And Then There's Loss
Last winter, I found an old, dusty VHS tape in my attic. I watched it. It starts with me, off screen, yelling at my babysitter behind the camera to start the music. The video is grainy, filmed in my dad’s office, framed with two windows and a Persian carpet. The slow string section of NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye begins and I strut into frame, chest out and arms at my sides. I clap, point to the camera and smile. I’m about six, with black bangs resting on my forehead, wearing a white shirt with Buzz Lightyear’s face on it. Justin Timberlake whines “Hey, hey. Bye, bye, bye,” and I erupt into a feverish dance craze. My voice is loud and high as I sing along, morphing R’s into W’s. (“It might sound cwazy but it ain’t no lie. Baby bye, bye, bye”). Any more details and it would be embarrassing. I watched my younger-self dance to the end of the second verse and took out the tape.
“I just want to see the Old Matthew again,” my mom said to me on the phone last winter. “I know he’s in there. Somewhere.”
This is a sentiment I get from my mom a lot, though not always as explicitly stated. Sometimes it’s expressed as a sigh over dinner when I don’t feel like eating, a heavy silence on the phone when I don’t feel like talking, a hidden tear or two when she sees me at my worst.
She misses the boy who gave weekly concerts on the piano and was the ultimate snuggler; who felt so earnestly that he often found himself apologizing for apologizing; who preferred to sleep in his sister’s bed rather than his own; who got lost on the beach and asked other swimsuit-clad humans if they had seen his mother; who dressed up as Napoleon Dynamite in the fifth grade and didn’t care what anyone else thought.
It’s something I think about too. I often find myself wondering what the younger version of myself would’ve done in my stead. Would he struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Find it hard to open up to even his closest friends? Would he stutter as much as I do? Feel as little as I do?
Perhaps unluckily, I can pinpoint exactly when I transitioned into the present version of myself. It was the summer I turned fourteen, during the first two weeks in August. I spent those two weeks in a hospital for dying people; Mass General sent my grandfather there when the radiation wouldn’t work. He had Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It’s a type of cancer that targets your lymphatic system, which is what rids your body of toxins. It’s responsible for taking away all the bad bacteria in your blood. My grandfather smoked for the better part of his life, so each time he inhaled from a Marlboro, he put more and more toxins into his body. Those toxins built up over time, damaged his lymphatic system, and he got cancer.
But he also lived a toxic life. He was made to feel like he was never good enough for his father (by his father), he grew up in an abusive home, and didn’t feel like he was loved or wanted for a very long time. That lack of love pushed him to abuse his own children, which included my mother, and his wife, my grandma. He would chase my mom into her bedroom, beat her brothers with a belt, profusely apologize a couple minutes later, then restart the cycle the next day. So maybe it wasn’t just the smoking that did him in but a combination of the two.
The first time I saw him in the hospital, he was very skinny. He had these blotchy, purple and blue bruises on his arms, which were usually covered by sleeves, but his gown didn’t have any. A white blanket was pulled all the way up to his chest, oxygen flowed to him through tubes in his nose, and his eyes were shut. Every minute or so he’d whimper like a sleeping dog. My mom and I had driven an hour and a half from our summer home in Maine to get there.
“Oh, Dick,” my grandma said, taking his hand.
My mom and I drove back the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that too. And with each day, my grandfather got skinnier and skinnier.
My grandfather had been a big, stocky man. He had a wide nose that slanted down towards his lips, small eyes, and large, veiny hands. He used to hit the table with an open hand when he thought a joke was funny, and he always kept a gallon-sized ketchup bottle filled with his secret BBQ sauce in the refrigerator. He loved cameras. In his living room, where a small TV with power tuning sat in a nook between two bookshelves, he had tables and shelves stacked with old cameras. He called my siblings and me once a week to see how we were doing, and at the end of the call offer us a dirty joke. To be frank, he wasn’t the perfect grandfather, but he was the only one I had.
