Nonfiction by Kari Bentley-Quinn
I go over it again and again.
July 20, 1994. Wednesday.
The pool at the Trumbull Marriott. Swimming. Lawry’s Potato Stix. PB Max. Capri Sun. Afternoon. Hot concrete. Gin Rummy with my grandmother. I win. I am from a family of potty mouthed sore winners, so my impulse is to swear. I slam the cards down on the table. The winning hand.
“DROP DEAD!” I exclaim, giddy with victory. I’m not allowed to curse, so this is the best I can do.
She pretends to flip me off and she laughs that laugh, that laugh I will never hear again but hear all the time, that laugh that twenty years from now will startle me out of sleep, will alarm me on the subway, will pop into my mind unbidden at the doctor’s office, the post office, in line for a soup. I can hear it - sticky with cigarette smoke and chlorine, a guffaw, most unladylike, Bea Arthur in a straw hat. Her skin is tanned and crepe, her upper arms baggy and soft. She is wearing a fuchsia colored swimsuit with white flowers and a ruffle on the bottom. Her short cropped blonde grey hair is wet and her makeup has come off, except for a smear of bright red lipstick on her teeth. She smells of Estee Lauder Youth Dew and Virginia Slims. Gin and tonic on her breath. The last time I will see her alive.
After we get done swimming, we race to the car. I call shotgun. We wait for her, sticky legs glued to beige pleather seats. Her beat up Pontiac K car. It smells like her. It smells like summer. We wait for her. Ten minutes? Fifteen? She doesn’t show up. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong.
I burn my hand on the seatbelt buckle, get out of the car, and head towards the hotel lobby. What I see freezes me in place – she is lying face up on the pavement outside the front doors of the hotel. I know I see her face, but decades later I still can’t remember. My brain springs into a protective action. It blocks it out.
I can’t run. I can’t take action. I can only stare, and scream. It’s a scream I don’t remember making, something that started before I was even aware of it, a scream that rose from a part of twelve year old me I didn’t know existed, some primal instinctual part. I can hear myself screaming but can’t feel it, the horror inside me does not come out, despite the screaming, high pitched little girl screaming. Shrieking. The horror grows. It fills every cell in my being, it becomes the stuff of my blood. It sings in my ears. My little brother and friend emerge from the car and both witness the terrible scene, though not as long as I do. Hotel staff usher us quickly inside. An ambulance is called. I am carried inside, by a groundskeeper, kicking and screaming. Let me go. Let me help.
My friend’s parents come to get us. Three shell shocked kids. We swim in their pool all afternoon. We play SimCity. We shut down. We don’t expect the worst.
A few hours later, my parents arrive home and my mother tells me that my grandmother “went to heaven today”. She died of a massive heart attack. Her death was instant. The shock is immense. It takes over everything. How can that be? She was just here.
And one fact lingers: I told her to drop dead. And then she did.
At the wake, I am stoic. I see my grandmother in the casket, laid out in the dusty rose colored satin dress my mother chose for her, and her waxen, hollow face is devoid of the person I knew. You can tell her eyelids are sewn shut. My mother holds her hand, strokes her hair, kisses her face. I want nothing to do with any of it. I touch her skin for one second and am revolted, horrified. She feels like cold, waxy plastic, with none of her familiar warmth or softness. She is gone. Whatever imitation of her body was in that casket is foreign to me. I don’t spend any time near that body. Instead, I hold court. I have grown up conversations with grown-ups, all of them impressed with my poise and intelligence. I am twelve going on thirty, they say. But I am still just twelve, and I am hurting, and those facts go completely unacknowledged by anyone.
