Thursday, April 26, 2012

Without Years

Grief is nostalgia without the years.

It is nostalgia that holds both the past and the future in mind simultaneously.

The uncomfortable feeling you have when you revisit a childhood school, town, or home you grew up in (watching an episode of The Wonder Years produced a similar feeling)- magnified.  Instead of finding the nostalgia in a place you haven't been in years, you find it and feel it in your present life, in your own home, in your own bed...on day one...on the day of the phone call.

Some days I wonder when these waves of grief-nostalgia (a new word) will not    infuse    and    permeate    my    every    task.  I oftentimes dress in it in the morning or at night time- in the black-checkered shirt that you brought me from Korea, or the floral flannel pajama pants you gave me for our last Christmas together.

I find it in bus stops and snack aisles and on my own kitchen table- the scones I last made the day before I went into labor when I was up every morning at 6 am cleaning and baking.  It is in every glass and dish that I use that we registered for one afternoon at Crate and Barrel, finally agreeing on a color for the dish set.

It is packed away in boxes of journals and cards and things that you made for me or long letters I wrote to you- but it doesn't stay there.  

I walk in it on each NYC street and corner- the upper west side where we recorded our CD every Saturday for a year or more and grabbed a chicken sandwich at the small rotisserie place below the studio- the spot below your building on 6th Avenue where I'd often call you and stand waving as I told you to look out your office window- the concrete slab on Broadway where we sat during our lunch break to celebrate my acceptance into graduate school- and every spot where you reached out your hand silently for mine and we went on our way, to meetings, dinners, gigs, Bible studies, concerts, plays, on buses and trains and on foot.

Of course, we met at the Columbia campus, spent a New Years' eve in Central Park, and got engaged at Grand Central.  All of these are nostalgic- and that's a given.  But it's the feeling I get on just about every other corner or block- not necessarily even remembering something specific, but just knowing- that we were there together - on an average day.  When you were alive.  

I recently read a quote by writer Pete Hamill from his book "Downtown" regarding New York City which he refers to as "the capital of nostalgia,":  "New York teaches you to get over almost everything...Irreversible change happens so often in New York that the experience affects character itself.  New York toughens its people against sentimentality by allowing the truer emotion of nostalgia."

Grief, is a city unto itself, where one knows from the very beginning that you will not stay in the same rental there- even if you wish to.  It is the opposite of the sentimental sympathy cards you receive.  It is the grime and smell of black garbage bags piled high on sidewalks, hot air coming out of subway grates as you step over, it is walking down streets you've walked down many times before that now have different restaurants and residents and now appear quite a different place- except you know that you were there.

In the beginning grief is so loud.  It is the unutterable words of keening and agony of the goneness coming out with sounds like those in childbirth.  Later it is like the two crowds of people crossing a city street towards each other, thoughts hammering to make some sense out of it.  Then, maybe out of sheer exhaustion, it becomes quiet.  Not like the earth under newly fallen snow- but like an old reel of film playing a slideshow of videos from long ago- with no sound but that of the hot projector whirring.

I am dangerously close to two years and still most everything I touch, think, every place I go, is laden with you.  I am glad of that.  As emotionally draining as an average day is...I am glad of that.  Because, I know, the years are chasing me down.

Time is not a healer, what it does is bring the years that make the pain less on top of itself.  What it does is water down the concentrate and little by little take away the infiltration of grief-nostalgia in the every day tasks- not because it has healed- but either by the inevitable change of places and objects you come across, or by the cruel loss of memory.  "Time itself," writes C.S. Lewis, "is one more name for death."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Grit Without the Glue

Why would the missing be less when the person has been gone longer?  The only truth I find to that is that you aren't as used to the person being there anymore so their physical absence might not be as acutely felt as the first of everything.  But still- felt.  The missing itself- is more.

I think about how strange the grief process is - how you have these two opposing things going on from the beginning- how you know so definitively of the death and how you only catch glimpses of it and it unfolds over many, many months.  They say the brain protects you, but I've been apt to think it's the mind that knows and the soul that doesn't.  Even now, when I am just waking from sleep and the line of consciousness is blurred, it sometimes hits me and it's as if I'm waking back up from reality-- into a dream...the dream that is now my life.

