Mara Eve Robbins
I Know This Story by Blood
It took me a long time to remember what happened with the phone. Only three and half years old, Kyla called the rescue squad. I shouted at her to make that call with every part of me struggling to figure out a way to keep Cory alive till they got there. She was so confused. He’d taken the cordless phone out onto the porch earlier that morning. She couldn’t find it. I told her to use the wall phone in the kitchen, an old spiral-corded rotary dial we kept mainly because it still worked if the power went out. She had to stand on a chair to reach it. She read our address off an envelope stuck on the refrigerator. But when the dispatcher asked to speak to me, the cord would not reach. I could not stop compressing, breathing, compressing. One-two-three-four. Then it seemed as if there might be breath, for a moment, or at least the seizures had ceased so I ran out to the porch and snatched the cheap cordless phone from where it sat, next to his half-finished cup of coffee in a blue pottery mug, making it back to the bedroom in seconds, pinching his nose shut, breathing into him again. One-two-three-four. Another breath. Speaking briefly to the useless woman on the other end of the line. Throwing the phone back towards the door, towards Kyla.
This is the part where I pause.
Not because I’m not sure what I remember, but because I wonder how much I know how to remember. It took me more than a decade to remember what happened with the phones. And still, I am really not sure. Was our address on an envelope on the fridge? Did she find it there? Or was I the one that recited it? And why the hell does it even matter?
Shattered bone thrust through his shin. Pooled blood on the frozen stone step. Trauma helicopter. Hospital. Three days in the ICU. Surgeries. More surgeries. Morphine. Skin transplants that required the room be kept sweltering. 85 degrees of summer under florescent lights while outside the sky spit snow and even the hallway felt cold.
They saved his leg.
Bone from his hip, blood vessels from his inner thigh, skin from his uninjured leg.
A titanium rod holding his shattered fibula together.
His pelvis splayed open like a book then screwed back into place and attached to external fixators.
There was so much blood.
Blood on the wheelchair. Blood in the bedpan. Peroxide twice a day on long wooden-stemmed q-tips to bubble blood away from screws that held his hips and bones together. Sticky, dried, open wounds closed. Bag of plasma fortifying veins before surgery.
Then there was no blood.
His hands clawing at the air.
Jimi Hendrix. Sirens far away coming louder and closer.
He told us both that he loved us only seconds before he was gone.
There was no blood when Cory died, though there was plenty when he was hit by a car ten years before his death. There was blood and crushed bone and deep infection way back then, staples and misplaced muscle and bad reactions to pain medication and all of those external signals of internal injury.
Everything that happened when he died was inside. His heart. His arteries. An acute coronary occlusion, the autopsy told me, though that answer did not provide even the bleak satisfaction of context. I gave him my breath and my effort and kept his chest moving up and down till the rescue squad arrived but none of it mattered. Or it mattered, I guess, because it gave me something to do, but it took a long time. I have no idea how long. I’ve guessed between five and ten minutes. The volunteer fire department was pretty close, only a few miles away, and I shouted for Kyla to call 911 as soon as his eyes rolled back into his head and he began gasping for air. But there was no blood.
This is the story I have to tell and the story that I cannot possibly tell.
I discard the idea that my identity is constructed around loss and grief then I lose that identity and grieve. I get more and more detailed, recounting shoelaces and another cup of cold coffee. I sprinkle a faded map with islands so you’d need a canoe to get from one part to the next. I create a structure, a framework around it—whatever foundations I can build— and end up with windows and doors but no walls. I write about other things and he ends up tucked between the sans and the serif. I could say that the ink in my pen is his blood, but that would be stretching it, even for me, emotive as I can be. Enough to say his blood is on my hands and my hand is the hand that holds the pen. Enough to say that the words won’t come clean.
He’s dead. That’s the only story. At 31 years old, he died. And I did not.
His eyes rolled back into his head until only the whites were showing, his hands clawed at the air and I shook him, called his name repeatedly and slapped his face at one point to try to wake him up. I only knew a tiny amount of CPR. I only took infant CPR while I was pregnant. I only knew enough to pinch his nose shut and force my breath into his lungs when he quit breathing. I only pressed the palms of my hands against his chest, one-two-three-four BREATHE. I only rolled him on his side and cleared his airway so he wouldn’t choke.
When the rescue squad arrived they placed sensors on his chest and rolled the stretcher onto the porch. I briefly witnessed small shocks delivered to his heart before snatching Kyla out of that madness and taking her back inside to put her shoes on. We followed the ambulance through the particular insanity of not-really-knowing and I honestly cannot recall precisely what I said to her.
