When I found out that Ursula died, I texted five of my people. “Ursula died,” I typed five times in a row. Five different messages. Type, send, type, send, like I was practicing the sentence to get the right inflection. It looked wrong. Funny how “true” and “wrong” can coincide.
One of my people called within maybe a minute, or it could have been five minutes, or twenty. Time gets weird when you put “died” after the name of someone you care about. This person who had dropped whatever she was doing to attend to my two-word sentence said, “Nicole, I am so sorry.” I don’t remember exactly what she said after that, or what I said, but I remember distinctly that I could feel that she was there and I could feel that she was helping. I could feel myself feeling that I didn’t have this when my mother died, because in the situation I was in, I was not able to reach out, which meant my people were not able to reach back towards me, either.
Soon my phone and email were flooded with people reaching towards me. Not just the five, but so many others, too. So much genuine concern for me. It made me lightheaded.
I already had plans to spend the evening with my best friend. She said, “I totally understand if you want to stay home under a blanket.” I told her no, Ursula lived too much of a life for that. I told her I needed to be with my family. My friend, her husband, and their two beautiful kids are my closest chosen relatives. I have known her fifteen years. She reminds me of my childhood best friend, and of my mom in her prime. (She also, mainly, reminds me of herself.) She has seen a lot of my crazy and still lists me as the emergency contact for her children. They speak Spanish and English in their house and call me Tia Nicole.
I brought along the new album that I’ve been so excited about. I bought a turntable last month and suddenly there is a whole world opening up in “vinilos.” I’d purchased the album in a record store just down the street from my apartment, after not having purchased an LP since probably 1991. Somehow the record store clerk/magician discerned from my series of “I don’t know” and “I really am not sure” and “I honestly have no idea” replies to his questions about what I was looking for to suggest ESG, a “No Wave, Avant-Funk, Dance Punk” band founded in 1978 in the Bronx. Genre nonconformity is the shit. This could turn into an expensive hobby. My friend’s husband is taking me under his wing:
I carried my record to their house in the canvas bag Ursula gave me when my paper grocery bag had ripped the day she signed all the books for my friends. It was the day she’d told me, “Write while you have the energy to do it.” When my grocery bag ripped in front of Ursula in her entryway, I’d felt embarrassed and fumbling, yet now I am glad to have something that once belonged to her. As with other of my secularly-sacred artifacts, I only use Ursula’s tote bag occasionally. It hangs in my kitchen next to the apron my mom made for me out of a vintage U & I sugar sack, which I wear only when I bake, which is seldom.
My friend’s husband greeted me with the usual big hug and kiss
to my cheek that took some getting used to when I was new at it, but now I can return them, and he played my record with his DJ headphones on. We danced in our socks in the living room until it was time for the kids to go to bed, and my friend and I headed out to get a beer. As we were leaving, he gave me one of his records, a Monophonics album, a gift of friendship and an initiation into the world of vinilos, which I put into Ursula’s bag with my record. My friend and I had a nice visit, like we always do, holding four conversations at once, and I only cried a little, and when I did, it didn’t even seem to be directly connected to Ursula.
For the next several days I felt like I was doing pretty well, considering. “Considering what?” I asked myself. I was sad, of course, but also very aware that Ursula had far, far more people far, far closer to her than I had been. This isn’t really my loss, I kept thinking. I wrote my post for Ursula. I got together with two friends from my book group, a couple in their 70s, to talk about Ursula. (It is handy to have access to the perspectives and opinions of people from a generation ahead of one’s own, and yes, I realize some people call these “parents,” but mine get to be hand selected at this point. I highly recommend adding non-related older/younger people to your repertoire.) Ursula was an enormous energy; it is hard to separate the idea of her from the person of her (and maybe we don’t have to?). In an e-mail to me, the female half of this couple noted about Ursula’s death, “It feels a little like being orphaned, something I supposed every woman and most men knew her feel.” I knew exactly what she meant, and felt, it, too, while also being fully aware that I am already an orphan. I wondered what it would have been like had Ursula mothered my mother. I suspected it would have been a good match. It made my throat tighten thinking about it, the way it does where I can’t talk and I can’t swallow.
