“madiba magic” ~ once in a lifetime

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Men and women, all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names.

~ Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)

Nelson-Mandela-Portrait

Not you, Nelson Mandela. You went into the world with boldness and made your mark on it.  Madiba will ring out forever.

In June of 2013, I wrote of news that you were gravely ill. Reports poured out of Pretoria, South Africa that you were on life support. We held our breath, not wanting to accept that you were frail at 94, ill, and nearing the end of your life. In my mind’s eye, I could see you only at the beginning of your life as Mandela the free man who stepped onto the world’s stage in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars.

In the darkest days of Apartheid, no one – other than Mandela himself – could have imagined the man in that tiny cell as the future President of his country, that he would one day stand among rock stars and royalty and popes and presidents to advocate for democracy and justice, to inspire a vision of peace that transcended race and creed, that he would matter to so many people and that he would make so many people matter. People like me.

Mandela mattered to me because he represented what could be.  Like Martin Luther King‘s dream of what America could be and like the peace once envisioned for Northern Ireland by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, Mandela’s vision of South Africa as a democratic rainbow-nation inspired the first all-race democratic election, moving more than 17 million black South Africans to vote for the first time.  Such a sight to behold, even on a tiny television screen on the other side of the world – a reminder that anything can happen, that Seamus Heaney‘s hope and history can rhyme.

For my 24th birthday not long before I emigrated to the United States, a boyfriend surprised me with a ticket to Paul Simon’s Graceland concert in Dublin.  Boisterous and beautiful, the performance sparkles still in my memory as one that transcended the ugliness of apartheid. Simon had been and is still widely criticized for performing in South Africa, but how could I fault him for accepting an invitation from black South African musicians to collaborate on some of the most hopeful and uplifting music ever created.  Surely, that glorious music represented the “days of miracle and wonder” that were possible in the heart of Nelson Mandela or, years earlier, in the universal dream of Martin Luther King. In accepting a Grammy award for the album, Simon said of his fellow musicians and friends:

They live under one of the most oppressive regimes on earth today, and still they are able to produce music of great power, nuance and joy, and they have my respect for that.

photo (75)Simon was also one of the first people Mandela invited to South Africa. I imagine the smile spreading across Mandela’s face, showing he was no longer a prisoner – not merely because the bars had been removed, but because he had left bitterness and rancor behind. Not everyone did. The late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had deemed Mandela a terrorist, speaking for most of her party. I remember well, when the Iron Lady took office, her strident refusal to enforce sanctions on apartheid while much of the world was doing so. Her policy of “constructive engagement” with the country’s white minority government polarized her such that following her death, there were reports of only a few tears shed in South Africa.

As young university students in 1984, we sang along with The Specials urging those who could to “Free Nelson Mandela.”  How could we not? His release was a moral imperative; it was the right thing to do against a racist regime. We were young and full of hope for a better future, and it was through that lens that Thatcher and others in her party appeared resolute in their support of white rule which seemed only to prolong Mandela’s imprisonment in that tiny cell.

On the other side of the argument, there were those, including De Klerk, who felt that “Thatcher correctly believed that more could be achieved through constructive engagement with his government than international sanctions and isolation of the South African government.”

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It always does.

When Mandela walked out of jail, a joyous crack was heard all over the world. While enormous challenges lay ahead and even more bloodshed, apartheid would eventually come to an end. Together, De Klerk and Mandela would rise up to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace for their shared vision of a South Africa without apartheid, of a democratic nation. Perhaps this would be the example for other countries beleaguered by bigotry and bitterness, proof positive that it is possible to sustain humanity in a world defined by brutal divisiveness.

Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award inspired by fellow Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience,” was presented to Mandela in 2006. Perfect then that Heaney would be the first to congratulate Mandela thus:

To have written a line about “hope and history rhyming for Mr. Mandela in 1990 is one thing . . . to have the man who made them rhyme accept the Award inspired by my poem is something else again.

