Family legend has it that one day I walked into the kitchen from the two-car garage, my hands cupped piously as if carrying a communion wafer. I approached my mother slowly and opened my hands to reveal a mouse in my palms.
Family legend has it that one day I walked into the kitchen from the two-car garage, my hands cupped piously as if carrying a communion wafer. I approached my mother slowly and opened my hands to reveal a mouse in my palms.
The mouse was tiny, brown, and it was dead.
I used to play Sleeping Beauty in a white leotard swirled with glittering stars, a pair of plastic ruby slippers, a cardboard Burger King crown. I pricked my finger on a weight bench peg and stretched out on the padded bench. I called my family to mourn me.
Once I learned dead, I felt like I knew it already. Perhaps this familiarity had more to do with dread. Dorothy Gale outrunning a tornado, that ominous, dense funnel the sky sent to Kansas. My parents shouting loud enough to make my ears ring. Night setting in over the golf course beyond my backyard. An orange cat floating down a river in a box, missing his pug friend, listening to night sounds. A sea witch rising from ocean depths. A bicycle found without a girl and the girl’s picture in the newspaper; my parents warning me that I could be taken. Perhaps my familiarity with dread had more to do with anxiety than death.
I ran the elevator a few times, thinking motion may inspire other motion. I had brought the butterfly inside to live in the Barbie mansion with a functioning elevator, an ombré of pink accessories. I used to imagine that wanting someone alive was all it took to revive a body. I believed it was possible to bring someone back from the dead, maybe if they were caught just after dying, if I went after them. I saw it a lot like losing something—a bracelet, a pair of sunglasses, a shoe—over the side of a boat. If one jumps in right away and dives down, maybe they can still catch the sunglasses, maybe they won’t have to walk home barefoot once they dock.
Sometimes evenings and mornings mirror each other. The light, the sky, the air’s ambiguous smell that could be beginning or end. I sometimes have the instinct to let the intervals blur, a preprogrammed willingness to disorient myself. The same interest in an in-between prompted me to fall repeatedly from a sugar maple when I was seven or eight, landing on my head to feel dizzy, which was as interesting to me as pressing my cat’s paws—the pink jellybean pads—against my closed eyelids to make shapes and colors appear.
Balto is on Netflix this month. There’s a copy on videotape in a plastic bin in my basement. I had my first boy-girl party in the fifth grade. I turned eleven and wore clothes from Limited Too, my hair in a scrunchied high ponytail. My mother’s then-boyfriend, a DJ and light technician for nightclubs, spelled my nickname on the wall in light. A boy in my class with a bowl cut gifted me the movie Balto. The tape was added to the video shelves in my family’s living room, but my family and I never watched it. In eighth grade, I worked for my English teacher during study hall; collated and stapled packets, hole-punched. Each morning Mrs. B. brought me a pack of pink snowballs, marshmallow and pink-tinted coconut around chocolate cake. After the boy with the bowl cut hung himself, Mrs. B. seemed surprised and disappointed when I showed up at study hall to work, instead of attending the wake with my peers. My mother may have called it morbid.
No more so than my great uncle Rocky, who I had learned about by that age. He had been a dancer for the San Francisco Ballet. He died by suicide in a hotel room in the middle of The Nutcracker’s 1969 run. Among the clippings and ephemera I have from his life is a letter from Russell Hartley to Rocky’s mom, in which Hartley shares that he and a friend, Marc Wilde, scattered Rocky’s ashes at Mount Tamalpais and that “…the only observers were two deer and a squirrel.” I completed many grade-school projects about my great uncle, researched and wrote about him any chance I got. Whether I was after a fuller picture of his inner weather or waiting to hear something different, I do not know. I wanted him to be alive for the brief spell that is earned when someone talks about someone who is dead.
My earlier imagined deaths involved a serene, floral sleep, with many well-dressed mourners. Maybe I was inspired by movies or television. A princess in deep sleep awaiting a kiss. A lion-dad dropped from a cliff by his evil brother. A dead deer mother. An hourglass filled with red sand, time running out to mark the Kansas girl’s expiration over a misplaced house and a pair of magical shoes. If I prick my finger and fall asleep, I may never wake up. If I eat the apple. If I let down my hair. As I got older—if I get in this car, walk home alone, smoke another cigarette, have another drink, get on the stage, go in that room, go down the stairs into the station, board the plane, get behind the wheel, don’t get out of bed and get dressed and instead let myself rot in my head’s own Kansas-style funnel, if I walk to work, go to sleep and forget the stove, the deadbolt on the front door, how gas smells.
