Image: “Disengagement,” by Neil Berkowitz, multilayer photographic archival pigment print, 36×24 in., 2019
The Shape of a Day
By Chelsey Clammer
Courtney and I slept together a few nights ago, but not like that. Girlfriends at sixteen, we were each other’s first love. Now, almost twenty years later, that’s not us, but I’ve been staying in the five-bedroom house Courtney shared with her mom until last week when her mom bled to death in Courtney’s arms. They couldn’t stand each other, but they loved one another. That sort of you-piss-me-the-fuck-off-but-I-love-the-fuck-outta-you-because-you-know-me-so-well mother-daughter relationship.
A few days after Regina coughed out so much blood that it killed her, Courtney and I slept in her dead mom’s bed, right where the fatal blood flood began. That night, Regina had called for help, Courtney had raced to the bedroom to find her spewing out blood “like a water hose,” Courtney described. Then she got her mom on the floor, leaned her over her shoulder to let the blood weep out of her, and held her mom as she died.
“I mean, how do you stop that kind of bleeding?” Courtney rhetorically questioned me a few days later.
You just make the person comfortable so they don’t drown in their own blood.
So I’m staying with Courtney to comfort her; I reached out to her when I saw her Facebook post about her motherless daughter status, regardless that we hadn’t talked in years. We slept together in her mom’s bed—but not like we how we slept together in her mom’s bed when we were in high school and her mom was out of town so we fucked like mad on her king-sized mattress. This time, I didn’t spoon her. I was just there, filling in the mother-less hollow to fight off loneliness and depression, sleeping in the spot where Regina started to slip away from life as her life force—all that blood—slipped out of her.
Six years ago the blood also slipped out of me. Intentionally, though. Not a hospital miss-hap like in Regina’s situation, but a repeated act that landed me in psych wards and ERs. My arms wept from mental instability self-medicated with intoxication. Courtney missed this part of my life, like how I missed her wicked meth addiction. But the scars on my forearms are there to fill her in on my life events she wasn’t a part of because ex-lovers tend to drift away like that. The intensity of first love snaps, then communication fizzles. Goes flat. Decades drift the exes apart.
Courtney wasn’t in my life for twenty years—three of those spent slicing my arms. She didn’t see the psychosis and spilled blood. Still, here we are, twenty years post-breakup and a certain level of “I know you so well” is felt each time I collect her grieving body in my scarred arms and try to lessen the weight of such grief—something she never had the chance to do for me.
I pray promises to my ex-girlfriend’s dead mother.
Four days after her death from an instance of too many blood thinners prescribed post-lung surgery, I’m cleaning blood splatter off a dresser ten feet away from where Regina began to die, and I’m making promises to this dead woman that I’ll take care of her daughter even though that was a major factor in our relationship’s demise—my ex didn’t know how to take care of herself (never brushed her teeth, showered, or cleaned up after herself) and I got frustrated with trying to get her to do it all.
Before personal hygiene issues and frustrations over one’s lack of semi-adulting, our relationship was good even though it started off not-so-good. For our first real date, Courtney and I went ice skating and she fell trying to do a hockey stop wearing figure skates. Her nose hit the ice and busted open and blood came gushing out. After the manager hollered for someone to get some ice, after my date screamed back, “There’s fucking ice all around me!” I then sat in the hospital’s ER waiting room with her mother who I had never met, her father who didn’t even know I existed and that his daughter was gay, and the tension simmering between the two of them even though their divorce was over sixteen years ago.
Regardless, Regina became an ally at times because we both experienced her daughter’s frustrating (though also endearing in a small-children-are-cute sort of way) lack of cleanliness and punctuality. Comrades in commiserating, we bonded over the common enemy. It wasn’t a strong bond by any means, and I won’t embellish it here to make more out of our relationship than what it really was (people do this after death—claim closeness so we can feel more involved in everyone else’s grief), but I will say she became a fixture in my life during that one-and-a-half-year relationship.
