Text by Susanna Sonnenberg
My father was dead three weeks.
That's not enough time to accept a reality that has changed reality. I plummeted into a gray siege-state, wordless and un-selfed.
Still, my sons and friends expected me to wake, use a fork, drive a car. Months earlier, I'd committed to teaching in rural New York and had promised my 13-year-old he could come, although leaving Montana in July is crazy.
That didn't matter by then because nothing mattered. Grief had forged a mute, shapeless unhappiness.
A friend said, "People are allowed to not show up at times like this." I wanted to go, though. My own words wouldn't be on call. I could focus on other people's writing. We flew to LaGuardia and took a train upstate.
One afternoon my son and I floated in a hammock beneath a span of branches as geese called and landed on the lake's shore. I was trying to like this, to feel, but grief waited for my feet to touch the fallen pine needles. Grief pinched my arm as we walked to dinner, jerked my hand as I served myself salad. It ran conversation, draining all color and tone.
In the city I agreed to my son's plans -- his explorations of subway routes and Canal Street. When I held his hand, I knew I was there, or I knew it enough.
We met my friend Eric for a drink. Eric said to me, "Want to come to my karaoke birthday party?" Bubbles flattened in my San Pellegrino.
Suddenly, I wanted the birthday cheer. "You have to sing," he said. My word meant nothing; I'd never even witnessed karaoke.
Later, I put on a dress and took a taxi and entered a bar, where a man showed me into a square room. There was Eric, his wife and friends, tables cluttered with sake cups, and everyone hailed me.
I was determined to feel this. A sign on the wall read, "Ladies, Please Do Not Stand On Cushions." Under the words was a cartoon of a spike-heeled shoe tearing the upholstery. Huh, I thought.
Two guests were belting out "Country Road," scratchy voices used up, beers in hand. Eric sang Springsteen, his frank exposure like a gift. Someone sang "Cabaret"; someone else Nirvana.
I watched hard, starting to laugh with these friendly people, who toasted Eric with love. "I'm so glad you came!" he yelled and made sure someone passed me a microphone.
I'd been afraid of karaoke, of looking foolish and being bad at something. Grief, though, had drained fear too. Stripped to raw, I had no need to hold back.
I put my lips to the mic. The sake's heat had opened my throat, and my voice started up against the thud of the beat.
"The taste of love is sweet / When hearts like ours meet / I fell for you like a child ..." I found myself on my feet, watching the lighted words on the monitor and doing something I had never done before.
Two hours later, after many songs and much sake, we women threw ourselves into the tight middle of the room for "Single Ladies," calling each other's names, flailing our mics, screaming.
Yes, I wanted to jump on the furniture in my pretty shoes, tear at the walls, smash glass, pound forth every piece of myself, and sing.
In the back seat of the taxi, the window down to stream the breeze, I couldn't stop smiling, the muscles unworked for weeks.
I wanted to call everyone, tell them what had happened. I sang karaoke, and it was fun, a pure and necessary happiness.
In the morning I packed with my son and went to the airport, where I was besieged again by numb tasks that demanded something of me I didn't remember how to give: take out your ID, hoist the bag overhead, sit still, wait; feel everything you've lost.
My father was dead four weeks.
Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of "Her Last Death." She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her family.
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