Magical Thinking

If I’m mired in grief, it’s not for Mum’s death alone. Since March there have been so many losses:  four mothers dead, and only one of them mine, and another just 42, just last week.

This will surprise no one, but it’s not my grief that’s the most difficult, but the anguish of these bereft others. Because I know that anguish, down to each exquisite, excruciating detail, but I’m as helpless as anyone else to carry it for them, or even to get them to the other side. How can I? I’m not there yet myself.

And anyway, I don’t believe there is another side, just a coming-to-terms with the gaping lack that will forever lie at the center of your life. Learning to run like a three-legged dog — from certain angles others could forget what’s missing. The miracle that maybe a few times a day you will, too.

I delayed reading The Year of Magical Thinking a long time, thinking I might not be able to bear it.  But I found Joan Didion a kindred companion. It’s not so much that she’s unflinching — she flinches plenty, with plenty reason — but there’s an austerity to her tone, a matter-of-factness that refuses to apologize for itself:

‘I had done it. I had acknowledged that he was dead. I had done this in as public a way as I could conceive.

Yet my thinking on this point remained suspiciously fluid. At dinner in the late spring or early summer I happened to meet a prominent academic theologian. Someone at the table raised a question about faith. The theologian spoke of ritual itself being a form of faith. My reaction was unexpressed but negative, vehement, excessive even to me. Later I realized that my immediate thought had been: But I did the ritual. I did it all. I did St. John the Divine. I did the chant in Latin, I did the Catholic priest and the Episcopal priest, I did “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” and I did “In paradisum deducant angel.

And it still didn’t bring him back.

“Bringing him back” had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick. By late summer I was beginning to see this clearly. “Seeing it clearly” did not yet allow me to give away the clothes he would need.’

— Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

From the descriptions of her husband and their marriage that she laces throughout the narrative, you see that their lives were deeply intertwined, that they loved each other’s very thoughts. Didion relates the wild weavings, the unspoken beliefs we harbor in the backs of our minds, with an understatement that only serves to underscore the depth of her loss.

Grief comes to us all, but every grief is as unique as the one grieved. There’s no way around, only through. Didion’s book is more than a chronicle of a year’s grief, but a critical delving of that journey in 226 taut pages.

I borrowed this book from the library, and renewed it once already, though I’ve finished reading it, because I find so much in Didion’s emotional experience and her delineation of that experience that resonates for me, so many passages I want to return to.

Knowing it ends before the death of her daughter, I found myself wanting a second book, wanting the tribute to her husband that this book truly is be given to her daughter as well.

And so she has: Blue Nights is being published this fall.

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CREDO / Ariana Kelly

When I say loss, I mean loss.
Blue is elaborated by the blue jay,
black by the black fly,

but loss only licks the wounds
of more loss. Likewise,
the sea does not equivocate,

nor do the trees hesitate
in their implications.
Wind moves through the leaves,

italicizing them.

(from Poetry Northwest, Vol.VI, Issue I, Spring & Summer 2011)

“Every lament is a love-song.”*

Many summer Sundays growing up, my family would get up at dawn, skip church, and instead head out to the beach at the Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, MA. Not just my immediate family, but a huge swath of aunts, uncles, and cousins — Mum was a Georgia girl, but Dad was born & bred in Stoughton, MA, the youngest of 8 — that side of the family is massive.

The beach opened at 8am, so we’d get there around 7:30 — which meant we’d have to leave home around 6:30 — and park on the side of the road in the long line that had already formed. Then we’d wander up & down the length of cars, looking for our cousins to play with while we waited. As 8 approached, we’d all scurry back to our cars, willing our folks to hurry up and park. Whichever family cohorts parked first would commandeer a bunch of picnic tables to put together.

We came equipped with table cloths, paper plates, mugs, & plasticware; ropes to tie to the pines and hang our wet towels on; gas stoves for making tea & coffee and cooking bacon & eggs; my cousin Dianne always brought Dunkin’ Donuts; and of course hot dogs and hamburgers and chips. There were two big boxes of provisions at the house that were never unpacked, only added to.

First in, last out. The sun would be setting, we’d have changed out of our bathing suits into long pants and sweatshirts, and still not want to leave, climbing the empty  life guard chairs to avoid the clouds of black flies. But the beach closed at 8pm, so eventually we’d have to go.

But it wasn’t time to separate from the larger family, not yet. First, we drove to  Erickson’s, a roadside ice cream stand in Carver, not too far from the beach. My childhood tasted like banana ice cream — was there ever a sweeter end to a summer day?

It’s been eleven weeks since Mum died. The more days that pass without her, the emptier they feel. My southern mother loved the summer, loved the heat, the beach, even though she never learned to swim. She’d wade out to about mid-thigh, and then sit in the water for a while. That was enough for her.

