When I look back through my notebook, during my summer in London, the majority of what I wrote about was the Mazzulos. Not my own family, not my own adventures, but this family that I couldn’t get out of my mind even as I knew my grandmother was dying. I go back through these memories:
At 799 Wollaston Road, lasagna had been thawed, unwrapped; plates, forks, and knives laid out, waiting for someone to serve it. Noél stood at one end of the counter and I at the other. She stared at the lasagna, sipped from her glass of water, and I asked, “Don’t you want to eat?” But the answer was always, “No. But you should if you’re hungry.” But I didn’t eat much, though I was starving. Out of respect? I don’t know. Maybe I was just uncomfortable eating when no one else was. We ate a little, but mostly made tea, trying to keep our insides warm.
My mom and I were always at the Mazzulo’s house those days, reorganizing the uneaten care meals in the fridge, helping with the laundry, cleaning the house. Together we were standing on the tip of an iceberg, waiting for the inevitable.
After several days’ worth of prompting, Mom convinced me to sing to Mr. Mazzulo as he was dying in hospice: the cancer from his kidneys was now throughout his body: it was only a matter of time. I didn’t want to sing by myself in the otherwise silent house (save Lexi’s constant sniffles), but how could I say no? The moment I was bold enough to sing, I couldn’t remember many songs— I sang the only thing I could remember:
Dona Nobis Pacem
I was on the couch beside him, the IV between us, when I floated out of my body, through the ceiling, and looked down on the house, the whole Earth. I heard my voice, just my voice—fragile and self-conscious—and for a gracious moment time stopped. I sang for us as much as I sang for him, hoping somehow it made a difference either way, but not really believing that it would:
Grant us peace
There was some peace, a few weeks later, the day that Delaware County Christian School’s Class of 2011 graduated. One particular graduate was spotlighted that afternoon of June 3rd, despite those who received awards and gave speeches. Every time her name was mentioned, I wanted to trample through the rows of caps and gowns, cover her with my own white cape, and make it all disappear. I think I might look more bewildered in the pictures from that afternoon than Noél did. Noél, Michael Mazzulo’s youngest daughter, and one of my best friends, was also one of the graduating seniors. We were so grateful that year was over; finally there could be a sigh of relief, maybe a bit of a respite. High school had been hard for us with my mom’s cancer, her alcoholism, Noél’s father’s cancer, both of our parents’ tumultuous marriages; we were ready to move out of our houses and away from our families.
Michael Mazzulo had died the morning of June 3rd, 2011, and in the afternoon, his youngest wore a white cap and gown. But in a few days, we were all in black.
At the time, I didn’t feel like I had much of a place to say or feel anything besides “I’m sorry for your loss.” I focused on what I could do for them with hugs and attempts at distractions from the grief. I didn’t consider how I had just experienced death as well. I felt guilty for feeling loss for a man I hardly knew. Then again, Noél said that she felt the same way—that he hadn’t really known her, or she, him. But her grief was justified because of a relationship that never was, despite their shared blood.
I’m dealing with the grief now, four years later, the same time I’m dealing with everything else I’ve suppressed until this point, because that’s how we do things, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s just me.
When Mr. Mazzulo was first diagnosed, I was asked to pray that God would allow for remission. When he got sicker, I was asked to pray that God would allow for a miracle. When he was dying, no one asked for prayers, but silently begged, anyone, anything, God, each other, for mercy. I said “okay” to these requests for prayer, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of it. I believed in God, and that he was powerful, but knew that what was going to happen, would happen—a miracle was not resting on my prayer. Much to my surprise, when he died, I prayed constantly. I prayed that Mr. Mazzulo’s widow and his fatherless daughters would feel at peace, though they ached with loss. I prayed for mercy; for them to be given a year, a few months, even a few weeks of respite. They’ve never really come.
Mr. Mazzulo’s dying was never a particularly spiritual thing for me—it happened, the way these things happen. I didn’t know what “these things” meant then; I had not yet experienced a close death. Last year was the closest I’ve come to that, when my father’s mother died. I had been in London—actually, I had been in Barcelona for a long weekend, but I didn’t hear of her death until I returned to London. I knew she was dying when I got on the plane on Friday, but what difference would it make if I were in England or Spain? It was too far from home either way, and plane tickets and hostels had been paid for.
There was a twinge of guilt as I sat on the beach while my family hovered around a hospital bed. But my grandmother had never been to Spain, so I had gone anyway, and felt the sadness and the joy of life more acutely than ever as I walked and danced and ate and walked my way through the museums and the clubs and the markets.
On the plane back to London late Sunday night, I already knew. I had either felt her presence leave the world or I had rationalized that there was no way for Me-Mah to still be living— I’m not sure which. After a two-hour commute back to my apartment, I shrugged my backpack off, slipped out of my shoes, and opened my laptop. A Skype message from my mother was waiting for me, asking me to call her when I got a chance. I called, she asked how Barcelona had been– a cursory question, small talk before the heavy stuff. I didn’t say much, waiting until she said that Me-Mah had passed away the day before.
Mom said, “I had a few conversations with her over the years, and more recently, and even though she wasn’t very vocal about it, I know she believed in Jesus and is in Heaven now.” This was meant to be a consolation, but I cringed. I knew what she meant, but if felt like she meant that the only thing that mattered was that she was another soul admitted into heaven. I said, “Okay.” There was the same consolation when Mr. Mazzulo died.
