Why We Chose It: "The Heart's Drip" by Rebecca Kokitus
Death, in polite society, comes wrapped in euphemisms, in cliches, in the kind of polite speech we engage in when we are talking about a thing that we are afraid is not a thing to be talked about. “He passed away.” “She lost her brave battle with cancer.” “They were taken from us too soon.”
I hate that shit.
My father didn’t pass away, he died, and he took his time doing it. He smoked for six decades, which tore up the inside of his lungs so much they could barely hold air, and his heart was so weak his kidneys got confused and started retaining fluids, so that he swelled up like a balloon and those fluids squeezed the bottom of his lungs and pushed out what little capacity remained. His internal organs conspired to deprive him of oxygen, to suffocate him as slowly and effectively as a plastic bag over his face.
He also had cancer, but I think that was just his prostate fucking with him. Prostates do that. Old men's prostates just get bored, so they swell up with malignant cells for a giggle.
Rebecca Kokitus is not afraid to tell us what death looks like, and she brings a poet's toolbox to the task so that we really see it. We cannot avert our eyes.
“The cancer preened him from his bones like a vulture.”
“When I kissed his cheek it was like kissing February; it was like kissing the deer on the doorstep and anything else dead and cold.”
“He was stained wallpaper skin, all ribs and elbows.”
“No formaldehyde in his veins, no mortuary makeup. Just the saturated warm light to distract from his complexion.”
The imagery is stark, raw, shocking, and yet the narrator is somehow detached. She's observing, closely, and yet her feelings are not on display, not out in the open. Instead there is silence.
“He was a chalk-line shape in our home; emptiness, but heavy, like silence.”
“It was a cool summer, so most nights my mother would tell me it was too chilly to have my window fan on. But I hated the silence.”
Grief is like this. Some people describe it as numbness, but Rebecca's silence feels closer to the truth. “Numbness” still gives grief substance, it still fills up space. What I remember from my father dying was less than numbness, it was a nothingness, a complete lack. What Rebecca feels as an oppressive silence. An emptiness devoid even of sound.
There's beauty here too, to be sure. Hummingbirds. An orange-and-black butterfly that lands on her book. A doe and twin fawns that come out of the forest every day that summer.
But grief taints them. The butterfly “wasn't a monarch. It was smaller, more modest and moth-like...” It is diminished, like everything in the world when you're grieving, smaller and blander, less interesting. And one of the fawns dies on their doorstep, dripping pale yellow bile on the cement that reminds her, again, of her father's funeral. Even the beautiful things die.
It's interesting that death is something that is so common, so universally part of the human experience, yet so often described in terms that feel false, that feel like a vague explanation offered afterwards instead of an accurate description of how we really feel at the death of the loved one. So much so that when you read a grief memoir that gets it, that gets at the truth, when you encounter Joan Didion, Sarah Manguso, Paul Lisicky, Elizabeth McCracken, you think “Yes! This is exactly it!”
Rebecca Kokitus is a new writer, but in this short work she shows that she gets it. We chose “The Heart's Drip” for its beauty, its ugliness, and above all its truth.
-- Ray Shea, memoir editor