I’d read that Ursula was given that name because she was born on Saint Ursula’s Day. The word “ursula” means “little bear.” After some searching, I found two carved bear pocket totems and gave one to this couple, so that we could each have a tiny ursula to remind us of our shared Ursula, and of us remembering her together. I went home and put my tiny ursula on my bookshelf.
At the end of the week I received an e-mail from my dear friend in England, the one who was the motivation for me to get my passport in order to participate in her exhibition on bereavement and loss, where, with my dear friend’s hand lightly on my back, I put a small piece of writing about my mom on display for the very first time, whose own mother had died ten months after mine did, to whom I had recently mailed a package that included, among the various tokens and oddities that I had been collecting over a period of months, the book that Ursula signed for her. My dear friend wrote to me that the package had arrived on the Monday that Ursula died, which happened to be her mother’s birthday. She said, “If we ever wondered about connection to a bigger story, then that should silence any doubt.” Indeed! I laughed out loud.
I found two pennies that week.
My best friend’s grandpa died nine days after Ursula. She texted me that her mom had been one of the people by his side, and I was glad for that. By all accounts he was a wonderful man, including by my best friend’s account, which is the only one that matters to me. I ached that my friend had lost one of her giants, and I felt deep sorrow for my friend’s mom. I remembered (I say “remembered” here, but this does not mean that I ever don’t remember) what it was like witnessing my mom’s life leave her body, and how that was the single most amazing experience of presence I have ever felt, which transformed into the most terrible feeling of absence I have ever felt, could ever possibly feel. I was not conflicted in my love and care for my friend, or without a sense that I shared a similar awe to what her mom had just experienced, but I also realized I don’t have the foggiest idea what it is like to lose a grandpa who was a good guy.
I finally listened to the Monophonics album, the gift from my friend’s husband, and texted him how much I liked it, and as happens with my friend and her husband, my comment turned into plans. Another band he knew I would like, Orgone, was coming to town, and so it was decided that my friend and I would be honoring Ursula and her grandpa at a funk show. As my friend often says, “Perfect!”
But then I had the days before the concert to get through. I was already overstimulated, with too much thinking, remembering, missing, and keeping track for my brain to take in, which was careening towards overload. All of the connections I was making, and connecting I was doing, were outpacing my ability to manage it all.
I thought about how we send sympathy cards, not empathy cards, because it is impossible to be in someone’s shoes when they are experiencing personal loss, and it would be inappropriate to take their shoes during this difficult time, now wouldn’t it? Later is the time to find common ground, when there is ground again.
At 88, Ursula was 21 years older than my mom was when she died.
I felt robbed (which of course is not a new feeling).
I hate knowing that the only people who could possibly understand where I am coming from with certain aspects of my life, and my mother’s life, are people who have endured similar hardships. I wish my mother had learned stamina through other means. I wish this for myself, too, and have grown to despise the word “resilient.” I hate the isolation, hence, loneliness, that comes from my particular set of knowledge. This does not mean I wish more people had more hardships, although I do wish there was a rule that people were not allowed to say, “I understand,” unless, like on a math quiz, they show their work.
I know all of us have parts of ourselves that others cannot possibly understand, and that having others who are willing to try to understand makes a universe of difference.
What hit me hardest was that, through no fault of her own, my mom did not get the luxury of standard, crushing grief when either of her parents died. They didn’t just not love her. They hated her so much that she broke into pieces. They hated her so much she became other people. She loved them, though, because they were her parents. She had to learn, over time, to unlove them. Her mother died at age 56, when my mother was just 29, and I was three. By the time we learned that
her father the devil himself had died at 91, she was too sick to even dance on his grave.
Sometimes I think I should start a Grave Dancing Unfuneral company.
I could feel myself shattering, and was feeling bad because this was not my “turn.” Ursula was not close to me like my friend’s grandpa was to her. My mother has been dead for five years. I was mad that I never got a turn to watch my mother live to 88, or better yet, 92, and that the word “grandpa” makes my shoulders twitch.