I watch the same movies or television shows over and over because there’s no preparation needed, I know how they will end. Sometimes I watch trash television or light-hearted, feel-good shows to reduce my anxiety. When my husband goes out of town, I plug in my laptop and cue up Gossip Girl to fall asleep. I watch Parks and Recreation on lunch breaks. I have lost count of how many times I have mindlessly streamed these shows, repeating season after season. But neither show compares to inducing a dread that I know I can get up and walk away from or pause, watching horror movies to give myself something else to worry about for a spell. No preparation needed. I know I’ll hold my breath as Jack Nicholson in The Shining approaches the beautiful woman in the Art Deco minty green bathtub or as Robbie Freeling in Poltergeist approaches his bed where clown shoes emerge along a gleeful laugh or as someone gets in the water in Jaws and the orchestra music accelerates.
When I set the butterfly down, the wings flicked once then laid still awhile before a parent noticed. Maybe they didn’t say the word “dead” but this is as far back as I can remember death, which is different than understanding what it means to die, which is something that took longer to understand. I am still learning what it means to die each time someone in my proximity dies; each death unique as each life and each grief.
Last March, in a pizza shop, a friend advised me that grieving people exist in concentric rings—those closest to the dead are in the innermost ring, and so on. She told me that grieving people seeking support must lean only on rings outside their own. Which is to say, it is not advisable to lean forward on an inner circle of grief. Which is to say, if you are grieving you must lean outward on people in outermost rings or you must lean into your own self.
Ithaca, New York is a city of many mottos. The Wegmans devotes half an aisle to local merchandise—tee shirts, hoodies, coffee mugs, license plate frames, bumper stickers, notebooks, and other Ithaca-pride swag. One motto often fondly cited by locals is “Ten square miles surrounded by reality.”
This is also a water city: Cayuga Lake, Six Mile Creek, Cayuga Inlet, Linderman Creek, Cascadilla Creek, Fall Creek, Beebe Lake. And this list says nothing of the waterfalls in the immediate vicinity: Taughanock, Ithaca, Cascadilla, Buttermilk, Lucifer.
The waterfalls cut the rock into majestic structures that inspired the city’s namesake slogan: “Ithaca is gorges.” The gorges require a bridge to cross from one side to the other.
Ithaca’s bridges are famous for epic views, notorious for jumpers. Fences were installed to prevent gorge suicides. When people complained about the fences, nets were extended below the bridge decks and the fences were removed. Many articles discussing the bridges, their fences and nets, remark on suicides in the context of college students, but there are also more anonymous occurrences—a middle-aged person who drove to Ithaca from Pennsylvania to jump, for instance.
If you drop an object into water, rings expand from the spot where the object was dropped. If you drop something over a bridge rail spanning a gorge, you may not hear it hit the water below, but I am trying to draw the rings for you. If the item dropped into water is a death, the rings could be the people left behind, a temporary map of the bereaved. If life is temporary, how is it that the pain from losing someone to suicide can feel so ongoing? Less like a creek or a lake and more like an ocean. The only horizon in sight an image that early explorers believed was the end of the world.
Each time I re-watch the film It Follows, among the brick houses and schools, bright blue pools, the soft-lit all-night diner, parking lots and sidewalks, I catch a slow-walking form in the distance that I missed before and I feel like I have missed something larger. Once I begin to see them, I cannot stop seeing them. Perhaps I’m ascribing significance to something that does not deserve any, but this hindsight nags at my assumption that I should have (or could have) known that people in my life who have chosen to end their lives were planning to end their lives.
It Follows is about a college student, Jay, whose boyfriend transmits a fatal, slow-walking, shape-shifting specter to Jay via sex. It’s like a dreadful parlor game. Once transmitted, “It” begins to follow the person who has contracted it. The only way to save oneself from being caught, and killed by “It,” is to have sex with someone else who must then pass “It” along, and so on. Jay spends the film attempting to outrun “It” or pass “It” on joined by a group of witty, steadfast friends.
The film resonates as a meditation on dread, the inevitability of death. To get really literal and suggest the film remarks on sexually transmitted infections misses the heavier themes. It Follows spares no effort in taking a revisionist approach to the horror genre. There aren’t any hyper-sexualized characters and the sex Jay has when she contracts “It” is consensual (as opposed to a sexual assault, which a lesser film may have considered to show a character’s extreme desperation to pass along the ghost). It Follows hinges on sex, but it is not necessarily about sex. And the cinematography juggles both the dreamy and the realistic. Each image is so clear, vivid, and crisp, but much of what’s in the frame is a nightmare.
