Everyone should have one joke memorized, right? Here's the one I always think of when the subject of jokes comes up:
How do you think the unthinkable?
With an itheberg.
As a child, I was obsessed with the Titanic. So were my twin cousins—my twin second cousins. We were obsessed with it even before the movie came out. We used to go to a museum devoted to the wreck nearly every summer. If you pressed a button near a miniature display of the ship, you could hear a recording of one of the survivors talking about it sinking.
My close family is small: two aunts, two uncles, two first cousins. Second cousins and first cousins once-removed? I have nearly too many to count. First cousins? I only have two. Had two. Have one. My cousin Darcy died unexpectedly a few weeks ago, just shy of her 15th birthday.
In less than a month, she progressed from seemingly healthy to experiencing migraines that made her vomit to a CT scan that revealed a blood vessel cluster in her brain to surgery scheduled when she should have been going back to school to a preliminary brain surgery that went wrong to a devastating brain bleed that left D. in a coma, brain dead, dead. That's how quickly it happened.
I tried, mistakenly, to keep writing music through this. Work is part of what keeps me mentally healthy; usually, when I don't compose, I get restless. I'm more anxious when I'm not writing. I've built my daily routine around making work happily, easily, near-daily. I had a deadline approaching, so at the very start of all this, and then when everything got worse and worse and still worse, I told myself I could work through it, keep writing, meet my deadline.
And while we were still hoping for a miracle, I could work. Work felt like it usually does, at least in the early stages: a release. An untangling. A moving through. It was possible to work before everything started going really wrong, when I was still texting my family things like I hope she makes a swift recovery. I felt almost guilty for how productive I was during those waiting days.
And then she died. I couldn't work, of course. I could barely feed myself.
I've experienced grief before. Who hasn't? But this was shattering. That was one of the words we kept using, we who had lost her: Shattered. Unthinkable. Devastating. We had a small pool of words to draw from when we described her death. We conjugated these words, recycled them: Her brain suffered a devastating injury. We are devastated. I am devastated.
Telling someone that my not-quite-15-year-old cousin had died, I'd start the sentence It happened so fast, and then stop myself. It seemed absurd somehow to say this out loud, because I've set this line to music; I've lived with these words for months, but in a different context. They felt like my words, but they didn't belong to me. So I'd say It happened so quickly instead. I'd say the word unthinkable, and my brain, helpful search engine that it is, would echo: How do you think the unthinkable? How do you think the unthinkable? And each time, it almost made me laugh: whenever I heard or said that word, all of could think of was this stupid joke.
When she died, I started saying I love you as often as I could. To my father, who said it, who passed the phone to my mother, who said it again. I said it again. To my brother, when we tried to coordinate our flights to the memorial service and accidentally booked flights into two different airports. To my best friend, when I broke down and called her even though I knew she was trying to meet her own deadline. To my fiancé, every time we spoke, whenever there was a pause in the conversation. To my aunts, my mother's two sisters, one of whom had just lost her daughter.
We said it so many times because there is nothing else that means: There is nothing I can say that will change any of this. I would have done anything to keep this from happening to you. I still can't believe we lost her. I don't want to lose you.
In the days following her death, when I could do nothing, I treated myself as I would a large, soft animal. Long walks at least twice a day. More water than I thought I could possibly need. Naps at any time of day. Stretching. Letting myself be easily distracted; asking for distractions, when I needed them. Asking for help with what I couldn't manage by myself.
It is nearly impossible to compose when you're thinking the words brain dead, brain dead. It is easier to google brain death for an hour. When someone is about to be declared brain dead, there are two tests for brain activity. It is the same test, performed twice. These tests must be administered by different doctors. When someone is declared brain dead, it is legal death; there is no distinction between these two terms. I know this, now. I wish I didn't.
Her memorial service was full of clichés. A flurry of them, some religious, some secular, all tired words. These were only interrupted by a string of personal anecdotes supplied by her mother and brief speeches by a few of her friends. The chaplain concluded the service with three lessons D. had taught us, and these, too, were clichés.
But now, a week and a half after the service, one of those phrases—live life to the fullest—remains stubbornly planted in my mind. D. was fierce. She didn't ask for what she wanted; she demanded it. Ever since she was a child, she was this way. This confident, this self-assured. She lived life, if not to the fullest—whatever that implies: breadth? depth? length?—then fully, wholly, and honestly.
We repeat certain words not only because they're true, but because their very familiarity is comforting. They offer a script and a role to play. Saying I'm so sorry for your loss, we wish we had something more original to offer. But when we hear I'm so sorry for your loss for the fifth time in a day, that phrase neither gains nor loses anything in repetition. In the face of the unthinkable, hearing those words is far better than hearing nothing at all.
How do you think the unthinkable? You can't. It is unthinkable for a 14-year-old to go from apparently healthy to throwing up from migraines to surgery to a coma to brain dead in the span of less than a month.
How do you think the unthinkable? You can't. If you thought about it every day, you wouldn't be able to work. You'd barely be able to eat.
How do you think the unthinkable? You can't think it. You have to live it.
Maybe the best, hardest, and most honest thing to do is to grant yourself permission not to work through it. To be kind to yourself. To wait for time to teach you how to continue living. To sit with the lack of her, with no good words to describe it. To let it all be true at once: The sinking ship. The joke. The survivors.
I'm sorry for your loss, we say. I'm sorry for my loss. I'm sorry for yours. I love you.
. . . . .
Published September 4, 2018, in memory of Darcy Nanette Doelger,
September 6, 2003 – August 20, 2018.