1. January 17th

    I remember when I got the call on January 17th. Of course I remember.

    I had an appointment with my dermatologist that morning. When that wrapped up, I went into the hall and called my dad to ask for a quick opinion. See, I had been in the ER on Sunday night with terrible stomach and chest pains. I had been getting stomachaches quite frequently for a year or so but nothing like this. Never aches that caused me to double over in pain and cry in my bedroom. I wasn’t sure whether the episode was related to the colonoscopy and endoscopy I had on Friday. Conveniently, my gastroenterologist’s office is in the same building as my dermatologist’s so I called my dad to ask if I should wait to see the other doctor even though I didn’t have an appointment. I really didn’t want to miss more time at work and I wasn’t sure how long I would have to wait to be seen. I took time off of work on Friday for my procedure and then again on Monday to recover from my night in the ER. My job didn’t entail much, so the least I felt I could do to contribute was to be punctual. Torn, I called my dad for his recommendation.

    When I talked to my dad, I had terrible reception. Office buildings can be like that, you know? So, I couldn’t hear him too well and I kept shouting “What? I can’t hear you.” For some reason, my tone implied that I was blaming him for my poor reception. Hopefully he knew how crucial his regular advice was for even my most minute decisions but maybe he couldn’t discern that through my shouting. I think the conversation lasted about 1 minute and 40 seconds. When I recall it now, perhaps he sounded a bit winded. He said I should definitely wait see the gastroenterologist. The office didn’t open for a little while so, I sat downstairs in a waiting area between the pharmacy and blood draw lab. I sat in an armchair and took out my newish iPad that had 3G service. How cool that I could browse the web during this downtime. It was pretty awesome how my dad convinced his parents to pay for the cellular service on my iPad. I went in to see the doctor who gave me Prevacid. He didn’t seem too phased that I had been in the ER.

    Feeling like I had somewhat wasted my time, I rushed off to work. I don’t think I updated my dad about my appointment but maybe I sent him a quick text. I definitely didn’t talk to him again. I could check the screen capture I took of our text messages but the thought of looking that up right now makes my hands shake and tears well. I got to the office and of course nobody was concerned about my tardiness. I sat at my desk with nothing to do. I was in charge of selecting music for the office and I felt like playing Stevie Nicks, one of my dad’s favorites. I texted my Dad for his “Spotify pass” (a.k.a. password) and didn’t get an answer. He was probably with a therapy patient as usual. I am pretty sure I texted him another banal question an hour or so later.

    It was around 1 PM that I saw “Blocked” on my cell phone screen. It was probably my dad and I was annoyed he was calling during the day. Didn’t he know I had no privacy at work? It was obtrusive for me to step out for personal calls. I answered the call and instead, it was my Dad’s office mate, Steve. I was surprised to hear from him and wasn’t sure why he was calling. He had never called me on the phone before and it felt kind of special that he was calling now.

    He said, “Hi Olivia, this is Steve Brown, do you know who I am?”

    Somewhere between “Brown” and “am,” the call felt less special. It didn’t sound like he was calling to tell me that he wanted my help to prepare a surprise for my dad or anything fun like that. I think what he did say next is that there had been an accident. He then said more plainly, “your father passed away.” Something about an asthma attack but later it was determined to be a heart attack. I barreled out of the office into the parking lot and starting sobbing and babbling incoherently. I couldn’t comprehend what he meant. “What happened? What? What? What? I can’t hear you.” I was sitting on the floor of the parking lot screaming. I hung up the phone. I somehow made it back into the office and told my boss that my dad died. He hugged me. The hug was very sincere and it wasn’t one of those half hugs people give you. It was a full hug that actually made me feel the presence of empathy and care. But my dad was still dead. He had been dead on the floor of his office for hours and nobody noticed until after lunchtime.

    My disorientation caused me to pace around the conference room and hurl myself against the wall a few times. I called my mom (who had recently gotten divorced from my dad) to tell her what happened. She said “What? I can’t hear you. Slow down. He is what? DEAD?” She told me to call my friend James. I called and told him he had to come pick me up because my Dad had died. He had to pick me up because I was sitting on the floor and didn’t know how to stand anymore. My limbs were lead. So there I was, slumped in the corner of the conference room, leaning on the wall and pounding against it. My boss brought me water; he empathetically remarked that he didn’t know what to do for me. I didn’t know what to do for me. I pretended to drink the water and said, “I don’t really know where to go. There’s nowhere to go. I guess I’ll go home.” James arrived, pulled me up from the floor, and dragged me to my car.

