Our Deepest Sympathy

by Zachary F. Gerberick

-For Tricia, her mother, and mine,
and for Trinyan

I

My mother sits at the dining table where throughout my youth we’d spend long, unbending hours assembling jigsaw puzzles, first flipping the pieces right-side up, then, starting with the corners, constructing the frame, the two of us—piece by piece—giving shape to something shapeless. But right now, my mother’s sorting through old bills, not puzzle pieces. The files are alphabetized by company name and arranged neatly in a plastic filing bin. She skims through them, removing the invoices that have been paid in full while keeping those still pending. When she reaches the section dedicated to the letter T, she suddenly stops. Budding up against a receipt from Thomas & Galbraith Heating, Cooling, & Plumbing lies a manila folder with the name Tricia written on the tab. It’s not difficult to tell the file doesn’t belong. My mother—the only one aware of its existence—had placed it there years ago knowing none in the family would ever find it. She kept it simply because she couldn’t get rid of it. Because throwing it away would be disrespectful to Trish, to our pasts. She removes it from the bin and opens it for the first time in what feels like ages, holding in her hand the same material that once consumed her, the material she’d pore over hour after hour, day after day, month after month, hoping—in the way only a mother lost in grief can hope—that she just might find a clue that would keep me alive.

II

A sharp, pharmaceutical glow smothers the TV room—I can almost taste the fluorescents. Everyone’s in bed but a middle-aged man—one of the alcoholic pilots maybe—who sits off in the corner like a statue, lost in whatever’s playing on the screen. Trish and I ignore him, taking up opposite ends of the sofa. Like a small bird she perches herself on the cushion with her legs tucked underneath her, and when she speaks her arms endlessly move, sculpting her words into a shape and size I can more easily swallow. Nearby in the main hallway, on the other side of the thick glass wall, the staff watch us like hawks. A few days before my admittance, Trish was caught sleeping with another resident. A five-foot rule was implemented for the remainder of her stay, which, I’m sad to learn, is only a week and some change. It’s clear from the beginning that there are parts of Trish that will never stop moving. The constant running of her mind. The swaying of her emotions. The restlessness of her body. The energy she gives off is both alluring and terrifying, and I’m immediately attracted to it.
      Trish right away decides to take me under her wing. In her eyes I’m just a kid, eighteen years to her twenty-four, baby faced, shaving just to say I shave. And not just that, but it’s my first trip to rehab. I’m fresh compared to Trish, who’s already done her rounds. She graciously offers me her wisdom, giving me tips on enduring the full twenty-eight days, pointers on getting through post-acute withdrawal, ways to scam a few extra days of Librium from the doctors. But like most addicts, we spend the bulk of our time swapping stories from our using days, the talk often arousing us in a tortured kind of way. I try my best to impress her. I brag about how many K-Pins I can eat, how perfect of a blunt I can roll, how the first time I ever shot dope was through a PICC line the doctors put in me after an intense battle with pneumonia. And even though Trish backs my recovery, even though she tells me I’m going to make it, that I’m going to stay clean and sober and find success throughout the rest of my life, there’s another part of her too—as there is with me—one that seems to know this isn’t quite the end for either of us.

III

“I’m so sorry to hear about Tricia. I was on TDY last week and just found out. I’m still in shock. I’ll always remember coming home from work and driving past your house and seeing little Tricia standing at the door waiting for you. You would walk her down to my house and she’d pick a tomato to take home to Mommy. I also remember when she tried to teach Jenna to play the piano. Tricia was such a beautiful young woman and so talented. I know the pain you’re both feeling. I know the emptiness in your hearts will stay with you forever. It will never go away, but it will get easier with time. There is no greater loss than that of your child.”
       —Karen & John Boone

