Sometimes I am caught unawares by the shock of death.
Even thirteen years later, I still grieve.
It catches me in odd moments.
Like today, watching the Monk series finale.
Where, eight years after the show ended, I have my own Monk moment.
Monk was a silly crime dramedy about a detective so torn by the death of his wife, he is unable to function without a massive number of coping skills that seem laughable to the world around him. These mechanisms for survival include: obsessive compulsive neatness, rigid need for control and cleanliness and order.* These tics are detrimental to his mental health and impede his ability to work in a normal job. They make for funny television, but a miserable reality.
I never saw the series when it was running. Back in 2002 I was living in Chicago, alternately trying to be a teacher and trying to get pregnant and failing at both. Then I succeeded in pregnancy, but completely tanked at teaching. But I had a husband and a son, so I kept going.
Until 2005, when my husband died.
And I stopped.
I stopped functioning, except at a nominal level where I met basic needs of my son and I cocooned myself from any changes that meant I had to face life.
I missed the entire span of the eight Monk seasons and only stumbled on it in its rerun afterlife where nothing ever truly dies.
And, today, I got to watch Adrian Monk resolve the death of his wife.
The scene that no one else probably thought two cents about was the fact that Monk couldn’t sleep in the center of his bed. He hugged the side, leaving room for Trudy, the memory of his wife forever impressed on her side of the bed.
When all the secrets are revealed in the last episode, the series is wrapped up in a tidy bow. Monk is sleeping, stretched out, in the center of the mattress and is seemingly unaware of the change in his rituals and patterns of behavior that have subsided with the peace of finally knowing. He is able to go on.
I still sleep on my side of the bed. I have never moved from it, no matter what bed I choose. It is probably just habit. A comfortable placement of nearness to the shelf where I put my glasses. The fact that I can only sleep facing one direction.
But it’s true, I can’t move to the center of the bed. Even if it is a small twin-sized mattress. I cling to the edge as if it were a thread from the past. Where I shared a space with someone else.
And that never goes away.
So, today, I cried. Because I remembered.
And never can forget.**
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*I am not like Monk. If anything, I am the anti-Monk. I do not clean, and obsessively hang on to everything, creating piles of junk that might possibly qualify me for a hoarders episode. I do however have an obsessive compulsive need to watch television that makes me cry, apparently.
**And the next day my period started with a raging bang. I suspect I was also a target of my hormones.
Fall is here. The farmer’s market is overflowing with knobby, thick-skinned vegetables. The pumpkins are a little lopsided and I am drawn to long, creamy-skinned butternut squash.* When I pass mounds of earthy cabbage, I am haunted by my father.
I have a distinct memory from childhood of my father, out in the front yard, kneeling in the grass and chopping cabbage with the savage ferocity of a Mongol Horde bent on conquest. Why does this memory stick, you may wonder? He would buy cabbage in bulk, you see. A head of cabbage probably cost something like 60 cents back in the day—but if you bought a bushel, you’d get ‘em for a steal.
If you buy even a half-bushel, like my father did, that’s still a lot of cabbage. That means a lot of coleslaw or–gag–sauerkraut.** Nearly every weekend, my father was outside wearing plaid shorts, a white undershirt, black socks and work boots that he left unlaced, crouched over a butcher’s block cutting board committing cruciferous homicide. He would do this for a good hour or more. He did this with sufficient repetitive monotony that it has become one long reel of boring dad-moments, with only a minor variation on a theme if the bushel contained an elusive red cabbage–which made for an extra-bloody looking pile when he got done.
We have no pictures of my father hunkered in all his glory, but it is burned forever in vivid Kodachrome on the part of my brain where random, goofy memories are stored.
So now, whenever I visit the farmer’s market to check out the goods, I linger for a moment before the veiny, green-white disembodied heads…and remember.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*And before you go all phallic on me, I like to chop them into cubes and broil them until they cry for mercy. Try to make a sexual innuendo outta that!
**I survived several winters’ discontent of consuming sloppy, homemade sauerkraut by vomiting dramatically whenever forced to eat it.
—Join this week’s episode of Phlegm Patrol*….already in progress–
Officer RB: “Adam Ten, Officer Bacter, on route. What’s the situation?”
