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.
The work could wait.