The doctors are doing their best to help him,
You did a good job looking for the phone and watching for the ambulance.
I hope that’s something like what I said.
I hope I was able to offer her some comfort in that liminal space between lives.
I look for flags left out in the weather. I watch for signs that say yield. I see things, small things, as symbolic enough to indicate a whole different existence, so I exist there for a few minutes. I do not have a five year plan.
I’m lucky to hit five hours. Fifteen minutes is my max,
So I search out or create written words to explain myself to myself or anyone else.
See me. Hear me. Validate me.
And even those are not enough. I look for flags left out in the weather. I watch for signs that say yield. I see things, small things, as symbolic enough to indicate a whole different existence, so I exist there for a few minutes. I do not have a five year plan. I’m lucky to hit five hours. Fifteen minutes is my max, most days. I have demolition tactics. I have a heavy, well-stocked toolbelt. I have breathing exercises; herbal remedies; Zoloft, once, for about a year and a half; downward dog yoga poses so that my amygdala is drowned; mantras I hold in my mind as I remind myself that this will pass, that it comes and goes, that it came and the going, going, going will soon be gone. I remind my mind that it does not have to devote itself to danger, but my mind does not always believe me. And my heart, my heart just beats and beats against the blood of my mind, shouting please, please, please let me out. Just let me out there where I can breathe too.
My lungs rarely listen.
I don’t know what’s safe to talk about here, whether revealing the trauma or the phobias or the triggers or the justified anxiety or who had what when is necessary information or not. Carefully building my own context, validation stolen from excuses, excuses posing as explanations, explanations elaborately described as a matrix—each semantically shifted turn is designed to give myself room to tell my own parts without hurting myself or anyone else with my words.
I am almost always afraid of it not being safe to say whatever I am saying.
Cory used to talk a lot about how Jimi Hendrix did not actually die of an overdose. He died because the folks in the ambulance were not paying attention and he was unconscious so when the vomit slipped into his lungs he was gone. I was born the year Jimi Hendrix died. We once had a poster of Jimi on our bedroom wall. Cory did not like bumperstickers. I’ve plastered them all over my car. One of the first was a quote from Jimi Hendrix. I collect good quotes. I could quit writing right now and look for other words.
This is the part where I try to remember anything, anything but this story.
I couldn’t hold his nose shut, slippery with bile, so I grabbed the sheet and wiped it off. My chest compressions were compromised because he was on the bed and I didn’t roll him onto the floor. I’d never done CPR before that and I’ve never done it since. There was no blood. There was breath—mostly mine—and there was his body shuddering and spasming and there was our terrified three-and-a-half-year-old daughter in the other room running to the door every couple of minutes to ask me why I was hurting her daddy and to tell me that she couldn’t see the ambulance yet. I told her to watch for it. I didn’t know what else to do.
I didn’t try to write this story at all for a couple of years. Though maybe that’s not true. I tried. I wrote letters. Poems. Songs. Nursery rhymes. More letters. Writing is often when I feel I find a decisive grip on sanity, though that’s deceptive, since I can become so utterly consumed by it that I forget about anything or anyone else. I’ve neglected my daughter and then written about that neglect. I’ve abandoned the house, the dishes, the laundry, the car, the garden, simply so I could keep putting words like these on a virtual page and it seems, so many times it seems, like this is the most strikingly important thing I could possibly be doing. I traded my love for a person for a devotion to expression.
Words, though? They cannot hold you.
My memories of life before I knew Cory are barely narrative. Glimpses, certain dramatic experience. But he was there from then on, part of life, part of me, until the moment that he died.
But that’s not true either. Because he’s still present in his daughter and in my habits and in his absence and in my presence. There are times I want to shake him off, because living within that past life keeps the one I have now from proceeding. There are times I simply want to quit feeling as if my living is a surreal looking-in-from-the-outside experience. Or is it out from the inside? I often feel as if I am merely observing myself. It takes a very specific sort of effort to be fully present.
When I was still eight, almost nine, and Cory’s hair was still almost as long as mine and we met for the first time, we both had on jeans and a t-shirt. His name threw me off. It could really go either way. The very first thing I ever asked him was whether he was a boy or girl. He forgave me eventually, which is a good thing, since we kept on having to forgive each other for the next twenty-two years. His family had a herd of goats, several of which were named after Star Wars characters. Leia. Obi-wan. Yoda. We argued that day about whether John Denver or Peter, Paul and Mary wrote the song Leaving on a Jet Plane. I fell in love with someone else only once before we ended up together after experimenting with it on and off for years. It seems like a cop-out to say that we were together because it was easier, but it was easy, even when it was hard. It was like a pair of cargo pants. We fit. There was plenty of room to stick our hands in each other’s pockets and we were best friends for twenty two years. When he died I had barely slept alone since I was sixteen. We grew up together and we learned to have a home together and he was a brother to my siblings and a father to our child and even though he never recovered, exactly, from the accident that nearly killed him, we figured it out somehow. We persisted.
