Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you. And so, my fellow graduates, make the world before you a better one by going into it with all boldness. You are up to it and you are fit for it; you deserve it and if you make your own best contribution, the world before you will become a bit more deserving of you.
~ From his remarks to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduates, May 12, 1996
I cannot adequately convey the inestimable impact of Seamus Heaney‘s words on my adult life. He has been with me every day for as long as I can remember, like a pulse, his words arranged to catch my heart off-guard and blow it open. I always imagined our paths would cross, and I would be able to thank him for making me brave when I needed to be, for gently teaching me to love from afar the language and the well-trodden lanes of Castledawson and Bellaghy in rural Derry, for “crediting marvels,” in the unlikeliest small things, and, mostly, for inspiring me to set words down on a page, to light up this screen with them, so I might at last be able, “to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” But the opportunity eluded me.
Over the years, during the bad times, times of loss for friends and relatives, when I didn’t know what to say, I would turn to his pitch-perfect poems and wrap up my condolences in Heaney’s words. When he died on this day three years ago, it occurred to me that only he would be capable of producing the right words to assuage Ireland’s sorrow over his passing. It seemed he always had the right word at the right time.
If you have the words . . . there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.
He has always been there with the right word when I needed it, when I found myself in “limbo land,” uncertain – Incertus – caught between Catholic and Protestant, a rock and a hard place, fear and wonder, memory and loss – between myth and reality. A dweller on the threshold . . .
On this third anniversary of our poet’s death, I am drawn to the underworld and “The Underground,” one of my favorite poems, in which he evokes a honeymoon evening in London, he and his bride running down the corridor from the underground to the Royal Albert Hall. The London Underground becomes the Underworld, and Heaney is Orpheus, refusing to look back and therefore keeping his wife.
There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed
Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.
Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons
To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.
In the hours following his death, we learned his last communication with this world was in the form of a text – just two words for his wife from his hospital bed. Noli Timere. Words from an ancient world illuminating a dark space – “be not afraid.” Simple, spare, and forward-looking.
This weekend marks another Mother’s Day without the man who made a mother out of me, the man who loved me so well and for so long. Our girl plans to take time off work to spend the day with me, and we know – but we keep it to ourselves – that looking forward to a special Sunday together will lead to looking back to the way it used to be, to once upon a time when she, her father in tow, set out on the annual quest for a gift for me. Every antique store in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area was their stomping ground as they searched for something bijou, something that would bring whimsy to our backyard – the kind of thing I would never need but would more than make my day. There are reminders still – napping cats wrought of stone and metal, painted birdhouses, fading windsocks, and wind chimes of bamboo that would toil less were they hung from a Cypress tree on the Monterey coast. Always – because I would have been annoyed otherwise – that man of mine would commision for me a piece of original art by our daughter. We both knew my odds of acquiring such a piece were significantly better when he asked her to do it. We all knew our dance steps.
At the same time, every year on Mother’s Day in America, I am drawn back to another world, another time with my mother. The miles between us fall away, and there she is standing in our garden; in her arms a great armful of sheets rescued from the clothes-line just before another rain. Next, there is the folding, a precise ritual, my father her partner in a dance handed down from one generation to the next.
Our daughter learned those same moves not by the ironing board in my mother’s kitchen on the Dublin Road, but on the sandy edges of California, late on an August evening before fog rolled in. Facing me, a blanket stretched between us, she stepped forward, intent on matching her corners to mine, my edge to hers.
In the middle we met, and there we paused to make the final fold, while unbeknownst to us, her father took photographs of us and wrote our names in the sand, and waited for the tide to wash them away. Forever.
“The cool that came off the sheets just off the line Made me think the damp must still be in them But when I took my corners of the linen And pulled against her, first straight down the hem And then diagonally, then flapped and shook The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind, They made a dried-out undulating thwack. So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand For a split second as if nothing had happened For nothing had that had not always happened Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go, Coming close again by holding back In moves where I was x and she was o Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.“
Laurie Anderson tells this story about the day she married her best friend, Lou Reed:
It was spring in 2008 when I was walking down a road in California feeling sorry for myself and talking on my cell with Lou. “There are so many things I’ve never done that I wanted to do,” I said.
