On the Bus #9-Together Alone

It’s a melancholy ride on the bus today.

My thoughts are of Houston where I have many friends whose lives are in turmoil.  I grieve for the animals who were left stranded and who are the epitome of innocence, and feel disgust towards  those who deliberately abandoned their pets leaving them  chained up or  in kennels. They  are the opposite of innocence.  My friend Eddie said he would die before leaving his cat behind.  I know that is true.  I know my husband Saul would too.  That is a big reason I love him.  I’m also pretty sure who would win if Saul had to choose between me and the kittens  but I love him anyway.

I would also probably die with my  kittens but I would be resentful towards them.

A woman on the street this morning in NYC was asking for money to get out of town before the apocalypse.  That was the best reason I’ve heard in a long time.

I’m also melancholy on the bus because 9 years ago today, my sister Julie was in a coma after having an aneurism.  She died on September 5th, 2008.  I love my big sister but am annoyed she ruined Labor Day Weekend forever.

Everyone Else:   I’m going tubing this weekend and then to the beach!  What are you doing?? 

Me:  Sitting on the couch in the dark feeling sad.

 I suppose I should be grateful it wasn’t Christmas or my birthday when she died, but actually September 5th is  her favorite nephew’s birthday so the timing was pretty crappy.  When she greets me at the end of the tunnel of white light to show me around the hereafter,  I plan on being  a little cold and aloof with her at first so she’ll know I’m annoyed.

I was very, very close to my sister and her death was the most shocking thing that happened to me.  Ok, I take that back.  My dad dying of a heart attack (i.e. alcoholism) was a big shock to me too and gave me a lifelong fear of abandonment–so he might win.

When someone very close to you dies, you are thrown into a kind of grief club whether you want to be or not.   You realize right away that there are people who have been through what you went through and understand what you went through.  At least that is what happened to me.

The awful thing that started happening the week after Julie died is that I began rating people’s grief.

Oh,  your sister died?  My great great aunt died at 110 so I know how you feel!” 

 No.  No, you don’t.

The main way I knew  if people were in the grief club is if they know how to handle my grief.   Really, all they needed to do was nod their head sadly and let me be sad.  That’s how I knew  they understood.

A surprising number of good  people didn’t know what to do and would without fail change the subject awkwardly.

Me:   I’m sad because I’m missing my sister.”  

Them:  Aren’t  grapes delicious?

The week after Julie died, my mother refused to answer her phone.     In fact, on the way to my sister’s funeral, my mom announced assertively in the car that she wanted NO HUGS.  This was difficult because she was in a wheelchair and people were approaching her from all sides as I tried to run interference.  I was about to hang a sign around her neck with a circle and a slash with the word HUGS in the middle when  she finally relented and pretty much hugged every person at the very large funeral.

I don’t’ want to brag, but my sister’s funeral was SRO.

So anyway, that week I was designated as the unwilling phone answerer.  People who called with condolences said some pretty dumb things.

An old friend of my mothers told me it was “too bad” that Julie didn’t go to another hospital because she heard about someone who went to that other hospital and survived their aneurysm.

Thank you??

Another person—this one an ex-girlfriend of my brother’s–said she was sorry about my sister and then added  I just want you to know that  I know you are gay and I am okay with it.

 Again.  Thank you??!

People are stupid.  Well, no that’s not true.  Although I do question the intelligence of people who voted for a certain person I will not name and still think he is doing a good job.   But for a long time, I got really ,really mad at people who said dumb things about Julie dying or changed the subject.

But then one day I understood.   I realized that they didn’t know how to fix my grief.  They didn’t know how to make it okay.  And they felt helpless—just like so many of us do about Houston.  I began forgiving them when I realized that.   I mean, really what did I want?    Did I want someone they adored to die so they could understand me?

Nine years later I am not so sad.  The wound is here but as wise people told me at the time it doesn’t go away but it gets different.  The best I can say is that the horror and shock fade and the pain becomes sweeter as the good memories and the love shared become bigger than the pain of loss.

But the grief always  comes back  in a rush on Labor Day weekend and stings  a little bit more.  I am especially sad Saul will never know my wonderful sister.  No  matter how much I describe her, it’s like describing a kitten to someone who has never seen a kitten.  It’s impossible to do it justice.

It has soft fur and a teeny face and it mews and does this thing called purring and you just can’t help but love it!

My sister was nothing like a kitten but was just as lovable.  But if you didn’t know her, you’ll think I’m partial because I am  her little brother.  That’s the  frustrating part.

Before my mom died, she told me she was worried I would forget my sister.   She doesn’t have to worry about that.  She also gave me a picture of Julie holding my brother’s dog in her back yard to remember her by.   “This is the last picture ever taken of her.”

I wanted to tell her that technically it wasn’t the last picture ever taken of Julie .  It wasn’t even close.  Julie had a lot of pictures taken of her after this one but why quibble with a frail, ill grieving mother?

So, this weekend I will listen to Julie’s  favorite band Crowded House.  I will look at her pictures with Saul.

Julie  taught me to find laughter in pain and to be nice.  She would have reminded me to be nice to Saul a lot.  She would have told me to forgive him for clanking his spoon so  loudly when he eats  his Halo top ice cream. (It’s so loud!)  She would have been happy I wasn’t dating guys in their 20’s anymore.  She just thought it sounded exhausting.

I will think  of Julie and I will think of Houston and I will think of that lady who wants out of New York before the apocalypse.   I will think of the gentle humanity that connects us and not the cruelity and bullying that competes for our attention.

If reincarnation is true, this planet has to be an advanced course that we all decided to sign up for.

I’m pretty sure Julie graduated with honors.

Together Alone by Crowded House:


The not last picture of Julie that hangs next to my desk at home.




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Keith Hoffman lives with his artist husband, dog and two cats in the small town Lambertville, New Jersey 72 miles outside of New York City. He has completed a memoir entitled The Summer My Sister Grew Sideburns.

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