I wrote this post five years ago, while leaning on one of many pairs of crutches (the coolest among them, with built-in reflectors) I accrued as I quite literally fell to pieces as a half-decade younger widow. Back then I had all our beagles by my side and underfoot; now Rufus and Brady have joined Jim. It is one of my favorite posts, though I could not say why, and now something of a birthday tradition for him. He would have loved everything about Iceland….
Earth-smoke and rue. Ashy gusts burst and thin and billow again, like those trick candles that can’t be blown out.
Today is Jim’s birthday. Our birthdays, in different years, fell only ten days apart, both feeding into holidays our family now celebrates more in miniature.
We now live in a small house on a postage-stamp lot. My vehicle has shrunk considerably, the mighty mom van traded out for better gas mileage, fewer seats, and barely enough space to contain a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Even the beagle has downsized.
The Lilliputian scaling is apt for a surviving spouse of my fairly petite dimensions.
Jim was at least a foot taller than I. His mark on the world remains large.
I just had follow-up x-rays at the hospital where Jim worked and was a patient. The orthopedist was checking on the status of healing bones (a story for another time, having to do with the cliff-side tail end of the adventure during which I took the photographs above and below).
The hospital receptionist, whom I did not recognize, asked me about the daughter who accompanied me on my recent adventure. My husband’s name came up.
“Oh,” she smiled. “I was wondering if you were related to our Doctor Glennon.”
English does not seem to have a word for a smile accompanied by tears not of the happy variety.
“Our Doctor Glennon.”
He wasn’t just ours–mine and our children’s–and I am glad for that. He was a loving and loved friend, a brother and son and uncle and cousin, a physician, a sharp wit and a gentle prankster, a masterful photographer, a musician, a Little League coach, a Boy Scout troop leader. Nearly five years, unfathomably both compressed and vast, since he died I am glad to know that he belongs to others as well, and that they still think about him too.
When you go to bed, don’t leave bread or milk on the table: it attracts the dead-- But may he, this quiet conjurer, may he beneath the mildness of the eyelid mix their bright traces into every seen thing; and may the magic of earthsmoke and rue be as real for him as the clearest connection.
As a transitive verb, “rue” occupies the same bittersweet ground as regret–which, like guilt, seems to me to lodge grief’s emergency brake into place: things not done or said in time cannot be done or said. Unasked questions will never be answered.
I am not without regret.
But I like to think I am also more capable now of viewing the other side.
As a noun, “rue” is a yellow flower, a medicinal herbal balm–calling to mind the “secret belief/in perpetual spring“–the faith that “for every hurt/there is a leaf to cure it.”
Rilke’s native German provides a homophone shared by “eyelid” (Lidern) and song (Liedern). His roses’ folds are like closed eyelids, the sleep of death, but also luminous and unending.
Like the resurrective rose in Rilke’s self-authored epitaph, like the pairing of death’s earth-smoke with rue of the healing variety–perhaps even something like Schroedinger’s cat–the dead are at once two seemingly opposite things: seeing but unseeing, dark and bright, buried and wandering.
The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued.
I wait in my driveway in the morning dark while ice crystals on my small car’s windows melt into swirling aquamarine waves. Days earlier I had watched towering blue ice calved from a glacier and shadowed by coral sunbeams.
“Get out there and look around. It doesn’t have to be across the ocean; just pick up the crutches and go out the door.” I can still hear him, uttering words he never spoke. “And next time listen to your daughter: hiking shoes with traction,” he reminds me, not unkindly.
Sulfurous earth-smoke and yellow healing herbs. Snow dust and storms. Dark gray skies and heart-shaped clouds. Sunlight and a perigee moon. Your bright traces are everywhere.
Happy Birthday, my dear.
7 thoughts on “Birthdays of the Dead”
Hi Stephanie, I found your blog through your Tiny Love Story in the NYT. You write so beautifully and with so much emotion; I hope that you are finding peace in this holiday season. Your writing helps me to not fear the future as much, and to live in the present and find happy moments around me, even as we struggle through this time. I look forward to your future posts.
Anna (you have such a lovely alliterative name), thank you so much, and I wish peace to you. You have no idea how encouraging it is on my end to hear that what I think of as largely a “grief blog” could help someone see light in what remains.
It’s wonderful to read your words again. Deserving of more than a tick like 🤓
It’s wonderful to have you pop up here again, and I am so grateful for the encouragement, hope you are well out there.
Thanks Stephanie – yes, well x
Love you Steph.
Back at you