Thank God: my grandmother had wanted to die. She had said so to her husband, her son, her daughter, her son-in-law, her daughter-in-law, me. She was tired, and had lived happily, though her memory was shot in her last year. I didn’t visit her much that year; I wanted to remember her the way she was when she could remember me clearly.
God, why?: Michael Mazzulo was fifty years old with three daughters still in school when he died. He held on, for a time, but nowhere near as long as they wanted him to. It was awful, heartbreaking, of course, but I figured that some good would come out of it. There had to be some positivity in the death of someone so important to them and too young. Not a silver lining, but a yin/yang kind of fulfillment: they would keep going, and be stronger for it.
God, grant us peace.
There is never really closure, even after the funeral and after years have passed. It took being in London and realizing that I had already lost the opportunity to see my grandmother one last time for me to realize that I never had any sort of closure over Mr. Mazzulo. I never left the stage of shock when he died. At this point, it seems ridiculous to start crying over something that happened years ago, but the Mazzulo girls will never have their father back, his widow will not regain her husband, and I was there before, during, after– as he was dying. I was another sister to Noél though I wasn’t another daughter to him, and while I was sad for his family, I never let myself be sad for his loss, for my eyes watching him deteriorate, for my relationship with him, however distant. I didn’t allow myself to move on through the phases of grief.
My phases of grief. Step 1: Asking Noel for permission to write about her and her family; “I need to process, and writing is the best way I know how.” Step 2: Start writing down everything I remember: Thawing lasagne, Donna Nobis Pacem, the yellow Ralph Lauren sweater Mr. Mazzulo wore, the bridal magazines forgotten on the kitchen counter, the nurse, the IV, the sound of Lexi crying, Mrs. Mazzulo’s red-rimmed eyes, Mr. Mazzulo’s hollow and bruised ones. Step 3: Realize that writing isn’t enough. Step 4: Start drawing: Their house, Noel smiling in her graduation cap, Mr. Mazzulo’s obituary, my scarred hand from the tumor that was not cancerous– in the middle of a project completely unrelated, so I thought, I started thinking about my own body, my own mortality, and the fear: one of these days, there will be a new strange lump and it’s going to turn out to be cancerous, someday I too will die. Step 5: Start filling in the lines with watercolors.
In high school art class, I hated working in watercolors. The soft pastels infuriated me– so faint and noncommittal. I wanted oils and wood and hefty blocks of clay– materials that were comforting in their solidity. But in college, as my fiction writing devolved to thinly veiled non-fiction, as I started explaining myself openly, as I started to feel comfortable with saying “fuck this” to pretending I was always okay, I picked up the old watercolor set from childhood and started living in color.
I signed up for Chinese Ink and Brush Painting as a challenge to myself: to be still, to listen to what was in my head without going mad, to find some peace within myself, to relinquish my fear of soft brushes and pale shading. 8:30 am two days a week, I showed up with the other eleven students and we sat in silence as we learned to appreciate ink and water and the power in subtlety. It involved an amount of control that was different from other forms of art making: for the first time, I couldn’t slob the paint around, or throw down my materials and expect them to bounce back or retain their shape. I quickly learned that you can’t scratch out or cover up a mistake in watercolor. The paint can be watered down, but a shadow remains, and often, you must start over. I learned to appreciate starting over.
We primarily used black ink in class, but after I turned in my final project, I put down black altogether. I picked up blues and pinks and yellows, and built them up slowly, the translucent layers of color gradually creating depth. The layers are careful and not perfect: I started painting in watercolors to learn how to expose myself, become more abstract, more colorful, less linear, more variable, more overt in my composition.
I started writing about myself, about my fears, and about my unexposed, undealt with grief. In my attempt to write about Mr. Mazzulo and myself and my family, I came to the start of what I thought was a graphic novel. I started drawing panels and washing them over in watercolors: that’s what I thought this process of grieving Mr. Mazulo’s death was becoming. But then I lost the ink of the drawings when I discovered that it was too limiting to stay within the lines: I wanted to bleed shades of blues and purples and greens onto the faces of my friends and family, I wanted to splash some pink into a yellow sky: what I really wanted to illustrate was the colors and the textures of the emotions, not the faces of the scenes. This too is what I am doing in my writing: am I being indirect enough yet? Dear family, I hope you understand my strange mix of subjects here. They are all the colors of me.
Noél and I are graduating and she is moving away and I will work at the art museum and then I will probably move away too: I cannot sit still: there is so much to see: so much outside of Pennsylvania. I’ve lost touch with the creator somewhere in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and no, it doesn’t make any sense to me either. I’ve lost my faith in God entirely except for the fact that things seem more beautiful every day. I’ve lost my distaste for watercolors, for subtlety, for clarity.
I am going to watch my loved ones die of cancer, of old age, of freak calamities. I am going to go back to these events in my mind again and again until maybe one day I’ll find God again, and Mr. Mazzulo will be alive to see his girls grow up and graduate and get married, and I can say goodbye to my grandmother, and my parents will truly love each other for the first time in their lives. I am going to get there, and I am going to sing:
it is well with my soul.