Every single word written here is an extraordinary exaggeration of events that have played out in my head... based on the stories I have heard from people I have met in jail or while I was dealing with my own stupidity and carelessness, resulting from my own addiction to alcohol and drugs. This is in no way a glamorization of drug use, but a tool to lend some humanity to a subculture that has been demonized and written off as a hopeless and worthless part of our human family. I do not condone or promote any of the behavior or activities herein.
My grief began to morph from the tangible, accessible and expressible feeling I had first experienced to something more… nebulous.
I became engrossed in a deep and interminable fog of boundless sadness. It offered only insulted annoyance to the random, renegade tear that occasionally managed to escape from the stinging sandpaper prison of my swollen eyes to streak aimlessly across the barren and deserted landscape of my face, drying unrecognized and alone. Any noise my body began to make in an effort to validate and determine the depths of this unnavigable void where I found myself were silenced almost immediately by angry voices in my mind that had begun a nightmarishly gleeful parade of reminders of how I was to blame for all of this.
I found some reprieve from this delirium by reminding myself that the sudden shock of my wife’s death was being exacerbated by the dope I had been ingesting up until shortly before Bull’s fateful phone call and Sheriff Doyle’s subsequent visit. I began to silently convince myself that in a day or so when the drug had exhausted itself in my system I might be able to better process my emotions and deal with this turn of events more rationally. I tried to believe that maybe when I wasn’t so spun out I could think this through without the cackling voices of imaginary, malnourished, sunken-eyed, phantom images screaming their accusations relentlessly inside my over-stimulated mind. But just as I would begin to find some solace in the basic truth fueling this idea, another haunting indictment of my role in her death would drag me back into the dark, nebulous realm of my teetering sanity.
My sister-in-law had been completely silent throughout the duration of our travels thus far. I vacantly spied her systematically wiping tears from her face in the space of time between extinguishing one cigarette in a makeshift soda-can ashtray and the lighting of another. I reached across the counsel between our seats to retrieve the sun-faded, red plastic box she used as a cigarette case for her home-rolled smokes as she was setting it down.
“Oh gosh… I’m sorry,” she sniffled deeply. The sound was surprisingly funny to me, loudly revealing her clogged sinuses. “I should have asked you if you wanted one… take all you want.”
“Don’t be sorry, I just want one.” My voice hadn’t yet recovered, and was barely audible as it cracked like a puberty-stricken teenager. I was startled by the humor I found in the sound of my voice and blurted a laugh uncomfortably and almost involuntarily. I halted my awkward laugh by clapping my hand over my mouth which broke the unlit cigarette I was holding. My sister-in-law glanced at me with raised eyebrows, only to start giggling uncontrollably herself. She hit the brakes hard in the middle of the country road as I held the cigarette out in front of me for examination. I cautiously joined her laughter which led us both into an inexplicable fit of coughing and laughter.
“I guess I won’t be doing the talking, huh?” I offered in a gravelly voice as the momentary giddiness we were sharing subsided as quickly as it had begun. I immediately regretted voicing the innocent assumption, as the weight of our purpose descended heavily on us both simultaneously. The van accelerated slowly while she collected herself and wiped more tears from her face as she returned her focus to the twilight darkened road in front of us.
I crumpled the broken cigarette in my hand and dropped it on the floor near my feet. The pieces came to rest in a pile of fast food bags and other forgotten debris on the floor, quickly assuming anonymity among the collection. I retrieved another cigarette and fished a lighter out of the equally messy counsel between our seats. With the cigarette lit I drew smoke deeply into my lungs and exhaled softly while inhaling the smoke I was expelling a second time through my nostrils. The ritual I normally reserved for smoking illicit drugs offered me no satisfaction as I drew deeply on the tightly packed cigarette again.
My wife’s sister graciously broke the silence before its morose presence gave my mind the opportunity to strike up the chorus of condemnation waiting with bated breath in the shadows of my subconscious to assure me that the worst moments of my life had yet to be realized.