At the beginning of the summer of 2013, I imagine Seamus Heaney was vexed over the thought of a world without Mandela. I think we all were. I remember my husband and I talking over coffee about Mandela’s charisma and fortitude, his inestimable influence –  the “Madiba magic” that changed the world. We were sad that Mandela’s time with us was coming to an end. I didn’t want to believe it, and turned to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the way I still do in the in-between times.

And then, just six months later, Nelson Mandela was gone. Seamus Heaney was gone. My husband was gone. Gone. Like three shooting stars – startling, beautiful, gone.

For a time, it felt like the world might end.

“From the Republic of Conscience” by Seamus Heaney

I

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

II

Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.

III

I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

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In Control. Remembering Nora Ephron.

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It was leukemia that took Nora Ephron from us, a cancer she had kept private in a world that already knew many of the intimate details of her aging neck, her dry skin, the contents of her purse, her small breasts about which she wrote A Few Words, and her weapon of choice against not only the gray hair that grows back with a vengeance every four weeks, but the youth culture in general – hair color. With a quick and daring wit, she regaled us with stories of the indignities visited upon her as she grew older, but she did not tell us about the cancer. Cancer was not up for discussion. For Ephron, cancer was not copy, as her son explains in the HBO documentary about her life:

I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” he says. “That the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything is copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the means to control the story was to make it not exist.

Into my fifth decade, it occurs to me that maybe I have always understood the need to control and contain. As much as I have revealed of myself in this virtual space, I know for sure what is not copy. For me, breast cancer was copy. It still is. Some of the business of widowhood is copy too. But I know what is not.  I know what to keep and what to discard. I know how to control it and how to control myself – most of the time. I know how to be private. I know how to keep what is precious, private. I know how to – as Meryl Streep says of Ephron – ‘achieve a private act.’  I also know how to avoid an ending, and I’m very good at the long game. I know what Nora Ephron’s son knows – that closure is over-rated.  I can’t consider the concept without recalling the first time I realized how much it mattered to other people, following a principal’s evaluation of a lesson I’d taught. In her report, she indicated, with some disappointment, that I had provided “no closure” for my students. I didn’t bother arguing with her, because I knew I would be back in my classroom the next day and the next to continue – not to close – with my students.  It is the continuing that matters along with what I wore along the way.

Continuance – it has a nice ring to it.

Like each of the five women in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Nora and Delia Ephron‘s stage-adaptation of Ilene Beckerman’s book by the same name, I can peer into my wardrobe and hang on the clothes and shoes and handbags and boots that bulge from it, some of the most important moments of my life. Especially the boots. For those dwelling in cooler climes, there is perhaps a 20-day window for honest boot-wearing in Phoenix, Arizona. Seriously. The sunshine is relentless, the heat is “dry,” and I can offer no justification for my growing collection of boots other than still wanting to be more like my idea of a young Carly Simon or Linda Ronstadt.  My favorite brown leather boots have a beautiful patina, best worn with the attitude I squeezed into them the morning I was fired by a man who might possibly have been great were it not for the misogyny that diminshed him. Admittedly, it was not the best way to start a day, but how it pleased me to turn on the heel of those well-worn boots and walk away from him. Forever.

Then there are the boots of patchwork leather that my mother gave me; they make me feel like Carly Simon in anticipation of a date with Cat Stevens circa 1971. images-3There are the inappropriate patent leather boots I wore the first time we took our daughter to see the snow, to fall with glee into the sparkling powder, creating her first snow-angel; there are six pairs of black boots that vary only in length even though someone, most likely me, pointed out that each is a distinct shade of black and – this is important – timeless; too, there are the classic Frye boots that I simply could not pass up because they were on sale and at a consignment store; and, the pointy-toed suede knee-high boots purchased from a UK catalog at full over-priced price. They have been reheeled and resoled twice, and they require additional assistance and effort to remove from my tired feet at the end of a long day. I haven’t worn them as much since Ken died, because I know when the time comes to remove them that I will remember exactly how he used to say, “Goddammit baby. Goddammit.” And then I will tell myself there must have been a mistake, that maybe he’s not really dead.