Dispatch: “Victim is down…multiple unknown hostiles. Proceed with caution.”
Officer AV: “Going in code zero…what’s the eta on the bus?”
Dispatch: “Five minutes out…coroner is on standby.”
Officer RB: “Code eleven, dispatch. Adam Ten pulling up to the residence. Lights are off…let’s see if any body’s home.”**
Join our intrepid officers, Ria Bacter and Andy Viril, as they broach the unknown, potentially lethal abode nestled in a residential neighborhood where the worst that happens on a typical day is a dog taking a dump on your lawn. Today is not your typical day. As the car brakes to a halt, the duo leap into action…
“A.V…you go round the rear. I know how you like to make an entrance.” Ria says tossing her partner a brightly marked can along with her trademark wicked grin.
“Funny, Ria. Remind me to sign you up for sensitivity training when we get back.” Officer AV snaps, but he snatches the aerosol can mid-air without breaking his stride. Slamming the trunk from which he has pulled the blazing orange gear, he tosses his partner the familiar hazmat suit standard for the op.
“Keep your eye on the prize and gear up.” In seconds, he’s zipped and loaded for recon. Officer AV yanks on his headgear before stalking to the back of the yellow, suburban death trap. He muffles a curse as he nearly trips on the hose snaking through the long grass.
It’s been a while since anyone came out to mow this mess. Not good.
Masks in place, the officers approach with caution.
From the back entrance, Officer AV can’t see shit. It’s an older model home with a door meant to withstand nosy neighbors—solid steel and no fancy cut-work glass spy holes. The curtains block his view through the small kitchen window—other than to note the piles of dishes glimpsed through the sliver of light spearing the darkness inside.
A quick test of the knob reveals the door is shut tight. Out of habit, Andy sprays the surface of both the storm and the outer door handles before heading back to the front to confer with Ria. But she’s not there. He scans the yard then spots his partner hauling ass back from the car.
“I can see someone layed out inside. It appears as though a wrecking crew went through.” Ria waves a crowbar at her partner. “Looks like we’re gonna have to invite ourselves to the party.”
In seconds, the officers are through.
“Geezus Christmas.” AV can’t swallow the reflexive curse entirely. “What the hell happened here?”
Tissues adorn every surface. In the dim light, their advanced recon goggles’ infrared settings pick up the myriad human sputum samples flecking the walls and surfaces around them.
“Don’t touch a fucking thing.” Ria barks, unconcerned about anybody’s sensibilities—least of all the corpse on the couch. “I don’t want to face the paperwork if this spreads.”
Then the body buried under a mound of Kleenex and a moth-eaten afghan moans.
“Effing hell. She’s alive.” AV holds his breath—even though the standard issue mask is tested out at a level-five contagion. Flesh eating bacteria won’t get through this thing, but still…
Reaching for his adapted weapon, AV brings it to bear on the woman whose eyes open to slits, offering a watery grimace before hacking up half a lung—a wet, sucking sound that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
“Hold still ma’am.” Ria has her baton out and punches a button to bring up a swab. Like the pro she is, she’s in and out of the woman’s sphere of contagion in seconds.
“Just…kill me now.”
The woman reaches weakly toward them. Her plea is interrupted by a shudder wracking her frame. Choking paroxysms smother any further pleas for a merciful end.
Ria holds out the monitor to AV—the blinking readout suggests last rite measures.
AV grimaces, upping the anti-viral setting to maximum.
“Sorry, ma’am.” He’d have sounded more sincere, but fear clenches down hard on sympathy in the face of the petri dish that once was a human being. “But this is for the good of the nation.”
There’s nothing left to say. Ria makes quick work bagging and dragging patient zero.
As his partner backs out of the front door, AV fires and the charge disperses with an aerosol hiss of death. Every surface that had been contaminated by the mutant virus is now coated in a dripping goo—a potent substance which dissolves germs—as well as eating its way through any pesky surface that might get in the way of a thorough decontamination. In seconds, the couch is a skeleton of its former foamy self. The rest of the house will soon follow.
Outside, Ria has deposited the woman out in the standard containment unit. The body bag for the living didn’t look much different—except for the mounded air intake sucking in O2–sounding like the bastard child of Count Dracula and Darth Vader having an asthma attack.