And now I sit on her bedroom floor wiping away her own personal evidence left behind of her soul now gone. I am here, staying at her house for the fourth night in a row, keeping Courtney company, helping to hold such grief, cleaning blood-splattered dressers, blocking mental images of the events, feeding the twelve cats and two dogs, giving hugs when my ex starts howling, and trying to help her make a day look like a day again.
My therapist from forever ago would talk to me about that. How when we experience trauma, the first thing we have to do is try to make a day look like a day. Sleep. Wake up. Eat. Do something. Eat. Sleep. It sounds so simple and easy until you’re grieving, and even years after a death, there are still days that resemble nothing of themselves.
In the twenty years during which Courtney and I lost touch, many people in my life died. My father. Grandparents. A smattering of friends. A mentee. (My sanity.) With each death, I felt a little more of myself slip away until I started to swipe away at my flesh with memories of the dead—those rocky relationships I didn’t get to reconcile before the other person bowed out of life. Through each of these complicated and tragic deaths, my therapist continued to say that days had to start being made again—even when the weight of one more breath made me want to cut, made me feel like I might get crushed.
Courtney and I watched a documentary yesterday about the killer whales at SeaWorld. How they really did kill. One whale trainer lying on the stomach of a whale, another 1200-pound whale sprinting up, lifting into the air, then landing right on top of the other whale—the trainer crushed between them. A deathly whale sandwich.
That’s my ex-girlfriend’s grief—floating along in life until an Event occurs, and grief comes crashing down, completely flattening you. And it’s true. Grief crushes, kills. Parts of you die off when the living go dead. Perhaps I’m here on a rescue mission—save what parts of Courtney I can so she can begin building her days again. We watch documentaries to distract her, though she keeps putting the pipe to her lips, keeps tossing trash wherever, keeps eating only pink wafer cookies. She hasn’t showered in months. Guiding the grieving is hard enough when you don’t have someone’s addiction and uncleanliness predilection to factor in. I am slowly seeing that Courtney’s days have never looked like days, even before death came crashing down.
I decorate my walls with the dead. The faces I have captured over the years, images of me posed with those who are no longer alive. It’s odd to look at a picture taken at your high school graduation and realize that of the four people posed together, you are the only one who’s still alive. And yet I find comfort in looking at the dead because it ensures me that those people were real, that the human connection I felt with them—both bad and good—wasn’t of my imagination, even though they now only exist in my memories.
Though there is healing power in interacting with the imagination. It’s the space where past arguments are solved and stagnant relationships are strengthened. I talk to the dead on my walls, but not in a psychotic way. Rather, I have conversations with them in my head that help to keep me living. Growing. How after the scars started forming, grief started dissipating, the trauma then started fading. Sometimes I swear I can hear the dead cheering me on.
I don’t have a picture of Regina hanging on my wall because we weren’t really close like that. But I keep on conversing with my ex-girlfriend’s dead mother, promising I’ll help take care of her daughter because she has never known how to do that. Doing laundry, making phone calls, checking mail, cleaning furniture,and grocery shopping—I’m here to coax Courtney into the structure of a normal, motherless day. To get her to eat, get her to sleep, get her to put the meth pipe down for a minute and just breathe. To make her feel comfortable in living.
There’s a type of comfort between us now. How our pasts are imprinted on one another’s bones. We were there for each other’s coming-of-age, played a part, even, in our becoming of self, regardless of the years spent apart.
This is not about re-ignited romantic love. That will never happen—our attraction for one another petered out and died quickly toward the end of “us.” Rather, it is a knowing-you-so-well love. Like Courtney and Regina had. Even when our frustrating traits are still major staples of our personalities, a connection is still felt. An ease. Comfort created.
I have come to comfort, to help hold her grief.
But how can you really hold someone else’s grief? My therapist from forever ago used to say that—how she held things for me. And in the holding, my emotional experience could shift. Lighten up a bit. As if the heavy load of my emotional states could be un-burdened just a bit by telling her of what was weighing on me.
And with the way that I see Courtney’s grieving, her downward spiraling into a life that’s not for the living, I don’t know how long my strength will hold out. Will hold her.
I’m making promises to a dead woman I’m not sure I can keep.