An Introduction to Grief

This is an essay I wrote a few years ago. My then-editor and I had talked about finding it a home someplace, so she asked me to pull it from my blog, but nothing came of it. I saw it in my “unpublished” folder and decided to re-publish it today.

My husband cannot cry.

I say he must be able to, because his eyes have not dried up and fallen out; but he says ever since he got hit by a car when he was 11 and his skull cracked, he has been unable to shed tears. He says he wants to, wishes he could.

We are getting ready to say good-bye to his sister. She is just fourteen months older than he is and the sibling he is closest to.

Deb’s third kidney transplant has been failing for a while. This decline is not entirely unexpected. How can it be, for someone who has been sick her entire life? Yet it still comes as a shock. She will not go on dialysis again. She doesn’t want to. It hurts too much, and she will likely never get another transplant. She’s had this kidney for about two years.

Three hospice workers sit around my in-laws’ dining room table. Two of the hospice workers are warm and businesslike, mirroring my mother-in-law, who goes over the pile of paperwork with a calm, even cheerful attitude. This is what you need to get through this—to concentrate on the business at hand, I think. They tell me grief counselors will be available for the kids, give me hand-outs. But the third worker, the ride-along newbie, has an expression of sympathy that cracks me, and I excuse myself to the bathroom. On the way back into the living room, I burst into tears again. My mother-in-law hugs me and all I can think is I should be the one hugging her.

Deborah does not want us to feel bad for her.

She’s stubborn like that, always has been. You need to be to survive dialysis for over a decade, like she did before her last transplant.

She went to live in Kansas after college, got a job at a chemical company, then as a chemistry teacher. She got a Master’s Degree in Chemistry, volunteered at the Royals every single season as an usher, went on trips around the country visiting ballparks. During college, she toured Europe, worked at Mount Rushmore. Over the years she’s been all over the U.S.
She visited us in Hawaii after her transplant and went hiking up Diamond Head, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, touring at Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl. I was way more exhausted than she was. Every year, at the beginning of baseball season, she’d sent all of us her picks for the year. Cadillac would laugh at her picks, always hopeful, never realistic to him.

We moved to San Diego around the same time Deb decided to move home from Kansas last year. She inspired the main character in my new book (THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS). That scientific way of thinking, that no-nonsense way of talking to people. Mostly, the kidney stuff. I interviewed her about her kidney problems, and she told me everything. I’d known some of it, but not all the grueling details. She told me about a doctor who thought an allergy to IVP dye was psychosomatic. She showed me the plastic tubes, the grafts, permanently implanted in her leg and arm. The veins so collapsed they could not draw blood any longer.

When I was done writing, I had her read it. She enjoyed it. There was a rose genealogy chart I made up in the book. The editorial staff said it didn’t make sense and asked me to change it. Deb said, “It’s based on me, so it made perfect sense to me!”

More important, I just liked her. She was the one who got me. Who sat with me at family gatherings and laughed at my jokes. When Cadillac was going to be out of town and I wanted to go do something, I thought to call her.

After never living in the same town, Deb took special interest in our kids. She took each on special outings. Eldest went to lots of science programs at the Fleet, where Deb volunteered. (She also ushered at the Padres and tutored students). My son got to eat crickets because of her. Little Girl went to the Safari Park with her. They baked cookies together. She tutored Eldest in math, a subject that used to make her cry, so she started pulling A’s. Over Thanksgiving, Aunt Deb hosted a Star Wars marathon. The kids spent the whole weekend with her, watching the movies and eating a huge host of snacks. At the end, they played a Star Wars trivia game, which Deb won. She gave the prize to the runner up, Son– a Star Wars poster.

Little Girl was at first wary of Deb. Deb didn’t look like other adults. She was small, under five feet. She had lots of scars on her arms from all the places she’d had to have IV over the years, scars everywhere, in fact, from various other procedures. But before long, it was Little Girl who became especially close to her aunt. She’d save up drawings to show, stuff to tell Aunt Deb, for days before we visited. “I’m going to tell Aunt Deb that there’s ICE CREAM at the Safari Park, and she will say, ‘Ooooh, ice cream! I love ice cream!’ and then we will buy some!” One of their bonds was the fact they both had blonde hair. “Aunt Deb is not just my aunt. She’s my friend,” she told me more than once.

