December 30, 2001

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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."

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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.



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