Tonight while bathing Audrey I quickly hide my tears and pretend to eat my piece of "fish pie" while my mind meanders back to the second day for some reason.  It was the first time I truly broke down.  How could I break down when I received the news and my 20 month old was there.  I didn't.  I called people.  I did things.  I was up all night starting to plan the funeral, chatting with people, sending emails, trying not to close my eyes and envision the horrific truth.  (This was before I got Tylenol PM)  But the next day at some point, while someone was watching Audrey that morning, I closed my bedroom door and sat in your chair at your desk.  I started to listen to the music you had on your computer- loudly.  I put on your baseball hat that was sitting on top of one of your speakers.  The people in the next room, Audrey's wooden puzzles with the transportation sounds, faded away.  I cried out, "Please, please don't leave me.."and more quietly..."Come back...come back..." looking into your eyes in a photo for what might have been a few hours.  Removed from time, I sobbed and cried out alone, for the first time.

In my mind I was prepared to write a riveting post on here about Easter.  After all, this is the one day a lot more people are supposed to be joining me sitting around meditating on the meaning of life, life after death, resurrection, the end, I didn't feel like being topical and none of my thoughts made it into anything coherent.  Strangely on Good Friday I felt the empowerment.  On Saturday, depression set in, and by Sunday it really hadn't improved.

A while ago, an acquaintance shared a quote from a Madeline L'Engle book with me: "Someone tells me of a story of a bishop who lost his wife and child in a tragic accident.  And he said to his people, 'I have been all the way to the bottom.  And it is solid.'  I had been hoping to find this same truth.  But perhaps I'm not at the bottom yet.  I can relate more to the words of the older, genteel orthopedist I saw who, after looking at my MRI, said, "I've got nothing to hang my hat on."

I did, however, come up with a new analogy for what it's like- since that's really all you can do for most of life- give an example of what it's like.  It's like suddenly losing all of the cushioning pads or discs in between your vertebrae and being left with just the brittle bone.   Or maybe more like brittle bone disease- a Christian surgeon, Dr. Paul Brand, describes that disease this way, " When this occurs, the victim's bone consists of deposits of calcium without the organic material welding them together- the grit without the glue."  The grit without the glue.

I will say this about the Christian faith and the hope that it offers.  It is the only philosophy that offers this hope - of resurrection- of real, raised bodies living on a completely new earth one day- not spirits floating in the sky playing harps, etc.  And whether much of it makes sense to me or not these days, I have never been so appreciate that it is there.  Just that it exists.  And that I live in a country where I can freely hear it.  Because it really is good news.  The gist of it anyway.  Buechner writes, "It can be a very powerful and beautiful occasion proclaiming that even in a mad and murderous world like ours, which no longer believes in much of anything, there are still people who believe that this miracle of all miracles actually took place, or who at least long to believe it, at least believe that it is of all miracles the one that would be most wonderful to be able to believe if only they could. "  This is perhaps where I am- this last part, the most wonderful to be able to believe if only they could.

Earlier in the Holy Week before the sadness again overtook me, I was feeling quite strong.  I was surprised myself by my determination to be joyful.  I wondered to myself what material my heart could be made of- I am resisting as best I can letting it become hardened like a bone.  But at the same time, it's impossible for it to be soft.  After the kind of heavy saturation it's endured, I envision it like a dried out sea sponge or pumice.  But then a very different image appears in my mind: leather.  It's like leather.  Distressed, soft, strong.

And then I remember a story a friend I used to speak to weekly the first year shared with me on the phone one night.  How a pastor at her conservative Episcopal church had gone to visit a couple in the hospital who'd just had a baby and that baby had died shortly after birth.  He wasn't a charismatic pastor or priest by any means, but quietly described that when he'd gone into that hospital room, he saw angels.  My friend began to cry..."and he said, 'These were working angels...their wings were like leather.' "

  "For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." 1 Cor 15

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gift literally means "time-giver" in German and refers to the environmental cues like light and darkness that regulate our clocks.  Your loss had obstructed all of these cues- they now seem minuscule like they're all taking place in a model world like the one in the beginning of Mr. Roger's neighborhood. It is almost Easter of 2012- I have to tell myself.

The simultaneous timelessness along with the most unmovable, real evidence of time I've ever known- your irreparable loss-    paired with all of the same places is what's so painful.  Today I have another small epiphany that might lead to less of that pain.  What if, I imagine this is not just another time, but simply another place.  Isn't it?  I prefer to believe everything appears the same, with notable growth or decay, but that it really is not.  Haven't most of the cells in my body, if not every one, replaced themselves by now?

