this. My one gift to her: protect her from images of her dying parent--I know how they haunt.

But she comes to visit just before surgery. My sister carries her down the elevator toward the operating room, this small life that has almost cost me mine.

Anxiety gives way to resolve. Once again, I cannot control. I cannot fix myself, I cannot fix my family. I let go, I go to sleep. And I dream. Dreams of pain. Dreams of loss--where is my baby? My husband is gone--no, there he is. And I hear talking, outside of myself.

I am a dream within a dream. A death within a death.

December 30, 2001

None of this should matter to you. Because it's mine. It belongs to me. My loss, my gain, my death, my life. And yet, others who descend the ladder of writing with me must absolutely experience this school of loss-gain, death-life, grief-joy. If not, we have no common ground. If not, my voice will not resonate with you. If you have not taken that step down, then you and I live in different worlds. Sometimes I glance your way, and it's envy you feel heating your neck, and sometimes it's sadness for you too.

Don't be sorry for me; be sorry for you. I saw the open door and walked on through.

the school of the dead

Cixous writes: "For a long time I lived through my father's death with the feeling of immense loss and childlike regret, as in an inverted fairy tale: Ah, if my father had lived! I naively fabricated other magnificent stories, until the day things changed color and I began to see other scenes--including everything I could imagine that was less consoling--without overinvesting."


I tell all my friends growing up that my father died of a gallbladder operation. Because no one tells me otherwise, even though he lived another six months after that operation. My fourth grade teacher tells me it is very unusual for someone to die of a gallbladder operation. She says, "Are you sure?" And I wonder if I'm hiding something.

I'm 21 before I ask.

My mother tells me the truth then, about the day he had his operation and the doctors took her in a room, there by herself, to tell her that her husband's gallbladder is fine, but his pancreas isn't. The diagnosis is pancreatic cancer. The prognosis, much as it is today, omonous. Six months maybe. My mother tells me the news rips her apart, and her first and strongest instinct is to wail for her own father. "Bring my daddy here. He'll know what to do. I need him." But there is no comforting to be done for this family.

There will never be comfort again.

the school of the dead

Cixous writes: "Of course, I'm only talking about the death of the loved one, it's only a question of love here. And of everything loss brings as it takes away. We lose and in losing we win. This doesn't happen together, it can happen in a deferred, sustained, or continuous manner... This misfortune or fortune--which will make our lives an unending struggle to be fair--is that in losing we have something to gain. Mixed loss and gain: that's our crime. This is what we are always guilty of, guilt we can't do anything about with these unexpected and terrible gains."


The days and months that follow are a mix of images without resolution. Technicolor hyper-reality cinema interspersed with sudden fades to black. Black stays for a while as I knock the side of my head trying to remember. Then the show starts again, a new scene, the exhaustion of not knowing how the last scene ended.

The most vivid memory is Saint Patrick's Day, 1968. Mrs. McCarthy knows my father has been ill. She asks if I think he would like some get well cards from the class. I'm pretty sure he would. And that day, we all make shamrock cards for my father, luck of the Irish for a Sicilian, and I am sure that day I have become a kind of kindergarten celebrity. More than once, I am glad my father is sick. I am glad for the attention. It is a wanting that will haunt me the rest of my life.

At the end of the day, Mrs. McCarthy bundles the cards up in a sack for me to carry home on the bus. I can barely stand the ride home, so excited to be bringing some St. Patrick's day luck for my father.

I fly in the front door and up the carpeted steps toward his bedroom, where I know he'll be resting. My mother meets me at the top of the steps. "Look!" I shout, as happy as I've been in six months, "I have cards my class made for daddy!" She doesn't let me past her to the bedroom door. She takes the sack from my hand and tells me my Aunt Penny is in my room--she wants to talk to me.

That instant I know.

My luck is too late.

Slowly I walk to my room. I pass a TV where I hear the soap opera drama of "The Edge of Night."

I love my Aunt Penny. She is my second mother, and would grow to be more so over the years to come. She sits me down and tells me that sometimes God chooses special people to be in heaven with him. He needs them for reasons we don't understand. She really is trying.

"My dad is dead, isn't he?"

The wind knocked out of her, she whispers a soft "Yes."

My father, her big brother, dead at 36.

I don't cry. She tells me I can if I want to. But I really don't want to. I look back often and wonder why, and I find that my thoughts that day are still sensible some 35 years later: He's gone. There's nothing I can do about it. He didn't even get to see the cards. He's gone. Okay.

When I come out of the room my mother is waiting. "It's just you and me now, and we'll be okay." And at that moment, I quake with fear that my brother and sister have succumbed to death too, because she doesn't mention them. I still don't know why she chose those words, but she was a 33-year-old widow with three children, no life insurance, a farm to sell, a job to get. That she chose the words she did is somehow okay.

the school of the dead

Cixous writes: "The first book I wrote rose from my father's tomb. I don't know why; perhaps it was the only thing I had to write then. I had to write then, in my poverty, in my inexperience, the only asset: the only thing that made me live, that I had lived, that put me to the test, and that I felt because it completely defeated me. It was my strange and monstrous treasure."


In school on the day of his operation, it was a kindergarten day like any other. I remember the smells the best... exhaust from the school bus, the mixed aroma of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, balogna sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and 30 little half-pints of milk all pulled open at once. My mat, where I take my nap. My teacher, Mrs. McCarthy, who knows my father is getting rid of that gallbladder and who touches my shoulder a few more times than usual that day.

And then it stops. Fade to black.