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 on the back-roads of South Derry, and I would be able to thank him for making me brave when I needed to be, for schooling me to love from afar the language and well-trodden lanes of Castledawson and Bellaghy, for “crediting marvels,” in the unlikeliest small things, and for inspiring me to set words down on a page, to light up this screen with them, so I might one day 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 that pitch-perfect poetry and wrap up my condolences in Heaney’s words. When he died on this day four 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. He always had the right word right 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, magic and loss – between myth and reality. Like Van Morrison’s dweller on the threshold . . .
If you have the words . . . there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.
On this fourth 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 after Heaney’s death, we learned his final communication with this world was in the form of a text – just two words for his wife from his hospital bed. Noli Timere. Two words from an ancient world illuminating a dark space – “be not afraid.” Simple, spare, and forward-looking.
You are up to it and you are fit for it.
I find myself looking forward again. For that, I am forever in his debt.
Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.
This is not a truism we consider daily. Typically, it is reserved for the day we are handed bad tidings – the cancer diagnosis that forces us to stare down our own mortality, or when the dreaded or unexpected news arrives that someone we love is dead or dying. From that day on, everything is different; we are different, mourning for what was lost, for who we were the day before, and for what we can no longer have.
There was and is no easy remedy, no standard step-by-step process for any of us. There is no beaten path to follow from beginning to end in the art of living. The famous “stages” of grief – Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance – are not “stops on some linear timeline.” Such places are more reminiscent of landmarks we might visit during our first or subsequent visits to another country, places we will never forget. Some we land upon by accident – the onslaught of memories that accompany the first time you see someone else drive the same make and model Chevy your husband once drove or the faint scent of his cologne on the collar of a stranger standing too close to you on the light rail. There is no way to predict when grief will take your breath away and send you scurrying behind dark glasses or to the bathroom at work where no one will see you cry. Other trips we plan meticulously – the first anniversary of his death, the scholarship in his name, the star named after him. Others are unavoidable – Father’s Day, his birthday, the empty seat at the Christmas table, re-runs of Cheers, reminders of things that humored you or humbled you or made you laugh until you ached. And all these things, you weave into your new life. It is what you must do – at your own pace.
In my new life, the man I love is reeling from the recent passing of his dad and the stunning loss, just days later, of one of his dearest friends. Coming in such close succession, these harrowing losses remind those of us still here of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death. My daughter tells me she would like to be more supportive of him, more ‘there,’ more empathic for him and for his grieving mother who just days ago fell and has been hospitalized ever since, but my girl is not up to the task – not fully, not yet. She feels selfish as she explains her inability to step again into that space in which the recently bereaved struggle – an often desolate hole where they may wail or deny or blame or feel guilty; where they may rage at those they love the most, or where, choking on the sharp stone of grief, they might say nothing at all. It is a desperate place, where they may find they are no match for the grief, every minute a searing realization that the one person they want to talk to is out of reach. Forever.
A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.
— Joan Didion
So where in the whole world do we turn? Inward. Forward. Backwards. Forward. At our own pace.
For almost four years, my daughter tells me, her day begins not with a profound sadness but with an almost involuntary affirmation of her adjusted reality “Dad is dead. Dad is dead.” Shredding to bits my supposition that she has found a more conventional way back, it occurs to me, in a moment of devastating clarity, that she is not the child she once was; she is a young woman who has found a new way through the ever-shifting contours of grief, no longer stuck between what was and what might have been. Worried that I am worried about her, she is quick to point out that she is not sad, this is not self-pity; it is a shift in perspective that enables her to move on in a world that never stops moving.
Immediately following news of his death, I fooled myself into believing the clocks had stopped. Nobody knew what to say to me. I didn’t know what to say to myself. I concentrated on the word, “widow,” a word that a day before had not applied to me. Unmoored by loss, I recall a surreal and sunny November afternoon in the Arizona desert. My bare feet in the grass, I found myself remembering -verbatim – a passage from a short story I’d first read in my high school English class, about the anguish of Irish youngsters about to board an emigrant ship to America, not knowing how to say goodbye to the family they would never see again:
They stood in silence fully five minutes. Each hungered to embrace the other, to cry, to beat the air, to scream with an excess of sorrow. But they stood silent and sombre, like nature about them, hugging their woe.
~ from “Going into Exile” by Liam O’Flaherty.
In that moment, loss was no longer literary or abstract. It was palpable, transforming the space in which I stood into a place I no longer recognized. The trees he had planted made no sense, casting long shadows on blades of grass that would no longer flatten under his footsteps. The mailman was delivering letters that bore his name. What should I do with them? Were the hummingbirds flitting about the honeysuckle waiting for him to feed them? Disoriented and uncertain, I was lost in my own home, no longer confident about what might happen at three o’clock or seven o’clock. Before, I had no doubt. Letting go of him meant letting go of the certainty of my life.
My daughter tells me she cannot feel at home in our home because its rooms have become open wounds. Her father was her first word, but she will not watch old family movies, where she could see again how he helped her say ‘daddy’ the first time, or clap her hands or take her first steps. Nor will she go to the grocery store where he used to take her on last minute errands for me or to the Dairy Queen, where he bought her ice-cream every Friday afternoon. With practice, she has perfected the routines and rituals by which other people now define her, by which she now defines herself. An all-around “good kid,” she is the part-time retail worker who looks like Audrey Hepburn. Kind and interested, she is the full-time college student who never misses class and maintains a solid GPA. Circumspect and tentative, she is the one who will take the extra step to be safe. No alcohol, no drugs, no texting while driving, no speeding, no spending foolishly – no father.
She has woven his loss into her life, learning to drive without him, striding across the stage to receive a high school diploma without his cheers ringing in her ears. She is almost finished with her first two years of college, along the way earning her first paycheck without the winks and smiles that would have encouraged her to keep on being great at being herself. It is beyond her grasp that so much – and so little – time has passed and that one day it will be ten years, twenty years, forty years, since he last held her hand in the frozen food section of the grocery store, to keep her warm.
Worried that she has worried me, she emphasizes that it is not a sadness that envelops her these days. In fact, she sometimes faces the reality of her changed life with a humor that others may find irreverent. She is no longer undone by grief. The daily reminder of her father’s death, that the saddest thing that could ever have happened has already happened reminds her that whatever happens today could not be worse. No rush hour traffic or broken air conditioner or math final or pissed off customer could be any worse. Steeled thus, the sadness locked deep within her, she goes about her days, working, studying, laughing, loving, finding joy and hope, pausing in the doorway to check on two baby birds in a nest tucked under the eaves. Signs of life – they are everywhere.
She has sought help from people in the business of helping people sort out their grief. Not entirely convinced of its usefulness yet, she balks when they tell her that to fully heal, perhaps she needs to process it more or cry more or allow herself to be really sad or go wherever there is. She does not want to dive into that dark, desolate rabbit hole. While her coping strategy may seem perverse, it is practical, a kind of acceptance. The little girl who made memories with the father who loved her is gone. In some strange ways, she tells me, it is as though she has become her father’s death. As much as his life was part of hers, so is his death.
So what do I say to those in my life who at this moment and the next and for who knows how long, will move within a landscape of private grief, perhaps seeing right in front of them only what’s missing – their altered world? What I want to tell them is that these early days are the worst, that they will learn to live within their changed world, themselves changed, but what I cannot tell them is how. There are no rules for grieving or mourning and no right way to get through it. There is your way, and there you are.
There are certain losses you do not get past, but you incorporate them into who you are. It’s always a part of you. No matter how much you reconstruct your life and make a new life, I still think that there is room for part of you to always be aware that this happened. To always have a part of you grieving.
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.