The collection of coats defies explanation, several of them purchased in Ireland and carried back – in an extra suitcase – to the desert southwest where there is rarely the need for a sweater let alone a coat. I suppose coat-wearing allows me to make a statement about how Phoenix won’t stop me from being my own girl, complete with scarf, coat, and even a turtleneck underneath. I have other “signature” coats, one of which I will never wear in public unless Tom Petty calls and asks me to be one of his Heartbreakers.  It is more art than coat and belongs only on someone on stage in front of 50,000 fans holding up lighters. 

225596_1069916549279_6005_nDuring the Christmas holidays, I always wear the long red coat I bought at Marks and Spencers one year in Belfast. I love the lining that nobody can see – white with tiny red hearts. And I don’t care if it is 80 degrees outside; that coat is a stunner. Against the backdrop of a holiday tree made of a triangle of pots of jolly red poinsettias outside Saks Fifth Avenue at the Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix, it makes me feel a bit like Santa. Or Red Riding Hood.  

Along with the boots, and the Bridge vintage leather Gladstone doctor’s bag – which I bought on Ebay and have not been able to open for several years because the brass clasp is broken –  hiding in a corner of the closet, are burgundy leather penny loafers, with a penny in each. I haven’t worn them since 1989. I don’t remember why I bought them and don’t know why they are still in my house, but I think it might be because they are reminiscent of the brogues I once wore to school or the tap shoes I wore for Irish dancing. Or maybe I was influenced by the collegiate style of a fifth-grade American girl wearing khakis from the Gap, white socks, and her grandmother’s loafers. 

Given where I Falling In Love 1984am today, with nothing to wear to a thing I don’t want to go to later – having already flung on the bed seven summery skirts that are too snug at the waist because of a diet that has deteriorated in recent months (years) and an exercise regimen postponed (abandoned), I feel a bit like Meryl Streep‘s married character getting ready for a clandestine rendezvous in the city with de Niro’s character, also married (but to someone else) in a favorite movie of mine, Falling in Love. For me, in the end, something blue wins; it always does.Even Meryl settles on a blue print blouse. In my case, it will be the blue dress I am wearing in many of the profile pictures on my online spaces. If I run into any of my social media contacts today, they will think I have nothing else to wear. And, they will be right.

Resurrected in her son’s documentary, Ephron is among us once again. Vibrant, funny, and in control.  I imagine her striding across a set not unlike The Strand bookstore in the East Village where all her books were almost sold out the morning after her death. In my mind, she is authoritative – and perhaps perceived as mean – as she provides direction to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, while searching for the glasses that are on top of her head. I prefer to think of her laughing with the darlings of Hollywood, surrounded by books, as in the old Jimmy Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner, charmingly resurrected and rewritten by Ephron and her sister, as the romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail starring, naturally, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks Although by many accounts, a cynic with a sharp tongue, I suspect Nora Ephron was a romantic at heart, so it would have been poetic had real life handed her the happy ending like those she crafted in those fail-proof feel-good “chick flicks.” The happy ending would not have been real, and my guess is that Nora Ephron liked to keep it real.

Her contribution to the movies is but a tiny part of her legacy as a writer, but those films are such a big part of the soundtrack to my American life as a woman who immigrated to this country around the time When Harry met Sally was releasedGranted, it is not the most memorable part of the movie, but there is  one scene that always makes me laugh and snaps me back to the young woman I used to be, the one who shows up now and again to remind me just how little time there is to become who I am supposed to be. As I have learned, life happens in the twinkling of an eye, and it is for the living.  I have learned that too.

