I sit in her embroidery chair, legs tucked up underneath me. I turn the pages of a magazine I found when she was crying in the bathroom. I sip my coffee; while I neither sleep nor need the caffeine, I like the ritual and bitterness. I can hear her stirring upstairs in bed. Not wanting to rouse myself yet, I give her a small mental push to turn on the light. I want her to see the wreckage of the bedroom, the hastily shoved furniture, the scattered clothes. She hasn’t actually made the bed here, just thrown more blankets on top. It will be an archeological dig for her to get out.
As I hear her shuffle around and pause, I get myself ready for the day. I roll out my shoulders, lifting my arms and leaning back and forth from the waist. To myself, I am weightless.
She moves down the hall, footsteps soft so as not to wake the baby. That sweet faced child; there’s magic in her. She sees me, and doesn’t know me. I’m just another person to her, one who never holds her, and only passes a hand over her lightening hair once in a while when her mama cries. The little one knows that Papa isn’t here right now. Sometimes she looks for them. I watch her as she sleeps, but I let her be. She doesn’t need to know me yet.
I’m waiting for her when she comes downstairs. I put a comforting arm around her at the bottom; it lays heavy across her shoulders.
“How’d you sleep? Want some coffee? There’s so much to do today.” I hold her in place for a few moments before she moves to the sink. She fills her water bottle and drinks half while the coffee brews. She’d be jealous if she knew I never needed a refill, and that mine was always the perfect temperature. I stand with her in the kitchen, hands wrapped around our respective mugs. I remind her of the things that need to be done; sending off the death certificates, checking in with the lawyer and the medical examiner, figuring out what to do with all this damn stuff in the house. She has help, which I’m grateful for. I am always glad when the people I’ve been assigned have company other than me.
This is not my first time with her, not by a long shot. But, as she has come to realize, it’s different each time. Our relationship changes, deepens. I am her familiar now, a constant companion for months at a time, and only a flick of a thought away at any other.
“Let’s sit,” I say gently. I take her by the shoulders again and place her on the stairs; it’s not comfortable for more than a minute, but she’ll stay there as she scrolls mindlessly on her phone, trying to escape me. I sit behind her, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. I don’t have to talk much, this time, with this death. We know each other now.
There is no companion like grief, I think to her. “How’s that for a business card tag line,” I say, and she smiles wryly. She looks up, looks around, taking in the chaos. Empty boxes are jumbled against the back door, waiting to be filled with the mementos of a life that is no longer here. There are so many; the one who is gone was a Collector. Rocks, books, forgotten glass bottles dug out of the rotten still up the mountain; everything from wine corks and cookie fortunes to postcards and matchbooks. She’s going to have a hell of a time culling through everything, deciding what to keep, and what else she’s willing to never see again.
I let the dull red of anger pulsing in the corners, held back by the thick fog of despair, lighting up the gray like an ambulance racing through a cool morning. She isn’t aware of it, only of my presence, and that’s ok – she needn’t notice anything else right now. The baby stirs, kicks the side of the crib, and settles back down. She stares at the ceiling to determine how quickly her response is needed. As the little one falls quiet, she is content to rise and refill her coffee. She moves to her desk and opens her computer, every movement deliberate. Nothing is easy right now. I let her go to write about me, and stand to return to my corner chair. Something stops me; sometimes I’m not even sure why I do what I do, other than following instinct. I press my hand to her chest, hard; fingers spreading over her breastbone, my forehead pressed to hers as she begins to cry. It’s not a sob, it’s not a wail; it’s the creaking of the wreckage of her heart, the keening of the viscerally wounded. I support her as she leans forward in her chair, the pine desk no matter in my ethereality; I won’t let her fall as she breaks. It’s odd for this moment to come now. She prefers to save this for when she is truly alone, which is likely why I had so little notice. Nevertheless, I am here. Chest heaving, her voice echoes with the cries of those left behind and those gone before. She cries for her Hawthorne, for her Oscar, for all the promises broken and adventures abandoned. She cries for the relief and the guilt she feels; she cries for the loneliness and confusion she wades through. I hold her face, brush back her hair.
“I don’t understand,” she says. I know you don’t.
“I’m so mad at you,” she admits. I know you are.
“I don’t know how to do this alone,” she whispers. You’ll learn, little mama.
“I hate this.”
“What right did you have to check out?”
“How fucking dare you?”
“Oh god, I miss you.”
“My baby. My love. My heart.” She calls them again and again, and all she gets is my whisper in response.
“Lean in, lean in, lean in. Go through, mama, go through.” All but chanting, I rock her, soothing arms around her.
Her voice softens, her body relaxes. This storm is passing. Exhausted, I pull back as she reaches for her pen. I watch closely for a moment as she opens her journal, waiting for the aftershocks that occasionally strike, but none come today. She takes a deep breath; I let it out, shakily. She looks out the window.“Dawn is coming,” I offer. She doesn’t respond, just looks back at her journal. One more breath, and she begins her daily page. She is OK for now. I settle back into her embroidery chair; I have a project for her for when she’s ready, but she hasn’t tried yet. I pick up my magazine and let her try to leave me behind, a shadow she is trying not to trip over.
You have to watch your step with me around; us Griefs have a way with ground cover. We stay as close to our companions as their hearts hold their beloved. I turn the page and look up when she sighs; the short fall day stretches out endlessly in front of her. She looks up, almost as if she sees me. She doesn’t; she can’t. I’m her formless friend, her constant; I am her Grief, and I’ll hold her in the abyss as long as she needs.