By Drew Ciccolo
Winner of the 2013 Talking Writing Prize for Creative Nonfiction
regret n 1: sorrow caused by something beyond one’s power to remedy 2: an expression of sorrow (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Woke early to attend Sarah’s Brazilian jiujitsu tournament. Dad, sitting out back next to garden with legs crossed, said you were missing, or acting strangely, or combination of both. Remarked that you hurried past him laughing when he saw you the night before, ran up the stairs laughing when he asked you how you were doing. Thought that was odd. I guess relapses are usually odd. Where was I the night before? Don’t remember. Anyway, left house for jiujitsu tournament. Left Dad in backyard.
First text I sent you, walking down sidewalk, 9:02am: Dad had to go off his blood thinners to get infected teeth extracted on Monday... So he doesn’t need to deal with any bullshit.
Foolish of me to use the word “bullshit.” Words have different implications for different people. To me, “bullshit” is nothing. To you, I can’t be sure. Probably something. Probably not nothing. But I’d bitten my tongue so many times. I was just worried about the blood thinners. I still worry about Dad.
In any event, arrived at bus stop. Decided to skip Brazilian jiujitsu tournament. No need to go to ex-girlfriend’s Brazilian jiujitsu tournament. Sort of pain in ass, anyway. Hike to city and all. Decamp bus. Crowded Port Authority. Too many eyes trolling for weakness. Sarah’s really into this Brazilian jiujitsu now. She posts pictures of herself on Facebook with bruises and black eyes from her training and her fights. Kind of bizarre. Violent. Seems to be on some sort of mission. Glad I’m not there to witness. Left bus stop and went about stupid day, which involved Starbucks and maybe Raymond’s to eat and some amount of lying on Dan’s couch.
Your response, 2:42pm: Drew I love u and always will but what a shitty text to get first thing in the am.
Called you at: 6:28pm, 6:43pm, 6:56pm.
Why didn’t I call you until 6:28pm? I was worried about you all day. That’s the main reason I skipped the Brazilian jiujitsu tournament. I called people asking if they’d seen you. I called Jen. I called Brad. I called Kim. Did I call Lena? Spoke to Dad multiple times. He didn’t know where you were.
Second text I sent you, 7:18pm: Where are you?
Called you at: 8:05pm.
Saw Scott outside of St. John’s that night around 8:30pm. You were big fan of Scott. Conveyed my worry to Scott. He offered to drive me over to house to check on you. Declined offer. Didn’t think you were at house. Every time I spoke to Dad, he said you weren’t home.
Called you at: 8:42pm.
Instead of checking on you, went over to Dan’s and watched movie on his couch, even though I’d been on same couch earlier in day. Thought you were at a bar or something. Thought relapse only entailed drinking. Pictured you sitting at bar getting hit on by “creepsters.” Stupid.
Third text I sent you, 9:27pm: Are you ok?
Called you at: 10:13pm.
Got to house around midnight. Dad asked me to look in on you, to see if you were home yet.
Your light was on, the light by the door. Did I turn it on? Was it on already? From the doorway, it looked like you were sleeping. I almost didn’t bother to call your name. I looked in through the doorway. It was a relief to see you in bed. Thought it good that you were home. I thought you were sleeping. I turned to walk across the hall. Did I turn to walk across the hall? I thought you were sleeping. I looked through the doorway. I called your name. You didn’t move. I called your name. I thought you were sleeping. I called your name, maybe more delicately. I don’t remember. I always liked saying your name. Your name is a good name. Some people’s names aren’t so easy to say. I called your name as I walked across the room. I called your name and I touched you. I touched your leg first. I shook your leg. It didn’t feel right. Then I touched your arm. I climbed onto the bed. Total attention and complete silence. I thought you were sleeping. The deep red linen. Really, it was purple. Or maybe scarlet. The scarlet bed sheets. I can still see your face. Your mouth was open slightly, like you were sleeping. Your lips weren’t the right color, too dark. A line of darkness at the bottom of your lip. I yelled your name. Your arm was cold. Your skin was your skin, but the color was different. There were dark colors in streaks on your shoulder and on your arm. I can still feel your body. I can still feel your leg and your arm. I can still see your arm and your shoulder. Your face is engraved in my mind. The phone curled in your hand. I can still see the blood welling under your skin. I can still feel exactly the way your skin felt. You were cold, but not freezing. I yelled your name. You had your phone in your hand. You weren’t breathing. There were colors under your skin. I yelled your name. I grabbed you. I felt you. I remember your expression. You looked like yourself, but not like yourself.