The raw anguish and outrage has burned out to a dull and ragged ache. Things happen, good things, and I’m happy. I can be happy. But I feel the lack of her only more every day. If a happy thing falls** in the forest but I have no mother to tell it to, does it really happen?

The longer she’s gone, the harder it is to pretend she’s not — we’d have spoken, seen each other, so many times by now. I can accept the awful wrongness of it all, say, Yes, my mother is dead. But still my heart protests: it is awful, it is wrong. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.*

* from Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

** from “Duino Elegies: The Tenth Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Emperor of All Maladies hastens The Long Goodbye

But first: The Massachusetts Poetry Festival begins tomorrow! The poetry world will descend on Salem and it will be awesome. (Aside: I was researching parking etc on Google, and, as I began to note the many paranormal/witchy shops, wondered, What’s up with that? Yeah, that’s me, just a little slow on the uptake.) Saturday is the small press fair, my favorite event of all. If you’re planning on being there, be sure to stop by and visit me at the Tupelo table!

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I read The Emperor of All Maladies in the fall, but never talked about it after, though I meant to. It’s a perfect counterpoint to The Long Goodbye. The first is a fat compendium of all things cancer — the history of its discovery, the evolution of our understanding of it as a varied disease, the progress and perils of cancer research, as well as the stories of researchers, doctors, and patients themselves. The second is a memoir of love and loss of a mother to cancer, intimate, exquisite, and painful. Both are essential reading.

Cancer is a topic you’re only allowed to discuss within a certain framework. You must be positive, talk about fighting it, be plucky. What we don’t consider by blithely subscribing to this terminology is how doing so proscribes a value judgment on the way patients handle their diseases. Every cancer is different, and while being optimistic may be a good way to get through a shitty day, it’s not the liminal factor in survival. A patient who receives his diagnosis with depression and despair isn’t weak, just realistic. My mother was cheerful and determined, but that didn’t keep her alive; her handling of cancer was an extension of who she’d always been, and we should accept that of whoever is dealing with illness, not demand that a life-threatening diagnosis suddenly effect a personality transplant, and then blame the patient when that doesn’t happen. Folks are dying, the last thing they need is our expectations, or worse, directions, on how that should proceed.

One of the things I love about The Long Goodbye is how honest M O’R is about her and her family’s flaws as they fumbled through her mother’s illness. The mistakes, the flares of pettiness or just plain selfishness. Because we can’t always be our best selves in the best of times never mind the worst of the worst. Illness is hard work, caregiving is hard work. Brutally elementary and elemental. This is life, this is death, and while there are moments of amazing transcendence, losing your mother is permanent, final, and nothing less than awful.

Raina Wallens has a piece over at The Rumpus that wonders why 5 grief memoirs in a few years is considered so notable. For those of us in its grip, these memoirs of grief are vital:

Ask anyone in mourning and they will tell you how alone and isolated they feel. They will have countless stories about inane and insensitive remarks, or other peoples’ avoidance of them altogether – the death cooties. Too often, people in mourning are made to feel like they must worry about appearing too sad so as to make others uncomfortable. You always need to be pressing on, firmly in one of the designated grief stages. And if you haven’t “gotten over it” in a year, well, what’s wrong with you?

Live long enough, or not! — death touches us all. And, statistically speaking, cancer as well. The Long Goodbye hurts to read. It should, the story it tells is deeply human. But it’s funny, too, and anyway, isn’t reading about opening ourselves to the wider experience of what it means to be human? M O’R marshaled her inner resources to tell this story, and in the telling, honors her mother’s memory. To read it is to lose her mother with her, and your own as well, the emotion is that palpable. But what a mother she was, and how glad I am to have met her, even though that meeting was in the pages of a book. And the conversation M O’R has started about grief is long overdue.

The nature of cancer is as protean as the nature of grief. If you take only one thing away from The Emperor of All Maladies (though there’s so much more), it should be that there can be no cure-all. This is a critical shift we need to make in our thinking about cancer — we’re so obsessed with magic bullets. But cancer is wiggly, and adaptive, and endlessly varied. Cancer isn’t even cancer, but cancers. The most we can hope for is cancer as something we live with, but don’t die of. Cancers as chronic diseases, akin to diabetes, or COPD. Not curable, progressive even, but treatable, not immediately fatal. Not any more of a death sentence than life itself.

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I’m not afraid to remember my mother as she was at the end of her life, weakened and frail. She wasn’t less just because she was sick. Any moment more was precious. Her smile still lit her careworn face.

I mention this because many people said to us that they were sorry they hadn’t visited my mother as she became ill, but they couldn’t bear to see her “that way.” I understand, but.

But.

They lost out. They lost their chance to be with her and be there for her.

