An Excerpt from “How to Mourn”

Tyrese L. Coleman

Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.
     —The movie Fight Club

If you read my fiction, you will find a character named Grandma. In real life, she is dead. This is the story of her death. A story this writer, the main character—T—began drafting the moment she knew Grandma was not long for this earth. A story more like a performance—the sensation of watching yourself from outside your own body, when everything feels unreal, like living in a dream. Or, at least for me, for T, like living in a story.

This story begins with T walking nursing-home corridors on her way to see her very recently deceased grandmother. Nauseous from a too-sweet Starbucks latte and chocolate cookie, T is sick with worry, wondering if nausea means she has diabetes. She probably does. It is what killed Grandma, you know. Complications of eating like a poor person: McDonald’s, Captain D’s, Wendy’s, Walmart’s fried chicken and mac ‘n’ cheese. T eats like a poor person who is no longer poor and thinks she’s too good for fast food: Starbucks, Chipotle, delivered Chinese, wine, wine, wine. Just more expensive ways to die.

She chugs at the end of a grief train behind her mother, her mother’s friend, her stepfather, and her little brother. T disconnects from the real world. Muffled click-clacking shoes on black-flecked white tile, voices hushed, drowned by the roar of insufficient air-conditioning and surreality, this facility is a prop or a set—fiction. Real life for T feels like fiction, especially in difficult times like this that day. T had, in fact, begun drafting this tale in her mind on her way from Maryland to Virginia. Her writing music—Sam Cooke and the Allman Brothers—played on her Pandora app. She headed back home to the country, and the country gathered to meet her, trees racing past I-95 South. Alone in her truck, she remarked to herself about how beautiful the day was, how her grandmother’s death was an example of nature’s beauty—or some other trite lie. Later in the evening, guilty over her lack of grief, her too-rational, academic frame of mind, she asked friends if there was something wrong with her, if this lack of empathy, driven by a palpable desire to write, meant she was selfish. It wasn’t the appropriate response T decided, despite her friends’ reassurances.

Shuffling through winding nursing-home halls, T’s nausea becomes acute, now directly related to the smell of old. Every “elderly-person-dying” story has a scene where the narrator is sick from the nursing home or hospital smell. It is a cliché. This writer knows it. And if this were fiction, T would find some clever, not-so-overused way of representing this reality. But it’s a cliché for a reason. Real life is a cliché.

They arrive at Grandma’s room. Behind a white curtain . . . beyond the veil (yes, this writer could not help herself) lay her grandmother or the vessel that carried her grandmother, now stiff and empty, a snail’s shell. T’s uncle and his girlfriend are already there. For an inmate, Uncle is clearly very much free, and he taps his ankle bracelet when T enters the room with the rest of the grief train to indicate he must head back to confinement, his work-release over at three. Uncle was Grandma’s favorite, so she waited for him to arrive before she died. T cannot help but be miffed at this, although she tries to tamp down her anger. It is just like her grandmother, impatient and calculating till the day, to die the moment T finally arrives in Virginia, after a two-hour drive, yet before she reaches the nursing home, because Uncle, Grandma’s favorite, had finally made it there, and he was all she needed to move on. Fuck the rest of us.

The smell in the small room is a finger prying T’s mouth open, trying to shove its way down her throat. No one has opened a window, and death has made it hot and damp and stale in the room. With hardly any space to fit them all around and next to the bed, T’s mother, the recurring character you may recognize as “Ma,” shimmies past Uncle and Girlfriend, and pulls the curtain back. T stands behind them, on the other side, as close to the hallway as she can be. Ma stands inside the curtain, her husband’s arm around her shoulders. Blocked by drapery, T can only hear sniff sniff, see her mother’s hand move to press a tissue to the inside of her eyes. T stares at her feet. She has not shed a tear.

Ma stands there less than a minute. “You want to see her?”

T has seen a dead body before. She saw a person die. Unlike her grandmother, her great-aunt, Grandma’s sister, waited until T arrived to die. Great-aunt also perished in a nursing home, and now it occurs to T how similar Great-aunt and Grandma’s deaths are. If this story were made up, T would use this fact as the basis for some contrived scene of parallelism too convenient to not be deliberate, a narrative construct. But coincidences like this are all too common in low-income black families to be intended narrative devices.

Yet, fiction never gets real life right. It’s always the parts of real life written in fiction no one seems to believe. What does T consider reality? A childless great-aunt who was more grandmotherly than the formerly loose and slutty grandmother? A grandmother so selfish she intentionally leaves nothing for her family? Takes it all along to the other side of the veil with her last and dying breath? A woman who allowed her granddaughter to be molested in her own home? So jealous, they physically fought? So jealous, Grandma told her the abuse was her fault? A woman who . . . T can go on for days, she knows the stories so well. The memories are too raw for her to feel real now. So vivid indeed that she wonders whether she made them up. Oh, if only she had.

. . .

Read the rest of this essay by purchasing a print or digital copy of the Nov/Dec 2017 issue here.

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