Fragments: 6 Things I Learned from Your Death,
For Lecole Monet
by Sarah Elgatian
1. A body can get used to anything.
When you died, I thought I’d get used to it. The weight, the dark, the hole, I thought I knew what was coming. I didn’t. My body was used to grief, light emotional abuse, loneliness, long bus rides, poor nutrition.
With you gone I became poisonous, intoxicated by the 73 individual scenarios I had parsed out in which you were still alive if only, if only, if only.
I hated you. I hated your mother-father-brother, that god-awful pastor, God (obviously), and I hated myself. So much. I sent you a letter three days before you died. Snail mail on fancy stationery made with flower petals. I begged you to stay.
And I got used to hating you.
I figured you were at home in the damp, bruised basement of your family. I thought maybe you were some kind of martyr whose cause I didn’t understand.
It took me years to consider that, maybe, you were just sick. Maybe it wasn’t preventable.
2. Trauma cannot help but pass itself down.
In a laboratory, scientists used classical conditioning to teach mice that the smell of a cherry blossom meant that pain was imminent. The tortured mice had children who had children who had children and the scientists found that the descendants of that first generation of mice (the only mice abused in this particular experiment) were terrified to the point of erratic escape attempts when they smelled a cherry blossom.
Descendant mice had more receptors in their brains dedicated to sensing specific odors. The actual DNA changed, the scientists found, even in mice with only one abused parent.
We live in a cruel world where people hurt mice in order to understand why the great grandchildren of genocide and slavery survivors are depressed, introverted, jumpy.
We used to say that people who endure abuse become abusers. But—
You had every opportunity to beat, to break, to pass your pain to an unsuspecting neighbor or niece.
You never told me any specifics about the abuse you endured in your home but there were fragments everywhere, falling around your shoulders.
You mentioned in passing, like I was supposed to know, that you did every single thing you could to protect your brother. I know that a family member broke you in private and sacred ways. I know that when I heard the way your mother spoke to you, my body tensed and I looked for cover.
You never told me but I knew: the boy you loved didn’t love you well. His love was conditional and manipulative—you couldn't fold yourself small enough for him—but you were relieved just to be loved.
He wasn’t at your funeral. I messaged him myself to invite him.
I know that your mom and brother took your meds for fun or for sale and that I was your only visitor in the hospital.
And this is where your trauma was passed down. The children you were supposed to grow in your misshapen, mutinous uterus should have received your genetic memory. Instead, it will be me. Sober, alone at your bedside, reading your stories and poems, fully aware that as the illness metastasizes, it takes all of you.
So I called myself Atlas. Alone, I thought, to carry you around.
3. Healing is relative.
I wrote the lyrics to “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” in the letter I wrote you before you died. I begged you not to make me sing about you. You needed to tell your story. No one else could. I refused, in my letter, to sing about you. I begged you to ignore centuries of abuse from the medical community and just do what the doctors advised.
When I learned, days later, that you’d died, I was livid. I saw red like Looney Tunes TNT, like Coyote I ran as far as I could before I looked down and just… free fell into this whole new abyss. More than anything I was mad.
I insisted for years that your death was premature, preventable, that you were too stubborn to cut the rotten parts out.
But what if it was just too late? It occurred to me out of nowhere (and six years late) that maybe, maybe this is just what cancer does.
It ate up enough of you, greedy and fiendish, leaving chunks of you missing, concave, lumpy, and it finished consuming you on a date I’d known by heart my entire life:
November 6, my favorite cousin’s birthday: we called each other every year, as early as we could, to be the first to say “happy birthday.” I planned to call her during my lunch break that day in that preschool kitchen.
Your birthday, though, that date never quite stuck.
Except, alone in the light and sound booth at the theater where I worked to make ends stretch a little closer to meeting, I decided, for the first time in years, that it might be nice to hear Kendrick Lamar of all things.