At the funeral, my mother falls apart, and never puts herself back together again. My grandmother was my best friend and my biggest ally. I look at my bereft weeping mother - the woman who has been both my favorite person and my worst enemy depending on the day - and I realize I am alone with this relationship now, a relationship that has been complicated since the day I learned to speak. I don’t cry. I watch, dry eyed, as the cantor sings Ave Maria and as Pastor Karen talks about how much my grandmother loved us. I am dry eyed watching my mother weep into my father’s suit jacket. I am dry eyed at the sight of a thousand roses. I am even dry eyed when the pallbearers carry her huge walnut casket out of the church. I pretend to cry so my mother stops asking me if I am okay. I am not okay, but I don’t want to talk about it with anyone, least of all her.
Two days after the funeral, I have my first anxiety attack. I wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, entirely unable to breathe. My heart is bunny rabbit, my mouth is dry. The feeling is dread, the feeling is terror. It is absolute, all consuming. That was the first anxiety attack of thousands. The first of twenty years of suffering.
A few months later, my grandmother’s Lhasa Apso, Pepe, hemorrhages to death on our kitchen floor, blood coming from his mouth. Our dog Toby – his brother – won’t leave his side. My mother screams all the way to the vet. The vet thinks he ingested rat poison. From where, we have no idea. It’s possible someone did it on purpose. My family is too grief stricken to pursue it.
A few months after that, my grandfather dies after a seven year battle with scleroderma, alone in a nursing home. My grandparents, who hated each other most days, had been married for forty years. In the end, they could not live without each other.
1994 was a real shitty year.
And so was the year after that.
And after that.
And after that.
Twenty years later, I am sitting in my therapist’s office bawling into a Kleenex. The pain is exquisite, it is like someone is plunging a knife into me sideways and twisting. It takes my breath. My therapist is quiet for a moment and just lets me cry. She leans forward in her chair and watches me, just nodding. She is not used to seeing me come undone in quite this spectacular of a fashion.
After a moment, she says, “The thing about grief that you can’t run from it forever. You have to go through the process. You can’t just skip it. You never grieved her. No one let you. But now you can. And it will hurt like hell, but it’s necessary. You have to grieve.”
I hadn’t gone to therapy for any length of time after my grandmother’s death. We only had two or three family sessions, which were mostly focused on my mother’s pain. In fact, much of my life became focused on my mother’s pain. For twenty years, I had put her grief before mine. I had put her suffering before mine. Now that I wasn’t doing that anymore, I could no longer run from the crushing, pounding, blaring garbage truck of crippling grief that barreled over me. I had no distraction from it. So there I was, fighting my army of triggers, until all of them raised their guns and fired at once. It brought me to my knees.
How could the pain of something that happened twenty years ago be so fresh, so raw? It was as if it had just happened. I was twelve again - vulnerable, scared, confused, and guilty. And hurting - hurting so deeply - and missing the one person in my early life I can say loved me unconditionally. The person who bought me my first typewriter and my first watercolors. The person who taught me about the wonders of whole belly fried clams and chowder. The person who let me talk her ear off for hours and hours. The person who watched The Golden Girls with me and put Vicks VapoRub on my chest when I was sick. The person who taught me how to love, and how to be loved. And she was gone. She had been gone for so long that I started to wonder if she had ever really existed.
And there was still that tiny part of me that was afraid it was my fault. That I told her to drop dead, and then she did.
One night, not long after this therapy session, I have a dream. I am on the steps of my old house, and my husband is there, and some weird dream stuff happens that I can’t quite remember. I look across the street and both my late grandparents are in my neighbor’s yard. They are hugging my mom and my dad and my brother. I run across the street, unbelieving. They are ALIVE! Alive, in front of me! My grandfather hugs me, and he is so frail and bony, like he was before he died, but so happy to see me. Then I turn to my grandmother, who folds me into her arms, and for the first time in twenty years I can clearly see her face. I hear her voice. I feel her skin. I smell the Virginia Slims and Youth Dew. And in this moment I know that I am dreaming, but I don’t care.
