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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 2

"How to Eulogize Everyone You've Ever Loved"

written by


Step 1: Start with yourself. Grow up plagued by dreams of dying young. Write your will when you are eight. It’s imperative that your brother gets your books, but your parents get the contents of your piggy bank. You owe them. Maybe the $19.26 in coins in your ceramic pig will cancel out the guilt you feel for the time and money and effort they have put into raising you.

Step 2: Stare numbly at your phone, at the text from a friend that says “Sarah just told me she’s going to kill herself but she didn’t tell you because she knew you’d do something about it. I don’t know what to do.” Sift through the thoughts that immediately bombard you. You stopped her before, so now you’re the bad guy? How does your friend know you’ll handle it? Did she think her other friends wouldn’t do anything? Can you get to her? Step away from the kids you’re babysitting, just for a moment (a moment where anything could happen) and call your mom. Tell her she needs to call Sarah’s parents again, because Sarah’s about to hurt herself. Use the drone of the dial tone after your mom hangs up to calm your quick, shallow breathing. Go back into the living room and let the youngest braid your hair, while you think about how you’ve just saved your friend, and lost her.

Step 3: Cry yourself to sleep in January of your freshman year of college, thinking about how you would handle it if both your parents suddenly died, and you had to quit school to take care of your brother, and learn how to do things like plan a funeral, sell the house, pay off a home equity loan, and rent a storage unit. Call your mom the next day and ask her to make you the executor of her will, since you’re over eighteen. Hang up and open the notes app on your phone and start listing everything you love about your strikingly mortal mom and dad.

Step 4: Volunteer on a crisis hotline for the rest of college. Learn to straddle the fine, shifting line between valuing the caller and caring too much. Learn this the hard way, when you find yourself tearing up in the middle of class, worrying about faceless strangers who bled to you over the phone the night before. Worry that one day you’ll get an email from the university administration saying that a student died, and somehow you’ll know they were your caller last night, and you failed.

Step 5: Graduate college and move into your first apartment. As some kind of metaphor for growing up and leaving your childhood behind, begin waking up in the night with images of your eviscerated pets imprinted on the inside of your eyelids. Sometimes they have been mauled by animals, other times hit by cars. The good nights are where they waste away from cancer; where they still look like themselves at the end. Try to tell your mom, because you’re her person and she’s yours. Stumble over how to make her understand that of course you would miss her more if she died, but for some reason you keep dreaming about the cat. Feel guilt squeeze your lungs, because it has been weeks since you saw your mom die in your sleep, and her death has never been so gory. Go to bed that night thinking about losing your cat and your mom.

Step 6: Spend your walk home from work imagining if your boyfriend were in an accident. Realize that you haven’t met his parents yet – you can’t contact them and they can’t contact you. You’re not even important enough to contact yet. Imagine yourself texting him and calling him, panicking more and more, until eventually a voice like his, but gruffer and older, answers and tells you he is in the hospital. You’ve never been the last to know, just collateral, just an after thought. There’s nothing you can do, and nothing you have to do. Would you speak at his funeral? He’s a writer, and everything you’re coming up with now, as your feet crunch in the patches of gravel on the sidewalk, would be too cheesy for him. He would scoff or groan or roll his eyes and you would too, if it wasn’t all you could squeeze out of your arteries right now; if you didn’t mean every word.

Step 7: Keep mental drafts of funny stories and touching stories, filed by loved one, cross referenced by the order in which they are most likely to die. Don’t commit any of them to paper or screen. Even as an atheist, you won’t tempt God like that. Your mother always stopped to assure God she was kidding if she so much as mentioned someone she knew suffering, just in case. Practice your last words to them while you’re in the shower. Find the best adjectives to describe them while you catch the bus. Find your mind wandering to the best way to word memories that are imprinted in your skin as images. Hope that someday you’ll do them justice. Stay up late into the night, knowing you can’t, but calling your insomnia a tribute to them anyway, the only kind you can manage right now. With every darker shade of blue that mars the crescents under your eyes, spend twenty minutes trying to find a local therapist, an online therapist, anyone who can make the dreams stop. Quit when you find yourself on waitlist after waitlist, in line behind the hundreds of other people who need help.

Step 8: When you move into your new apartment, the one with the sunshine and the room to breathe, hesitantly accept when the dreams stop. Months pass - you can sleep without losing people inside the recesses of your brain. Six months into your lease, realize that you’ve become complacent. Choke on the wave of guilt that follows the understanding that you briefly forgot their mortality. Keep yourself up the next night, imagining what you’d wear, the color of the urn, the way the light plays through the stained glass windows of the church. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. They’re not dead yet. You still have time to practice.

Olivia is a Maine native and a graduate of Tufts University. She has wanted to be a writer since she was ten years old. You can find her scribbling in her notebook, or reading more than is healthy.

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