Wearing a black shirt, black pants, black boots, in a tiny room painted black with one lone blue light, I started with track one while I did my pre-show chores. When I returned to the booth to test sound cues, my neck was tense, my eyes hot, and when the lights shut off / and it’s my turn / to settle down / my main concern / promise that you will sing about me—
I did my best to never hear that song for six barren, broken years. And in this cold black room I crumpled.
You weren’t too stubborn, too scared, too quiet, too poor to survive.
You were just magnificently unlucky.
And I threatened you. I swore I wouldn’t tell your story. I wouldn’t carry you around.
You were a master storyteller. Half escape-artist, half ghetto-guerilla, you wove lace parables out of cobweb truths.
All you left behind were your stories on a well-locked computer, long ago sold, I’m sure, when money was tight or spirits weren’t getting high enough.
That day in that theater was your birthday, I learned shortly after the play started. I took out my phone and opened Facebook. Guess who showed up in my featured memories?
4. Friends just need to need to show up.
I worked at a Montessori preschool in the eastern suburbs of Seattle. I took two buses, an hour and a half each way, to make $12 an hour.
Your number called first while I was watching two-year-olds on a jungle gym.
Your mom’s phone called a little later when I was microwaving home-cooked meals for four-year-olds whose parents sent hot lunch to school.
One more call came from each number while I rubbed the backs of two three-year-olds in slow circles to coax them to sleep. Then two more calls from numbers I didn’t know.
After nap time was my break. In an all-white kitchen shaped like a hallway, I microwaved a TV dinner and checked my voicemail.
Voicemails from those last two calls saying that they were your aunt and your cousin. You’re expected to pass today.
Please call cousin Nini. Please come.
I abandoned my frozen meal and half-packed my bag. I told the principal (a kind, sunny white lady who sounded happy even when she was yelling) that you were dying and I needed to leave. Take as much time as you need.
Checking and refreshing and rechecking my bus app, I jogged, off-balance, to my stop. I bought gummy bears from the Brown Bear Car Wash while I waited. And waited. I called my mom. I took a selfie. I got on a bus.
I got off the bus and waited. I searched which buses went into town. I searched which buses came soonest. I checked the cost of a Lyft. Too much. More than I had to my name. A bus came. I got on.
My phone rang. Nini said that I was welcome to come to the hospital but—
My hand went numb, phone dropped to the carpeted seat next to me, and all I could see was white like the windows swallowed the bus. The bus lurched in a brake. I squinted to focus and stumbled through the front door of the bus.
It took me some time to figure out where I was. I had 20 minutes until the next bus downtown.
My body a cold, hollow shell, I found my way back to my apartment just before dark.
My friends had watched me grieve many times before you. My boyfriend went to work. My friends came over. One or two at a time, they brought me food or watched TV with me until I fell asleep. For days they babysat me like a sick infant—hovering, but from a distance, just in case.
My mom visited. I laid in her hotel bed and ate caramel apples from Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, sliced with care and covered in Butterfinger crumbs. We rode the Ferris wheel and paid for photos. In them I look just this side of dead.
My mom left and I went back to work. My friends brought candy and takeout.
My live-in boyfriend, whose father died when he was 14, did not care for me this way.
He did not come to your services. He did not treat me gently.
When you died I broke up with him. After five abrasive, abusive years.
In the time we dated I lost six people.
5. No one is ever alone.
It took two and a half weeks for our friends and I to prepare your final services.
Our friends reserved a reception space and I started a GoFundMe offering crazy rewards in your honor. For $100 I’d perform a rap expressing my gratitude. I thought you’d like that one, though I couldn’t imagine anyone we knew would be able to afford it.
I was wrong. Somehow, we got there. We made it to the world’s worst funeral.
Your mom, giving me credit, showed me around to your family, and I gestured vaguely to the palest faces in the church. (I offended our friends—three halvsies and two white women—by repeatedly calling our friend group “the white people” as if we didn’t stick out, as if I wasn’t saying what everyone was thinking.) I said these were your friends.