IV

My mother waits until the house is empty before logging on. Her posture—erect but leaning some toward the monitor—mirrors that of someone who isn’t entirely accustomed to using a computer. Each movement of the mouse is deliberate. Every click. Before long, she finds her way back to Trish’s memorial page. By now, a large number of family and friends have posted their condolences online. My mother, the same as yesterday, starts to read them. Again and again.
      Trish’s death seems to confine my mother to a state of incomprehension. During their one and only meeting a week prior, she had no trouble uncovering Trish’s magnetism, her rarity as a person, and now blindsided by grief she spends hours reading more about her, learning who she was and how she lived. The way she could silence an entire room with her singing voice, or how delicately her fingers moved on a piano when not trembling from withdrawal, or how when she hugged you, you would feel it for the whole day, the presence of an absence. Through devouring these memories, my mother begins to resuscitate Trish. Every condolence she reads, every remembrance, is another breath pumped into Trish’s life, but also another breath pumped into my own addiction, into everything it stands for, its terrifying reality. It doesn’t take long for my mother to become convinced that what happened to Trish will happen to me. She’s absolutely certain of this. Not three months earlier, after breaking into my room with the help of my little sister’s school ID, my mother found me sprawled out on my childhood bed unable to move. I was covered in vomit, just coming back from an opiated unconsciousness. Somehow I woke on my own that day, but I should’ve died. My mother knows this more than I do.

V

The temperature’s warm for October, the fluorescents swapped with a big bright sun. At the courtyard, just outside the cafeteria, a few picnic tables scatter themselves about, their benches and chairs bearing the weights of fathers and daughters and sons and wives as they reunite with one another. Cigarettes are smoked down to the knuckles and eyes are studied in silent hopes of recognition: the visitors longing to find the old, healthier versions of their loved ones, back before their eyes reddened, clouded, and closed, or worse yet, changed altogether. At our table—after we asked Trish and her mother to join—sit the five of us. The weather doesn’t allow us to be in bad spirits. Trish and her mother are excited she’ll be leaving for home in a few days where they can once again be a family. As for my parents, they’re glad to merely see me alive. Underneath the sunlight, my mother squints, her crow’s feet decorating the gray-blue of her eyes. She laughs at something Trish says. There’s a glow to her, my mother. It’s clear something’s been shed if only for the moment.
      For the next hour or so we nod to the beat of Trish’s words. There’s not much of a filter to her; whatever it is that crosses her mind, there’s a good chance she’ll say it. She talks to us about her older brother Jason, also an addict, and how much trouble he’ll be in if he doesn’t start taking his recovery seriously. And she tells us about her father, surprisingly a well-known pastor at a nearby church, and how much she loves and misses him. And she talks about me, how well I’m doing at Ten Broeck, how confident she is about my sobriety. But, if you listen close enough, it might just seem that Trish’s words ring hollow, that what she’s saying is merely what she’s supposed to say, mouthing what she’s learned through years of addiction and recovery. But it’s not an act. Not exactly. It’s just one of the different parts of her who’s speaking right now. Like most addicts, Trish truly wants what’s best for her—the same as I want what’s best for me. We just don’t always know exactly what best is. Other times, we choose to forget.

VI

The glow of the desktop traces my mother’s features, illuminating the pursed lips and the focused eyes as she jabs each letter individually as though they were keys to a piano, every consonant, every vowel, producing some new unfathomable sound. She can’t help but feel embarrassed by herself. She barely knew Trish. Spent no more than an hour with her while she was still alive. And yet she finds it impossible not to write her own condolence. Her focus moves back and forth from keyboard to monitor ensuring her words are the right ones despite there not being any. What is there to say to a mother, a father, who had their daughter suddenly torn from their lives? How must it feel? My mother can only imagine. And she does, with extraordinary clarity and empathy—a kind of empathy only a mother could possess. For every sentence she completes, every period she punches, Trish’s death dissolves more into mine.
      She mourns, my mother, but she isn’t sure who it is she’s mourning.