In the scene, Meg Ryan’s Sally has just found out that her ex-boyfriend is getting married. In tears, she tells Harry that she is going to be left on the shelf, a spinster, all alone at forty. Mind you, she is barely thirty, with a very cute hair cut that, at the time, I was convinced would work with naturally curly hair like mine. It didn’t. In fact, I carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe a decade – a page from a magazine featuring the many cute haircuts of Meg Ryan. I really did. And, for countless hairdressers rendered clueless and incompetent by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page, as though it were the Shroud of Turin, to politely asked them to give me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 and found Topher at the aptly named Altered Ego salon, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before. Too many times, perhaps.

And I’m gonna be 40 . . .  someday

Just yesterday I felt the same way.  Forty was a lifetime away from eighteen, and by all accounts the deadline for “letting oneself go” and, I suppose, Eileen Fisher.  Fifty was sensible and dowdy. Sixty heralded blue rinses for hair – not jeans. Seventy was out of the question, and definitely not a new fifty.  Having passed the half-century mark, I’m wondering about what I’ve done and what’s next. With my thirties behind me, my forties too, I am accepting a couple of truths about myself. Some are minor – I do not have sensible hair, and I talk too much. Others are more painful.  I should be kinder and more patient. Too, I should stay far away from insecure men in positions of power and recognize earlier those folks who are nice to me only because they need something from me. Like my hair, they perform poorly when the pressure rises.

Being in my fifth decade is a bit like being in IKEA, one of my least favorite places on the planet. A planet itself, IKEA is just too big, with all its “rooms” requiring instructions and assembly and Scandinavian words I find just as intimidating had they fallen from the lips of an errant Viking. I’m worried that I might run out of time to do the things I need to do, not necessarily the kinds of things that might turn up on a “bucket list” but definitely those that will bring me closer to those I love the most. These days, I know who loves me and who loves me not.

Still, none of this self-awareness in any way diminishes how much I resent the aging process in general and the way it just sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. One minute, I am reading the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle, the next I’m desperately seeking one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at the carwash or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament. My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at very loud concerts over the past forty years than on something as wholly graceless as aging. 935607_10201295741016677_5536031_n

About six months before he died, Ken and I went to see Fleetwood Mac in Phoenix. Other than the fact that it was the last concert he saw on this earth and the last time he and I would stay for an encore, I hold on to the moment I caught a white-haired Mick Fleetwood bow out and off stage in his bright red hat, pointed red shoes, and the dangling wooden balls, and Stevie Nicks still spinning in black. Mesmerizing. Just like the white winged dove sings a song. Stevie, at almost seventy. Rock on gold dust woman.

So many beginnings and endings, with more to go . . .

Since Sophie was little, I have saved every drawing, handprint, book report, birthday card, report card, certificate, and, apparently, every receipt from Target. Not in one place, of course. Stuffed in vases and between the pages of books are random letters from the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and her grandparents. There are even pieces of notebook paper that bear only her name in the top right corner. In the spirit of those ever-so-organized professional organizers on documentaries on The Learning Channel, the folks who would direct me to place everything I own on the front yard before organizing it into piles of things that should be stored, displayed, or dumped, I have realized that it is time – theoretically –  to tame the paper tiger.

Full of good intentions one day – and for about an hour – I began “organizing.” I made a few folders for my daughter’s school work and special photographs, I threw away those greeting cards that were made not by her but some stranger at Hallmark, I filled a box with books to donate to the local bookstore. While flipping through the pages of a school composition book, I came upon something she had written when she was in elementary school:

I don’t know what or who inspired it. I love the leggy and winking 29 year old, hand on her hip, but I am almost afraid to ask what happened to her. I wonder what Nora Ephron would think of my little girl’s “mountain of life.”  I can almost see a wry smile creep across her face as she tells that 50 year old to straighten up for Act Two, to cause some trouble, just as she urged a bunch of Wellesley graduates in her 1996 Commencement Speech – to continue.

No closure.