I called 911. You still looked like yourself. My sister’s not breathing. Help me. You were still. You weren’t breathing. I called your name. Help me. Please. Help me. Put her flat on her back on a solid surface. I moved you. You were rigid. I moved you all the way off the bed. I was not me. You were not you. I was an instrument, a force to revive you. There must have been things on the bed. Your arms didn’t move. Your arm stayed the same, except the phone had fallen by the bed. Your eyes moved, but not the right way. What was on the bed? Scarlet sheet. Scarlet pillowcase. Almost purple, the linen. Probably purple is the better word. I listened to the man on the phone. I checked for breath. I did the compressions. A horrible sound came out of you. An empty sound. Your arms were fixed. I can still feel your body. I can still hear the sound that came from you. I breathed into your mouth. I can still taste your breath. I did everything perfectly. You were rigid. You were still. Your eyes were glass, different than your normal eyes. Your eyes were looking in the wrong direction, up and to the right. You were doll-like. I yelled your name. Your breath was the same as it was when we were little children. You had pure breath. I did the compressions. Why did that sound have to happen? I can still hear the sound. I can still feel your skin. I can still taste your breath. Your breath was the same as when we were little.
I made you cry in Southboro when I hit you with the light saber from Star Wars. I knew then—my sister is a girl, I can’t hit her with the light saber. I’d never made you cry before. You were my sister. I called your name and I breathed into your mouth and I did the compressions. I heard Dad downstairs moaning. I can still hear him moaning. I couldn’t control the volume of my voice. Things had to be controlled, so as not to upset. I messed up like when I hit you with the light saber. I didn’t realize you were a girl and you didn’t want to be hit with the light saber. Did I realize that? Was it some sort of test? Even if you were a boy, maybe the light saber would have made you cry. I cried because the hallway of the movie theater was so enormous. Then we got the light sabers and I thought I was playing with you and you cried. I remember you crying. I remember your face at three years old. Were you two? Could you have been two? Was I four? Was I five? No one has a face like that. No one has a face like your face. I did the compressions.
A police officer came in the bedroom door. I could hear Dad moaning downstairs. I heard him crying. The blood thinners. I heard more police boots on the stairs, police radios. He didn’t know where you were. He didn’t know you were home. He thought you were gone. The police got there before the paramedics. The police officer was young looking. I got the feeling he was a good person. He must have been younger than me. I can still feel the swirling inside my chest. Because of the adrenaline, I did everything perfectly. I did everything right. The police officer said you were in rigor mortis. He looked at me with humanity. She’s been gone for hours. He was so young. That’s why your arm was like that. Rigor mortis. I didn’t know about any of that. I called your name and I felt your skin and they let me hold you. I didn’t want them there. It was different from when I held Mom. The room was so messy. The room is still messy. Dad’s house is always so messy. I put my face next to your face and held you. Your breath smelled pure, like a child’s. I thought you were sleeping. I could hear him moaning downstairs. I could hear him crying. I went down. I left you. There were dark colors under your skin by your shoulder. I went down the stairs. I could hear him crying.
He looked up at me. What did he say? I don’t want to remember what he said. There were police. He looked up at me. I sat next to him. I put my arm around him. I held his shoulder. He lowered his head. The blood thinners. His head was in his hands. I told him, we’ll get through this. Words sometimes useless. I told him, we’ll find a way to get through this. He wanted his daughter. He didn’t want me. I told him, we’re going to get through this. I told him. He was making noises. The blood thinners. I told him, we will get through this. The police radios were in the house. Police radios are otherworldly in a house. Police radios never seem to sound right. I sat next to him. I told him. Then I moved around. I kept looking at things. The faded blue chair. The radiator.
I went back to your bedroom. You weren’t breathing. I answered the questions. Alcohol. Drugs. Addict. Heroin. Hepatitis-C. You were on the floor. I held you on the floor. I put my cheek against your cheek. Your mouth was open. You had perfect teeth. My teeth are ugly. You had lovely white teeth. There were marks on your shoulder and your arm. That’s where the blood went. You weren’t breathing. You were still. Why did I leave the room? The medical examiner. What was said? The sounds that came out of me were horrible. There were a lot of bad sounds that night. I couldn’t control them. I’ve never cried like that. You were home the whole time.