This is the part where I pause.
He began to throw up at one point. I rolled him onto his side so he wouldn’t choke.
This is the part I cannot possibly tell with unflinching honesty because even though I am more than willing to be honest, I question my memory. I question what I have forgotten, in what ways I have broken down a shattered narrative into pieces that seem to make sense. It’s where fact collides with truth and they end up in a bloody, messy pile.
But there is no blood.
On that cold day in 1991, Cory and I still shared a car, so I rode to work with him in the morning and drove myself to work afterwards. We were parked on the side of the road. There was frost on the window. It was December 10th. He started the car, set the defroster on high, and got out to reach behind the seat for a can of de-icer. Right as he turned around, a 16-year-old girl driving to school went off the road for a second, overcorrected, and sent her car into a skid. Her front bumper hit the driver’s side door, ripping Cory’s pelvis apart, shattering his left leg and flinging him about 30 feet into the front yard.
They saved his life that time, though it could have been that accident that killed him ten years later. They grafted muscle and bone and skin and blood vessels. External fixators holding the bones in his leg together and keeping his pelvis pulled up tight. It was a year and a half before he could work or drive again.
I tried to forget in order to function and yet I could not help but recall all the parts that sifted through at inconvenient times because I refused to allow them to emerge willingly. I thought I had some sort of choice in the matter. I probably did. I just did not know how to decide.
I think I remember everything. I’ve convinced myself I recall it accurately. Sleeping too late. Rushing out the door. Setting a plastic mug of coffee on the dashboard while I buckled my seatbelt. Distant screeching. Tires trying and failing to stop sliding. Crash. Loud. Breaking glass. Sudden, sharp silence and smoke from the crushed radiator. Blood dripping from my temple. Shards of glass clinging to my coffee-damp dress as I’m stumbling out of the car. Sirens far away coming louder and closer. Bone ripping through his thick work pants, thrusting out of his shin. Reciting phone numbers to our neighbor as I tried to keep him conscious until the paramedics arrived. A 16-year-old girl running up and down the road shrieking
OH MY GOD I KILLED SOMEBODY
until I’m finally screaming at her
SHUT THE HELL UP, HE’S NOT DEAD!
Looseness of his broken body.
Blood pooled up on the stone step where his leg landed.
Shivering in the frost-covered gravel, telling someone to get him a blanket, telling someone to make another phone call, telling someone we couldn’t move him, not yet. Not yet.
There are sensory synaptic pathways your brain makes when you experience trauma. When I was about five, I accidentally kicked a glass door and sliced my right foot open. What strikes me still is that it didn’t hurt at first. I was sure that I was not injured. Then my father carried me to the couch and looked carefully at all of my toes. The side of my foot fell open. Blood all over the pillows. Then I panicked. Struggled. Screamed.
But I didn’t actually feel any pain until we arrived at the emergency room and they stuck these giant needles into the wound to numb it. 35 stitches later, I told everyone about it in detail for weeks afterwards, while it was hard to walk, while I was carried or shuttled around in a wheelbarrow.
I tried to convince myself of my courage.
I think I may have only convinced myself of my fear.
When Cory died, the chestnut trees were in bloom. There’s a part of me that can slink back in at any unpredictable moment but appears most distinctly around the time that he died in July. For months in between, I can often accommodate the loss. It stays dormant most of the time. But sometimes it settles like the thick scent of chestnut blossoms, fertile, but dull. I move within it and function and even find distractions, but everything smells like something that’s been taken away. I just want to go to sleep and wake up and find myself on the other side of something that cannot really be crossed over.
Once my mind has learned where it can go, it knows how to get back there. There might be no trauma at all. It’s possibly a beautiful day. I could have just found out that one of my poems will be published soon. I might be celebrating with a friend whose poem will be published along with mine. We’re possibly at the river, one of my favorite places to be, swinging from the rope swing, dropping into the water. A chestnut tree could be blooming half a mile up the river, and the wind could shift. I might go from laughing and splashing to wary and anxious in a period of seconds, and not know why. Or maybe I know why, or maybe it doesn’t happen at all. Impossible to predict. Difficult to build up immunity. Sometimes I smear lavender oil on my upper lip as a kind of sensory shield. If remembering is a salve, it is not necessarily one that heals.
