It gathers in the skin on my shoulder blades. A tightness, a warmth, neither itch nor tickle. It stays for less than a second before triggering the sensation of tension in my stomach that overwhelms it. There, it takes on a pulse with inhalation and crawls up to sit beneath my sternum.
This is the path it follows each time. I can summon the sickness at will now, and direct it through the stages of occupation. It is uncomfortable but familiar. I play with it. Hold my breath to see how long it will last, or into what it will change. Push it into my legs where it loosens my knees, or further, to my toes, which feel tired with it.
The perspiration condenses at the small of the back and under the arms. Each time I note how strange that something produced of heat should feel so cold as it runs down my side. I always wear an undershirt now.
No one has died.
It is simply May, and she must return to England, as I knew she would, and as she has in the past, at each seasonal break for the last eighteen months. But here it is again, the apprehensive fear of separation in advance of her actual absence. Preemptive distress. I know what is coming.
My mother explained my description] of the symptoms in the winter of 2001, the first time she left, with the jargon of her field. Separation anxiety, abandonment, destabilization. I am uncomfortable with the terms. They sound somehow infantile, or adolescent, holdovers from stages of life I should have grown out of by now, tremors of childhood or the divorce. I resented the implication of their continued influence, but kept silent, divided between my desire to talk and a clandestine compulsion toward stoicism.
The relief I felt for my mother's words was thus polluted by a thread of shame woven into it; I should not need to seek consolement. I am weak when I should endure, wiping my eyes when I should be setting my jaw. She is leaving, not leaving me. I have trouble seeing the distinction.
The conversation continues over the phone. I hear only the words of more than four syllables, relaxing as the voice on the other end grows forward and urgent. She is taking on my anxiety. Transference, I wonder? I should have paid more attention when she was writing her dissertation. But then I hear a few words that penetrate.
"You're in mourning."
Mourning? The idea elicited a cynical eyebrow response and smirk through the tears.
"Mourning," I said, incredulous. "I'm mourning."
Yes, I was. She went on.
I listened with a mixture of cerebral sneer and visceral excitement. An hour ago, I had been stumbling to the subway, all clouds and darkness. I had been half-crying even now. But the word--this struck me as a touch melodramatic. My mind flashed to the yellowed pages of a Norton Anthology. "Gold to airy thinness beat" scrolled across my eyes. I remembered the words were on the left-hand page, and composed a mental image of stiff, twin compasses.
This was my notion of mourning. Grand, poetic, hyperbolic. Beautiful, and ridiculous that the concept should be applied to me. I did not deserve it. I couldn't take it seriously. Perhaps I had read too much, in lieu of understanding.
"Loss," my mother said simply.
Loss. I felt stronger. I could classify the feeling now. It is easier to negotiate with labels, and the utter seriousness of the thing was so much as to suggest that I shouldn't take it so seriously. The throb subsided to a prickling grind as my stomach got back on its feet, and I reflected on the true nature of my 'loss'. She would return in September. Only three months from now.
Mourning should be reserved for the permanent.
"Feel silly now, don't you?" I chided myself. I felt like a thief, a pretender. My most likely transient grief was suddenly categorised with something horrible and terrifying, the unresolved and irretrievable.
But I did not feel guilty enough to deny myself the validation. Not so ashamed that I would not privately keep it, despite the noble protestations I spoke into the receiver. No. I am in mourning. Just as I am in love. In. A preposition explains the depth of feeling. They are grammatically identical. Certainly, the pain is real. So I mourn.
But quietly. She will be back. I will be waiting, to see what will come with her return. I have the privilege of waiting. True mourning has nothing to wait for. I can suspend the worst. She is not dead nor yet gone forever. I must not mourn the living.
As I hung up the phone, I breathed deeply, and almost found a laugh. "Mourning," I thought. "How silly." I desperately wanted to share my thoughts on it.
There was no one there to tell. And as the stillness in the room crept forward again, I felt not an itch, nor a tickle, around my shoulder-blades.
In five days, she leaves again. The old familiar began increasing in frequency a month ago, an emotional early warning system gathering strength in preparation for the long summer ahead. In my apartment, the current clues to her presence wait to become indicators of her absence; the things she has will be the things she left behind. Nail polish remover on the windowsill. Frizz-ease on the desk. Sweater in the closet. From article to artifact with the close of the taxi door.
I am better prepared this time. The traces of her, I hope, will not remind me of her being gone, but of her coming back. She will find them as she left them, and be home again.
Until then, I will miss her. The tightness will come and go, the sickness swell and fade. I cannot prevent them, and would not. I know what they are.
No one has died. It is simply May.