“You know, I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married.”
“Why don’t we get married?” he asked. “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll come to Colorado. How about tomorrow?”
“Um – don’t you think tomorrow is too soon?”
“No, I don’t.”
And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend’s backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou.”
Like many couples, we each constructed ways to be – strategies, and sometimes compromises, that would enable us to be part of a pair. Sometimes we lost a bit more than we were able to give, or gave up way too much, or felt abandoned. Sometimes we got really angry. But even when I was mad, I was never bored. We learned to forgive each other. And somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together.
The day Ken married me was like any other. We were not really watching TV when I suggested it. “OK,” he said, and he put on his boots and waited for me to put on a dress I knew he liked.
I dug out the yellow pages and found a wedding chapel in an old west Phoenix neighborhood. The preacher reminded me of the old man at the bar in Field of Dreams, the one with the pale blue eyes who tells the story of Moonlight Graham and all the blue hats he never got around to giving his wife, Alicia. Like me, Alicia liked to wear blue.
In our everyday clothes and without a ring, we asked a stranger to officially witness our wedding ceremony. Then we vowed to each other that we would stay together in sickness and health, ’til death us do part. A second time around for both of us, we were unwilling to settle for anything less than the kind of love that makes you leave one life with nothing but whatever you’re wearing that day. It was easy to say and to mean to say that only death would tear us apart. Madly in love, we had no reason to suspect that cancer (mine) or aneurysms (his) would move in and turn things upside down more than once and make us resent our bodies and ourselves. Oblivious to any possibility of dark days ahead, we filled up an ordinary November morning with a time-honored stream of extraordinary promises. We couldn’t stop smiling, and we didn’t tell a soul. Young and wild, we may as well have eloped to Gretna Green, and with our secret, we even went to work afterwards, delighting in the fact that no one else knew what we had done. Like so many of the rituals we performed every day, the act of marrying was as casual as it was important. Without fanfare or hoopla, it was ours – completely ours. Private.
For a long time, we were answerable only to each other and did as we wished without having to worry much about anyone else. There were random road trips north and to the ocean, the first of which on a hot Friday afternoon when I was desperate to smell the sea. He just told me to get in the car, and off we went to California. No map. No GPS. No bottles of water. No phone. No specific destination other than “ocean.” By nightfall, we were inhaling the salty air somewhere around Los Angeles and the next evening, we were strolling along a pier in Pismo Beach. As though putting America’s never-ending road to the test, I asked him to keep driving until we stopped by a lighthouse, the kind of place I had always thought would make a great home for us. There, we balanced a camera on the hood of his car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept, laughing, and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand again on that very same spot on the road to Monterey, smiling for a picture that would be taken by the only child we would have together – our daughter. Then, for another decade, San Luis Obispo County – Morro Bay – would be our family’s vacation spot.
Between us, for over two decades, we created hundreds of rituals and routines – lovely and easy labors of love that came naturally, in large part because – as my mother still reminds me – I could set my watch by Ken. I always knew where he was, what he was doing, how much he loved me, how much I exasperated him, how proud he was of accomplishments in my professional life and how much he despised the bullshit I brought into our home from that same profession. He told me he loved me every single day and at the end of every single phone call (even on days and at the end of phone calls when I was anything but lovable). Always in my corner, he was my number one fan, my lover, and the wise and best friend who told the young me whose feelings were too easily hurt and who cared too much about what other people thought, that she needed to grow some “hard bark,” because she would need it one day.
Well, Ken, I need it today. I know you didn’t want me to harden; you just wanted me to toughen up. But where do we find the toughness to fully absorb the blow of your death, the finality of it? What should I say to our daughter when the grief – boundless and unforgiving – renders her as vulnerable as a new-born? What do I tell myself when I look up and find myself surprised – still – that you are not there with another mug of coffee or a glass of wine asking me what I’m blogging about, and wondering aloud – with a wry and worried smile – if the woman I once was would be coming back any time soon, and when she did, would she remember the man you used to be? In hindsight, I know we both had an inkling that maybe she would not. So maybe I should just tell the truth – if only to myself.