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your life . . .

RIP Nora Ephron (1941 – 2012)

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a promise kept for father’s day

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On June 15th, 2013, I wrote the following as a promise to Karen Sutherland.  I am profoundly saddened to learn of her passing exactly four years later. Karen was witty and wise and much loved by her ‘sisters’ in the online breast cancer community. She always offered a soft place to fall and an encouraging word even as she dealt with the ravages of cancer and loss in her own life.  It was my honor to know you, Karen, for you made the world a much better place. My deepest condolences to your family. I remember you once shared with me a lovely story about your Hugh, and I promised I would share it on Father’s Day 2013. It seems fitting to share it again today. Rest easy now and thank you


Originally posted June 15, 2013

I never met Hugh James Sutherland who died on Sunday, May 5, 2013, but I know he loved the New York Times crossword puzzle, Scrabble, Starbucks, and walking at dusk with his wife. Nor have I met his wife, Karen, but she is my friend. We first bumped into each other on the blogosphere, via a comment she left on my New Year’s Day post. Signed TC (diagnosed with ST IV metastatic BC, december 16, 2012, now NED) it reminded me of the first time I ventured into an online breast cancer forum where all the guests signed their names not with the typical first-initial-last-name standard, but instead the ironic pedigree that included in the following order: date of diagnosis-type of cancer-size of tumor-stage-grade-node involvement-estrogen and progesterone positivity-HER2/neu status. Conjuring for me a bookish teacher from my childhood, admired by my parents for the “string of letters after her name,” I must confess that I still cannot recite by heart the line and lineage of my particular cancer and still resort to looking up the answers in my pathology report).

An engaging and elegant writer, Karen, surely had a blog or a website. I searched high and low to no avail. When she shared her story with me, I understood why there was no blog. Her husband, Hugh, had been diagnosed in October 2009 with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the blood that originates in the bone marrow, and although treatable, is incurable. It had been the couple’s 42nd wedding anniversary, and Hugh was putting something in the front seat of the car when his femur snapped in half. Next came the trauma of the diagnosis, followed by an unsuccessful surgery to rebuild his leg. He was in excruciating pain as he endured physical therapy, chemotherapy, two stem cell transplants, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. From her ring-side seat and her thirty years experience as a hospice nurse, Karen planned to write a blog from the caregiver’s perspective, knowing it would help others. Her blog did not come to fruition, because in December of 2011, cancer visited again. This time, it was Karen who would receive the diagnosis of Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. Seriously. Because cancer is just that cruel.

A double nightmare as each observed the other endure the relentless assault of treatment that included chemotherapy and depression for Karen too. Eventually she would hear what we cancer patients all want to hear – “No Evidence of Disease” (NED) and by late summer in 2012, Hugh was responding to the stem cell transplants and no longer suffering from depression. By this time, Karen had become well informed about the diseases that had been visited upon her and the love of her life, largely from blogs written by patients and caregivers. Grateful for the information and buoyed by the support she found within the blogosphere, Karen decided to make her mark by commenting. It was a way to pay it forward for all the support she was finding in our virtual village:

I comment to lend support, to provide comfort and understanding and compassion, to share aspects of our story that might help others, to validate, comfort, encourage, commiserate, rant and rave, and thank bloggers like you, dear yvonne, who spend so much time and emotional energy to share your stories, to let you all know how much I appreciate all the profoundly and beautifully written words, many that will remain etched upon my heart and soul forever.

Thus, Karen TC (The Commenter) makes her mark on the lives of those who write in this online and close-knit community, and it was to them she turned the day she found her darling Hugh in their bed, unresponsive with no heartbeat.

Karen The Commenter Needs Us . . . blared from AnneMarie Cicarella’s blog, and from all corners of the globe, we gathered around the couple we have never met, each of us having been lifted up by Karen’s comments sprinkled like breadcrumbs to help us find our way home, because we frequently get lost on our respective treks through through cancer country. We became ‘the commenters’ for Karen, as she began to accept the new realities of living without Hugh, missing him and realizing he would not be here for all those days marked on the calendar, those “first” days without him like this Sunday – Father’s Day – which leads me to my promise . . .