These outings made the kids feel important. Special. It didn’t matter what they did. It only mattered that they got to be singled out for a day. It only mattered that they got to spend time with Aunt Deb.

It is Friday afternoon. We haven’t told the kids yet. We go pick up the kids from school. We are taking them to see her.

There have been easier parenting moments.

Right now, the kids are happy and high from sugar. It’s the last day of school before winter break, and they had class parties. In the parking lot by the junior high, where we pick up our oldest, Cadillac and I turn to face the kids. We have to tell them here, because we are going directly to see her. I take a breath. “We have something to tell you,” I say. My voice breaks. I can see them brace themselves. “It’s not good.”

My husband tells them.

They understand, I see, before he finishes the sentence. Like us, they have known about this possibility. They have seen her go into the hospital for infections and deal with dozens of other ailments. Our youngest bursts into tears, covers her face. The oldest blinks, hard.

Our son looks stricken, silent for a moment. He stares out the window. Outside the car, the middle schoolers romp, wearing Santa hats and waving candy canes. “Then, we will cheer her up,” he says.

We drive over to see her. Today she has moved from her bed, where she had spent the previous day, into her chair in the family room, looking so normal the kids aren’t afraid, or concerned. She is alert and nearly normal-looking. As normal as she has been recently.

They remember their aunt is worried about their reaction. They tell her about their Christmas parties, some science mini-series, social studies class. Little Girl gives her treats from class: a polar bear sticker, a stained-glass drawing. Aunt Deborah says, “Oooh.” They make her smile. She jokes with them.

There are no good-bye speeches. Deb doesn’t want to hear it. We don’t have to say these things aloud. She knows. We know. All we can do is offer some company.

Instead, we start watching The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Little Girl sits next to her aunt, peppering her with questions about what is going on. Like, “Why are they going in the closet? What are all the coats doing in there? Why is it winter? Who is that lady? What is her name?” Deborah answers all of them. Sometimes she hacks, sometimes she vomits. Green. She hasn’t eaten in two days, only had water. It’s something to do with the liver and kidney failing. Cadillac and his parents take turns helping her.

The kids look concerned each time. I wonder if they will say, “Ick!” or run away, or ask to go home; but they say nothing. They glance at her, they are quiet, they watch the movie.

In the middle of the movie, we have to pause because the notary has arrived to witness the Power of Attorney signing. I take the kids into the other room.

We finish watching the film. When the lion, Aslan, is killed on the stone table, Little Girl says, “This is too scary.”

Deb says, “Now, this ought to look familiar to you.”

The kids stare blankly at her.

“Who else got killed and came back to life?” she prompts. “What are they teaching you in CCD?”

“About God,” Little Girl answers.

“What about Easter?” I ask.

“You mean the Easter bunny?” Little Girl says, then giggles. She knows the answer. She is playing. “Jesus died and came back to lifeAn i,” she says.

“So don’t worry,” Deb says. “Watch. The lion will be okay.”

After the movie, more people arrive. We bow out to go track down dinner. The kids say good-bye.

“Thanks for coming,” Deb says.

“We’ll see you tomorrow,” the kids promise.

But it’s the last time she’s conscious.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

13 thoughts on “An Introduction to Grief

  1. Thank you for sharing your view of Deb’s days with her family – both the good ones and the end ones. I am a friend and former coworker who taught Chemistry with Deborah in Kansas. She impacted us all with her determination, faith, and her love of baseball. The prayers of her St. Thomas Aquinas High School community where she taught are with your family.

  2. I’m sorry about Deb, she sounds like someone I’d have liked a lot. This is a wonderful blog post, and I look forward to reading the new book and I’ll think of her when I do.

  3. What a beautifully written tribute to a lady I wish I could have known. Cadillac doesn’t need to cry…so many others are handling that task…including me. Your lives were certainly blessed as was Deb’s.

  4. What an amazing tribute to your sister-in-law. The ones that “get you” are the most precious.

    I followed you over here from the Great Thoughts blog post. It’s amazing how those connections work.


  5. This is the perfect “home” for this essay. “The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns” (which, I loved and could not put down) is a forever tribute to Deb. And your readers thank you for introducing us to Deb and kidney failure. We needed to know. Blessings to you and your family!

  6. Excellent piece. I’m so sorry about your sister-in-law. She sounded like an excellent person. How nice of her to spent special time with each of your children.

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