VII

The group loiters in the parking lot next to an overgrown field where we occasionally play softball. As whenever we converge outdoors, a massive cloud of cigarette smoke haloes above us. Everyone’s saying their goodbyes to Trish. Like good residents, we take our turns. A few feet away, Trish’s mother waits in her car with the engine idling as though she’s picking up her child from summer camp. Perhaps it’s not that much different. Despite being six years older than me, despite treating me like her little brother, Trish, too, is just a kid. We all are. At meetings they sometimes say a person stops maturing the day they start using—if this were true it’d at least give me a couple years on Trish. Then I could be the older sibling for once, the big brother, the one trying to save her life and not the other way around.
      When it’s my turn to say goodbye, Trish offers me a gift: a brand-new bottle of shampoo handed to her by her mother just moments before. Lodged inside, wrapped in cellophane, are two Xanax bars from Trish’s prescription. We had planned it out a few days before. I told her I needed them for my anxiety, which is both true and not. When I thank her, she wraps her arms around me and squeezes tight, her feet, I imagine, lifting above the ground. She tells me I’m going to make it. That she knows it more than anything. She’s burning, Trish, with the flames of someone about to return to freedom, and although it’s difficult to see, buried somewhere underneath is the fear that always follows. The same fear I feel creeping in.

VIII

That night I turn on the shower to drown out any noises. I make certain my roommate—a kind, quiet man older than my father and suffering from severe depression—won’t hear anything worth notifying the staff about. After extracting the cellophane from the shampoo, I set the two pills on the sink and blanket them with a 3” x 5” notecard I’d gotten from an earlier group activity; then I crush the pills with the heel of the shampoo bottle. Before I know it, the steam from the shower starts to render the large line of powder almost clay-like, so I haphazardly roll up the notecard and rush to get it all up my nose.
      A chalky bitterness sticks at the back of my throat, and I hawk it down over and over again like some sacred mantra. A dullness begins to flower inside me. And then it hums. I breathe and step into the shower just as my mind sits down for the first time in what feels like epochs, finding a comfortable position to rest, stirring only with the occasional thought of Trish, of what she might be doing, of where she might be.

IX

NAME: T-LUV
      HERE FOR: Networking, Friends
      ORIENTATION: Bi
      HOMETOWN: the ville
      BODY TYPE: 5’ 4” / Average
      ZODIAC SIGN: Pisces
      SMOKE/DRINK: Yes / Yes
      CHILDREN: Someday
      OCCUPATION: bein’ cute
      INTERESTS: Dancing. Singing. Smiling. Laughing. Yoga. Playing. Kissing. Mischief. Music. Halloween.
      MOVIES: I like movies that make me laugh so hard my stomach starts to hurt. And ANYTHING with Johnny Depp in it!
      WHO I’D LIKE TO MEET: Your Mom.
      MOOD: grateful
      LAST LOGIN: 10/14/2008

X

By now my mother has scrolled herself into a hole, one where grief and obsession and fear become indistinguishable from each other. It all started after discovering Trish’s Myspace account from one of the condolences posted online, and now, every weekday, she ventures to the desktop that sits in the corner of the family room and types her way back to Trish’s profile. Then she loses herself to the scroll, consuming her posts, her blogs, and, most recently, the final goodbyes from her loved ones. No one in my family—not my father, not my sisters, not my brother—knows what my mother has been up to, how she’s been spending her days. To an extent, not even my mother knows. However, her secret does come with a guilt. It looms over her sessions as she breaks further into Trish’s personal life. But whatever shame she might feel doesn’t stop her. She shoulders it off, scrolls on, slowly becoming convinced that if she looks close enough, that if she reads every last post, every last thought, every last word, she just might uncover what it was that ended up killing Trish. The mistake she made that triggered her relapse, that triggered her death. My mother searches for this information as though my life depends on it, which, in her mind, it does. Lost within the condolences, the Myspace posts, the memories, is the clue that will surely save my life.
      For months, this becomes my mother’s puzzle.