    The whole way home, I was banging my feet on the glove box. I was clenching my teeth. I was screaming. I was choking on tears and snot. In between my outbursts, I was giving Jon directions to my apartment as calmly as possible. He told me he would just look up directions on his phone; it was okay. Soon after I got home, my roommate Lisa got home and sat next to me on my bed. She had so much composure. She was kind of hushing me, like she were shushing a baby to sleep, and telling me things would be okay. Her hand was on my back. It was too calm for me. I wanted to just run around and wail and heave myself into. I wanted people to be there to help me but I also wanted to be alone so I could just ravage everything in my sight including myself. Somehow, my surroundings and my body remained in tact.

    Death is the most permanent event I have ever experienced. Compared to death, everything is an ephemeral bubble that defies gravity. Now death, that thing has quadruple gravity. It’s the kind of gravity that feels like my dad’s corpse is hanging off my heart by its decaying finger joints. (I would give you a more illustrative picture of the carcass but when I Googled “how fast does a body decay when buried,” I couldn’t really figure out a timeline. How much flesh is left on the bones? Are maggots enveloping everything? What about his shoes? There seem to be too many variables to say.) So, each day, I walk around and have to plant my feet much more firmly onto the earth so as to not topple over from the weight of my dad’s corpse. Some days it seems to support its own weight more and I can stand with a bit less wobble, but other days, I can’t even walk a straight line.

    The weird thing about Death is that it taps me on the shoulder at incongruous times. I am sitting in class and Death will go, “psst” in my left ear, chasing me into the bathroom where I sob. I am in the middle of a funny story and Death materializes behind my eyelids. I employ my best poker face to finish the joke but immediately feel clammy and panicked. Hopefully my acting fools them all.  But if only I could just trust-fall into their arms, they could hug me and cover my eyes and tell me that they have no idea how awful I must feel. But acknowledging this pain would make people uncomfortable.

    I navigate the world, and sometimes Death leaves me alone. Sometimes I forget my dad’s corpse is chained to my leg and I feel genuinely happy. I guess my body feels used to being attached to it every now and then. But when it pulls on the slack of the chain, I feel like melting into the earth and dissolving into sand. All I want to do is dig through the earth and lay next to my dad. Maybe I would even be able to hear him whisper “I love you so much, Liv.”


    Somehow each day, I go on without digging.


  2. A Letter from Home

    Dear Dad -

    I never got a chance to thank you for all those letters you wrote to me over the years:  when I was away at school; after I’d moved out to the East Coast; when I was working overseas.  You were always  my most reliable & entertaining pen pal (even if your handwriting wasnt always the most legible).   So, with a little help from the Internet (and a splash of magical thinking), I thought I’d return the favor & drop you a quick line.  Just to let you know that I’ve learned a lot of things - the hard way - since you died.

    I’ve learned that people dont die just once.  They die - a little bit - on every holiday, birthday, milestone, anniversary.  Over and over again, I re-live your loss.  

    I’ve learned that it’s not just the one person who dies:  everyone else left in the family dies, too. Because the five people we all once were are now only four:  the whole dynamic has changed and shifted now that there’s one less main character on our little family stage.

    I’ve learned how hard it is to love & miss someone like crazy, but to still struggle with guilt and regret.  I feel so guilty about all the times I acted like a little snot to you.  And regret all the times you drove me crazy, when you were only trying to help, and I was impatient and peevish in return.  

    I’ve learned that September 11th wasnt the most horrific day in my lifetime, after all.  Instead, it was that random August evening I got the phone call that you’d died:  suddenly, utterly unexpectedly, and out of the blue clear sky.  

    I’ve learned what it’s like to dream that you’re still alive.  Dreams so vivid and real that when I finally wake up, I cant believe they were only dreams.  ”But I thought you were dead ….”, I always tell you in those dreams.  

    And most of all, I’ve learned that I still cant quite believe I have to live the rest of my life in a world without you in it ….

    Love you, Daddy - 




  3. Wow

     “Are you sure?” I ask.

    The pain in my leg has its own pulse. Every few moments it wraps it tendrils around my left calf more tightly until I am folded in half and unable to breathe.

    “I think we should probably go to the E.R.” Chris says.

    He is a hypochondriac. Given to believing the slightest nerve twinge portends meningitis or A.L.S.

    “Maybe I can just wait until morning. I’ll call the doctor at 9.”

    The muscles in my leg feel like someone is wringing out a sodden beach towel. Tighter, tighter. I’m holding my breath.

    “Maybe I sprained it.”

    “Then why isn’t it swollen?”

    The pain is starting to creep north of my knee. I am cold and exhausted. I’ve been trying to get back to sleep for an hour.

    “OK. But it has to be Jefferson.”


    It is early enough that 90.9 is still broadcasting the BBC. But I can’t hear anything except my own scared voice repeating, “You’re going to the hospital. You’re going to the hospital.” I am numb and quiet inside the car, silently deflecting dormant, seven-year-old images. I know what’s coming. It feels better to focus on my most present pain.