And I want to urge you (all three of my readers): if you’re ever in that position, go. Go often. You’ll be needed, in a thousand little ways, and you’ll be making memories, memories you’ll draw on in a thousand little ways later, after.

As I’ve said, critical illness has a way of burning away the inessentials. Visiting someone you love, someone who’s dying…really, what could be easier?

Mum with her oncologist at the cancer center's St. Patrick's Day party, 6 days before she died.

Beyond any notion of a beginning

When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.

But, oh hell, you keep trying.

— Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye

I’m back to stories again; they’re inescapable. The thing is, more than ways of making sense of your life, they can be companions, ones who’ve been there before you. Maybe they can’t show you the path through the dark woods — because there is no one true path, is there — but they can keep you company as you go. It’s an unspeakable help.

I was lucky enough to receive in today’s mail an advanced reader’s copy of The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke. I will write about it when I finish — I’m 40 pages in and find it painful and exquisite and necessary. Reading about her parents’ courtship reminded me of the story I learned from my mother just a few years ago —

At 21, my mother went on a double date with her best friend, Estelle, and her beau. This was in Georgia. Dad was a yankee, only there because he’d joined the Navy and was in training at Fort Benning. My dad was a mate of this beau, and he had a car. They chose my mom’s date, my dad, because he had a car.

They hit it off: engaged in 4 weeks, married in 6. Can you imagine?

How our lives can be hinged on the most random details.

One of my brothers tells me that they had a rough patch in the 1970s, but I don’t remember that. I remember him giving her a kiss every day before he left for work — actually, it was more like a series of kisses — their goodbyes were always long.

But his leaving was abrupt. A massive heart attack at 49. It never occurred to me that my mother would remarry. Some do. But I knew — he was her all. She’s never stopped missing him.

A critical illness brings you up short any number of ways. Points a finger at you and asks, What do you believe, anyway?

I was brought up Catholic, but aside from various ceremonies haven’t been in a church in a decade. I think of myself as agnostic/borderline atheist. I might allow that there might be creators up there, but if so they’re much too busy to bother with us and our insignificant lives.

And yet it appears somehow I’ve harbored the hazy half-formed belief that the universe owes me for taking my father so soon. As if the universe has ever been an entity that bargained. Or apologized.

My mother’s universe is shrinking to the size of two rooms.

She sleeps in a recliner, and has for months — stairs are simply insurmountable. Neuropathy in her hands and feet cause her hands to shake so much that she needs her meals cut for her, can only drink from cups with handles.

The bathroom is but a few feet from her chair, but it’s still too far these days. She has a walker, but her every movement takes an infinite amount of energy, leaves her depleted and exhausted.

She’s sleeping much more than she was just two weeks ago. She’s not as alert as she was, becomes confused easily. Her pain meds haven’t significantly changed. This isn’t morphine brain. This is cancer, on the march.

Among other things, she’s on oxygen, fentanyl patch, oxycodone, several steroids, and a diuretic — her feet have swollen to the point where the skin has cracked and become infected. No more chemo until it heals.

And she didn’t have chemo last week because her platelets were low. Chemo was interrupted earlier to try radiation on the metastasis in her spine. And during these necessary interims between chemo her cancer counts have sky-rocketed.

Her legs are weak. Tomorrow she’s having an MRI to see where else the cancer’s traveled.

But she still wants chemo. She may be dying, but she’s not ready to stop trying to live.

I may never be ready to live in a world without my mother, but it feels like some sort of grace that we’re being given this long goodbye.

(Who’s doing the giving? Don’t expect consistency from this quarter.)

And in the grand and small scheme of things, it’s not about me. Because with or without her, I’ll get to keep on living.

A Preponderance of Grief.

Not only did I get the two reviews I’d committed to writing written (one on Carol Frost, the other on Ellen Bryant Voigt), but I got them done early, a minor miracle. So they were published early. Reading them in printed form, I discovered something I hadn’t noticed in the absorption of writing — both reviews reference grief an inordinate number of times.

There have been so many losses of late — David Foster Wallace, Reginald Shepherd — great talents, young talents, I can’t get my heart or mind around them. I’ve also learned that a dear customer of mine, not a young man by any stretch of the imagination, but a great-grandfather, a retired professor who continued to teach his fellow residents in a retirement community (his fall class was to be on Milton), is riddled with terminal cancer.

Tragedy leaves me inarticulate, with a mouthful of banalities. As usual, I can only let poetry speak for me.

By Connie Wanek, from her collection, Hartley Field (Holy Cow! Press, 2002):

A Field of Barley

Wind passes over a field of barley.
Nothing could be more lyrical.
Why God favored Abel’s burnt meat
I’ll never understand.

Sometimes I imagine the hills of Nod
covered with barley, and Cain standing alone,
dark with sunburn, wondering
what more he must do to be forgiven.

