Essay: “You’re Not Dead” by Reverie Koniecki


You’re Not Dead

Don’t you think it’s creepy that your name is written there and you’re not dead? I ask. Why do you say that? my mother responds. I guess I’m just not ready to die, I say. We are looking down at my sister’s new gravestone. It is a rectangle with her name, birthdate, and of course death date etched into it. There is a star at the top with a stream of light trailing behind it and my mother’s hand reaching for hers. The script beneath their hands says, Together forever. I can’t help wanting to cry, though I don’t do so in front of my mother. We don’t do that. When I do, I worry she will worry, and so I don’t. Not if I can help it.

The night I was born, it snowed. At least that’s the way I imagine it. Snow dusting the streets of Hartford like fur. Streetlights hovering like fireflies in a bush. It is not summer by any means. My mother said when she found out she was pregnant with me, she took all the precautions to make sure I would not be like my sister. After I was born, the tests continued. I found the paperwork in the basement thirty-five years later. I was a strange child. I wouldn’t talk outside of the home. I wouldn’t respond when called. I would have periods of deep concentration, and I had horrible temper tantrums long after it was appropriate for my age. My fits would come over me like a possession, I would get so angry, I didn’t care about the consequences. But the testing showed nothing. I was on the spectrum of normality.

The doctors predicted my sister’s life span would be six months to a year. She had hydrocephalus, a condition where the brain collects excess cerebrospinal fluid in the central cavity of the brain. Over time, the fluid builds up and causes the head to grow abnormally large. By the time my sister was five, my mother needed another person to help carry her because she couldn’t support both my sister’s body and head. At age six, she had a custom wheelchair designed to accommodate her head. Until she was fifteen, she would crawl across the floor by pushing her head in front of her. As she got older, she lost more and more control of her body. Her muscles atrophied and her joints tightened so that her hands and arms formed an accordion. I can’t count how many times she was placed on hospice. When my mother would call, I expected it to be the call. It didn’t come.

This is a love story. Before my parents got married, they lived together in a house in Hartford. My mother was home alone when her ex-boyfriend, a heroin addict according to my father, tried to break into the house. My father came home in the middle of the break-in and chased the guy out of the house. He apprehended the ex and busted him over the head with a brick. The guy was never the same. We heard years later that he’d died from complications of that injury. My mother and I ran into him at Shop Rite one time. They exchanged pleasantries as if they had run into each other at a high school reunion. I wouldn’t know who he was until I was much older and considered able to handle such information. My father, a recent immigrant, had gotten into trouble with the law a few times, to the point where the judge told him that if he saw him in his courtroom again, he would deport him. My father told my mother she owed him, he had defended her honor. And so they married.

My mother doesn’t know how late it was. Only that it was dark and had been so for a while. She was getting ready for bed when the men came. They came in droves, carrying drums, marching in procession up the stairs of her and my father’s apartment. I can’t tell you how many there were. It could’ve been twenty or thirty or fifty, she would tell me years later. The men set up their drums and beat out a rhythm that started off as slow and steady at first, but then rose to the scattered, tense pattern of a herd. My sister’s feet matched the rhythm in my mother’s belly. A shop owner had offended the group. The men drew straws. The one with the shortest would decide if the shop owner lived or not. The others would create a commotion by showering the scene with bullets.

My whole childhood, my father called me once. I could barely understand him through his thick Jamaican accent and the hollow echo of the landline. He said my name in a way that the stresses of the syllables were uneven. We set up a time to meet at my grandmother’s house.

That day I wore my favorite dress. My mother had straightened my long thick hair. My stomach did flip-flops while I waited for him to arrive. A few moments later he knocked at the door. My grandmother went to the door and fumbled with the chain lock. My heart was a stampede of elephants. My father confidently walked straight over to me. He was much shorter than my mother, but still tall enough so I had to look up to him. He wore a suit and had a goatee. His pace was swift and he moved with the confidence of a sharpened knife. Before I could even size him up, he leaned in and gave me a hug and a kiss. My body turned into a board. He recoiled also. You don’t like me? His absence loomed between us like a throbbing insult. I didn’t know what to say or how to respond. How could I say I liked him? I barely knew him. His name was a footprint. On the other hand, how could I not, he was my father. My grandmother sensed my discomfort and spoke on my behalf. She’s just hard-hearted. She don’t love easy. My father grabbed my hand and tried again to pull me in an embrace. I stiffened more. He felt my reaction and let me go. Do you think I would hurt you? I shrugged and kept my gaze on my grandmother’s chocolate carpet. What did your mother tell you about me? he asked. I shrugged again and lifted my eyes towards his. He looked sad. Remorseful even. And I felt guilty.