Quite a few years ago I read a sentence in a manuscript during an editing job that stuck with me- I paraphrase: The difference between your knowledge and your actions equals the pain of your experience.  I may have quoted this before, who knows.  A friend I shared this with told me that left no room for grace.  Possibly, but again and again, I return to this.  Isn't it really another way of saying what Paul said, "I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."

These days I have taken the accompanying frustration/guilt to a new level.  One would hope, after such a devastating, truly life-altering loss, that at least a few crumbs might fall in your favor because of the experience- maybe some wisdom, some insights into living differently.  After all, losing you really is the closest thing to being dead myself- seeing my own funeral.  It is frustrating to find myself with many of the same faults and weaknesses- even though- yes, I do see reality quite differently.  I believe my counselor assured me many months ago that it would take time.  That I would be different and live differently, but that I would not change overnight.  I hope this is true.

What do I wish for myself?  I think for each griever it is different.  Some may decide that life is short and could end abruptly so they inherit the "Eat, drink and be merry" philosophy.  I can remember one widow at the dinners I attended repeating many times, "Gotta have as much fun as you can!"  Some may feel more fear than before the loss- realizing their mortality for the first time.  Others, a fearlessness- "the worst has already happened- nothing could phase me now..."

A part of me finds life so draining now that I just want to get us "set-up"- a home, job for me, good schools for Audrey- so we can live fairly comfortably and simply.  Most days I literally feel myself consciously forcing my cheeks to rise when I have to smile at the security guard in our building as he lets me in.  Another part of me rails against the "comfortable" middle-class lifestyle and sees that the only life worth living is one in which you help others...a life where nothing is "acquired" or owned necessarily...  a life where one could pick up and go wherever there is need- where life is acknowledged as temporary- ephemeral.  Maybe that will be for another time, but probably not now while I have a young child.  That's part of the irony of it all...having the wisdom or knowledge about what's important in life- but being widowed- not necessarily having the resources to do it; in fact, in many ways, you are the struggling one in need.

I know I want to live with passion like you did.  I'm just not sure I have the energy for it yet.  Maybe the energy will be a part of "time's healing..." one of the few things time might offer me.

For right now, I will just go on.

But what I really hope for, is this.  I hope that I can, despite this loss, somehow appreciate each present moment as it is, and be grateful to be in it. many times a day now do I think back to the most ordinary of days with you and feel I would give anything to be back there, just sitting on that couch watching bad TV in Brooklyn, or standing on that crowded train on a Monday morning holding onto you for balance, or listening to you sing your little song you sang as you changed our daughter's diaper.  If each of those days now seem so entirely extravagant, I tell myself, isn't it quite possible that- despite the gaping loss- each of these days could also seem just as extravagant one day?  This helps me cherish holding my three year-old's hand as she drags me along balancing on every sidewalk helps me feel both contentment and sorrow as I get into bed, hugging your old Brooklyn hoodie and pulling the covers up over my head, and it helps me believe that there are many more layers of understanding than the ones in my possession.  I present this as a gift to my readers- to know and realize that your life exactly as it is this day, ordinary, mundane, perhaps filtered with disillusionment or disappointment, is utterly extravagant because it could and may very well be, very different in another time and place.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


I haven't had a chance to write.  Sometimes because it's too painful and feels absolutely fruitless.  Sometimes because I live like a fugitive, trying to keep us busy because 1) I feel guilty that this is Audrey's life so I try to take her to fun places, etc. as much as I can and 2) if I keep moving, maybe I won't get "stuck" in all of the sadness.  So I plan and we go...Korean story time at another town library, Maple Sugaring at a local nature center, Irish step dancing on St. Patrick's Day, a class planting seeds at Whole Foods...

I suppose when you're with someone for your entire adult life, you make memories all over the place- I am astounded sometimes how much ground we covered.  The other day I am walking on the street in the town where Audrey goes to preschool and stop at a store window.  There is the store that I have not stepped into for almost eight years...the store where I finally found what I thought were the perfect wedding shoes.  The ones I took out of the tissue paper and box a few times a week and stepped into, imagining the day that was coming. It's the store where I also wound up buying the most petite chandelier earrings for the occasion as well.  For some reason, you were very proud that you always remembered that I bought those earrings in the shoe store and you always pointed it out, "You got those in the shoe store where you bought your wedding shoes right?  Good memory, right?  See, I listen!"  I stop in front of that window and notice the setup looks the fact, the woman behind the counter- of Middle eastern descent, also looks like the same woman who sold me my shoes and earrings.  How can so much be the same I am always thinking...and yet this.