And we were. Some of the best years of our lives were spent together, reviewing subpar writing and drinking subpar cocktails. We were like a collegiate Breakfast Club come together to resuscitate a journal. We closed down that Irish bar that charged too much for beer and put potatoes on everything. We walked too slowly, had too many crushes, and talked too much shit.
But, as the fraud of a pastor approached the pulpit I met Nini for the first time. I sat with her and—every time that damn reverend said the wrong name we laughed. We laughed when she said you had always understood God’s plan. We laughed when she sang your praises. We cried. But we laughed, too, aware of the sick Tyler Perry-esque spectacle we were stuck in.
Since that night I have never been alone.
6. “There is no end and it is unstoppable.”
I took that line from a story of yours that I don’t even remember. I just needed something to put on the back of your funeral program. It has been stuck in my head like a pop song ever since. Like a prayer.
Still, in a desperate search to understand, I scoured my computer, the internet, the literary journal we built together, and I couldn’t find it. I read over a hundred pages of your writing, my eyes unable to focus, unable to put the sentences together like they were intended, only fragments, sticking unevenly to the page, got through.
Frustrated like maybe I could cry, like if one thing went wrong; if I spilled a drink; or stepped on something foul, I would break down, I found issues of the magazine from before we were friends.
You said It is uncontrollable and involuntary.
You said It is necessary but an inconvenience.
You sewed a code into your prose for me to find four years later; you comforted me before you even knew you were sick.
Every memory, every screenshot I saved of our relationship, while faded when I try to access it, was built on your own understanding that this inevitable abyss would come prematurely to you.
When we met I invited you to lunch during a break in our meeting and you said no. You stayed in our meeting room while the rest of us left, stretched, ate.
The next day you came with me. We walked slower than I knew a body could move, it took us 15 minutes to walk what I thought would take 5. You didn’t speak unless prompted, you didn’t order food or eat what I offered from my meal.
You did not want my friendship.
A few months later we had a class together and I sat next to you in the weirdly long classroom where we read and discussed the Great American Novel. You didn’t speak in class, you sat in the back corner on the same side of the room as the door, but you laughed at my jokes.
I saw you give a reading that quarter—no sign of stage fright—but you swore to me later that you blacked out when you were on stage.
Then, finally, Fragments magazine returned. I nagged you into going out for drinks with us at that too-expensive, not-really-Irish pub that opened next door to the pizza place you walked me to last year. You didn’t drink, kept your distance, but you opened yourself, then, to the idea that we were potential friends. Your first, I think, with whom you spent time outside of school or work.
When I think about you, you’re hiding Papa Murphy’s in my fridge and pulling frozen alcoholic juice boxes out of your purse. Your eyes smirking inside of heavy brown lids, your lips, too pink with make-up, are pursed in protest against your eyes, like you don’t really believe you’re having a good time.
We’re driving to Tukwila in your mom’s gold Toyota that’s almost as old as we are and you’re reading Mapquest directions to me. When we park at the mechanic’s, you tell me you’ve never been to a sex shop and we act like children when we walk in, “What on Earth do you use this for?”
You lend me your earrings when I cut my hair and make up breast-related nicknames for our friends. You smile silent when new boys are around.
I forget sometimes that your death was final. Sarcoma feels too round in my mouth to have sharp edges. Why, if it’s over, do I reach to call you, still, when Twin Peaks and X-Files have reboots, when new friends mix Monarch and Orangina, when I’m on a Spruce Street in a different city?
I see you in things that glitter like the jeweled pen you gave me for my birthday; in things that tinkle like the one-note-at-a-time tiny music box of “Here Comes the Sun” you gave me from your hospital bed, not knowing how this song had healed me once before; in slow walkers; in the smell of new paperbacks; in cocoa butter.
It is uncontrollable and involuntary.
It is necessary but an inconvenience.
There is no end and it is unstoppable.