On Valentine’s Day, Karen had left a comment on a piece I had written, Ronald Reagan’s Love Medicine in which I was bemoaning the lost art of letter writing. I was touched by her comment, a gem of a story about how her family also cherishes words set down on paper. Recognizing its universal appeal, I asked her if I could re-post it when Father’s Day rolled around. She loved the idea, so here it is – for Father’s Day, for Hugh and those who loved him:

dear yvonne
 
… here’s a little story about how we’ve treasured the written word.
 
a few days before last father’s day, i was cleaning off a shelf in hugh’s closet. way in the back behind the shirts in cleaners’ boxes was a fathers’ day card our son made for his dad when he was 9 years old. adam had listed all the things he loved that he and hugh did together and illustrated each in his precious, childish style. i shared the find with hugh and we both shared some tears of joy that it survived so long – our son is 40 years old!
 
adam has a son, our only grandson, brian, who, to our great joy, is a near clone of his dad. and it turns out that all those things adam had expressed to hugh in writing and pictures all those years ago are the same things brian loves and enjoys with adam. and what a happy, meant-to-beness it was to realize that brian was now also 9 years old, just the age his dad had been when he made that special FD card.
when the kids came to our house for the big father’s day celebration, we took brian aside and showed him the card his dad made for his papa 31 years ago. he beamed when we suggested passing it on to his dad. adam was blown away to see written proof of happy history repeating itself within the words and pictures of the card. he was so overjoyed to see the love he had expressed for HIS dad was now being given right back to him by his darling boy.
 
i, too, revere many things written by hand from so many family members and friends. i keep all our calendars, too, where i’ve scrawled so many milestones of so many lives. one of the greatest losses of things written down that still feels heartbreaking is the big thick cookbook my mom always had at hand. she stuffed it with letters from my grandmother, little love notes from us, her children, old photos, and emphemera of all sorts. with 8 children, and litttle of her own space to keep her little mementos tucked safely away, i guess the old cookbook was her file cabinet. somehow, it just diappeared. i’d give up my kindle gladly, just to have one more look through it’s pages, brimming with such marvelous history, pages of favorite recipes dog-earred, stained messy with beloved flour-egg-chocolate cake battered fingerprints of my mom and me, cooking together.
 
i love this post, yvonne – it bought back a lot of wonderful memories. thank you.
 
love, XOXO,
 
karen, TC

I knew not what to say to Karen after Hugh died. I didn’t have the right words so I turned again to poetry and to something Seamus Heaney had written in Station Island, about himself as a father and his own father as well. This Father’s Day weekend, I am thinking of Hugh Sutherland and those who loved him, of his son and grandson, “taking the strain,” of the “long tailed pull of grief” . . .

A Kite for Michael and Christopher by Seamus Heaney

All through that Sunday afternoon
A kite flew above Sunday,
a tightened drumhead, an armful of blow chaff.

I’d seen it grey and slippy in the making,
I’d tapped it when it dried out white and stiff,
I’d tied the bows of the newspaper
along its six-foot tail.

But now it was far up like a small black lark
and now it dragged as if the bellied string
were a wet rope hauled upon
to life a shoal.

My friend says that the human soul
is about the weight of a snipe
yet the soul at anchor there,
the string that sags and ascends,
weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.

Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand here in front of me
and take the strain.

image

Art by Sheila Dee

Memorial contributions in Hugh’s name may be made to Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation with Multiple Myeloma in the memo of the check in order to designate the funds. The mailing address is 360 Essex Street, Suite 301, Hackensack, New Jersey 07601.

 

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At Sea – Grief Reconsidered.

Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.

~John Updike

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.

~Joan Didion

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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