Public Pain Print E-mail

73(San Diego Reader July 5, 1990)

Yesterday during a morning nap, Mrs. Jo Anglemire, a downstairs neighbor at the apartment complex where I live and the wife of Val, the maintenance man, died. I came home around noon, arriving moments after their adult daughter had heard the news. As I walked up, I could hear her shouting repeatedly, “No, not my mommy!” and “Daddy! Daddy! Make Mommy come back!” The words cut the air like mad hornets.

I walked up to their apartment. The screen door was propped open. Three people were in the living room. One man, tall and gaunt, stood alone. The other, heavy-set with shorts and long socks, stood holding the woman who wailed. The large man stood still, in an eerie frieze—arms clamped around her as she pushed her head up and screamed. He held tightly, her head giddy as if under the broadside of a fire hose. Leaning against the outside wall was a white-cushioned stretcher. I slumped against the doorjamb.

Her squalls kept on, piercing my muscles, weakening me. I turned away, walked toward the yard. “No, Daddy. She can live, Daddy. You can change it, Daddy. Daddy, you can change it!” She shrieked and gulped in her words, and some sobs got caught in a rhythmic clucking, seemingly unstoppable.

I sat on a nearby concrete step. I heard the daughter being taken out of the apartment. “We’ll walk,” the man said, and the two inched out leadenly, down a few steps, and toward the parking lot.

Where was Val? Did he not know? The distance pulled the daughter’s crying away.

I came back to the doorway. Before me the tall man was laying out a heavy plastic bag, straightening its thickly bunched corners. I asked what had happened. He hurried over; I must have been the first to inquire. But then Val came around the corner. He was pale, lethargic.

“Jo died,” he said.

“Your son?”

“No,” he chided, as if I should know. “My wife.”

I should have known but I didn’t know who had died. I didn’t know any of the names of people in his family. I had never met them. I just knew Val. And him only through casual asides. “Oh, Val, I’m so sorry.” He nodded, turned away.

The tall man confided in me that only two hours earlier Jo had lain down for a nap and did not wake up. Why, no one knew. Maybe heart failure. She was fine, Val had said, before that. “We’re taking the body,” he whispered and motioned to the stretcher outside. I asked if Val had someone to stay with, and he said yes. Then turning to go, it hit me who it was. The woman from whose kitchen radiated aromas I hadn’t smelled in years: rump roast, clam chowder, chili con carne, scalloped potato casserole, biscuits and gravy. Bacon, bacon every morning. Sometimes twice a day. You could set your hunger by it. It was she, for me a role those smells embodied. She had died.

I started up the stairs. The higher I went, the stronger the daughter’s pleadings came again from out back. It seemed I wasn’t leaving her grief. It kept entering me. Why? I didn’t know the deceased. I unlocked my door, went in and sat in a stiff-backed chair. My window was open wide.

A minute later, another child, a son, arrived. The daughter’s rhythmical cries began anew. She ran to him, calling “David! David! Mother is dead!” both telling him and confirming it, rushing to catch him as he cried aloud. I imagined them clutching each other. Their wailing merged in a siren. As if aware they were out of control, their voices ran toward the apartment, and their father, I presumed.

I walked over to my doorway and looked down from the landing. In the parking lot, away from the children, the plastic-wrapped and brown-blanketed body was on the stretcher. Two men—one was the tall man—wheeled Jo toward the ambulance.

Perhaps to pull us out of the sink of grief, ideas occur. Suddenly, I found that fact remarkable: a body is wheeled away. No, they don’t ask: Is it all right if we take the body away now? They do it. People take bodies away all the time because they have to, because bodies, in the snap-and-vanish from life, once dead, are no longer allowed a presence. We can’t keep them.

This was comforting. I sat down on the sofa, and hearing cries below sound like whimpers now, I realized more—that in flimsy apartments like these, we are forced to hear one another’s unkind voice, radio, barking dog, squawking child, toilets flush and closet doors roll open each night at 10:30. And then leap to the worst horror—be penetrated by another’s private loss, a family trauma they have a right to contain within their home.

I thought they had a right. But once their sorrow wedged in me (were others in other dry rooms feeling what I was?), I sensed the private right had little jurisdiction at death: death enacts sudden responsibilities beyond custom and expectation.

The Anglemires’ pain was public, and I felt its riderless force rush through me. It made me feel like wood, weather-grained and porous, a barn wall through which light and wind are merely checked, and not effaced. I was a conduit, a resonator, a projector, registering and retooling the velocity and direction of their out-loud loss.

I’ve no idea where their grief was going. Except that it permeated me. Exactly as I feared the wailing, the wailing transformed my fear of it. A carrier, my flesh, for the loss they bore.

They were huddling below now, convincing one another it was true, irreversible. No doubt they wandered the apartment—fearing most her absent body still pressed on the bed, her pot of stew in the fridge—and felt the emptiness a desert knows for its glacial lake. In such wildness were they, and unfairly had I been taken with them.