Each of us wrestled with the ways in which illness changed us, forcing us at the most inconvenient of times to confront our mortality, and turning us into very good liars and strangers who fought dirty. We lied, I suppose, for self-preservation and out of fear, out of indignation or anger about our respective lots, out of denial and blame, and all the other words that belong in all the self-help books we would never read, all the “psycho-babble.” Our marriage had not been perfect, but it had until then been honest. Always. Honesty was one of those non-negotiables that somehow – unbelievably – was blown asunder by illness and our fucked up responses to it. We found ourselves diminished, transformed into weaker versions of ourselves that were unacceptable to us in light of the boldness that defined us at the beginning and for so many years. Ashamed of ourselves, we didn’t know what to do, and we turned our backs on the people we used to be.
And we used to be bold. We started out with courage and a chemistry that we were convinced would more than make up for the little we lacked in compatibility. We argued about little things but rarely about the big stuff, and – this is important – we never lied. We fell into a rhythm that included laughing every day and sometimes at the same old stories including the one about the first argument we ever had. It went something like this:
Are you sure?
So what are you thinking about?
Well, it must be something. I can tell. It’s something. Did I do something wrong? Is it about me? (I mean, isn’t it always about me?) Can you at least tell me what it begins with? Just the first letter? Does it begin with a “Y”?
No baby. Just private thoughts. Private thoughts, baby.
Ken knew this response would fall short of satisfying someone like me, someone hell-bent – hell-bent – on knowing the inner details, the finer points, the “but how are you really feeling?” liner notes, but he never told me, and growing up and older by his side, I figured out that we all have private thoughts, secrets never to be told, things that stay deep within us, desires, differences that will not be aired – private thoughts.
Maybe most people wouldn’t admit it aloud, but Ken did. I remember how he made that first argument in the same way he once told a cashier at Pep Boys – after paying in cash for new windshield wipers – that no, she could not have his address. Not that he was a conspiracy theorist, he just resented the notion of his name and address being placed on a list that would perhaps be sold to someone who would profit from it. When he detected her annoyance because he was not cooperating the way a good customer should, Ken looked at her, deadpan, and with a twinkle in his eye, he beckoned her closer so he could whisper to her: “I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you where I live, man. The cops are after me.” And, I had to put on my sunglasses and walk out of the store because I was laughing so hard.
That’s how it was, except when it wasn’t. There were times when he would insist I had lost my sense of humor, and I would argue that – au contraire – he had lost his ability to be funny. Like storms in the tiniest of teacups, these often passed, and as I sit here, three years after his death, I realize there were no boring days, no days that did not shimmer for at least a moment with what had connected us at the beginning. The wall we had built did its job for just as long as was required.
I think I said that grief is passive. It creeps over you in those famous waves, you know, whereas mourning is an active process of remembering, reliving the good and the bad, and defanging it in a way. Until you have examined all those memories, they don’t lose their power to undo you.
~ Joan Didion
It is a beautiful day in the desert, unseasonably warm. An explosion of white blossoms on the pear tree in my front yard confirms that our winter is probably over. It’s only February.
Inside my house, the air hangs heavy and unfamiliar, the way it does when I return home after a vacation. Time for a good spring cleaning, I can hear my mother say. It is, but I have the flu, and this time it is different strain. It is the first time since Ken died that I have been sick. I am sick, and Ken is not here. He’s not here. The wound gapes open once more – he is dead.
I didn’t expect an early morning bout of inconsolable crying along with the chills, the coughing, and the fever. I should have known better. I should know by now that grief arrives unexpectedly and with a potency that takes my breath away. Sometimes it shows up like those visitors who arrive at your door too late on a school-night, unannounced and well-intended. They overstay their welcome, somehow oblivious to the dropped hints and unsubtle signs that they really should be leaving. Wearily polite and resigned, we do the mannerly thing and wait for them to leave rather than ask them to go. We wait.