In a 2015 interview, director David Robert Mitchell had this exchange:
INTERVIEWER: It Follows is probably the worst nightmare of ’em all. One of the things that makes it so dreamy is the idea that you’re always on the run — that evil will always be stalking you. When writing the film as an adult, what are some things that you attributed that fear to?
MITCHELL: I don’t know what caused it when I was young. I know it’s an anxiety dream. I could only guess, but — and I’ve talked to people that have had similar nightmares — it’s a fairly common anxiety dream. Yeah, it’s anxiety, but that’s not, like, the cause. Back then, I don’t know…What am I afraid of now? I don’t know, the normal things. I think on some level, pain and illness, and death of myself and people that I love, I think those are always things that are frightening. It’s very real. I think on some level that’s the root of most of these things. That’s just my guess.
The first few minutes of It Follows highlight one such anxiety dream. A young woman in a silk top, shorts, and high heels runs out of her house into the middle of a peaceful, suburban street. A neighbor asks if she’s okay. The girl stares at a fixed point and backs up slowly, as if away from something dangerous approaching her. Her father stands concerned in the front yard, but she doesn’t explain, just books it for the car parked in the driveway. We see her in the driver’s seat, hunched at the wheel, her cell phone ringing. The scene cuts to a Gregory Crewdson-style shot—the young woman on a beach at night, the car headlights shining on her like a spotlight. The water behind her dark with sparkling flecks and the night sky above and the darkness at the screen edges like the borders of a tintype photograph. She’s on her cell phone, apologizing to her parents, saying she loves them. She stares off toward her car and the shot captures her parked car, the driver’s door flung open. Then the scene cuts to the woman dead on the beach, one leg bent up and broken back with blood running down the thigh. The water and sky behind her are a crisp-perfect blue. The image blends the horrific and serene. Were there not a dead person in the foreground, one could almost imagine a small boat with a big, bright sail out on the water.
The film visualizes an ongoing dread I recognize—an inability to stop my internal monologue, the marquee ticker tape in my head that therapists have encouraged me to acknowledge and watch float by, the hamster wheel where the animal is racing until the wheel rocks off the cage wall while I try to calm the animal to a casual mall-walk.
After Jay and her boyfriend “Hugh” have sex in his car, he gets out and begins rummaging in the trunk while Jay lies across the seat and stretches an arm out the open door. Her hands gently brush some flowering weeds that have grown through the concrete lot where they parked. She says:
It’s funny, I used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates…drive around with friends in their cars. I had this image of myself holding hands with a really cute guy, listening to the radio, driving along some pretty road up north maybe when the trees started to change colors. It was never about going anywhere really…just having some sort of freedom I guess. Now that we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?
When I was a child, I frequently woke my parents at night with cry-screaming. They’d come in the room and I’d be sitting up, staring into the dark. I’d put a finger to my mouth and say, “Shh, the Four-Day Win.” I am sure the Four-Day Win was one of many mondegreens in my girlhood lexicon, but part of me wants and very much believes the Four-Day Win to be something else. Whether entity or anxiety, hard to say, but the Four-Day Win terrified me. That my parents could not understand what it was frightened them.
My anxiety extends back as far as I can remember. The origin of the dread is sourceless. Some days I can’t tell the difference between sickness and anxiety symptoms—flu-like fatigue that sends me to bed for days, nausea, my throat scratching, a headache, fevers. Sometimes I don’t know if my anxiety lowers my immunity and makes me sick. What comes first and does it matter? It’s chicken and egg. It’s following me.
I used to daydream.
This thing, it’s gonna follow you.
As a child I perched on the sink in the half bathroom with the door opened, its mirror facing a cabinet mirror. I moved the door on its hinges, slightly opening and closing it, doing the same with the cabinet, to make an infinity—a space that went back and back into more mirrors, more me’s. I wondered how far back the mirrors could go before there was no more me at all. At night when I looked out my bedroom window and saw the sky I thought of space, the universe going on; I wondered if that distance was the same as my mirror infinity: space that stretches out, silence that does the very same thing. Like a heavy snowfall that devours streets and driveways and mutes sound. Snow’s ambient noise that impedes sound waves and accumulates quiet. How sound travels, or doesn’t. Even silence is a sound wave that follows us.