There was a white board in my grandfather’s hospital room that the nurses would sign each time they checked up on him. The first day we got there, the board was filled, a name for every two-hour slot. The nurses were cheerier too, and even offered my mom and me Jell-O when they brought my grandfather his meals. But by the start of the second week, the board had only one name on it.
That was when my dad, brother, and sister came to visit from D.C., where we all lived.
“This place is nice,” my brother said. My sister and I agreed.
“Why don’t you get Papa some ice cream?” my grandma asked.
There was an ice cream shop in the lower level of the hospital and my brother remembered that our grandfather liked chocolate ice cream. I thought he liked sprinkles. So we got him that with whipped cream and hot fudge.
While we walked back to the room, I asked, “How is he gonna eat it?”
None of us knew.
My grandmother loved the sundae. She had some of it while she spoon-fed it to my grandfather. He couldn’t open his mouth all the way, and most of the ice cream and fudge dripped onto his gown. I felt a little sick watching it. That was the last thing he ate.
Two days after that, with my siblings and dad gone, my mom and I sat beside my grandfather. He was eerily quiet, as silent as the night traffic outside the window.
“This will probably be one of the last times you’ll see him,” my mom said, rising out of her seat. He’d stopped eating, his breathing was shallow; there was no telling how many more days he would go on. “You should say something.”
My mom left the room. I got up and moved closer to my grandfather’s bed and bent down so I was level with his face. I told him that I was going to miss talking to him, and that I would try and make him proud of me. Or that I wished I had paid a little more attention to him when he called me. I can’t remember, really, and even if I did, it would sound like a cliché now anyway. It even felt like a cliché at the time — I was face to face with death and I didn’t feel anything.
While we were driving back home that night, we decided to stay home the next day and sleep in. My mom called my grandmother to let her know.
“Call me if anything happens, okay?”
She called us early the next morning, and we tried to get there in time, but it was rush hour, there was traffic, and he died before we pulled into the parking lot. At the elevator outside my grandfather’s now-unoccupied room, as funeral plans commenced, my uncle told my mom that he didn’t give a “fuck.” This was my first introduction to apathy.
I had just spent two weeks watching my grandfather deteriorate into a skeleton and die, sitting in a room coated with death, and my uncle didn’t give a fuck. So I didn’t either.
When I entered high school the next month, switching from private to public school, I started to stutter and wasn’t able to answer when I was called on in class. I’d spend some days lying in bed, not eating or talking to anyone. I’d ignore calls and texts from friends. It didn’t take long until I reenrolled into my old private school.
This twelve-week period, I think, was a direct response to my grandfather’s death. Whenever someone asks me when I started having anxiety or depression, I specifically point to that summer and fall. I wasn’t making friends, I wasn’t doing well in school, and I felt incredibly lonely. I don’t think my stutter or the onset of my depression was a coping mechanism for that time, but I think it was more of a response to death. I had always viewed death childishly, as something abstract, something that happens to great-grandparents. But those two weeks with my grandfather brought death to my feet; I touched death. I recoiled.
Back at my old school, my depression followed me, and I became self-destructive. When I ran cross country and track, becoming one of the team’s fastest distance runners in my freshman year, I used to punch my legs and thighs when I got angry or sad. I never stretched, I never iced, I didn’t do the exercises the physical therapist gave me; I purposely wanted to get hurt and stay hurt. Before piano competitions, I used to pick at the cuticles and the sides of my fingernails so that my fingers would be sore when I played. During the college application process, I picked the first school that came to mind, applied early, got in, confirmed my acceptance, and didn’t care if it was the right school for me.
It was like waiting for a never-ending train to cross. I wasn’t on the tracks, waving my hands, trying to stop it or anything; I was just sitting silently in my car, waiting for the last railroad car to pass so the gate would lift and I’d be able to continue driving.
I continued to wait at college.