I often remember—and tell—things quite differently from the people that were there with me. Or even from one moment to the next. I wonder how my memory has changed as my body and mind has changed. You’d think it would be easier to write down a story you’ve related many times before. It’s not. Not for me, at least. There are parts, I’m sure, that I’m still getting wrong, and I struggle to take what’s been fluid and make it freeze. But what if the way I recall it changes? What if it moves? What if there’s a thaw?
This is the part where I do not know how to remember this story.
I can still change these words at the moment. But now that you’re reading them, do they exist reliably? Do they stay in place? Part of me wants to keep everything in place. A wiser part of me knows that it doesn’t work that way.
“I haven’t had my good morning hug yet, Kyla Rose!” He pulled her under the covers briefly, tickling her a little with his stubble. She giggled and squealed. Then asked me if she could watch her Arthur video.
When I went back to the bedroom, Cory looked worse. I asked him if I should call someone. He pulled me into his arms and kissed me. “I love you.”
“I love you too, honey.” I put my hand on his forehead; it was cool and clammy, with an odd sticky sort of sweat. “I’m taking you somewhere,” I said. “The chiropractor or the doctor? You choose.”
“I don’t know…” and his head fell away from my fingers. He began to shudder violently.
Just stay with me then. Stay. And learning that no one can ever stay, not really, is part of the cycle.
I am fairly good at circumventing terror. Over a decade of dealing with panic attacks and deep anxiety has given me a lot of tools to shove between me and the fear when it comes. Mostly it’s a matter of finding symptomatic relief. My fingers find the spot in my jaw that hold tension the tightest and I breathe into my belly. I sit with the not-knowing. I breathe and breathe and breathe.
Just stay with me then. Stay. And learning that no one can ever stay, not really, is part of the cycle. It seems as if being held and the presence of tenderness could mend everything, but even that seems like I am easing my mind with a quick fix that will just as quickly fail.
When you take a close look at the brain of someone who’s grieving, you see a lot more activity than usual.
Not just mood but memory. Perception. Conceptualization. Even the regulation of the heart and the belly. We’ve gotten to be pretty adept at acquiring, but not at losing. If it lasts for a long time—and no one really knows how long grief lasts, or if, really, it has an ending as we define endings—your brain can actually shrink. Your central nervous system becomes entirely out of whack. Your breathing’s way off kilter. Your digestion, metabolism and circulation changes. What keeps your attention is entirely unpredictable.
I’ve become more convinced that the brain has plasticity. It sounds weird, like it’s some sort of disposable silverware. But really, it just means that what we once thought was permanently established can be reframed and reformed and rewired. When it’s necessary, like after someone has a stroke or a brain injury, it’s possible for the brain to shift in its functions and compensate for pieces that are missing.
I never injured my brain physically—not that I know of, at least—but once I became aware of all of the ways trauma and grief can mess up your mind I focused on it a little bit too much at times. I learned that 2/3 of our memories are devoted to danger. It’s a survival instinct. We’re wired to recall what hurt or what was scary more vividly than we remember what’s ordinary. A protective mechanism.
Lately I focus on the 1/3 of my brain that is wired to be re-wired and reformed. I make daily, quiet attempts to re-story my memories and experiences. It helps. The parts of my brain that devoted themselves to danger convinced me for a long time that love was dangerous. That connection was dangerous. My brain decided—with very little help from me—that I might lose everything at any time, and I didn’t know how to prove that wrong. I did not know how to make up my mind. I am still, sometimes, more likely to retreat than to risk losing more.
This is the part where the story becomes the other story.
I know, rationally, that I did not kill Cory—I know I did everything I could do to keep him alive—but fully embracing my new story and leaving him behind translates into some skewed admittance of guilt. It was never my fault. Part of me knows this. But how did my faults contribute? When you lose half your mind, how do you love the other half enough to keep it supple and strong? How do you forgive yourself for all the things you did not notice before you never got a chance to notice them again? How do you remember how to remember?
