This is How You Say Goodbye

After a series of losses, Lillian Slugocki tries to make sense of death — and life in the wake of others’ passing.

Lillian Slugocki | Longreads | December 2017 | 8 minutes (1,863 words)

 

December 2016.

There is a stain in the shape of a human body on the hardwood floor. This is where he died; this is where the tree — his body — fell and lay for a week. I laid down on top of it, my head where his head lay, my torso and legs with his torso and legs. His blood-stained glasses, upright, in the bathroom sink. A constellation of blood droplets on the walls. A small lock of his hair, blonde and gray, congealed in the shape of a quarter moon. When I lay down on top of this shadow, it was like I was a socket, and the lights were turned back on, briefly. I could feel him, smell him, hear his laugh, his manic charm, his singing voice. It was hard work cleaning the bathroom. I bought bleach and steel wool from the corner bodega. I wore a paper mask and gloves. I reconstructed his final moments in the bathroom; in front of the mirror, getting ready to go out, glasses on, and then the arrhythmia. And like a tree, he fell backwards into the earth.

***

The body is composed of carbon molecules. The heart pumps blood to the brain and keeps us breathing. And we are alive. We are at home. Until the body says, I’m done. Until the body says, Get out, goodbye, it’s over. And we are cast out; the heart stops, the blood pools. Before we are born, inside the womb, the body gathers itself together and moves from a state of chaos to a state of atomic perfection. The exact opposite is true when we die. The body disintegrates, feeds upon itself. But where do we go? This is the central mystery of life. The body, without us, is inanimate. Silent, still. It collapses, like trees that have fallen in the forest. They are just as quiet. They, too, have nothing to say. Their root beds are exposed, vulnerable to the elements. They are also composed of carbon molecules. Nearby a small patch of lilacs is just beginning to bloom, and so it goes.

***

After I cleaned the bathroom, I opened the door to his apartment, stepped into the hallway, sat on the gray carpeted steps leading up to the 5th floor, and I tried to remember what it was like three months ago — when I was barred from his apartment by the police. The door was ajar, but I knew exactly where his body lay. I knew his head was inches from me. I saw the red Turkish silk rug on the living room floor. I saw the afternoon light in the living room windows, the mirror in the foyer, the bottle of beer on the table. I’d like to see my brother now. I said this many times. Everyone said no. No, you can’t. I knew how bad it smelled. A tree had fallen. It’s called autolysis. I sat on the floor of the narrow hallway trying to charge my phone, while the detectives and medical examiners went to and fro, to and fro. Can I get a signal in here? But nobody answered. It was a crime scene and I was incidental.

***

About two months after Johnny’s death, early Friday morning, I got a text from my cousin Terri in Oregon: Please call me.

Oh my God, I thought, now what?

My other cousin, Debi, one of the great loves of my life, was in intensive care and wouldn’t make it out alive. I almost blacked out; two days earlier we were texting back and forth. She was working on her taxes, I was working on my syllabus. The next day, her last day on earth, she had breakfast with a friend from high school, drove south, and had dinner with family. By all accounts, she was happy. By all accounts, she was perfect. It was a perfect day. But after midnight, her heart stopped. Just like that. She was kept on a ventilator for 24 hours so that her organs could be harvested. One week after her funeral, my aunt dreamed she saw Debi sitting at her kitchen table, no makeup, no spiked hair, and said, Please let me wake up.

I reconstructed his final moments in the bathroom; in front of the mirror, getting ready to go out, glasses on, and then the arrhythmia. And like a tree, he fell backwards into the earth.

(Nearby, a small patch of lilacs is just beginning to bloom.)

***

In porn, the bodies are lithe and young. The actors pose under hot lights on a bathroom sink; they bend over a kitchen counter, one leg up and one leg down. They are filmed by the side of a pool, on a rooftop, on a pool table. They are contortionists. Their bodies are beautiful machines. What do they know of mortality? Blood pumps through a heart that never skips a beat, and even after they’ve left the set and go back home to their normal lives, they can have sex again and again. And again. And sometimes, when we are middle-aged, we pay good money to watch, despite the politics. But it’s not for the thrill of the orgasm, which isn’t bad. We watch to remember our bodies when our bodies were that young.

***

There goes Johnny on his yellow stingray bike. He shoots down the driveway, makes a right onto 26th Street, headed for the park. He’s 9-year-old boy in green swimming trunks, white socks and sneakers. There goes Johnny in his Audi on the Upper East Side. He’s headed for some golf and and a late dinner in Tarrytown. Here’s Debi — she and I are sneaking into our grandparents’ garage, piled high with bundled newspaper. Here we are in the backyard; it’s late spring and the viburnum is in full bloom. The flowers are so white next to the glossy green of the leaves. We are 9, we are 12, we are graduating, moving, getting married. Debi and I sit on the curb in plaid dresses, Mary Janes with white socks, and watch the cars go by.

