My sister dies and a tumor swells in my jaw. The tumor grinds my bone between its teeth, turns my jaw to a soft dust. The tumor destroys bone and gum and tissue: it cannot keep up with its own hunger. I am being eaten alive. My body has turned against itself. Grief is a syphon at the center of my body; it is a bottomless well. Its roar is loud in my ears. It is a volcano turning my body to ash.
In the x-ray of my jaw, the tumor is the size of a baby's fist. The image is grainy. My oral surgeon is a tall man with kind eyes. It could be cancer, he says like he doesn't want to scare me. I want to tell him that the worst thing that could happen to me has already happened to me. He points to a corner of the image: this used to be bone, my dentist says, now it is nothing. Whatever it is, it has been growing inside me for an entire year.
He biopsies the tumor. I wait anxiously by the phone for the results. For a week my mouth rings with the taste of blood. My cheeks are swollen. I do not recognize my face in the mirror. This body is not my body, this face is not my face. It is a warehouse for the indulgences of grief. The roof, a head of matted hair. The walls of my body bulge with the expansiveness of sorrow.
My grief is the brightest star in a galaxy of mourning. Right now another person is dead, and right now another person is dead, and right now another person is dead, and right now grief is an ocean breaking against someone else's shore, and right now grief is a gale wind leveling the city of someone else's heart, and right now grief is a secret roiling under someone else's tongue, but my grief is the one star in this burning galaxy that is mine. It is round and bursting. It asks for all that I have, and I give it willingly. It asks me for more than I have, and I give that too.
Days later the answering machine blinks red. I take my time calling my dentist back. Good news, it isn't cancer! he exclaims. I do not react. This is a world devoid of good news: there are no words to bring the dead back to life.
Where did it come from? my mother wants to know. She is desperate for a thing she can name, a terror she can arm us against. Who is to say why sometimes it is cancer and sometimes it is not? Who is to say why some of us die young and some of us grow old? There are no answers. I hold loss between my palms like a river run dry. What was bone is now hollow space. Where my sister used to be there is nothing but air.
The dentist said I would need surgery and I burst into tears in the middle of his office under the too-bright fluorescent lights. There was nowhere to hide. I think it made him uncomfortable, although I could be projecting. I wanted to tell him my sister was dead, to absolve myself of something, but it didn't seem the time or place.