I’m tired of missing people. On September 11, 2016, fifteen years after that thing happened, I sit in church. I texted Reverend Chris the night before so I wouldn’t have to say it out loud in front of the congregation, wouldn’t have to ask for prayer requests for my cousin, who died while swimming in the ocean the afternoon prior.
Chris mentions the shocking occurrence for me, but even the pronouncement, coming from my patient pastor, doesn’t bring comfort. I spin the gold and emerald ring on my finger—belonged to my grandmother, years dead—and add Cousin Bob to the list of people I will miss. The list keeps growing, as lists are wont to do.
I have remnants in my home from all my dead people.
From Grandma Schwind, I have a favorite scarf, jewelry, and even her lipstick. (It tastes like strawberries.) From Papa Schwind, I have one of his worn flannel shirts and a bottle of lotion that smells like him. I keep the lotion on the back shelf in a cupboard and never use it, because the one time I did, I kept sobbing and smelling my hands.
There’s very little of Uncle Barney left, except a magnet on my fridge that says, “Jesus would slap the shit out of you,” and a paperweight—oh, and stories. Barney left lots of stories, and sometimes, when I make spaghetti sauce from scratch, I’ll add just the right ratio of oregano to garlic and smell his kitchen.
Grandma Dobie left me antique dolls. Most people think they’re creepy, but I keep them in my office where they watch me like Grandma Dobie used to when she babysat after school. It was her death, in fact, that nudged me toward dying my hair black and cutting my skin in secret, although I doubt she meant to leave me those things.
I’ve removed most traces of my brother, Matt, not because he’s dead but because we haven’t spoken on the phone in months, and the reminders hurt. He’s grown away from me—grown into someone new—with a wife and life of his own in Charleston. I used to call him randomly with funny stories. Last night, I called him crying to tell him Bob was dead. He didn’t answer, because he never answers, but I left a voicemail. I don’t know if he’s happy or sad, healthy or sick. I don’t know much of anything about him anymore.
Cousin Bob was a native New Yorker, married to the beautiful, gregarious Betty Ann. He had one of those Goodfellas accents, yet he was the sweetest, most selfless guy you’d ever meet. When 9/11 happened fifteen years ago, he was so close to the Two Towers that dust rained down on him and he found a torn airline ticket amidst the rubble. I wonder if he kept it, a memento of someone dead on that cursed flight.
In church, I blink away a stupid, pointless tear and try to focus, but I keeping thinking about how I’ve said goodbye to all my dead people in church, sitting in an uncomfortable pew. Church is a place of such life, such light, but also darkness and death. It’s a place for brides, babies, and caskets. Peace and pain.
Despite my panicked voicemail from last night, my brother probably won’t call me back, won’t calm my tears like he did years ago, when we were younger, before everyone started dying. I still have all the dead people’s numbers in my phone, as if I might still call them, as if they might still answer. But then, I’ll see Grandma’s scarf in my closet and remember she’s dead, because if she were alive, I wouldn’t have her favorite scarf. I’ll never delete the phone numbers.
A couple weeks ago, my mom had a tough morning. She kept thinking about her parents. She said, “Sometimes, I wish I could turn back time.” If only to spend one more Christmas at the house on Walnut Street as a family. If only to laugh with my brother—like that time at Ohio University when Matt and I raced each other, sprinting two blocks, to get to the nearest bathroom for fear of a public indecency arrest. If only to hear Bob say, “Fugittaboutit,” still unsure of what that New York expression means but loving it nonetheless.
I’m tiring of missing people, but there’s little to be done about it. “Grief ambushes” sometimes seem omnipresent: the scent of a certain perfume, the sound of a stranger’s laugh, a piece of jewelry you wear over and over as if, in the wearing, the dead still live.
After church, I climb the tallest tree in our backyard with Jake watching. I need to be away from cold Earth; I need to see the sky. Jake tells me not to fall, and I tell him I’ll do my best. As always, I mean it.