On Grief and Vertigo

On Grief and Vertigo
One year ago, I went to see my sister's body.

For the last six weeks, I’ve had vertigo. There are reasons for it, some self-inflicted, some accidental. Vaccine reactions. Ear surgery. New and increased prescriptions in my glasses. Migraines. More vaccine reactions. Swelling from having the stitches removed from my ears. Medication side effects. It’s not typically a mystery.

Regardless of the cause, each step I take feels a little like the ground is only theoretical- like there’s a chance every footfall might land two inches above or below its intended destination. But there is no ear swelling now. Or I count the hours since I last took a medication that could cause dizziness. Or I ask myself if my glasses have slipped down my nose again. And often, there is no clear answer.

I keep telling myself- the body knows the score. The body knows before the mind what the trauma is and where it’s coming from. It’s not a choice to notice the number of the calendar getting closer to seven, closer to ten, closer to eleven, closer to fourteen, closer to thirty-one. It’s not a choice to feel the weather change and to know that means another spring and summer and then fall and then winter again. It’s not a choice. It’s not conscious. The body just knows.

Deborah speaks more of missing her father and aunt these days. Does she have their deaths marked on her calendar? No. I do, though. I went through my calendar last week, updating the next two decades worth of yartzheits. They move every year, you see, they move with the Jewish calendar instead of the Gregorian. So every year it’s a bit of a math problem to figure out which day it is. Nissan 12 is Shana’s yartzheit. Tevet 26 is Mike’s. And that doesn’t eliminate the days from the Gregorian calendar, either. April 7. January 10. There are years when Mike’s yartzheit will be New Year’s Eve. There are years it will be Christmas. There are years Shana’s will be my birthday.

It’s my birthday next week, and once again, I’ve planned almost nothing. I’m making myself an icebox cake, as I often do. The kids and I are going hiking for a weekend. I’m working on getting myself a tattoo that day. That’s not nothing. It’s not exactly a celebration, but it’s not nothing.

All weekend I’ve been on high emotional alert. I couldn’t figure out what it was. The anniversary of Shana’s death, maybe? The third anniversary of Mike’s? Today my memory-saver apps reminded me.

A year ago I left my children and terminally ill husband behind, in the first surge of the pandemic, wearing so many masks and gloves that I oozed sweat wherever the sun landed. I tied my hair back and covered it to keep from picking up virus particles in the air, and went to a funeral home to absolutely identify my sister’s body, to see it, to shroud it properly, and say goodbye.

The children wrote notes to send with me. Some flowers. I brought her a cigarette- that seemed like the least I could do. And I sobbed on a carpet so soaked with bleach that my knees were soon damp, changing my gloves each time I dared brush the hair on her face, terrified to kiss her not because of her pallor or stillness, but because of a disease we knew so little about that I might have brought home to my children, my ill husband, my in-laws, or myself.

She was the third beloved dead body I had laid my hands on in two months. Jac, Jac’s daughter Charlotte, and then Shana.

One of Mike’s last falls, before it was clear the tumor was growing again and would need to be removed, was at Jac’s funeral. I wonder if the ground felt like it was moving for him, too.

I don’t know if I suffered vertigo a year ago, but it’s here now. All I knew then was that I had to keep moving legs I couldn’t feel. My body was only loosely attached to itself, I was as much here as I was anywhere, which was not at all. I might as well have not existed, except my existence was essential. Mike’s needs increasing, he was beginning to lose objects on the left of things. A few days after Shana died, sitting beside him, I responded to his request for a second serving of chicken at dinner by rotating his plate so the chicken on the left appeared on the right side of his plate. He stared as though I had conjured this food from the ether. “It’s okay,” I said, “Your brain is still swollen from surgery, it will get better.” It was one of the first times I said such a thing to him and didn’t know that I believed the sound of my own voice. Maybe because I was tired and the smell of death still stung my nose. Maybe because I knew deep down that his chicken was the first of many things that would disappear for him. Maybe because I knew that before long, it would be me.

I was the only of Shana’s loved ones able to see her body before she was cremated. It felt important to me that she be seen. For months after I fought the urge to offer my phone to people, asking, “Would you like to see pictures of my dead sister?” I wanted to demand, “Look at her! Look at how dead she is. Look at how specific it is. This is her. My sister. Shana. Clearly, absolutely, indisputably dead.”

I still want people to look at her. (You can see her here. She would have been pleased to have left such a good-looking corpse.) A year ago today I photographed my dead sister’s corpse. My body remembers. Of course, I’m not ok.

The earth keeps moving underneath my feet.

My mother-in-law and I were grateful Mike didn’t die on New Year’s Eve. We both have terrible associations with New Year’s Eve already. Instead, he managed to die on January 10th, the 22nd anniversary of the night I nearly killed myself. You only remember these things after your body has insisted, Something is wrong. Something is wrong. Something very, very, very bad is supposed to happen on this day.

Part of me wants to do something reckless and stupid that feels exhilarating and makes me fear death. Some people call this, “wanting to feel alive,” but I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s wanting a place to put the fear of living that doesn’t drag you into the existential abyss. You don’t want to feel alive, you want to feel afraid that the living might stop.

The problem with being alive is that you must feel, constantly, and that is its own form of terror.

I’ve long lost count of how often I’ve said this, but I’m okay. Really, I am. I am not a danger to myself. I am slogging along, in some ways thriving, in some ways falling apart. This is also what it’s like to be alive. This is what it’s like to be aware that I am. I am not tired of being alive. I am not unhappy to be alive. I am grateful to be alive. But the body fucking knows.

After eighteen months of constant psychological trauma, pain on top of pain, my body had started falling apart. Over the course of that year-and-a-half, I had surgery to replace my esophageal sphincter. I had six cancerous moles removed, one of them twice. Pre-cancerous lesions removed from my cervix. Cysts from my ears. My hair fell out. I developed random infections. I stopped sleeping. I slept too much.

Now I have new pre-cancerous lesions, and my doctor has decided on a keep-an-eye-on-it-for-two-years-because-it’s-probably-stress-related course of treatment. This is, to put it mildly, not helpful. “You might have cancer but let it clear up on its own” is not what you want to hear when you have three young children and recently lost their other parent. To cancer.

I go to put my feet down, set one in front of the other and do the things that must be done, but the ground rolls and swells. The bathroom rug ripples. The stairs lengthen and wobble. The curb vanishes. I can’t find the brake and gas pedals. I can’t feel the grass.

It’s probably stress, as my doctor says. Just like losing my hair. Like my cysts and infections. Like dropping forty-five pounds. It’s probably stress. It’s probably stress. I need to get back to regular yoga. Spend more time outside. Get more exercise. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. And as the world sways, the children speak to me in hushed voices. “Are you okay, Mommy? Are you feeling better today? Is everything okay?”

Depression is often one of the earliest signs of cancer. But it’s also what you get when you’re grieving more people than you can count with your shoes on. It’s what you get when the pandemic drags on and on, and the numbers keep going up even as you watch your friends proudly display their vaccination cards. It’s what you get when the police shoot children and unarmed black men and the news barely mentions it, it’s what you get when you find yourself sitting down with a table full of your tween daughters and telling them about rape without telling them about YOUR rapes.

Happy Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, by the way.

Most days, I laugh. Most days I laugh at myself. Most days somebody calls to check in on me, or sends a text. Most days I remember I just have to keep putting my feet on the ground.

But the ground keeps fucking moving.


You can read more about my stress-related ailments here: Colposcopy and the Hippocampus, or, Your Stress is Killing You


Read my most recent post here: Grieving Love with Intention


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