Suddenly, we are at her house, as if by magic. She invites me into the kitchen, the one I grew up in, with the yellow patterned wallpaper and roosters on the oven mitts and hand towels. She starts to make dinner and offers me a gin and tonic. I accept, happily. She makes it strong, with Tanqueray in its iconic green bottle. She lights herself a cigarette, and one for me. I hate menthol, but I don’t turn it down. I am afraid any rejection will end this visit, this visit I’ve wished and hoped for. Her lipstick stains the filter. I inhale.
“You’re all grown! How old are you now?” she asks me.
“Almost thirty-four,” I tell her.
She throws her head back and laughs. That laugh! No longer a phantom – I hear it. It rings my eardrums. It swells my heart. I choke back tears.
“Well!” she says, taking a thoughtful drag, “That ain’t old, but that ain’t young either!” I realize that I am almost exactly half the age she was when she died. She asks me about my career, my husband, my apartment, my friends. It’s an easy conversation. There is no sentimentality, no “oh how I’ve missed you”, just two grown women getting drunk on gin and tonic and making meatballs like no time has passed.
A thunderclap. Lightning.
I wake up. I’m in bed. There is a storm raging outside. My husband sleeps next to me. And I am furious. I wanted to tell her I was sorry for telling her to drop dead, for not doing CPR, for not being better. I wanted to tell her how much I loved and missed her. I wanted all of these things and I didn’t get to say them.
And then, a realization: I didn’t have to. She knew.
The grieving of a death that occurred more than twenty years ago has been a painful and revealing process. I did not realize how much my avoidance of this grief affected every aspect of my life. While my anxiety disorder is partially hereditary, and was probably not caused by my grandmother’s death, the fact remains that I stuffed down and swallowed so much pain for so long that it made an existing condition even worse. Her death was the Thing I Didn’t Talk About, until I had no choice. As I grieved and cried, and went through all the steps - depression, denial, bargaining, anger - my anxiety began to lessen somewhat. My irrational fears began to dissipate. I felt like I could breathe again. It’s not that it doesn’t still hurt – it actually hurts more, in its own way - but that pain isn’t something I have to run from now. I can acknowledge it, feel it, and let it go. After much work, I have forgiven myself. I was a child. None of it was my fault. I know that now, in my bones.
Even though she was only in my life for twelve years, my grandmother’s encouragement and nurturing of my creativity had a huge impact on my future. I found out after her death that my grandmother had aspired to be an actor, and had a scholarship to Northeastern University to study theater. Her family would not allow it, and she did not go to college or pursue theater at all. She had never told me about it when she was alive, but after she died, I threw myself into the theater with passion and determination. I began writing plays and acting in earnest, driven by a force I could not identify. I went to Pace University for theater, on a scholarship, and later got my MFA in Playwriting from Hunter College. I am an agnostic, and I don’t know that I believe in any kind of afterlife, but if there is anything resembling a spirit, I am convinced that a part of hers became a part of mine that terrible July day. Everything I do in my artistic life is in honor of her, and now that I have grieved her, I do this with pride and a sense that, in the end, I did right by her. It is without question something she would have wanted.
Because she loved me. And shouldn’t we all be so lucky?
Kari Bentley-Quinn is a playwright based in New York City. Her work has been presented at or developed with Lark Play Development Center, The Brick Theater, The Secret Theatre, Artemisia Theater, The One Minute Play Festival, Lesser America, Caps Lock Theater, Effable Arts, Packawallop Productions, The Access Theater, FringeNYC, the Play Development Collective, and more. She is a founding member of Mission to (dit)Mars, a theater and arts collective based in Astoria, Queens, as well as a member of the Dramatists Guild. She has been a finalist for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, The Playwrights Realm, and the Public Theater Emerging Writers Group, as well as being a nominee for the Doric Wilson Playwriting Award. She holds an MFA in Playwriting from Hunter College, where she studied with Tina Howe, Arthur Kopit, and Mark Bly. At Hunter, her play PREPARED was the the 2015 recipient of the Rita and Burton Goldberg Playwriting Award.