A week or so ago, Audrey and I took her tricycle along the river path and I promised to buy her ice cream at Whole Foods.  I offer her a dozen choices in flavor and wait ...knowing somehow all along, that she will choose the mango sorbet- mango sorbet over chocolate gelato, vanilla chocolate chip, rainbow colored sherbet and on and on, mango sorbet- your favorite- what you would have chosen.  It's happening- what many told me ...she is growing and changing without you- and yet so much of you is coming to life inside her.

While we sit on the river eating it, I think about all of these things quietly and then breaking the quietness, Audrey looks at me and says, "Mommy- you have a really pretty heart..."  This is life- beautiful and heart-breaking, hideous and mysterious- all at once.

The isolation continues.  I realize I am, in many ways, out of the game.  I can't even pretend to have the same concerns as most people.  While I once may have done many things to impress others, or even the invisible others, "the invisible they" my therapist had called it years ago, I no longer do this.  I don't believe I could really convince others that my life is enviable.   Second, I see now that even those who say they have no faith, all seem to live with a trust in some invisible force that makes all things turn out well...somehow- that things usually happen for the best.  Often it's not put in these terms, but it seems to be always the lighted pathways on the movie theater floor.  I don't have this anymore.   I also realize lately, that through no fault of their own, most people sound incredibly self-entitled to me.  As if jobs, nice vacations, pregnancies or children, or even a delicious meal they cooked are hard evidence that they are successful or doing life as it should be done...when all of these things, our position in life, the family we're born into, the health conditions, intellect, abilities we have, are largely- gifts.  They all seem lavish and luxurious to me now...but certainly nothing to take pride in.

A couple of things I do have- this survival mode instinct I used to get when Dan was away- only now it's all of the time- do everything the easiest, simplest way.  It also includes "treats"- any thing that helps comfort me or distract me temporarily- the kind of thing most people do after a difficult week...splurge on that latte at Starbucks or whatever it may be...only now I feel like doing this all the time.  It's not really financially viable for me, plus it causes weight gain- so I'm thinking soon I just get that every week and every day with this loss is a difficult one- but not necessarily indulgence-deserving- but sometimes I think maybe everyone should live like this and this is actually the right way to live all of the time?  Another insight that plays in my head throughout my day is the kind of funeral my husband had- the kind of things that were said about him- the sheer number of people there.  I ask myself now, "Is it funeral-worthy?" when I'm spending two hours organizing my kitchen cabinets or making more lists of things to do.  What I mean by that is, will people at my funeral talk about how organized my cabinets were?  Is it funeral-worthy?

Two small epiphanies for me in the past week:

1. There are two different things that I am suffering: the first is the loss of my beloved husband.  The second though, is the trauma from the news of his death and all that followed in those early weeks...the funeral in particular.  Separating these two has been helping me.  I believe I am slowly healing from the second- the trauma of receiving the call, making "arrangements," seeing my husband's shell in a box as I approached down the longest aisle.  The first, however, the loss- is mine to keep.

2.  The second small epiphany is that perhaps the grief term, "acceptance," isn't so much about accepting the loss- which you can tell from the above- I don't think ever happens...but I have decided, it is accepting the good things that you still have and receive in life afterwards.  I receive and acknowledge that in spite of this tremendous blow, I have a lovely daughter, am wealthier than the majority of the world, have a good family, cherished friendships, can enjoy a good cup of coffee, and still see beauty in the white tree blossoms falling these past days as if it is, well, raining flower petals which seems to me the most creative, beautiful idea.   Some days will still reek of self-pity and I can not find one thing that isn't marred. None of these cancel out the loss or make the jabs where I am just rousing from sleep and suddenly understand afresh that you've died- completely afresh- no- it does not get cancelled out.  And no, never, will I accept it.  But I acknowledge and receive the gifts in my life that I find- like the petals sprinkled with such grace and subtlety on the wet pavement today.