Dialing My Dead

The trick of functioning with grief is that of remembering and forgetting all at once. Of letting the ghost walk at your side but not block your way. Jack Ketchum

My address book is full of ghosts, and I need more than two hands to count my dead. Their names are mixed in among the living, although there are days when I scroll through the list and see only who is gone instead of who remains. The way each alphabetical loss stacks on top of the ones that come before. Sadness accumulating more like multiplication than addition. Although I am decades past keeping a handwritten address book, I have entered and kept the names of long-lost loved ones. A way of continuing to hold and honor my history, the story of where I come from and who made me.

Landmines are everywhere, tucked into all but the least common letters. “M” is the most painful one. Martha and Larry Miller. My parents. Barbara and Seymour Mann. The cousins who became my second parents and my parents’ best friends. The four people who raised me, together building a safe container around me. Protection always but porous enough to allow in the realities of the world, the consequences of my actions and the truths of our family. Questions answered and secrets explained. Welcome from a young age to join their conversations, I could also wander off for long walks with the dog or read on the couch when I lost interest.

When I read through the names, I’m struck by how different their paths to death were. Some like my father and both grandmothers lived a number of years no one could argue with, succumbing to old age just before or into their 100s. Others left far too soon, dying of cancer or other diseases or by their own hand. Those who fought to stay and those grateful to go.

As time marches on, the losses accumulate and my memory muddles. How long it has been since he died. How little time I got with her. Based on the centarians in my lineage, how long I have to go.

Even our dogs are in my contacts, a way of linking them to my calendar. Bronco, our beloved yellow lab. His too short 12-year life. Buster, our neurotic 10-year-old border collie rescue. The two pups forever intertwined as Buster was born the day Bronco died.

Because we love, we sign up to grieve. That’s the bargain. That’s the contract. I am defined by those I have lost and buttressed by them at the same time. My family, my son, my friends .. each part of the invisible scaffolding that gives my life meaning and purpose.

I carry my dead with me. Weighed down by sorrow at times but also lifted by the memories of what each one brought to my life. How lucky I was to be born to my parents, related to many in my family tree. The ways I found the member of my chosen family, our determination to hang on over time. Each person offering different life lessons – how to reach, how to take chances, how to trust. All of them teaching me how to say goodbye.

Their entries are tangible proof that they existed. Living on streets I could find in my sleep, in houses that may no longer be there. Handwritten thank you notes and birthday cards forever cementing the addresses in my mind. Landlines memorized long ago and remembered still. Sometimes I think of calling the number we had when I  was growing up to see who has it now. My home phone for 54 years, relinquished only after my mother died eight years ago, leaving no one left to answer.

My address book is a portal to the past. The door to those I’ve lost, still love and will forever long for. A way to spend time with the dead. To hold each name in turn and remember without the sharp stab of a technicolor photo album. Spaces and places I can conjure up, remembering us there together. The comfy tan couch under the bay window at Barbara and Seymour’s. The formal dining room ringed with tall, heavy carved chairs in my aunt’s house. The tiny, cozy kitchen at my grandmother’s house where she made my favorite meals when I spent the weekend with her. If I close my eyes, I can see us there. And if I listen carefully, I can hear us laughing.

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  • Jan Haag says:

    What a great piece, Margo… not least the terrific title! And I love the concept of the address book as “a portal to the past.” Brilliant!

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