“Think she’ll make it, Andy?” Ria Bacter asks with a cold indifference to the answer. She flags the ambulance as it rounds the corner. They know the drill.
“If they can administer the ‘chicken soup’ in time. Maybe.” Officer AV is not confident enough to make assumptions past that. “And that’s Officer Virile to you, Bacter.”
“I think you mean viral.” Ria snarks at him. She holsters the can of government-issued Lysol with a quick flick of her wrist. She’s been practicing, AV is impressed.
“That’s not what the ladies say.” AV offers his own sly grin. “Feel free to ask around.”
“Ohh, someone thinks his bad self is too hot to touch.” Ria saunters to where hazmat has set up the decon tent. She shoots him a sardonic look. “Rumor has it, you are passed from woman to woman like a common cold. You should come with a surgeon’s general warning: ‘Do not exceed recommended dosage.’ Better watch it, Viral. Or they’ll bag your ass as soon as look at it.”
AV watches as the woman Ria tagged is hauled into the back of the contamination wagon—it shoots screaming down the block interrupting his snappy comeback. Entering the tent, he calls to her as he peels off his own suit.
“As long as they’ve got my ass in their sites, they might as well get a good, long look at it.” He’s peeling to the skin when his partner whistles behind him. He whirls to catch her eyeing his physical attributes.
“Woo Whee. I guess they better of ought to, then. Some ills are worth dying for.” Ria flutters a hand as though wracked with heart palpitations, then, snatching up a nearby black bag, she whips the decon pack at his head, just missing hitting him in the teeth as he grins back at her.
“It’s all in a days’ work for the phlegm squad, Bacter.” He shouts, before hauling himself into the air vents blasting a Lysol-dense germ retardant. “Some days, a good end is all you can hope for.”***
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*I considered calling the show ‘Hazmat Cops’ but then got distracted writing lyrics to the show:
There must be a first step after loss—that moment where you get back up and say, “I guess I’m going to work.” Then there are the dishes, the laundry and the garbage to be hauled. The leaves to rake, the window to be fixed, the child to wrangle. Every motion is dragged from your body like an unwilling slug making its way across glass strewn pavement. One gets used to the sound of their tiny, anguished screams.*
I am an automaton clanking through my day with the occasional grace note of pain as thoughts pass by. “I should call him…oh…” “Dad will laugh at this comic strip…” and finally, I slip into past tense as I buy a Bigby’s pomegranate green tea: “Dad would have grumbled at the expense.” Days spent wondering when he would be gone are now chased by the ghost of that moment.
In photos, I can revisit the man I somewhat, but not quite, knew. He would smile upon command, but caught unawares, usually was bowed with thought, twisting a strand of his hair so it stood up, Alfalfa-like, a shrubby cockscomb on the back of his head. The pictures are faded, pink or yellowed, erasing the certainty of who he was and leaving me with an afterimage I stare at and wonder, “Is that really him?” And then I will see a hint of that smile. The ear-to-ear, sh*t-eating grin with his eyes closed in pleasure at his own cleverness. The smile I sometimes wear whenever I feel the same.
I will shake this fugue state, I know. It is a sadly familiar road I travel. I plod the path where death greets me like an old friend. “Oh, it’s you again! Has it really been that long? Where does the time go? Shall we go past the park or down to the river this time?”** As I walk, I am cocooned by sorrow. It is like putting on a heavy cloak that I wear to winter the pain. Eventually, the sun peeks out from behind the clouds and I can take it off, basking in the surprise of warmth half-remembered. For now, I await the thaw.
I spent the day after he died digging a ton of rocks out of the wedge of dirt alongside the house. I planted enough bulbs—seasoned with cayenne pepper to deter hungry rodents—to choke a bouquet. When the sun does finally reappear after a winter that is decidedly too long, I will count the daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths and measure my grief in petals.
“He loved me.”
“I loved him too.”
“He loved me.”
“I love him still.”
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Warning, my metaphors are squishy (like worms after a rain) and make little sense (ditto); it is a common side effect of grief.
**Death is overly chatty and loves to reminisce. The bastard.