I was at Sarah’s, a girl I liked, in early February of sophomore year. Lying on her couch next to her, holding her hand, she kissing mine, I was euphoric. I’ve only smoked weed a couple times, but it was at least ten times better than that. We made out for a while, and I know this sounds stupid, but I was happy. So happy. I mean, it’s nice when someone shows you affection, when they reciprocate the feelings you have for them. I hadn’t had that feeling for a while, but when I hung out with Sarah, I felt that all the time, whether it was when she rested her hand on my chest, made fun of my dastardly short fingernails, or rested her hand on mine for a few extra seconds when we said goodbye. But kissing her was the ultimate. When I came back from getting a drink of water, she pulled me in for a long one. When she pulled away, she asked if she could be honest with me for a second.
“I think we should just be friends.”
Experiences like these discourage me.
Happiness, unsurprisingly, is related to the words happenstance and hap, meaning chance or fortune.
Last spring, my uncle emailed me, checking in on me and my sophomore year at NYU. I wrote him that I wasn’t happy, and he wrote to me to stick it out, what’s another two years? That annoyed me, and I replied, “Yeah, I see your point. But what’s it worth if I’m not happy? Aren’t we all owed happiness?” That, in turn, annoyed him and he replied, writing, “Only you can make you happy. Expecting that another place or a thing will make you consistently happy is the stuff of bad novellas with characters shallowly drawn. Nor, and I cannot stress this enough, are you owed happiness.” I read that with a grimace.
It was true. There are millions, billions of people out there who don’t know a day of happiness; “being happy” is probably the last thing that crosses their mind.
I’m lucky: I was brought up in a good home with two parents who make stable incomes, I went to a good private school and I’m currently enrolled in a notoriously expensive university. I never had to worry about how much I charged to my debit card or what I was going to have for dinner that night. It’s embarrassing and sad, but I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything other than name-brand. Along with these perks and advantages, my upbringing also instilled in me the idea that everything would work itself out.
I genuinely believe that everyone is owed happiness, especially myself. I don’t know by who, I don’t know by what at age, I just believe that at some point in one’s life, everyone deserves to experience happiness. For the train to finally pass and the gate to lift. But I understand where my uncle is coming from.
To think that no matter what I do, no matter how much distance I put between myself and others, or how little I make myself care about school and friends, the universe will eventually lead me to it. I can point all I want to my grandfather’s death, the scars on my arms, or my failed attempts at finding love as justification for the way I feel, for the reason the Old Matthew is burrowed deep, deep inside me. But the real shame is that I’m so unwilling to do anything about it, to try and change; that I might even be invested in my own unhappiness.
My grandfather’s death, coupled with my anxiety and depression, instilled in me this apathy, an unwillingness to change my self-destructive behavior. And it’s a little disconcerting for me to admit, but I really do identify with feeling sad and anxious. I’ve dealt with these feelings for years. I remember nights (recent and distant) that I chose not to go out because I felt ugly, and weeks spent with a rock in my stomach because I had a track meet or piano competition coming up. Those feelings, even though they continue to torture me, are such a big part of who I am and how I think. To let all that go, to simply shake those feelings off like a dog shaking water from his fur, seems almost sacrilegious to me.
But to think that my current self is in some way inferior to my past self, that I’m hopeless, is wrong. Even though I desperately want to revert to the Old Matthew, I have to acknowledge that it’s impossible; when my grandfather died, my old self went along with him. His innocence that I crave won’t be found again. Eventually, I feel like I’ll be happy; but right now, I’m dependent on someone or something else giving that to me. And at this point in my life, I can’t wait anymore.
My uncle, not waiting for my response, followed up his email with this: “Assuming for a moment that we are indeed owed happiness, by whom or what are we owed it? And is there a collection fee?”
Matthew Litman has spent the past two years at New York University, studying creative writing and digital content. Currently, he is taking a year off from school and is busy writing back home in Bethesda, Maryland.