Last Fall I spent a lot of time in an old fishing boat that had been left on the bank. It became a sort of security blanket, when life became overwhelming. Sometimes I’d just sit in it and let squirrels throw nuts down at me. Other times, I’d push it out onto the lake, and lie back, and think, and half-hope I didn’t float too far away. It’s not there this year. Someone carried it off. Maybe they needed it more than I did. Maybe they just got tired of me stealing their boat.
Last night I crawled into the water. Put my face toward the sky. And began to float. I imagined what it would be like to feel that weightless, to feel that lifted up and carried along and free, all the time.
Like the wings of eagles. Where you run and don’t grow weary. Where you walk and don’t grow faint.
Water’s like that. And I fit there. Like I don’t fit anywhere else. It doesn’t fill me. It doesn’t give me back what I’ve lost. But it fills the hole I circle around during the day. The one I fall into at night.
And I’m afraid of it.
Even as I lay myself upon it. I’m afraid.
But past the fear I can be still, in the water. And I can be at peace with that stillness. I can let go and breathe and be carried along. I can be weightless. I can have wings.
This morning my hair is still wet. And the hole is still there. But so is the water.
I don’t get nostalgic. I’m not a proud mountaineer. I don’t wear the gold and the blue. I don’t sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” like I used to.
“Oh I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter.
I remember well, the well where I drew water.
Nothing’s left, but the floors,
Nothing lives here, anymore.
‘Cept the memories of a coal miner’s daughter.”
I don’t sit around the fire with my coffee mug, like a delicate flask, thinking about ‘the good old days’. I never have. I probably never will. I don’t listen to “Country Roads” and get excited or feel like singing along. Even though I think I should.
But I do stop at this little intersection. A lot. I stare to the left of me. At the countryside and the winding road and the tractor in the distance. And when I do my heart is filled with something. I just don’t know what. I don’t know if I’ll ever know what. But it’s there. And it reminds me of a little boy, running through the mountains, with no daddy. And no shoes.
And it contents me.
Ma never acted her age. She never sat down. Never stood still. She didn’t take naps like Pa did. Didn’t do “grown up” things, where children weren’t involved.
She laughed and smiled at everyone.
At 70, she still liked to skip and bounce. To go out for ice cream at 9pm. To throw big elaborate pajama parties, where we would wear matching pjs, bake cookies, and drink punch out of fancy crystal.
I once asked her why she never stopped to rest. How she managed to keep up with herself, when I couldn’t even keep pace. She said “One of these days, I’m gonna lie down and never get back up. And these are the things I’m gonna dream about.” Then she told me to go to bed. Because I looked tired.
She would have been 77 years old today. So I’ve been thinking about her…and all those things her dreams were made of.
I want to see Petra.
I want to stand on the road to Damascus.
I want to yell into the Grand Canyon and off of the Great Wall of China.
I want to sit in that Milanese noodle hall. Stare at a Florentine’s image of a blue-eyed Christ.
I want to climb Machu Picchu and Table Mountain and fly by the Matterhorn.
I want to wear silly shirts and frilly dresses.
I want a Harley.
I want to hear the whir of the Large Hadron Collider. Feel it spin below me.
I want to touch a glacier, swim in a fjord, and run with the bulls.
I want to love as simply as I’m loved.
I want to be loved…as much as I love.
I want to do it all.
And I want to do it well.
In tiny little moments.
I started cussing when Ma died. Hard core mouthfuls. Obscenities I never knew I knew. It was the only thing that made me feel better. It was the only thing that made me feel good. And I liked it.
That’d be hard for Ma to handle, if she knew. I don’t have to imagine what she’d say. She’d tell me, “We don’t talk like that.” She’d tell me, “What we do, is pray.” But the problem is, it took her two months to die. And somewhere during those two months, somewhere in the midst of the morphine and the oxygen and the vision of her body, decaying around her, I forgot how to pray. So, when she died, I swore.
Grief. No one ever talks about it. We talk about loss. We talk about sympathy. We mouth words of empathy, in our own self-relevant ways. “I lost my father three years ago…” Etc. But we never talk about grief, or its overwhelming complexity.
We expect the first days to be the toughest. What we expect, is to mourn in patterns. In ways that make sense to us. We expect to be overcome by the bedside, the funeral, the interment. We expect to lean on loved ones. Or, if you’re like me, to withdraw from them. We expect to cry, to fold into ourselves now and then, in the days that follow. We expect to experience…something familiar. Something we can understand.
What we do not expect, what we are not prepared for, is everything else. We do not, for instance, expect it to come at us, from the ether, in unintelligible waves. In the shower. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the night. In the middle of a conversation about something as irrelevant as botany. We do not expect it to make our limbs grow cold. Or to cause us to forget the names of our co-workers. Or to indefinitely remove our appetite for our favorite foods. We do not expect to begin shaking in rigid, uncontrollable fits, as we are sitting, relaxing, in a sports bar, on a Sunday afternoon in March.
I would read, later, that such a reaction is not uncommon in those under extreme stress. Fight or flight. When our bodies are at their most primordial. Survival. It makes sense, now. But at the time…I didn’t know.