    I limp into the miraculously empty Jefferson waiting room and almost apologize to the nurse on duty. “I think I hopped off a Septa bus the wrong way or something,” I offer. She lifts an eyebrow at my cough, and I continue through my medical history, making special note of childhood Asthma and a particularly brutal allergy season. There is a poster hanging on the cabinet behind her that displays the kinds of faces a cartoon would make in various stages of pain. I peg mine at a seven but wonder if I should have said nine.

    When the nurse returns with a wheelchair, it feels like my tonsils crash into the pit of my stomach. I am conscious of my heart racing and my dead weight in the chair as the nurse wheels me past the guarded double doors into the actual emergency room. I force myself to breathe evenly and to avoid thinking about what is going on in the other triage areas.

    From somewhere unidentifiable, a memory crashes in. I can see the ER at Penn. I can see Gus in a chair. On a gurney. I see myself, 24, following his medical parade from the waiting room into the ER. From the ER to a private room. I remember charging the $11 daily television fee to my dwindling bank account and realizing that was the only way I could help at all.

    Finally, bay 56. I arrange myself carefully on the bed and swallow. And breathe. I reach my left hand over the plastic rails on my gurney and squeeze Chris’s. “This is really hard for me,” I croak. “I know it is.” He squeezes back.

    I can feel my eyes welling up while my mind begins to race. I know the entire animation of Gus’s illness is about to flash by. I need a second of silence to stave off the nascent signs of panic attack. I breathe through my mouth and bear down hard. I force the images out of my mind. Everything slows. OK. Calm.

    I open my eyes, staring directly into the fluorescent lights in the drop-ceiling overhead. Is this the last thing he saw? I can no longer remember whether Gus died looking at the ceiling or looking straight ahead at us.

    A doctor our age lets himself into 56. I regurgitate the story of my sore knee, radiating pain. I repeat that my pain level is a seven.

    Chris looks at me and says, “Really?”

    “OK,” I say. “Maybe a nine.”

    The doctor asks when last I flew. What kind of birth control I use. He tells me he merely wants to rule out a deep vein thrombosis. There is no family precedent, no swelling. It may just be muscular. When he offers something for the pain, I nearly cry in relief.

    An hour later I am splayed out in a darkened ultrasound lab, wishing I’d gone to bed in better underwear. As the technician covers both of my legs in vaguely antiseptic smelling goop, I almost laugh to myself thinking that this is not the nervous ultrasound most people envision sharing with their newly minted spouses. The woman charged with blood clot fact-finding apologizes as she smashes the wand into my thigh.

    I watch my veins slide by on the screen. It is difficult to make anything out in the murkiness. Then red spheres flash angrily into view and I feel my stomach bottom out again. Blood clots seem like a best-case scenario.

    I remember Gus talking about watching his organs pulse on an ultrasound. I try to imagine a life where this is routine. How did he manage eight years of it?

    Twenty minutes later a short, round man in a white coat at least three inches too long comes into the dim room. I am mercifully re-dressed. “You have blood clots,” he says evenly. “It is a very good thing you came in today.”


    For the next few hours in the ER, it is easy to focus on myself. On this condition at this moment. On this specific pain. I learn how to inject myself with subcutaneous blood thinners and beg Chris to swear he’ll do it instead. I learn which greens are so high in vitamin K that I can’t eat them until I’m done taking the drugs. I agree to report immediately back to the ER if ever I bump my head. I make a brain bleed joke but Chris doesn’t laugh. I wonder what would happen if we’d gotten more serious news. I remember stumbling into a private restroom in the ER at Penn while a maintenance person asked me if I was OK.

    Seven years later, this is not the ER where I realize my boyfriend is going to die from melanoma and I am going to watch it happen. The Jefferson ER is where my husband wrangles my discharge papers and helps me out onto the street so that we can go home together. The cocktail of Ultram and Hydrocodone is making me very sleepy and a little delirious, but the contrast feels magical. I feel like three of us just went through that ultrasound and I feel like that 24-year-old couldn’t possibly have been me.


    [every time I go into a hospital, I still think of Gus. He died a few hours before the Eagles lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl (in a city where the Eagles had never been to the Super Bowl before or since), so some day I may write about how melanoma ruined the NFL for me as well]


  4. Help a sister out


  5. A note from the site administrator:

    I just did that stupid thing in which I re-watched one of the only things that is guaranteed to make me bawl.  This is the full footage of the benefit concert I put together for Becca (and her Fund) back in October at the Somerville Theatre in Boston.  As my fundraising winds down, and I am faced with the notion of not being able to throw my energies into fundraising anymore, I am a little concerned as to what I will do with all the excess brainpower and energy.  I’m pretty sure it’s been helping to mask my emotions.  Fuck.