As happens to me when I am more emotionally overloaded than I realize, I got physically lost. In this case, after purchasing a sympathy card for my friend’s mom, I could not remember where I’d parked my car, even though it was in my own neighborhood, near a bookstore I go to at least once a week.
It felt good to do a couple of normal things for normal grief: I mailed the card to my friend’s mom. I made lasagna to bring to their house.
We made Valentines with the kids while her husband spun records, on this day that also happened to be the birthday of my childhood best friend. We talked a little bit about my mom, who loved Valentine’s Day (Susan, an insider, age 6, in particular), and of course this was heavy in my heart. We talked about how my friend’s mom and grandma were doing, how her grandma and grandpa met, who would be flying in from which parts of the country for the memorial, where everyone would be staying, what the kids were going to think about all of it, including the Catholic Mass and military Veteran’s funeral, about how the boy of the kids was going to need a new tie, and if they needed a ride to the airport.
I keep my mom’s ashes with her cookbooks, on a high shelf that I can see from almost everywhere in my apartment. There was no funeral. I didn’t think I could do it adequately, and doing smaller acts over time in different places for them, individually and collectively, makes more sense to me, anyway. I don’t want closure. I did take the box of her ashes in my backpack on a hike at Eagle Creek on the first of my birthdays after she died. In August, I go to a favorite spot on Mt. Hood. I make jam when strawberries are in season. I do other things, too. I don’t think I will ever scatter the ashes; the insiders were so organized, until they were unable to be, that this would feel like an insult to them. Plus, I want her remains to remain with me.
I heard Ursula’s daughter interviewed on the radio a few days after Ursula died and thought that her voice sounded a lot like Ursula’s. I thought, “She is one of this club now, of people whose mothers have died.” I listened to an interview Ursula gave in early January, where I was reassured when she talked about how reading the author José Saramago was difficult for her at first (Blindness was the third book I read for my book group, and all I can say is thank goodness I started this group with Sherman Alexie), but that once she learned how to read him, she felt like he was writing to her. Complicated stories can seem impossible, but if you keep going back to them, they belong to you more indelibly, if incrementally. It is up you to decide if the story continues to seem worth it to keep trying. I remembered that I don’t remember much about the week after my mom died.
The evening we ate the lasagna and made Valentines and listened to records was not the time to put all of the stories together, but to let the fragments emerge however they came. I sat in my usual spot next to “my” beautiful kids who know they are safe in their own home.
My friend and I went to our concert that night. We were both exhausted and “off,” and laughed when we decided maybe we could just nap in the warm car for a few hours, then tell her husband what a fantastic time we had. But of course we didn’t.
We made our way into the theater, where for the next three and a half hours all we had to do was be there and let someone else do all of the work of performing, and engaging, and connecting. We didn’t have to think about anything other than what was going on around us. I felt a little guilty. I had to remind myself that this was why we were there – to watch and absorb.
Maybe it had to take a nine member funk band I’d never heard of, with a horn section, two percussionists, and a female lead singer with enormous hair and an even bigger voice, a little black dress, and complete command of the stage, up there giving it all they had to reach every single person in that room, singing about being happy to be alive, singing we are so glad that you’re here with us tonight, singing you can do it, to interrupt my relentless brain, but holy fuck it worked. For those three and a half hours, it fucking worked.I had been worried that I would be too tired, or that I would feel like crying, or that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the crowd, or that I would be counting down the time until I got to go home. What happened, though, is I was taken aback by my own sense of relief. (How long had it been since I had felt like that?) I could feel myself letting my guard down, and I couldn’t believe how good it felt. (Is this how some people live all the time?) Awareness crept over me: There I was next to my best friend at the end of a big, hard, maxed out week, being washed in sound, and light, and vibration, and, yes, surrounded by people of all kinds, enthralled. All of us were there taking it in, together. They were doing this for us.
My LP should be arriving on Monday.