Grief is never passive. At some level, we understand that. Even as we long for time to speed by and our hurt to heal, we know there’s more to loss, and its process, than those first sharp, painful days. But we often fail to recognize the dull, spasmodic moments that arrive in the later stages of bereavement. When we’re not sad. When we’re not depressed. When we’re not angry. When we’re not alone. When we’re just sitting down for dinner wondering why we feel not quite right.
Grief is like wading through molasses.
I wish someone would have told me how disorienting and isolating it would be. How it dims our senses. Our sensibilities. How it pulls us out of our life and out of our self. Had I known, I could have absorbed it better. I could have compartmentalized.
But no one’s going to tell us the truth. No one’s going to tell us that grief is what insanity feels like. That grief is what insanity…is.
Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe they’re afraid. Maybe they worry we won’t understand. And they’re right. We won’t. Unless we’ve been there. If we’ve been there, we know. We understand the words even if we cannot utter them, ourselves.
We experience our loss in different ways, but we all search for the same clarity and mortal understanding. We relive the same scenes. Repetitive. Obsessive. We ask the same question. Over and over, again.
We insist on meaning. And that is our mistake. That, is our narcotic.
It is the thing that causes our throats to tighten and our hearts to race. It is the thing that brings us to our knees, and forces us to walk the floor. It is the thing that drives us, as it did me last weekend, five hours from home, to scream the word WHATNOT on a McDowell County mountain.
Ma loved whatnots.
Dolls and trinkets.
Little things of no real consequence.
It is easier to scream “WHATNOT!” than”WHY?“.
In “The Year of Magical Thinking” Joan Didion talks about the blank look she sees on the faces of people who have recently lost someone. Like Didion, I see it, too. I recognize it because I’ve seen it on myself.
THE LOOK is one of extreme nakedness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off.
It is the look of the invisible. It is the look of the lost.
By Ma’s bedside, moments after her passing.
As I sit here, I have no real clarity. No honest understanding. No full or final knowledge.
I have no answers.
But I know the hurt recedes, even if the emptiness grows fuller. We find peace in between the quiet, and the mournful moments. We learn how to heal ourselves in sudden, and sometimes frightening, ways.
I still don’t know how to pray. But it’s easier for me to understand the abstract concept of life after death than to find meaning in the knowledge that my mother is no more. So, I still believe in god. I still believe in heaven.
I just wish someone would have told me that grief is an illness. That I’d have to lose my mind in order to find it. That on a cold January night, a year from when it first began, I’d be standing by her graveside, reaching for something higher than myself, and breaking my voice over a word I don’t know how to spell. I don’t even know if it’s really a word.
I wasn’t prepared for the last week or so. When I’m not prepared for things, I get anxious. When I get anxious, I get scared. But I’m a work in progress, just like everyone else. I battle my own fears and anxieties in my own way. This week, I battled them with The Piano Guys. On loop. For several hours. Over several days. It’s the only thing that calmed my body and my mind and that little knotted soft spot that rests right inside the center of me.
When I was a child I would sneak outside at night. To lie on my back, in a pond. To float. With water in my ears and stars in my eyes. I’d imagine myself being softly carried away. This rendition of O Come, Emmanuel makes me feel like that felt. Like I’m eight-years-old. With quiet in my soul.
You close your eyes and all the world goes dead. You think you made it up inside your head.
Now and then you see people for the first time. For the first time in a hundred times. In a hundred, hundred, times. And you can’t help but stare.
They’re like Pollock-style paint drops. Only prettier. You look at them for God knows how many years. But you never really see them. Even though you think you do. Until you tilt your head just right, or just left, or just some new and unimagined way you’ve never tilted it before. And suddenly…there’s more.
(Except, you always knew that, didn’t you? Wasn’t that always the point? The why you closed your eyes?)
Then, you have to ask yourself, if your self is anything like mine, whether it’s all just an illusion. A Rorschach test that life threw at you to remind you that everything is relative…to something else. And that that something else isn’t always you.
(It’s not always about you.)
But, maybe, it is. Maybe you made it all up, your new way of seeing someone else’s being, because you wanted to. Because you needed to?
Like Plath and Pollock.
(Except, you know better. They’re still more than what you see.)
I close my eyes and all the world goes dead. I wish I’d made you up inside my head.
She loved to dance, my Ma. But she’d only do it for her girls. Behind closed doors where she could twist and turn and laugh. When she first lost herself, first forgot everything and everyone but her Dear Bill, all her inhibitions seemed to fall away, and she’d dance just about anywhere. Give her half a tune or jingle, and there she’d go.
This morning she stared at the air instead of through it. As if that bit of empty space was a solid sort of thing; and it was a solid sort of seeing she was doing. She raised her arm to touch something that wasn’t there. And it frightened me.
I played Christmas music.
It’s only September.
She dropped her hand and said the word, “dance”. So I did. Long, drawn-out, pirouettes. Pliés. She tapped her foot and smiled and I laughed and found joy in it. That’s the hard part. The finding joy. When she doesn’t know who you are or who she is; or whether she’s in this world or another. I have to stop sometimes. To remind myself to remember…that she’s still the same person, still the same soul. And that that soul is part of my own.
Ma loved to dance. So today…I did. For her.
- September 22, 2011