Humans have been on the earth for about 200,000 years. We still don’t know what to do. 200,000 years is not enough time. The person must stay in the house. The person must stay in the house for a period of time. You have to hold the person. I understood that when Mom died. The person needs to stay in the house for longer than they let them. The person needs to be held. The person needs to be kissed. The tears must go into their skin. This is not grotesque. The person needs to stay for a period of time. This is not the custom here. Your eyes were looking in the wrong direction, up and to the right. Mom’s eyes were closed.
I moved Dad into the kitchen before they carried you out the door. They left their plastic gloves in your bedroom.
I called Dan. He was the first to come. I remember his face, too. Then the rest: Sanjay, Kim, Jen, Brad. Sanjay stayed all night and into the morning on the couch downstairs. It rained for a week straight. It really did. Every day. I didn’t eat. Then I started by eating a banana. Then another banana. A bottle of water here. A banana there.
You were home the whole time. I take good care of Frankie. She gets only the most expensive cat food. She is very pampered. She sleeps with me every night. Usually, she insists on getting under the covers and curling up. You were home the whole time. I started drinking 5hr energies soon after you died because I felt like I couldn’t focus and couldn’t write. I still drink them. I’m hooked. It’s horrible. Some girl told me I’m going to get eyebrow cancer. You would laugh about it maybe. You were home the whole time. Remember when we hadn’t seen each other for a long time and you came downstairs and I was sitting at the dining room table? You said I looked like Jim Morrison, then paused, and said: on his way down. I always remember that. It was good comedic timing. Scott offered to drive me to check on you. You were funny and smarter than me and always had it more together. You were home the whole time. The therapist prescribed me Vistaril, a non-narcotic anxiety medication in case I had panic attacks. The therapist said I had to talk about finding you, so as not to get PTSD. Scott offered to drive me. You were home the whole time.
Elephants. Grief, and maybe even regret, aren’t specific to humans. Elephants grieve for extended periods of time. Elephants hold vigils for their dead, especially if it’s a dead child. They try to revive them. They look slumped and sad. Elephants have died of grief. They have special camps for elephants whose families have been killed. They have to become attached to the humans or they’ll die of grief. This is my take, anyway. It’s piecemeal. Documentary, Internet, etc. Maybe from a documentary I saw at Dan’s house. Who the fuck knows. Elephants.
In your bedroom, I found a tall boot filled with vodka bottles. Your breath is still inside of me. I have all of the stuff you wrote while you were home, and all the letters you sent me when you were away. I haven’t been able to read any of them, because I know what will happen. Or because I don’t know what will happen. I also can’t look at pictures of you. Your breath is still inside of me. You were home the whole time. And where was I? And why couldn’t I protect you? Why couldn’t I ever seem to protect you? I thought you were sleeping. And you were home the whole time. I can still taste your breath.
Your funeral was the most crowded funeral I’ve ever seen, not that I’ve seen so many funerals or anything. I paid for the floral arrangement. I think you would have liked it. Michelle spoke. Lena spoke. I spoke. Dad spoke. Mrs. Myers spoke. This is the poem I picked for your prayer card:
Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow:
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain:
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the
I am the swift uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft star that shines at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there: I did not die.
I don’t even know what it means. I mean, I do, but I don’t. I still sit on Dan’s couch. We found a British television show called Peep Show, which I think you’d get a kick out of. Sometimes when I’m walking around I want to rip my chest open and release myself to the universe.
I’d like to do something special with your ashes. Dad wants his and Mom’s spread in the ocean near Falmouth on Cape Cod. I think I will take you lots of places with me and spread you where I think you’d like to be, far away from deep red linen, scarlet bed sheets, light sabers, walky talkies, Brazilian jiujitsu tournaments, radiators, and faded blue chairs.
- “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye. Frye wrote the poem in 1932 and never published it, although she made a number of copies for friends.
- "Open Produce" © John Lodder; Creative Commons license.
Drew Ciccolo is a second-year fiction student in the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. He enjoys nocturnal walks and was excited to read more of the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness this winter.
Drew went into the MFA program with zero interest in writing nonfiction. The year prior, he had experienced the deaths of his mother and younger sister within six months of each other. He describes the genesis of his prizewinning work as follows:
At Rutgers-Newark, I took a class called Writers at Newark with Alice Elliott Dark, who is a sensitive and brilliant person. She asked us for a personal essay on regret, and 'Paige' came from that assignment. I never would have written it without Alice's ability to make students feel secure when writing about personal subjects, and I wish to thank her here.