Sometimes I startle awake with a hole in my chest that is both empty and filled with visceral rage and terror, knowing that all that I’ve lost will never, ever be found again and whatever I do find has to be grasped with the utmost ferocity or it will disappear as quickly as my sanity did. I clutch at my lover who is used to these phases but still doesn’t know the words to say at 2 a.m. when she took Benadryl before bed and cannot fully comprehend why I am afraid of her and still want her to hold me but cannot ask her to hold me. I cannot explain how I do not know how to trust her and I cannot ask for what I need because I am barely beginning to be able to express what I feel. To describe it. To call it a hole in my chest, to call it tremors and tears, to call it sobbing until I am dehydrated not because of anything she did but because the triggers are too much like a loaded gun and the bullet beats against my neck where my brain meets my spine. To not be sure if I might be having a stroke or a heart attack when I know goddamn well it is simply panic, returned. Anxiety, paying another visit. That forgiveness will not cure this and that apologies are useless. That until you’ve lost everything, really, everything, you cannot really know that it is impossible to even claim that because there’s so much left.
There’s so much left. There’s PTSD and GAD and clinical depression. There’s remission and recovery and re-injury. There’s mine and yours and hers and all the ones that remind me of what they’re like. Crippling empathy. Suspicion of forgiveness. There’s doubt and guilt and lack of self-worth, a sense of deserving and not deserving.
It’s taken a lot of practice to know how to even let this story come close enough to touch me.
But I don’t know how to trust that there’s enough love to feed into the tired jaws of my fear when my fear forgets how to chew. I don’t know how to replace the blood. There was blood. There was no blood.
Cory died of an acute coronary occlusion—his main artery was 90% blocked. When a clot struck the passage the blood flow stopped, the muscle seized and he could not live through it. His heart quit beating and he quit breathing. This is one of the simple ways I explained his death to Kyla when she was still so unbearably young. I knew enough to phrase it in a way that she could not equate to sleeping. Our hearts keep us alive—along with our lungs, our minds, our blood—but the heart is the center of life and if it stops? Life stops.
Panic stops life too. Not in the sense that you are dead, but in the sense that it cripples your ability to live fully and authentically, to take chances, to trust and love and remember.
How can I do it differently this time? I keep trying to forgive myself for falling back into patterns when I’m aware they do not work. I recognize the symptoms of reaching default and what my default mechanisms are. This is one of them. I continue to try to make meaning when there’s no real reason for any of it to mean anything and I cannot seem to settle into self-acceptance and just be. Settle into what exists and accept that it exists and not judge it to be anything other than what it is. I tell myself I do not have to make up my mind.
I am learning how to bear witness without needing to fix things. There’s no tempering there, there’s only temper. Triggered temper dampened by my desire not to make things worse and fanned into flame by my fear that refining the reflection of my anxiety and panic will create even more misery.
It’s hard to simply bear witness to someone else’s suffering. Human nature wants to heal, to soothe, to smooth down the edges and offer some comfort.
There’s a point at which there is no comfort. Where you just keep showing up even though it seems surreal that your life could continue at all if the person you loved does not exist anymore. There can be some sort of sense to be made but often all you can do is be willing to be there. Not to solve anything. Offer presence. Perspective. Because consolation is simply not possible.
I am a creature of trauma. Knowing that can make it worse. I research enough to create a scientific scenario out of an emotional one. Sure, it might be a rush of association flooding my limbic brain, sending my amygdala into overdrive. But it also might smile on me, like a hug that lasts for more than 20 seconds sending blessed oxytocin from my overworked mind to my still-beating heart. Sometimes I can love my fear enough to thank it for all the ways in which it’s tried to protect me. And sometimes I can love myself enough to let myself forget. To float off into the margins, leaving you with an island that has no shores and an ocean that contains no water. To let a mountain be a mountain and not necessarily something I have to climb.
I discard the idea that my grief is constructed around the loss of my identity and then I construct an identity related to an entirely different kind of loss. I get less and less detailed, forgetting to tie my shoelaces and misplacing another cup of cold coffee. I climb into a canoe and paddle into the middle of a deep lake with no map. I tear down the framework, obliterate the foundation, and end up with walls but no windows. I write about him and other accusations sneak in between the sentences. I could say that the ink in this pen is my blood. Sometimes that’s true. I could wipe my blood off of this story. The words still won’t come clean.
Mara Eve Robbins is a practicing poet, memoirist, narrative journalist and storyteller. She divides her time between writing for herself and writing for the communities she serves as Virginia Coordinator for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. She lives and writes in her natural habitat of Floyd County, Virginia, and is an intricate participant in that rich artistic and agricultural community. Mara is committed to the pursuit of earth stewardship, environmental democracy, social justice and community empowerment. She believes that we are all seeking ways and means to access our stories and that by sharing them we open doors to ourselves that bring the rooms we have inhabited, as well as the ones we can imagine, into being. Her work has appeared in New York Quarterly, Nantahala, Real Simple, Cargoes and other publications.