Anticipatory Grief

But flickers forward six months and you bury your father with a round, protruding belly.

Anticipatory Grief
Photo by Abigail / Unsplash

by Baylee Less-Eiseman

You disassociate most often in the car - which you’ve decided is remarkably unsafe, but you can’t stop doing it. It’s your commute, it’s too long and too monotonous, and your brain decides it would much rather think about death than the interstate. Death is interesting, whereas the interstate is gray and dull. So instead of re-reading billboard after billboard, you think intimately about death. Sometimes you even think about what it would feel like for your car to crash, the explosion of gas and fire and timber and metal, the combustion that would cut your life short. You think about the call your Dad would get from the police when they finally identified you from the mustard-yellow, leather-bound wallet found flaming in the shoulder grass. You think about your funeral and how it most certainly would rain, how the funeral home would have to scramble to find an unplanned grave for you in their already overcrowded cemetery. But you only think about your death sometimes, not too often, at least you don’t think.

But right now, you aren’t in the car. You’re in your tidy, little guest bedroom and your therapist is discussing your feelings over Zoom. The room is freezing, but luckily, you recently bought a new fleece blanket from Target and you wrap it around your entire body, the cocoon only being split open when you take a sip of your lime LaCroix. 

“It’s defined as grief that occurs before an actual loss,” she continues. You swallow and nod, setting the bubbling soda back down. You hear the click - the one you’ve heard many times before - when someone says something that is so calculated it must be from a book. But the click - this time - sounds more like you jamming the batteries into a remote in the wrong direction. “Anticipatory grief,” you say. Regardless of the click, you reach out and grab the words, folding them up into a ball that you can carry around in your pocket. 

Lately, you’ve been imagining what it would feel like to tell your Dad you’re pregnant, that he is going to get what he’s always wanted, that he is going to be a grandfather. But the memory premonition vision flickers forward six months and you bury your father with a round, protruding belly. 

“Your father is still alive,” your therapist reminds you. “How will you add meaning to this time?” You start calling your Dad more often because he’s been splitting his time between Memphis and Florida. It’s easier to forget about cancer at the vacation house on Highway 30A. You play phone tag a lot because he often calls while you’re at work, and you call him back in the evening when he’s unlocking his electric bike to pedal to dinner. But when you both finally have the five minutes to connect over cell towers, you talk about the weather and car insurance. He asks if you are exercising enough and you ask when he’s coming home.

A few months ago when your Dad was home, you both took the family dog for a walk. The day was stifling and muggy - it was July on the Mississippi - so you only went around the block. Your Dad had received his diagnosis about six months prior, and at this point, most people knew he was walking around with prostate cancer. On this particular stroll, the neighbor across the street from your parents was weeding her lawn. She looked up, waved, and called out cheerfully somberly when you approached, “Hi Alan, I heard you were sick. How are you feeling?” To which his reply was, “I’m not sick! I just have cancer.”

Your mom didn’t have cancer, but she did die when you were 12. She was a cardio-vascular nurse who contracted Hepatitis C from one of her patients, but the doctors told your Dad that wasn’t what killed her. The staph infection that she developed in the goddamn hospital was what did the trick. You remember your mother’s funeral well for a 19-year-old memory. It was at her family’s Episcopalian church in Downtown Memphis, and you read a poem that your Dad didn’t believe you wrote on your own. Some of your classmates were there, others weren’t - their parents unprepared to explain death to 5th graders. There was no graveside service because your mother was cremated. She had always planned to donate her organs to the medical field, but the staph infection the hospital gave her ruined that plan too. Your Dad scattered her ashes into the Mississippi River that afternoon. You called yourself an orphan that day, but someone reminded you that your Dad was still alive. 

But you have feared for the day your Dad isn’t alive since the day your Mom died. 

Your Dad is a fan of the New York Yankees, which honestly, is a character flaw if you sit back and think about it. He will figuratively die on the hill that no proper music has been or will be made since 1978. He never wanted a pet, but on your college graduation trip to the Grand Canyon, you bought him a graphic tee that read, “When I die, the dogs get everything.” Your Dad likes to tell you stories. Stories like when he almost got arrested for a misunderstanding on a Mexican beach. He doesn’t like onions, but what he really means is he doesn’t like raw onions because nothing will stop him from eating soup (and there’s no soup on the planet made without onions). Your Dad is your hero because he makes you dinner and drives you to school, he exercises three times weekly and reads on your porch in the mornings - he continues to do this with the determination of a carpenter ant, even after your Mom is ashes floating toward the Gulf of Mexico.

On your 21st birthday, there’s a ritual that you must complete: you must take 21 shots of liquor. It’s stupid and reckless, but you’re in college and it feels cool. But it’s Yom Kippur and your Jewish sense of obligation requires you to fast. You think - waiting to drink alcohol until the sun sets your 21st birthday is a small inconvenience in the history of Jewish suffering. You laugh at your own deadpan joke. So you fast, all the daylight hours, and your friends play Cards Against Humanity to pass the time. At 5pm, you go to Buffalo Wild Wings because they are having a special: 25 cent wings. You order three shots of Patron and 10 buffalo wings. You are on top of the world. The waitress takes the shots with you. Later, you go to a house party with all your friends, some who flew in from Indiana. There’s a puppy at this frat party, and you throw water on a nice guy. Your arm is littered with slurred tally marks written in Sharpie, each one signifying a single shot you’ve swallowed. “19!” you shout, “I’m at 19!” And at that point, your friend who flew in from Indiana brings you two more shots. You guzzle down the water vodka and announce that it’s time to leave. When you’re home locked alone inside the dorm bathroom, you take a Snapchat of your arm and send it to your entire contact list. You didn’t notice the toilet in the background. You collapse and for some reason this is when the grief submerges you, when a plastic, yellow shot glass necklace hangs around your throat, clinking on the tile as you hit the ground. Your friends hear your gasps and sobs from outside the door, they bang to be let in. Suddenly, it’s you and several bodies all piled on the sticky floor, each person holding another, and your friend from Indiana calls your brother, and all you can say is “I miss her.”

“I’m having a hard time staying present,” you admit to your therapist. She nods.

One time, a friend told you that you weren’t mainstream enough to like Starbucks, and you weren’t sure what that meant, but you were positive it was a compliment. 

Sometimes you feel like you never left your Mom’s funeral.

Another time, you were asked to speak to the congregation on Yom Kippur and of course, like you always do, you spoke about your mom dying when you were 12. It felt unavoidable, although it probably was avoidable. Your Dad was among the itchy sea of spectators. After the speech, he reassured you that you can always ask him questions about your mom, that he’s sorry he hasn’t done a good job talking about her. 

You light all the candles in your apartment and buy yourself sunflowers but that doesn’t make anything alright. These feelings are ancient and relentless. You attempt to battle a beast phantom that’s lived lifetimes around you.

You like to listen to music by Justin Bieber because it makes you feel like you just got your driver’s license - and that feels like taking care of yourself. 

Your step-mom called you one afternoon and told you that she asked your Dad who inspired him the most in this world. He didn’t hesitate and said you.

Baylee Less-Eiseman is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Memphis and is a reader for the literary journal, The Pinch. She is working on her first novel and has never been published. While not writing, she works full-time at a nursing home in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.