Years ago I visited a blooming orchard
on the east slope of the mountains
watered by its own spring, and I thought
I’d surely found Eden.

At night we saw city lights glowing
far out in the plain,
but the dark rock rose behind the farm,
eternal and absolute.

Up there one could see tragedy
long before it arrived,
foreshadowed in the first act.
Dust swelled behind its four wheels.

Dread is our inheritance.
But what sprouts out of the earth
is our consolation, the good yellow grain,
heavy in our arms.

Super-Power Delusions.

I’m a Buffy fan, and once in a while, not often, but once in a while I have these dreams — don’t we all have these unspoken assumptions, when watching shows like Buffy or Heroes that we would be one of the strong ones, whatever the struggle, we’d triumph & survive. So sometimes I have these superhero-type dreams, and I had one the other night:

Every year about this time an Epic Battle is waged between the forces of Good & Evil. Good always wins, but is not without losses. I am, naturally, on the team of Good, and we usually gather a day before the expected Arrival of Evil. Apparently we have no other contact but for the Battle. We don’t call beforehand, meet for coffee & comparisons of our crime-fighting year, or schedule the Battle. It’s a given.

But this year, as the Hour approaches, there are only 3 of us. It seems to have occurred to the other forces for Good that their number could be up should they engage in yet another Epic Battle, and they’ve decided to err on the side of caution & stay home this year. And I’m beginning to feel seriously screwed. Sure, I have super-powers (unfortunately & strangely unidentified), but there are only 3 of us against All of Evil.

As Emma might say, oh dear goodness.

We pace, we mutter, one of us (not me) cried, and time passed without the Arrival of Evil. One of us (not me) checked her Blackberry, and then laughed nervously.

We’d gotten the date wrong. Armageddon isn’t actually due for another month, tra-la!

I think there might be something deeply wrong with me.

Friday Miscellany.

The Marine Honor Guard attended Uncle Joe’s funeral — “Taps” is the most devastating music — you respond viscerally, instantly. Even as we mourned, though, I was glad that they came, that they honored him, that he was remembered.

Funerals, memorial services — they’re important. That kind of communal grief is comforting, the communal recognition that this person’s life mattered. Funerals dredge up old griefs as well, as the new loss comes to stand for and encompass all the losses that came before. But that’s not a bad thing — we carry our griefs just below the skin every day — it’s a relief to wear them freely, to cry and feel freely, once in a while.

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The Collected Poets Series reading last night with Kimberley Rogers and Ellen Doré Watson was tremendous and also cathartic — while their styles are different, they both write passionate, forceful poems. I hope to be able to share one of Kimberley’s poems before too long, so check back. She’s a voice not to be missed.

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I finally have my copy of Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play, and I’m happy to report that while many of the essays are reprints, they’re reprints from a variety of journals, and there are original essays also, so I’ve only previously read one essay, Tony Hoagland’s, out of the bunch. I’m especially excited to see Chris Forhan in the table of contents — his book of poems, The Actual Moon, the Actual Stars is a favorite of mine. It came out 5 whole years ago, practically a lifetime! I’ve been wondering what he’s up to — while a new book is my heart’s desire, I can settle for an essay on poetry. For now.

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Vincent is officially 2 — we did have a cake at my mother’s yesterday after the funeral, but it was a very small affair. This Sunday we’re going to have another, because you can never have too much chocolate cake, and though Vincent has very specific ideas about what’s good, he most wisely concurs. And he sings a sweet Vincent-y version of “Happy Birthday to You” sure to cure whatever ails you!

Weekend of Mourning.

Uncle Joe died last night.

He was close to 90 and looked it, a WW II vet who had quite a time watching Flags of Our Fathers with my brothers and cousins when they took him to the movie, and the kind and loving family patriarch, the eldest brother as my dad was the youngest, and I remember when Dad died how it broke Uncle Joe so to lose him, the baby of the family.

Last spring when we had a family party to celebrate the visit of overseas relatives, Uncle Joe nearly fell when Vincent grabbed his cane from behind, and then he nearly fell over laughing when he discovered the impediment.

I think he had a good life, I hope so. I know, and I know that he knew, he was loved loved loved.

A poem for today, not exactly for Uncle Joe, but a poem that captures the mood of this Sunday of mourning, by Christine Garren, from her collection, The Piercing:

An Education

I lived next door to a graveyard. No one I loved was buried there,
and so I ran to it daily, to its small conversational birds.
Through the gate I saw a woman once
walking along the paths until she disappeared.
And the yard was filled with berries that thickened and vanished
in the incendiary day.
The insects sang upwards and around
while the birds returned to the mantels of their nests,
and I read the dates of the passed-on again and again
until my own was called, aloud,
both parts of it, across the yard.