XI

In a way, it’s Trish leaving me—the last traces of her medicine deserting my bloodstream—that causes my body to begin shutting down. I notice my mind misfiring, like the flicker of a light bulb, blacking out only to immediately return to its natural state, which is already raw and worn from withdrawal and the cocktail of meds I’ve been taking. I decide to go talk to the nurses, that maybe they can help, but I only make it halfway there before my brain decides it’s had enough. I lose consciousness mid-step and land face-first against the razor-thin carpet. The skin of my nose and chin peel off like dried paint, and within a split second my entire body seizes. My back arcs and my veins lift, rising above my skin like the tracks of some animal as I become five-and-a-half solid feet of contracted muscle. A mannequin of tension: eyes bulging, teeth gritting, skull gently pounding itself against the ground as though in surrender, tapping out the only way it knows how.
      After the nurses roll me over, I hit the clonic phase. My muscles relax, go limp, only to contract again, and then relax, contract: a pulse. My body a massive organ struggling to keep its beat.

XII

An IV pumps me with fluids while off in the corner, a television softly mumbles to itself. Camped out next to me, sitting on the faux-leather sofa, is my mother. A book of sudokus rests on her lap. She made the drive from Ohio after getting a call about the seizure. It’s not a new situation for either of us, my mother keeping me company in a hospital. Following the overdose in my bedroom, I caught a bout of pneumonia and spent nearly a month at Cincinnati Children’s as the blood and pus and muck was tubed out of my right lung like coal on a conveyor belt. All that time, she never left my side.
      Despite the circumstances, my mother is glad to spend the day with me. She’s also grateful to be away from the restrictions of Ten Broeck. No staff members hovering about. No counting down of the hours. No lingering clouds of smoke. Even though I don’t admit it, I feel the same way. Here in the hospital, a sense of safety drapes itself around the room. One that seems to take us back in time, my mother and I, back before the drugs, before the lies and the pain and the fear, even before the jigsaw puzzles on the dining room table, all the way back to when I was a newborn child, a baby boy, and how what brought the two of us comfort then is what brings us comfort now. Presence and breath. A mother. A son.
      Our conversations, when they do occur, are light—I’m still a teenager after all, a bit withdrawn, a bit scared, usually angry for no good reason—but today neither my mother nor I seem to mind the silence. There’s an ease that comes with it.
      I grab the remote and change the channel—waiting out the last few hours before my release back to Ten Broeck, my mind and body worn, my face throbbing—while somewhere nearby, perhaps no more than a few miles away, Trish lives the last forty-eight hours of her life.
      When the staff breaks the news to us a few days later, I immediately call my mother, who, within hours of hearing, will find herself in front of the computer, a pixelated glow in front of her, the autumn sun at her back.

XIII

“I couldn’t go to sleep booskie without telling you goodnight. I never go a day without talking to you and i’m missing you so bad right now. (…) You know, right now we are usually sitting on my deck smoking talking about our day and you always telling me that i’m beautiful and trying to convince me that i am. Baby your the beautiful one. When I stood by your side today and held your hand I felt a peace…”
      —kandice

*

“I was fortunate enough to meet Tricia at JCC. We were in the play Grease together. She was such a talented girl. She is also the one who got me wearing the White Tea and Ginger from Bath and Body works… she would tell me ” thats how they know im coming, they can smell my white tea and ginger” Im so sorry for your loss and your family is in my prayers. We all loved her at JCC. God Bless”
      —Brandi Pollard

*

“Tricia was an effervescent spirit, the likes of which are scarce. She was inquisitive, adventurous, and possessed an imagination that knew no threshold. Her energy lives on through our memories of her.”
      —Nick Kidd

*

“I am so sorry for your loss. My sister Tracie was her roommate at one time in the hospital. I did get to meet her. Tracie called me one time when I was coming to meet her and asked me to bring a coke to her because they were all out. We brought her a coke but they kept it at the desk. She seemed like such a joyful person. I am so sorry for your loss and I know my sister Tracie is taking this really hard.”
      —Stacie Vaughan

*

“I knew that the service would be packed. We all would be so lucky to be half as loved as you are. Your friends from all walks of life, race, gender, even age. But that’s who you were. You made everyone feel so close to you. I can see the pain in their eyes, some I knew others I didn’t but I am sure we all are sharing the same pain….”
      —Pretty Young Thang