This is the moment when everything goes wrong. It is late. The drummers are beating out war rhythms. My father is jumpy. He paces the apartment as more and more people arrive. My mother is six months pregnant and tired. She has to work the next day. She tells my father that these people have to go home. My father hits her. She tries to protect her womb. This is not the first time. My father knocks her to the floor and spears her ballooned belly with his knees. My mother hears a pop. 

I don’t know how much advance notice I had of when my mother brought my sister to Mansfield Training School. It could have been two months, two weeks, or even two days. It didn’t matter because there are only three versions of time. Before, now, and not yet. Before, I didn’t have any memories without my sister. I’m sure I pestered my mother with questions because the idea that my life would someday be different hadn’t ever occurred to me. I’m sure I asked why, over and over again. Is she leaving today? I’d ask. Each day, until she left, my mother would evenly reply, No, not yet.

While my mother embraced my sister, my father denied her. He and his new girlfriend called my mother demanding that she divorce my father and blame her for my sister’s condition. My father told my mother that my sister wasn’t his child. Years later he would offer me the same sentiment saying that he wasn’t sure if he was her father and in the same breath ask Is she dead yet? I said nothing just as I did after he called me a liar when I didn’t bring him back a souvenir from France. Or the time he would call me selfish because I didn’t answer all of his daily phone calls. The silence branched into barbed wire holding us captive on our respective sides of the fence. What could you say to such monstrous use of language? Absence would have to suffice. Our dance of denying one another began. I would deny him the satisfaction of a daughter and call him by his full name. He didn’t understand why I wouldn’t hug him and cited his relationship with his parents. I didn’t point out that unlike us, he had a relationship with his parents as a child. We barely had one as adults. We were as off and on again as middle school best friends. Our periods of cease fire were as remarkable as our periods of passive aggressive silhouettes.

A few years ago when visiting, I was left alone with one of my sister’s nurses. We made casual small talk. She asked me how old I was. About my kids. About my work. She said she was retiring soon. I politely nodded and feigned interest—I was there when your mother first brought your sister to the school. If I were a dog, my ears would have stood to attention. I might even have made a curious whine. I wanted more—You were just a little something, and your mother was six months pregnant with your brother. I was the intake nurse. Bringing your sister here was one of the hardest things she ever had to do. I stayed with her the whole time, and we sat down and hugged and cried together for a long time. Until she was ready to let go.

When my mother finally did call, I was standing in a gymnasium filled with middle schoolers. My sister wasn’t doing so well and I needed to come home. Since it was so close to Christmas break, I told her I needed to work through the week and then come. After all, she had survived for this long, why wouldn’t she survive another week. Then my mother called a second time. Kamille wasn’t digesting food from her feeding tube. It was pooling in her stomach and later, she would vomit it up. The human body could only withstand starvation for about seven days. And less without water. My sister had a compromised immune system, hydrocephalus, and had been bedridden for most of her life. My mother said, there was no way she’d survive if I waited another week. She stood vigil over my sister’s bedside, only taking a few hours here and there to take a shower. The night she died, my mother changed her diaper for the last time and laid her on her side just before she took her last breath. She had survived eight days.

We found my mother in her room, under the covers, bawling the way you would expect a parent who just lost a child would. Her body shook with grief. She couldn’t even talk. To see her like this was like seeing cement crack under the weight of an 18-wheeler. You don’t expect it to happen although you expect it to happen. But this is a myth. She is not indestructible. She just keeps going even when she is not strong.

Reverie Koniecki is an African American poet and educator living in Dallas, Texas. Reverie is currently working towards her MFA in Poetry at New England College. Her poems and prose have appeared in Entropy, Thimble Magazine, and Off the Margins.

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