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The After Series: Against the Outside

We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after.
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When someone we love dies, we go from with to without in a matter of moments. A break so sudden, a gap so wide, it seems inconceivable. So we often look for our lost in signs, in dreams, and in places we loved them. Even though I knew the day would come, without and Gran are two words I never expected to turn into a permanent phrase.

Without literally means “against the outside.” Against the outside makes me think of living in the confines of a giant dome. What if those who die are trapped outside of us, forever orbiting on the other side? What if they clumsily knock up against it, like a bird mistaking solid glass as a way in? Or what if against the outside means those who leave us are not in favor of where they go? I am against Gran living apart from me. I am not in favor of her departure. But like those who can’t protest their leave-taking, we can’t dispute our pressing on without them. They do it, we do it. Somehow it goes on. I wonder what I would have done without her. Without her, I’d be sitting in the nurse’s office in fifth grade, propping my broken arm with the one intact, waiting in pain. Without her, my thick black hair would be an unruly mess and my school uniform would be rife with wrinkles. Missing the bus would mean missing school. Heartache would feel near fatal, my fragmented self, unsalvageable.

I decide I need to find her. If life is like a movie, I can see the frames that make up the reel of the film. I wind them back, rewinding her. I pull her into existence. The first place I envision her is in her home. On the front lawn, an afternoon gale whooshes through a pastel pink dogwood tree and violet-red azalea shrub. Flowers fall like snow. Gran tilts the watering can toward the impatiens and a perfect silver curl flies free from her fuchsia headband. “Shall we go inside, Lauren Marie?” The front door opening sounds like the crashing of a gong. Everything is as it was—the tomato red countertops with splotches of homemade gravy, the brown hexagon Formica table with a sugar bowl for tea, the tiny porcelain spoon. I hold still and listen to the white noise that the caravan of cars make as they zoom by on the highway. Like groping for landmarks in the dark, I feel my way back via ordinary details. It’s Sunday dinner and Gran is seated at the head of the table. I need to remember her answer. “Do you believe in heaven?” I ask. “The only thing that gets me through pain in this life is knowing that there’s another life after this, where I’ll see everyone I love.” The window behind her is open and the peach curtains lightly brush her back with the breeze. I picture the dome closing in on me, shutting her out. I don’t visit Gran in my memories as regularly when she starts visiting me in my dreams. Even when I forget to look for her, she’s there. In every dream, there are working doors and windows. During one night’s sleep, soon after she died, I found myself at Gran’s house again, but not how I remembered it. It is true that the new owners have added a showy second floor to the cozy ranch house. They also cut down her trees. But in this dream, all the new parts are saturated with shadows. The atmosphere is thick with fog. I have to climb my way up through a skylight to find her.

Another dream begins with my looking out of Gran’s kitchen window as I wash pots and pans. In the backyard, there’s a party. I put everything down and try to move, but can’t—I am glued to the floor. I push the tattered curtains out of my way and see: myself, as a little girl, and a group of children, circling the old oak tree that my grandfather had planted for shade. Smoke from the barbecue wafts through the screen. I don’t want to leave. In other dreams, I can’t wait to wake up. In a more recent one, I’ve fallen asleep in her bed while recovering from a cold. Talk radio echoes from the kitchen. She’s making her famous “sick soup” with tomato broth and acini di pepe, little pasta dots. The bedroom door creaks open. “Time to eat something,” she says. “But you already died.” She looks at me, befuddled. Her apparition slowly melts until it fades, like crusty Italian bread turned soggy, submerged in her soup. Windows, doors, and passageways. Maybe Gran, in her current state, is no longer bound by physical blockages. Maybe her outsideness is an illusion. I observe walls that no longer hold us together while she looks right at me, announcing her presence elsewhere. It’s been seven years now, and I continue to dream of Gran at least once a month. Every time, I awake surprised and comforted, certain of her presence. As I move ahead in my own life, and further away from my years with her, the frames of her film acquire dust and mist. I trust less and believe even less—until she visits me again. That’s when I think without doesn’t mean what the dictionary says. Gran is more expansive now, without the confines of her prior self. No windows, no doors, no giant domes could separate her from the world of the living. None of it can separate her from me.

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