XIV

For no good reason, my heart continues to beat . . .
      It beats as Trish’s death violently rattles my eighteen-year-old life, as I do my best to mourn a loss which makes no sense to me, but also a loss that secretly becomes an incentive for my recovery. It beats as I weave my way through the rest of the twenty-eight days at Ten Broeck, and then an additional month at the halfway house down the road. It beats as I watch the body of a friend restrained and needled during a fit of suicidal rage, as I share my lunches with a decades-long crack abuser who on occasion will tilt back her head, open her mouth wide, and with the grace of a movie starlet tap the ash of her cigarette onto the meat of her tongue. It beats as I hear stories and befriend people that cannot be forgotten, as I live in a place so occupied with life that it is at once the most terrifying and the most beautiful time in my young existence. My heart beats as I thrive. As I recover. As I find contentment. And it beats all the way through my release, all the way to my return home to Ohio, where, within a few weeks, I will relapse and swiftly return to full-blown addiction. And it beats—steady and slow—as I scrape by shooting dope, month after month, lying and stealing and slowly forgetting about Trish, but only in the way an addict forgets about things, which is to say, not really at all.

XV

This becomes my mother’s job, her purpose in life, her duty as a mother: to keep my heart beating. Her obsession with Trish quickly evolves into an obsession with keeping me alive now that I’m out of Ten Broeck. In a way, during this time, the two of us become animals, our focus in life narrowing so much that it centers on nothing more than human survival. Pure instinct. She simply refuses to let me die, despite knowing she doesn’t have the power to. Almost every night she calls me just to make sure I’m still alive, still breathing. Anytime I need something, a ride, a meal, a human presence, she’s the one to give it to me. Whenever my withdrawals become unbearable, whenever I feel a hopelessness I’d wish on nobody in the entire world, whenever I feel as though I’ll end up tearing every inch of skin off my body if something doesn’t soon change, my mother’s the one that’s there for me. Always. The one who gave me life to begin with wants to know that if I die, that if one day she walks past my bedroom and spots my body, this time limp with blue lips and pale skin, a void within my eyes, she at least wants to know she did everything she could’ve.
      My mother . . .
      At some point, she decides to print everything about Trish out. The Myspace pages. The memorial posts. The obituaries. Page by page, they spit themselves out of the printer, where she then tucks them into a manila folder and buries it away.
      For the next ten years, she won’t tell a soul.

XVI

“We had the heaven-sent privilege to meet Tricia only once and just last week through our son Zach. She was a beautiful person, inside and out, and there is no doubt in my mind that she touched everyone she ever met with her caring, loving nature. We will be eternally grateful for her loving concern and support of our son. She will live in all of our hearts forever. We are still reeling from the news of her passing and can only imagine the depths of your pain. Please accept our deepest sympathy.

Lynn, Frank, and Zach Gerberick
      October 20, 2008 | Cincinnati, OH”

XVII

     I reach underneath my desk and remove from my filing cabinet a copy of Trish’s obituary. My mother brought it to me while I was still a patient at Ten Broeck twelve years ago. Most of the page it’s printed on—within an issue of the Louisville Courier Journal—is smeared with spoon-ash and decade-old stains of heroin. After leaving rehab, I’d use the sheet of newspaper to drape over my stash and kit, hiding them from anyone who might enter my room. It’s hard to come up with a reason other than a logical one—the newspaper’s wide spread, it’s buoyancy so as not to move any powder—for using Trish’s obituary of all things. But then again, maybe it makes perfect sense.
      While studying the small, studio portrait in the paper—Trish’s hair falling down in waves, a beautifully forged smile on her face—I suddenly have the idea to ask my mother if she remembers her, Trish, the girl from Ten Broeck who overdosed and died more than a decade ago at the age of twenty-four. I type out a quick text and thumb the send button. And then I wait for my mother’s reply.

Zachary F. Gerberick received his MFA in creative writing at Florida State University. His short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in River TeethNew SouthRedividerThe McNeese Review, Water-Stone Review, and other journals. Recently, his short story “Adirondack Express” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by New Limestone Review.

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