***

My brother Johnny and I last talked on the phone two weeks before the detectives and the coroners. I cracked him up. I told him stories he’d never heard before. Here’s the first: In late October, 2014, our older brother Mark and I were sitting in the little pocket park in downtown Kenosha, by Lake Michigan. We were right across the street from Scoops, the candy store, and kitty-corner from the Dayton Hotel, which is not a hotel but a residential facility. We’ve always known it as a home for the shadow people, the crazy people, and we’ve always been afraid of it. It was also the last week of Mark’s’ life; he was dying of pancreatic cancer in October 2014. And I told Johnny, almost two years later, that one of the residents walked towards us, as if we lived there, too, and asked, When’s lunch? Johnny was apoplectic. We’d spent our whole lives trying to get away from the Dayton.

***

It’s become the custom in my family to burn, not bury, our dead. We were all originally Polish Catholic. “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Three of us have died in little over two years — Mark in 2014, then Johnny in November 2016 and Debi in February 2017. That’s a lot of bodies that have become ash and bone. That’s a lot of trees that have fallen onto the forest floor. But I did have this thought: What if we always have a mirror image of ourselves, like the tree of life? In its current iteration, we see a tree with many branches, and below it, a perfect copy, a simulacrum. Maybe the dead are still with us, exactly as they have always been, except now they are part of the root system, below ground. We, the living, get the sunshine and the rain. And they get something else. We won’t know what that is until we get there. But I don’t think we go very far.

***

“Wait,” I say to Johnny, “here’s another one — I ever tell you about the time when David (a mutual friend) was renovating his building downtown, and had to call a priest? Oh yes it is true, Johnny, I am not bullshitting you,” I insisted. “Ask him, Call him right now. He’ll tell you this exact same story. They needed a priest because while the workers, all three of them, were gutting the ground floor, they saw a man walking on thin air, above their heads, pass right through the drywall.”

The heart pumps blood to the brain and keeps us breathing. And we are alive. We are at home. Until the body says, I’m done. The exact opposite is true when we die. The body disintegrates, feeds upon itself. But where do we go?

Helpless with laughter, Johnny asked, “Did they send a priest?”

I said, “You’re fucking right they sent a priest. And they absolutely would not step one foot back into the building, until he got there and blessed the building.”

This was our last conversation on earth. We went out laughing. We went out talking about ghosts, the shadows we leave behind. The body is gone. It was organic, composed of carbon molecules. But there are trees that live thousands of years. How do they do this? In Tasmania, there is a grove of King’s Holly that is thought to be 43,000 years old. They’ve survived by growing up, falling over, and starting again. A group of 47,000 Quaking Aspen in Utah, nicknamed the “Pando,” are all connected by a single root system. Scientists say, according to the trees’ genetic makeup, they could be a million years old. Kabbalists might say, yes, this is the way it goes; we travel up into the light, and descend down again.

(I’d like to see my brother now.)


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***

Here we are. The living. And right now, we don’t have much to say.

Some of us are still concussed. Some of us still search for signs, for meaning; the cardinal, the hawk, the crow. Some of us pretend that we’re fine. And maybe we are. We grieve publicly, but mostly privately. It is frightening to be this sad. Some of us end up on the floor of our bedroom, our kitchen. We say, I don’t know how to do this. We say, What is the point? Who wants to live in this world? There is no divine order; just an algorithm, a singularity, a mathematical accident.

This was our last conversation on earth. We went out laughing. We went out talking about ghosts, the shadows we leave behind. The body is gone. It was organic, composed of carbon molecules.

***

May 2017.

In May, nautical twilight begins around 8:00 pm in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the last gasp of the day; it’s a liminal space. In the western sky, the light is still deep blue, azure, almost purple. I’ve been watching an egret in the estuary between some of the tall trees. She only comes out at dusk. She’s my new totem; the shamans say she represents balance. After the sun dips further beneath the horizon, I sit on a bench in a grove of sycamore trees, in the dark but I can still see their silhouettes. One large branch has an S curve, one tree has been split in the middle, another is forked, still another leans north. They all have a different story to tell. They are all family. They are all connected by a single root system.

***

(Debi and I sit on the curb in plaid dresses, Mary Janes with white socks, and watch the cars go by.)

***

Lillian Slugocki‘s work has been published in the Nervous Breakdown, the Daily Beast, BUST Magazine, Salon, Vol 1:Brooklyn, Entropy and many others. She been nominated twice for Best of the Web, and a Pushcart. She ran a reading series, BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, at @KGB Lit Bar in the East Village.

Editor: Sari Botton