Like a photograph, every book I’ve read has a context and a bit of a back story that no one but yours truly is likely to know.
A few years ago I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao while we stayed at a wonderful little inn in western Massachusetts. I always read with a pencil, and make little lines and squiggles when I see a delightful turn of phrase. My husband Jim was at my side and our children all were together for one son’s and one daughter’s appraisal of colleges in the area. I remember our children laughing at a word game as Jim and I rested and read on top of a snow-white quilt on a hot August day. Our family of six had clambered into the mom van for the trip, and I had swayed in the back as I clenched and gritted my way through a daughter’s first sustained highway driving.
The eponymous lead character was bedeviled by a particularly virulent family curse, the fukú. One of many passages that rated a pencil scribble was his sister’s reflection, at an all-too-tender age: “you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”
Of course I didn’t see the words the same way then as I do now. Now the same passage speaks to me of grieving: there’s no way out, nowhere one can flee to escape it. “The only way out is in.”
Grief envelopes you, becomes part of you, and you have to learn to live with it. Grief is my everlasting companion just as surely as Jim is.
Junot Diaz’s most recent novel, This is How You Lose Her, is on my bedside table now. But that table is in a different home, in a different city, from which I travel to a different day job in yet another new place. Jim no longer is at my side as I read and never will be again. I no longer read aloud entertaining passages to him, or hear him chuckle as something he is reading catches his fancy. He does not click off the teak reading lamp by pulling on its chain when he tires of reading, causing it to make a sound like a subdued metallic echo of the “ching, ching” from Law & Order. Now my reading is surrounded by silence.
And now highway driving is among the many things which no longer frighten me.
It seems a constant, defining refrain in my current life, whether I am driving back from work or wandering through a grocery store aisle. Although I know he would not want me to, I replay Jim’s diagnosis, the course of his illness, and his death, and think: This is How You Lost Him.
Our children are not so very much older now, but three of them are away at school. And now that my sixteen-year-old has pushed the magic button on her applications, there are no more college tours to be made.
In between these two novels, my children and I have made so many choices–and so many choices have been made for us by events beyond our control.
Last night I read Diaz’s new book. The next non work-related thing I read was a blog post entitled “How Long Do We Grieve.” The author refers to that first year of grief as being unlike any other. My own perspective, from friends’ experiences as well as mine, suggests it may be unhelpful to demarcate the first year in this way.
During my first pregnancy, when I could not even keep down water, nearly everyone told me the first trimester would be the worst in terms of how hideously ill I was. So I waited it out and counted down, worried that this could not possibly be good for our baby and desperate to begin to feel less ghastly. After twelve weeks had passed, I not only remained sick, but continued to get even sicker. I wondered (in a time before a Duchess caused hyperemesis to be in vogue) what could be wrong with me that this was lasting so long?
“The first year after someone you love dies is awful,” people have told me, and I in turn have told my children. But doesn’t that lead us to tough it out and count down the weeks and months and perhaps not consider that we may not only remain grief-stricken after that first twelve months, but could feel even worse–at least periodically? Is grief “complicated” or somehow pathological if it exceeds that temporal expectation?
People have told me that the not-yet-grieving have said grossly insensitive things to them, ordinarily with an undercurrent of, “Aren’t you over it yet?”
I have not been subjected to many similarly egregious comments, but well-meaning friends find some of my sentiments befuddling. I suspect some of them have peeked to see if I have removed my wedding rings; I certainly do not plan to. I try to explain that I believe my marriage endures, and that Jim is with me–indeed, that he’s with me everywhere now. (When I expressed shock at the idea that any widow would ever want to date again to a recently-divorced friend who is less reticent about new companionship, she told me that I might as well get a shawl and rocking chair. Sounded comfy to me.)
In this new place and space I occupy, surprises still remain in every corner. A few days ago I found the Ipad Jim’s colleagues had given him soon after he was diagnosed. Amazingly, it turned right on after extended hibernation. I pressed a button and the jet-black screen suddenly filled with Jim’s favorite photograph from Ecuador: a blue, lavender, and sunset crab skittering on kelly-green moss. I slid my finger along an arrow underneath the crab and was startled when the screen opened to reveal an email to him dated less than two weeks before he died.
I felt I somehow was violating Jim’s privacy by reading it, but I simply couldn’t not read it, and the kindness and imagery of it made me weep: a colleague of his had written how much he would miss him and how he had enjoyed hiking with him, and told him he truly believed they would hike again some day: “When it is my turn, I will look for you and you can name the spot.”
How beautiful that Jim could know how much he would be missed, and that as he lay in a hospital bed he could think of such places he had been and picture himself and a friend climbing outdoors again–anywhere his imagination could take him.
In This is How You Lose Her, a character considers the everlasting nature of love: “the half-life of love is forever.” This proposition is not relegated to romantic love.
Although the author of the post about grief, herself a counselor, is far more qualified than I; I disagree with her conclusion that grief ends and love endures.
They both endure.
The half-life of grief is forever, too.