Tag Archives: mourning

In the Garden

I write this wrapped in a blue blanket in our little white house. My arms still fit around a sleeping baby, but it’s not as easy as it was a few months ago. Her breathing is a bit labored (remnants of a difficult morning), and the twitch of her hands against my stomach feel like the movement of life.

We’d made plans to visit in August. She was already five months old, and I knew my great uncle would love to hold her. A trip to Portland always made me happy (there’s something about driving over the Piscataqua that turns me into a seven-year-old in summertime), but I knew we’d only be able to stay a short while. Uncle Alan was not doing well, and the last thing I wanted was to tire him out.

It didn’t happen. We got a message — he’s in the hospital, he’s so sad he can’t see you — and I wrote saying we’d see him soon.

I saw my Uncle Alan for the last time on Friday.

Evangeline saw him for the first and last.

I had this image in my head: little Evangeline sitting on her great-great-uncle’s lap, him laughing his full-belly laugh, the sheer size of him filling the hospice room.

When I got there, I was embarrassed by my childishness. A man in hospice does not laugh with his whole body. He does not hold an infant on his knee.

But he did smile. He did know who we were. He did talk to us. But there were so many things I wanted to say and couldn’t.

I will miss your sweet birthday notes on Facebook. I’m surprised how much I looked forward to them. I am surprised at your genuine love.

I wish I were as joyful as you were. I’m sure you had dark moments (who doesn’t), yet you emanated peace.

What will happen to our family history when you’re gone? Who will curate our memories with such care, such attention to detail, and such deep adoration for those who came before?

I will treasure the old books you gave me at graduation. I will keep your notes throughout the years. I pray my daughter has someone in her life who gives her beautiful things and encouraging letters.

I will never forget how you supported my writing. It started with my little magazine, “Ruminations,” and your subscription and dedicated reading of a silly girl’s silly writing. But it continued. I’ll miss thinking of you reading this blog, each entry like a conversation I hope to have.

I never thought I’d be a teacher, and yet how could I avoid it? With such a gifted, influential educator in my family, how could I not be born with a little inkling of teacherness?

The thing I’m learning about mourning is that after the first experience, it is never isolated again. Grief piles on grief, death conflates with life conflates with death, and each time I mourn someone I love, I find myself mourning all those who died before. I cry for my uncle and my aunt and cousins he leaves behind, but also for my Grampa long-gone, my Great-Gramma, for the very fact that everyone I love will die. I look at my baby and I cannot believe it.

Now, when I garden, my grandfather is there. Now, when I garden, my great-uncle will be there, too. When I thin rows of carrots, I see my Grampa sitting on an overturned bucket, doing the same. When I choose flowers for my bees and the hummingbirds, I will see my Uncle Alan and his beautiful gardens. “In the Garden” joins “How Great Thou Art” as songs that conjure an entire person every time I sing them. My Dad will help me pass on these familial traditions to my daughter, and even though she may feel removed from those who came before, she will know them in stories, in music, and in gardens.

We’ll miss you, Uncle Alan.

What Breaks Your Heart

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[In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be writing about specific poems and the moments they’ve created in my life.]

“This just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said from across the classroom. “I mean, has anyone really ever felt this way?”

It was the worst possible semester to say something like that, and I was probably the worst possible person to say it in front of. It was poetry that prompted it, a poem that – while perhaps heavy-handed – certainly deserved more than just a passing thought.

Funeral Blues

I
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

~ W. H. Auden

Many things had compounded in my life to make me a good reader of mournful poetry. My boyfriend and I had just broken up, and while I wasn’t in this exact state of mourning, I did recognize the echoes of helplessness. It was fall, and despite my love of red leaves and the smell of the fireplace, I was entering my annual melancholy period. It was my senior year of college, and all that lay ahead was frightening and unknown, and I mourned for my soon-to-be-ended college experience.

So I sat across from this girl and my mouth dropped open and words flew out and I leaned over the table in my earnestness.

Have you seriously never felt this way?

You’ve never felt like things were irredeemable?

You’ve never felt darkness more than you felt light?

And I knew the class was staring at me because this was an outburst and I should have been embarrassed. Instead, I felt good. I felt heard. I felt like I had spoken for so many people who’ve lost someone they loved. I’d spoken for people who entered darkness – even for a short period – and for a moment forgot what it meant to have hope.

I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember how the professor brought the class back together and steered the conversation down a tamer road (because the classroom is not the place to really delve deeply into things). Later that evening, though, I had an email from a fellow student. We had only chatted a few times, but she’d written me a message. She thanked me for speaking up, and she said sometimes people just don’t understand experiences outside their own.

Obviously.

So why is it so painful when I’m not understood? Why do I care if someone has never felt despair? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that something I should rejoice over?

It’s not that I want them to have a broken heart. It’s that I can’t stand my experiences or my feelings being disregarded as “unbelievable.” Because that’s what she was saying, even though she didn’t mean to. Has anyone really ever felt this way? is another way of saying, I don’t believe this.

I reread this poem sometimes when I begin to forget the hurting and scared young woman I was. I’ve sent it to friends who were going through surprising and uncontrollable things.

It doesn’t take just a breakup to break your heart.

And yes, as I read it now, I sense more the dramatic, the delusional self. I can see how it is perhaps a poem for an emotionally-wrought college student than a well-seasoned adult who has realized that no, the world does indeed go on.

I just don’t want to disregard the person who hasn’t yet realized this.

I wonder where that girl is now. I wonder if she’s come across Auden’s poem since that day in college. I wonder if she read it any differently, if maybe the clocks stopped for just a moment.