So I will wait. I will wait for Grief to leave, knowing that I don’t know when it will return, only that it will. I am in the waiting place.
In her memoir The Long Goodbye Meghan O’Rourke describes this constant state of anticipation as a “queer dread,”against which I steel myself until the first birthday, Christmas, road trip, flu without him.
If children learn through exposure to new experiences, mourners unlearn through exposure to absence in new contexts. Grief requires acquainting yourself with the world again and again; each “first” causes a break that must be reset… And so you always feel suspense, a queer dread—you never know what occasion will break the loss freshly open.
In the waiting place, I am “unlearning” the flu. I am unlearning how to be sick without the person who cared for me when I was sick. I am learning that I am not a good student.
My cancer diagnosis had scared him. He never saw it coming. Nor did I. In our marriage, we had struck a bargain of sorts – as the older man, he would be the one with the health problems – a congenital heart defect and an aortic abdominal aneurysm that we watched for years until it grew to just the right size for the surgery that would repair it and allow him to retire. Younger and more neurotic, I would be the hypochondriac given to the odd cold or flu, and he would look after me because he loved me so much and also because he didn’t really believe I could look after myself. I think he thought I was always on the verge of being broken. He was not entirely wrong.
Outside, the sounds of leaf-blowers and lawn-mowers take me back to a January morning in 2012, my first day at home after three days in the hospital. I am calling out for help. Bleary-eyed, two thirds of my tiny family burst into the bedroom to find me needing to lean on them so I can just get out of bed, stand up, and walk to the toilet. I am a pathetic sight. Bedraggled and bent over, with long tubes draining bloody stuff from three incision sites on my pale torso, I am still in a post-operative fog. Otherwise a healthy 48 year old, I am leveled by the extent of my dependence on my husband and my child. My desire to get out of the hospital so quickly – just three days after eight hours of surgery that included the amputation of my right breast and its reconstruction using arteries and muscle and fat from my abdomen – did not take into account the short-term impact on my family. That my gentle 14 year-old daughter (whose only preoccupations should be acne and periods and homework ) would choose to don rubber gloves to clean and record the color and quantity of the contents of surgical drains 1, 2, and 3, each attached by a too-long tube to my underarm and at either end of a large hip-to-hip incision. That my husband would have to sleep on the couch because our bed had been transformed into a mountain of uninviting pillows to keep me reclined at 45 degrees with my feet elevated.
Later that morning, the sound of weekly yard work wafted in from my neighbor’s backyard. Ken was afraid the noise would disturb the rest the doctors said I so badly needed. It prompted him to sit on the edge of our bed, hold my hand, and share a story, the details of which had stayed with him for over 40 years. He recalled a morning when he was a young man, working with a construction crew in Tempe where they had been assigned to repair a water pipe. The week prior, signs had been posted in the neighborhood advising all concerned that the water pipe repair would necessitate early morning use of machinery, the noisy kind: dump-trucks and backhoes that would be operated by laborers yelling to each other as they dug up and replaced the pipe. On the day their work began, an elderly man had rushed out to confront them, arms flailing. Visibly upset, he complained to Ken that their noise was disturbing his wife who that very morning, lay in their home, dying of cancer. He begged the workers to stop making so much noise so his wife could rest. “Please, please just allow her to rest.”
Life and its work goes on as it must, and they couldn’t stop the job. It moved me to hear Ken recall this moment as though it had happened just the day before, and to know that these men paused before continuing their work on down the road. While they could not silence the machinery, they used hand signals – no spoken words, no shouting – to complete the job as quietly as they could.
He told me he hadn’t thought of that distraught old man until that morning in our bedroom, and after telling me the story, he went outside and asked the men with leaf-blowers and lawnmowers if they wouldn’t mind coming back next week. The work could wait.