Or as the poet Frank Stanford puts it in his poem “The Nocturnal Ships of the Past”:
There was always a great darkness
like a forest of arrows
So many ships in the past
their bows bearing women
as stalks bear eyes
The burning ships
that drove their bowsprits
between the thighs of dreams
With my ear to the ground
I hear the black prows coming
plowing the night
and the wind comes up
and I smell the sour wood
leaving a wake I want to be
left alone with
Night after night
like a sleeping knife that runs deep
through the belly
the tomb ships come
The foreboding ships described emerge at night and the speaker anticipates their arrival, making no effort to distance from it, and, rather, suggests a desire for proximity and closeness. The enjambed break between “leaving a wake I want to be” and “left alone with” suggests the speaker wants to be both the water the boats part as they move through it and to be with the water affected by the boats, the self subsumed, a part of, acted upon by the fleet. These lines conjure a subtle tenderness and desire to be consumed by the darkness. In the wake of this admission, come the affectless last four lines to convey a gruesome matter-of-factness from which no single one of us is exempt.
To celebrate one year of marriage, my husband and I had a picnic in a local cemetery, now a city park. He took my picture when I stretched on the grass at the foot of a tall headstone. For our four-year wedding anniversary, we trekked to Brooklyn to visit the Morbid Anatomy Museum, a brick building painted black with its name in sharp, clean white letters at the top. We went to see the “Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality” exhibition, which included a tableau by Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter. The museum had crowd-sourced funds to borrow “The Kittens’ Wedding” from its current owner.
The museum entrance was part museum, gift shop, and café. We climbed the stairs to the exhibition rooms, pausing in the entryway beneath some large mounted animal heads to read the curator’s statement from J. D. Powe and Evan Michelson:
…The objects on display here are witness to the fact that one era’s cultural norm often becomes incomprehensible over time. What never changes is the strange, persistent, uniquely human desire to simultaneously destroy and immortalize those things we seek to understand, and those things we love.
We checked out the specimens: a giant lobster claw, fish, ornamental glass boxes with pet dogs inside, age-toned ribbons tied into perfect bows around their necks.
In the center of the room was a large glass case with a smaller big-top tilted glass case inside: tiny crafted shoes on standing paws, a disgruntled-looking kitten guest toward the back of the scene—the mouth turned up and somewhat frayed the corners, a maybe-mother-of-the-bride looking on with care and concern, the ruched and lacy bodices of all the ladies’ dresses, blue and red beady necklaces on the guests, pink-grey noses, perfect delicate earrings in the girl-kittens’ ears—turquoise, red, pearl, the smallest kitten dressed in a sailor suit with one paw on the altar railing, the reverend presiding with one paw turned up towards the heavens and another holding open a prayer book with very tiny words handwritten on the pages, a bread-crumb-sized ring on bride’s tiny finger, the small train of her ivory gown, the groom’s tabby head tilted adoringly toward his love.
Nineteen kittens, somewhat wavy in their postures, but also (it seemed) deliberately posed that way. The neck postures resemble birds or sea lions more than kittens and many of the front paws seem unsure what to do with themselves. Each head has a different pair of eyes set beneath the fur and skin, giving each guest a different expression—most are stoic and watchful, two kittens with bright blue eyes look surprised.
If you Google image search “kitten wedding” you can see the tableau for yourself and devise your own theories and backstories for each honored guest. You can also see wedding shoes with kitten heels, live kittens with bridal veils on their heads or garters around their necks like frilly collars, wedding cakes with cat decorations, Badgley Mischka, Carolina Herrera, stubby high heels encrusted in fake pearls and gemstones with red sticker soles adhered on to look like Louboutins, a kitten in a bunk bed, a kitten in a hammock, rabbits at school desks with tiny chalkboards between their paws, Tyco’s 90s Kitty Kitty Kittens dolls, a tea pot with a hand-painted kitten on its side, live kittens stepping on sample invitations.
I know people who have had passed-on pets cremated—group cremation or the more costly individual cremation so they could rest easy knowing the only ashes in the urn on their dresser belonged to their very own pet and no one else’s. I know people who have buried passed-on pets in their backyards. People who have kept tiny tin “urns” on mantles or bars. People who have taken pet ashes on vacation to Fogo Island to scatter a dusting at Brimstone Head, one of the four corners of the world, according to the Flat Earth Society. I know people who have wrapped pets in their favorite towels or blankets, said goodbye, and sent them into beyond rooms with technicians or veterinarians. I know people who have held their pets goodbye, held their paws. I know people who have hired pet hospice to administer euthanasia in their living rooms. I know people who have administered the draught themselves.
If these goodbyes are too much to bear, there are other options.
