Inside, Joanie’s condition deteriorated. It seemed like an endless, cruel thing, the waiting game of death. Then one night we were awakened by a loud thud. Joanie had slipped out of bed and fallen onto the living room floor. We rushed downstairs, a few steps behind Elettra’s stepfather, hurriedly turning on a few lights as we went. I reached Joanie and hovered over her. I didn’t know where to place my hands, what I was reaching for. Joanie seemed brittle. Elettra grabbed for the pillows to layer underneath her until we could place Joanie back onto the bed. She begged for her husband, even though he was already there. She asked him if he, as a doctor, could write her a prescription that would end all this.
I left on an assignment a few days later, not far behind the rest of Joanie’s siblings who had dispersed (return tickets prebooked, goodbyes having been said, a keen awareness that Joanie wouldn’t die until everyone was gone, the way people often leave us when we’re the farthest away) back to homes and families elsewhere. I didn’t want to leave Elettra, useless as I felt to her (despite all that catering to the guests), but soon I was more than 3,000 miles away in a plush hotel room, bleary-eyed, my face pleated with lines from the airplane window. I’d just started to fall asleep when my phone buzzed. Elettra was calling.
Silence. Slight breathing.
Then, “Mom died.”
“I’ll come right home.”
“No, don’t. You wanted this assignment.”
“Right, but what does it matter? I’ll get on the next flight.”
“No. Stay. We have to plan everything still.”
“I’m so tired,” she said.
I said nothing. She said nothing. I felt her breathing, slow and strained. It came to me through the phone a whisper and landed like thunder.
I ended my trip early and flew back to the home of sadness. Before I’d left, I had cleared the space in the basement for the bike build but had not ordered the parts. Now that I had returned, the idea seemed silly, standing in the foyer, the hospital bed and Joanie gone. Once sterilized, the sheets changed, the bed had gone elsewhere, rotating through other homes of sadness, Joanie no longer kept alive by drugs but embalmed in the memories of those who survived her, a remembrance tainted by those final weeks of suffering. Lola welcomed me home. For a moment there was warmth.
We settled into a routine, the only way we knew to fill the void that Joanie had left. Elettra, her stepfather, and I would eat out on weeknights, the way he and Joanie used to. We were revisiting their favorite spots, haunted by Joanie’s absence. Her husband was disintegrating emotionally, and I found more excuses to dart out for all types of errands, finding reasons to stay in our room to work on something rather than sit through another tense meal. I often told Elettra’s stepfather I was feeling sick throughout that spring and summer, a lie to excuse myself from those funereal meals.
“How are you?” I asked Elettra before bed one night, four months after her mother had died. “Fine, but your mother wants me to include your sister in the planning of the wedding, or the wedding itself, I don’t know, really. What should I say, that I’ve done everything? That I don’t need them?” It was true. She didn’t really need anyone. She didn’t need me.
Meanwhile, we just wanted the house done. But it was June and the contractor had not yet broken ground. He and the architect assured us we were on schedule, that all was going well and not to worry. Joanie’s husband asked us for frequent updates as I suspected he wanted us gone, to make room for his new life, one that did not include Joanie’s only child and her fiancé.
It seemed like all our dreams were being dismantled, the life we wanted to build going fallow, never to be occupied. I went online, wanting action, something to anticipate, and began ordering every motorcycle part I would need.