“To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.”
— Rebecca Solnit
You know, we all want to appear like we have our shit together. Grief is a hard thing to write about without sounding negative. I’ve been doing a lot of magical thinking these days. Somehow I keep thinking you’ll hear me from across the ocean, which is the point of calling it magical. The tiny part of me that knows you won’t, that tiny part grows larger every day. Does this cause relief or despair? I can’t tell the difference.
I stared down at the camera you gave me that has not turned on since our last trip together. “Click, click,” the on button does nothing. I set it back down carefully. I looked in dismay at my beloved Kindle, stuck (ironically) on the last page of a book called The Course Of Love. It wouldn’t budge. The universe was telling me something. Every one of the electronic things that surrounded me in my life ceased to turn on, one by one, in your absence. I then put my phone down anxiously, wondering if it, too, will eventually crack under the pressure. Nervous from thinking about cracking under pressure, I will my heart to withstand.
“There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.”
I vehemently think, maybe besides the electronics you send everyone in your life, I just wanted you to show up at my door. Point at your chest. Show me it’s home. I want to be different from all the things and people you plug into, turn on, replace, upgrade, discard, abandon, lose. The ones that stay in your home in lieu of me.
It’s hard to want one of everything. It’s harder still to turn them down when offered, one by one.
Why do we think we should act so differently when the world is burning and we only have a few more days to live? Why would we hold each other close and relish the last few days, and yet when we have years we decide we can take our sweet time? Then of course we will look back and think, “it was too late. I should’ve done more, sooner.” We are the kings and queens of taking things for granted.
My anger feels unbearable. Am I angry at you, or at the loss of you? Am I angry because I’m scared of what would happen if I stopped being angry?
Since you’ve been gone, T. and I talk almost every day and we write in our secret blogs about grief. It helps to know someone is listening. Sadness can span any amount of time. There is no limit. It’s ok to not have a limit. Yet our culture of mastery and closure demands that there be clearly outlined phases, demands that there will be an end. Is it self-preservation or a form of denial to think there is always a finite and linear route, a light at the end of the tunnel?
We even have imaginary hierarchies of grief. I am certain we all tell ourselves things like: “surely, a death that has already occurred is certainly a greater heartbreak than ambiguous loss,” or “psh, the end of a relationship is no comparison to greater griefs that could occur.” Or, “it’s been X number of months, so I should feel fine now.” The lines get blurry.
As T. says, grief isn’t a competition. But we are only human. Even in our hearts we attempt to rank things, willing it to be so, searching for reasons to excuse ourselves from feeling fully. As if telling ourselves that “it’s not a big deal” and we should “be over it already” will magically make it true. In the movie Crazy, Stupid Love, there is that scene when the coworkers at his office find out about why he’s grieving. The coworker’s response is, “Oh thank god man, it’s ‘just’ a divorce! It could have been cancer!” And he mutters, “Yeah, thank god. It’s just my relationship.”
I held C. while she sobbed, “I thought we would grow old together. I wanted to grow old with him.” Inside, my heart was caving. Me, too.
I’ve never had the right words to tell my stories, but we can only take the words we have and rearrange them in various attempts. Sometimes, when I’m feeling the most brave, I imagine the only place the stories translate correctly is in my eyes. Sometimes I feel more brave and think that if I just allow you to look into them, you will finally understand. It’s magical thinking- the West Village brownstone we’d share together, the food adventures, the 2 minute planks and dairy-less pizza AND ice cream afterwards. And then I wake up from those dreams. And it doesn’t seem to work in real life. Others occupy your room, your bed. My eyes go dark. There is nothing to be read within them. But sometimes illiteracy is the obstacle, isn’t it?
Eugenides writes, “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.'”
Anyway. So as grief buddies, we ended up reading this post (Grief Magic) together (excerpts after the jump), and I felt like I had been dropped back in the middle of this vast ocean where you are on a shore I don’t know how to navigate to. These themes repeat in my writing, but I’ve seen in all my reading that we simply have to write about things until we are done writing about them. And that might take a lifetime.
But it’s okay, like Rapp says in her essay: we have everything ahead of us, and nothing at all. Perhaps there’s comfort in that, or at least some Germanic train-car hybrid emotion that can finally encompass our history together.
I get close to the shores I can find. I reach out to touch the water. Magically hoping that you’ll know. Magically hoping you’ll reach back.
Never mind if he calls, the places you get
through inwardness take time, and to drift
down to the shore of the island, you know
by the sand moving, even the coarse sand here
It’s hard to say if you can even stand up, there
but there is blue sky, and blue water tipping up
the same distance from you as your face. Its face
goes further behind the eyes, without weight
or haze, and the horizon is just a change where
from going deeper you go wider, but go
— Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
Excerpts from “Grief Magic” by Emily Rapp, via The Rumpus:
“Do you feel like you’ve just stepped into a new and magical life?”
I feel, in a word, kind of ruined.
What else do ruined people do? Cry. A lot. I didn’t cry in the weeks following Ronan’s death; I didn’t cry at his memorial. In April at the group remembrance for other children who had died of Tay-Sachs I remained dry-eyed. I didn’t cry at all for a very long time. Then I cried all the time.
I was everywhere and nowhere. I was obsessed with a Notorious B.I.G. song that made me weep, and I listened to it several times a day. I wore the world on my finger like a thimble, tapping doors, testing the strength of the church windows rattling like a sign I didn’t believe in but looked for, still.
That grief five months out makes less sense to me than it initially did is upsetting and disorienting.
…and also the abject heartbreak of holding [him] close, trying to memorize his smell, his sounds, the feel of his skin and hair. I miss him every morning. When will that stop? Will I miss the missing when it stops, if it does? Will I continue to back myself into these illogical corners? And also, what about grief could possibly make any sense? And if it defies logic, then how do you use logic to defy it? Can someone please slap some sense into grief, and also, into me?
I don’t have time for you, grief, but here you are with your vagabond, thief-stained hands. You don’t appear to belong in my new life, a life of creativity and travel, of good food and good love. My nervous system appears to be wired to a constant state of vibrating, nonstop vigilance. What gives? Grief, get your hands off me, please. They are too various, calloused, unknown, known, groping, lecherous, and mean. I don’t like your touch, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to grow to like it. You’re a molester; you are, as they say in almost every Law and Order episode, “the perp.” Do me a favor and fuck off.
And I’m made restless by my vigilance addiction, trying to find something to worry about, like some kind of weird Pavlovian woman who has become addicted to the “what’s next and how bad will it be?” Ring a bell and I’m ready with a list of everything that could go wrong, and how I’ve failed, all the while knowing that worry is useless and that part of the failure is this self-pitying insistence on making up stories about how I’ve failed. I’m turning myself in benign, indulgent emotional tornados. Oh, C.S. Lewis, if I make up a new Narnia (you can choose the trees and the animals), could we meet briefly in that afterlife where you could write a follow-up to A Grief Observed? I even have a title for you: A Grief Understood, Unwound, Unraveled, Obliterated, Fucked Over Completely. Somebody, anybody, do some magic, make it better.
What is ahead then? Everything. Also, and eventually for all of us, nothing at all.