“I want you to know that my brain is spinning its wheels right now trying to figure out how to reach out to you.” Her voice became soft and gentle while she fought persistent sobs. The similarity of her voice to my wife’s reminded me of how I would tell my wife that the sound of her voice made me feel like a warm breeze was comforting me on cool night. I found myself fighting sobs of my own.
“I’m not sure I am capable of being reached right now.” Tears spilled from my eyes while I drew deeply from the smoldering cigarette in my trembling fingers.
“Regardless of what you think you’re sure of, I’m going to try to fill in some of the blanks for you.” Her voice was hardening as she spoke, and the kindred qualities of her sister’s sweet voice were disappearing.
“The things my sister said before she left my house yesterday. The things you don’t know and are probably assuming that are probably giving you a very thorough beating right now. I’ll probably have to tell you again someday because you’re not right in the head at the moment, but I want you to try and listen to me anyways.” She extinguished her cigarette and lit another.
“She never said anything more to me about why they were spending the night except that she didn’t think you were ready for everybody to be in the same house quite yet. It didn’t appear that she wanted to elaborate, so I didn’t pursue it. She spent the night on the couch and went to work the next day. When she came back after work, she showered and put some makeup on and borrowed one of my pretty shirts. She said she was going to go for a drive to clear her head and then she was going to go home to try and convince you not to throw your life away. She said it’d probably take all night, but that she’d be back in the morning to bring her daughter home. She wasn’t angry or sad or distraught in any way. She was determined. Determined to do whatever it took to pick you up out of the dirt and dust you off so you were good as new.”
“She didn’t make it home.” I whispered.
“That is not your fucking fault.” She banged on the steering wheel with every syllable. “I’ve known her a hell of a lot longer than you, and I learned a long time ago not to question her ability to make a sound decision. I’m not stupid and I know what kind of trouble you’ve gotten yourself involved in lately. I have known and lost more than a few friends and relatives to that fucking drug. My sister and I have both seen it turn promise and potential into heartbreak and destruction. Her heart broke while she watched you slipping away and my heart broke for both of you while I watched, but she never gave up on you. She just wouldn’t accept the odds stacked against you. She loved you and believed in you, and that was enough for me because as far as I am concerned she did not make bad decisions.” She finished speaking as we turned abruptly into the parking lot of the county hospital.
“I don’t think I can do this.”
“I’m not sure I’m ready to let you, but you won’t be alone.”
I understood why she thought it was important to tell me the things she did. She wanted me to know that her sister, my wife, didn’t die hopelessly frustrated or angry. She wanted me to know that my wife never lost hope that she would recover me from the wreckage of the previous year that I had estranged myself from her unfaltering love. She had hoped that I would find some kind of absolution in her belief that my wife had been determined until the end to see me claim some sort of redemption and return to her. I understood why she wanted me to know what she believed about her sister, but all I felt was stinging resentment. Regardless of my wife’s faith and determination, her life had still been cut short in the process of trying to save me from myself. There was no more relief for me in the knowledge that she had died trying to get home to sort things out with me than there would be if she had died heartbroken, intoxicated and cursing the day she met from behind the wheel of her car.
I suddenly felt as if ice had replaced the inescapable grief that had been consuming me up until that moment. My eyes refused to produce even enough moisture to allow me to blink. She parked the van in the first available spot and we wordlessly unfastened our seat belts in unison. Without hesitation we let ourselves out of the van and walked side by side towards the ominous rotating doors which appeared to me to be moving with the mindless persistence of meat grinder blades. The sky was relinquishing its final sunlight to the appetite of the impending night and I could hear random pops and the grinding buzz of the powerful fluorescent bulbs overhead coming to life. The only other sound I recognized was the rhythmic pace of our footsteps.
This work is the intellectual property of Jerome J. Panozzo