What's that Hallmark B.S. About God Giving You as Much as You Can Handle?
Merryl and I at my 40th Birthday party
I usually have some glib opening line to annual Christmas Letter to pitch it low and slow, and swing hard at the zinger of some entertaining misfortune-of-the-year, with your heroine spinning a tale of personal drama, fleeting despair, and the final surge of determination that leads to triumph. Not this time.
My sister Merryl died the first week of May. I have no words for the way this feels. My brother-in-law Stuart called with the news as we’re headed to the beach. I didn’t hear him at first. The information would not pierce my consciousness. “What?” He repeats. “Merryl died?”. And again. “She died, as in for real she died?” Once more. Both real and unreal.
Eerily, her last text message to me read, “I DIED!”. She was not well that week, had collapsed in her neighbor’s apartment, and was revived by EMTs at the hospital. She walked home, feeling better, after being bored there two nights. Merryl had a flair for the dramatic. Not that this incident wasn’t dramatic, but she amplified the detail of the experience as “seeing the light”, adding that God decided it wasn’t her time, and she “came back to life.” She said she died.
My mom told me what had happened and no sooner did I have a text message from Merryl about her near-death experience. I wrote back, “Mom said you fainted and went to the hospital. I hope you are feeling better.”, to which she replied, “I WAS BLUE!”, followed by, “I DIED!”. Her extremities were swelling, a symptom of heart failure. She went back to the hospital, and they gave her diuretics, which is standard. She said she had a “massive coronary”, but there was no evidence of a heart attack, so they sent her home without further tests.
One of Merryl’s greatest joys and longtime jobs was looking after a hound dog called Joe who lived in a small house on Ball Pond with a dock where she could fish and kayak. She loved Art, who became like family. She took pride in her hard work on Art’s house: painting, doing yard work, cooking and cleaning. She really felt at home there and would often stay over.
One week after her first incident, she went to Art’s on Saturday morning to take care of Joe. Art returned home from work to find her on the floor, back door open, and Joe by her side. He could tell when he started CPR that she was already gone. Police were called, family notified as Stuart works at the hospital, and then the calls to us. Medical examiner took over from there.
You kick into crisis mode and figure there’s time for a breakdown later when everything is sorted. My number one concern is my mother, of course, and Jevan is already with her. I am so grateful he’s so close and looks after her so well. I have a day to figure out what steps we need to take, make travel arrangements thanks to my Uncle Kerry, and get on a plane to NY.
There is a decision tree of events that need to happen in a certain order, and the medical examiner is a major factor. None of us feel up to a traditional wake, funeral service and burial. We had a private viewing to say our goodbyes, and decided at have a small gathering of friends and family. Merryl did not conform to any template, so I sat down to write her obituary. Her memorial needed to be as extraordinary as she was. I am anxious about Mom’s editorial approval. When I sent it to the funeral home with a beaming photo of Merryl, they asked me if I wanted a job. Email me for the link or search Legacy.com for Merryl Anderson Dimaio.
Merryl’s ashes were buried in the family plot with Larry, with her beloved cat Diesel. Her 13-year-old cat Mitzee came with me to Florida. I stayed in CT for an additional week or so to clear the apartment and the storage space. I’m charged to be a faithful steward of her stuff. One’s life distills into memories and creations – the photos, the art, and family objects. The rest is just “stuff”. In bringing Merryl’s sparkly wardrobe to the local charity shop, I announced, “New Milford is about to get a lot more glamorous!”. The woman replied, “It’s about time!”
At home, I finally start processing the loss. I'm already in purge mode, assessing my own accumulations and their ultimate significance. There’s a need to restore order and feel like I have control where I don't. “Let me ruthlessly ravage my closets and give away stuff so Kevin doesn’t have to deal with it.” I make my particular brand of OCD work for me. There are cards and letters that I save, like my "cancer cards", and other crap I can't let go of now. Too close.
Part of getting through something unspeakably horrible is having something to look forward to. I have a trip planned to London with my bestie Emma, and hope that my plans are not plagued. My travel planning brain has atrophied after 18 months, but luckily Emma is a producer and possesses the skills I do not. The planning and detail of PCR COVID tests, entry visas, locator forms, rescheduled flights waiting on four-hour holds, MORE mail-order COVID tests, it’s like we’ve emerged from Dr. Who’s phone box. Emma made wonderful birthday plans that made me feel special, including makeover with celebrity stylist with the best name ever – Hamilton Stansfield. I toss my hair as I walk down the street, as if I’m in a shampoo commercial.
It’s a whirlwind trip first with cautious socially-distanced park meet-ups. Two COVID tests in, we are “released”, and visit Emma’s folks. I’m spoiled on my birthday with a champagne breakfast with the Curleys, a champagne lunch at the Champagne Bar in St. Pancras with a Champagne gift bag from Fortnum & Mason, and an Italian “family style” dinner with sister Heidi Larson & husband Peter Piot, of which we have the benefit of their extensive knowledge of wine. We’re traveling light as there are only three hotels at which we are staying two nights.
I don’t want to go home, but live in a place where friends and fellow musicians commiserate in grassy pastoral settings among flowers, where champagne and wine flow endlessly into meals that I don’t have to prepare myself and we can send someone else to the corner shop for salty snacks and headache tablets while we watch “Repair Shop” and shed tears of joy at the end.
My universe is modest: a 5000 sq. ft. plot in Indian River County, a 1000 sq. ft planet in orbit of a patio, and an 8 x 12 satellite shed in the back. It is deliberately insular. We planted more palms and created a barrier of boxes of vegetables and flowers. The New Way is with us, where spontaneity gives way to healthy caution, and even the best laid plans are postponed.
I have never known a world without Merryl. It’s unnervingly quiet. A little dull. There were times I could have done without the excitement and noise she generated, but not like this.