this is what the living do

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Johnny,

I have become a person who people send sympathy cards to, someone people want to nurture with food, chocolate, flowers and kind messages. People hug me when they see me, and ask how I am. Most of the time I have no idea.

I’m wearing your pj bottoms as I write, and drinking tea from one of your cups. The pile of your newly washed, and neatly folded clothes sits on my bed and asks me what are you going to do with us now? I don’t know, that’s why I tried on the pj bottoms. I had to roll the waist because you were taller than I am. Were, I have to get used to speaking of you in the past tense.

We’ve been speaking of you in the past tense for two weeks, two weeks tomorrow, Saturday at 4pm. I’m still getting used to that.

I also wear your wedding ring, the one that dad left you after he died. It’s on my thumb. I play with it constantly, twisting it, rubbing it. I think about you and dad, and how I ended up older than either of you, and wonder if wearing this ring is a good idea or not.

I think you would like your service, it’s in two weeks, and I have spent a lot of time working on it. It has readings, poems, and we’re playing Leonard Cohen and The Beatles, actually the choir, the one you used to sing with, will be performing Hallelujah and All You Need is Love. They said they would be honoured to sing for you. Honoured, I wonder what you would think about that. We’re doing two of my favourite prayers. To be honest I don’t know what you would think of the whole thing. I finished the first draft of your eulogy, I’ve never written one of those, but I’d never written an obituary either, and I think your’s turned out alright.

When I went through your clothes that first week, the week we went through and cleaned and organized your apartment, I mainly thought of ones for Graham, so he could have something of yours. I thought about taking a box of your books for him too, but then didn’t. You two had so much in common, but he walked out of his treatment centre 3 days ago and we don’t know where he is now, so I’m back to looking at the pile of clothes, and I’m still don’t know what I will do with them.

I sit here, healthy, safe and warm, and you’re gone, you’re not even a body anymore, you’re ashes siting in a container somewhere, I don’t even know where. They gave mom your glasses and your watch. That’s what she has, your glasses and your watch. I can’t begin to know how that feels. Did they put them in a special box with gold lettering? A velvet bag? Or did they just shove them in a brown envelope? Does that help? I don’t think it would. I think it would equally excruciating to receive the items from your child’s body no matter how they were presented to you.

You broke my heart, Johnny, you broke all of our hearts, and I let you die. I let you die alone. I let my son become homeless, and I sit in my house and feel sorry. I feel sorry, and sad, and tired, really, really tired. Somehow that seems wholly inadequate. It seems there should be larger consequence for not saving you, or Graham, or even dad.

There is more, obviously. You can’t tell by looking at me, or by talking to me, most of the time anyhow. On the outside I look and sound pretty much the same. I’m not. I’m unmoored, I am no longer somebody’s sister, I no longer have a brother, and you were it, my only sibling. It’s just me now, and that feels unnatural. All our private jokes, our code words, things that only we talked about and knew, all those things are gone, and what’s left is just space.

This was not how all of this was suppose to turn out. We were going to be great. We had grand plans. Happy lives mapped out. Lives with spouses, and happy children, successful careers, and somehow bits of that got lost.

I have to stop now. I have to find a place to put your clothes, and I have to go back to the actions that make up my life now.

I found this poem for you. I think maybe you would have made fun of it, but you don’t get to speak for yourself anymore, so here it is.

What the Living Do
Marie Howe

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.

And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

Goodnight Johnny. I love you.

“I just sit by and let you fight your secret war”

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