You can bury your pet in your backyard—in a shoebox, an Amazon box, a Sephora box, with their favorite toy, with a poem, with a lock of your hair, with their favorite treats. You can bury your pet in a biodegradable urn and, assuming you do not move your residence, you may enjoy the tree eventually, someday. You can send a carefully measured tablespoon or two of remains to companies with names like Pet-Gems or Life Gems or Cremation Solutions and after enough months, you will receive a bona fide gemstone in the mail—cubic zirconia, a diamond. The color is determined in the machine and depends on exactly how much carbon was in those ashes you sent. You can have the gemstone set in a paperweight, necklace, or ring. Dazzle your grief into something sparkly. You can send your pet to outer space with the help of Celestis Pet, whose space expeditions carry pet remains as cargo. Depending on how much you pay your pet may be returned to earth, to you, in their special space pet ash container, or your pet may take “a permanent celestial journey.”
The day after my father-in-law commits suicide, I wake up and care for the pets—walk our dog, shroud her pills in Wegmans ham so she’ll swallow them, feed her and our cats. My husband has flown to South Carolina to be with his family and help his mother. I try to write. I use feeding the pets as a thermometer for what I should do for myself. I cry and listen to music. I take a shower to get ready for work, but wobble in the water for several minutes before deciding I do not belong at work. I take the day to be by myself and sit in the sunroom in the back of our apartment, which stares out at a funeral home across the street. The family that owns the funeral home owns the local ambulance, the two houses separated only by a driveway and parking lot. Everyone makes the same joke about it. The EMTs who lunch on the ambulance house’s porch in nice weather are friendly. I sew café curtains for the sun porch door with the window that stares at the funeral parlor. My friend drives me to Wegmans. We sit in her car and the purple-gray sky mists. I say, “It’s so messed up” over and over. I say, “I can’t” a few times but I don’t know what I’m saying I can’t do.
The next day I do not want to be by myself so I go to work. When I arrive, my boss says he read about it in the paper. How sorry he is. I was not ready to share details at work. A South Carolina newspaper scooped the story and other papers borrowed it, including the local Ithaca paper. In the afternoon, a stranger-acquaintance—when I worked at a grocery store, I bagged their groceries—passes the place where I work, looks in and sees me at the desk, and walks in the store. He says, “I saw the paper” and “I’m sorry” and “It’s no one’s fault” even though I did not tell him anything. This person is being nice, but I did not ask or invite this conversation. I do not need him to tell me it’s no one’s fault. I fix my eyes on the little statue of Don Quixote on the desk and think of all the people who have asked to buy it. I say, “Thank you” even though I am not sure I feel thankful for this person’s condolences or thankful to the paper for explaining it for me so I do not have to.
Someone once described writing as going into a room each day and making choices. Some mornings, writing is like trying to fill graves that are sieves. Some mornings, I feel as if I am trying to write people back from the dead. Steve Stern concludes his tribute to Frank Stanford with the claim that: “In his poetry Frank Stanford travelled back and forth between life and death as if passing from one room to another. Two decades ago he went into one of the farthest rooms and locked the door behind him. This is not to say he abandoned the house.”
Some bridges have nets beneath them that catch jumpers who wait tangled until they are rescued. Some years I was a cut. I was never the knife. Some mottos make me wish I lived some place else. Some years I believed I, too, may make this choice, which hardly felt like a choice even though that is what it is. Some days I believe I am prepared for when it happens again and then someone leaves the room and I am not the least bit prepared. All these rooms we pass between and through. Doors opened or closed. Some places you have no choice. Some doors need to close before the next may open, will open. Some people talk about willpower or the will of God or say I will or I will not or ask, Will you? Every day I come into my office and sit down and make choices. Some days someone somewhere else makes a different choice.
Nearly a year after the suicide, I help my husband deactivate his father’s Facebook account. From the list labeled “Reason for leaving” he clicks the “Other, please explain further” bubble.
On the list, there’s no bubble to click for a death where someone organizes their life into a binder: instructions, tidy lists, a passwords sheet. “This is temporary. I’ll be back” is an option, but we know it isn’t really.
We are all temporary. We are all eternally cached.
In the box beside the instructions to “Please explain further” my husband types: “I am dead.”
 Mitchell, David Robert. Interview by Michael Roffman. Consequence of Sound, 12 March 2015,
 Stanford, Frank. “The Nocturnal Ships of the Past.” The Singing Knives, Lost Roads, 2008.
 Powe, J. D. Evan Michelson. “Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality.” The Morbid Anatomy
Museum. Brooklyn, NY. 29 Oct. 2016.
 Stern, Steve. “Frank Stanford (1948-1978): An Appreciation.” Hidden Water, Third Man Books,