Charlie Pride at midnight

I keep telling myself I don’t want to write about grief, but then I show up to my semi-regular blog writing and it wants out again. Grief expert Alan Wolfert says grief is the interior experience and mourning expresses it outside yourself. And mourning is essential, he says, because one heals through mourning. (My friend Ruth Bergen Braun alerted me to Wolfert’s work; see “The six needs of mourning”.) So here I am, expressing.  

I’ve been reading Emily Carr’s journal, Hundreds and Thousands. I had not known that, besides her wonderful painting, she was such a good writer. Describing her dead sister Lizzie “radiant” in her coffin, all her “frets and worries” gone, she writes “I always want to remember Lizzie’s coffin face. It was so completely satisfied.” Seeing the dead person may be traumatic in many circumstances of death but my experience of Helmut’s body was similar to Carr’s of Lizzie’s, for in spite of the awful sad silence of him no longer breathing I was struck by the beautiful ease of his face. He looked good. I’d always thought him handsome, but what I mean is, his face was settled — utterly settled. There was nothing intentional or effortful there, just rest. This wasn’t entirely new for his face, for he’d won resolve and patience in his suffering, but now it was a step beyond; perfected.

So I was thinking about that, remembering, and later, when I went to bed I couldn’t sleep because I was imagining him slipping away from himself with his last exhale, but I couldn’t see him running or leaping or dancing, the way people often imagine their ill loved one’s release. He was never runner, leaper, dancer. What it would have to be was the sensation of wind, freedom on the open road. What he felt on his motorcycle. A motorcycle ride was like prayer for him: restoration in almost every kind of way. And if his drive took him northwards or through Birds Hill Park and he happened to see a deer, that was a God-sighting as bonus. D4EBDA4D-42F0-4903-A444-A202CBD15A03

Yes, that I could imagine. Or flight. He’d taken a test flight once and would have liked to learn to fly. Air and speed or lift. Not the mechanics of these objects in their metal and leather for his soul, but the particular ecstasy of movement they imply.

Or like hitting the road in his El Camino. Which made me think of our honeymoon, a road trip from Manitoba to Ontario and back again, all those hours in that two-seater brown El Camino when we listened, many times, to his tapes, chiefly Kenny Rogers and Charlie Pride. Music in my family of origin consisted of two kinds of music — classical and church music like hymns, fireside choruses, cantatas, oratorios, and the like — to which I added radio pop, but he liked country, and that’s what we listened to that week, and the sway and croon of it seemed just right for miles and miles to go and for a honeymoon.

So I was thinking all this and wasn’t falling asleep. Suddenly I wanted to hear Charley Pride once again. I knew there was a CD of his hits in the other room, which hadn’t been listened to for ages, and I figured maybe I would listen the next day, for nostalgia’s sake. But no, I needed it now and I argued with myself because I glanced at the bedside clock and saw it was midnight. But who would it bother, I was the only one in the apartment, and besides, I would keep it midnight low, so my wanting won out and I got up and put the CD in my little boom box, next to my pillow, and I listened through all 20 songs. They sounded a bit thin in that little thing, and began, the sleepier I got, to sound more or less the same, but for that hour or whatever it was, I lived in the longing and heartbreak of that music, and in the memory of being on the road a long while ago, together.   

Afterwards

A year ago, January 2020, pre-Covid, my sister and I met for lunch and she asked me, over fettucine alfredo, did I think of life afterwards? Alone, she meant, though I can’t remember exactly how she put it. We knew H.’s cancer would not be cured, though he was relatively comfortable and even relatively active for his circumstances, thanks to radiation and a regimen of meds.

I told her I’d had thoughts, yes, but I didn’t elaborate. I remember that I imagined pulling everything out of the closet and re-organizing the whole thing and that it would be emptier, tidier. I imagined taking a dream trip, starting from Beijing on a train, through Mongolia and Siberia and on to Moscow, which, given his diagnosis and restrictions on travel, would not be possible for him but which he encouraged me to pursue if I could.

But these were tasks, or single events, and in truth I didn’t know how it would be, and thoughts of the future, when they came, perhaps while cooking or staring out the window at the quiet street at night, were mostly tinged with dread. Sometimes the dread was a kind of fear, feeling that once his death happened, it would be time to get ready for my own. Some nights, falling asleep, I found myself thinking about having to sleep alone in that unknown stage ahead of me, and I comforted myself then, that for now, he was there, I wasn’t alone, and that it was good not to have to sleep alone, I felt safer somehow, and that even sleeping, he was good company.

As of this February 6, I’m in the afterwards of my sister’s question. Here. The living that turned into dying has so many stories, and so does grieving in the wake of it, I don’t know where to begin telling any of them, or even if I should, because, really, loss is ubiquitous and telling is more like joining a song already being sung in many places. But since I’m a writer, and writers show up in words, I figured I should drop by my blog and say Hello. Hello, everyone.

My Lenten bowl

On cards and other gestures

For more than 25 years, H. and I have been observing an almost daily ritual. We get up at six and drink maté, a Paraguayan tea.* During the half hour we’re imbibing our caffeine, I wake up (as a morning person, H. is already wide awake), we usually read Rejoice!and we cross-check our schedules for the day. Then we get on with it.

Weekends, it may all take a little longer, and may include reading the paper and listening to music.

The past weeks we’ve added something else to our maté routine. We’ve been re-reading — three or four of them a day — the sympathy cards we received after my father’s death in December. We think about the senders and what they and the cards have said, and we include them with gratitude in our morning prayers.

I hope it won’t hurt anyone’s feelings to say that most of these cards then land in the recycling bin. The point I want to make is how much the cards have meant to us. Sometimes a person forgets the power of the small gesture — and how large small can be — until one is on the receiving end of one after another after another.

Some cards came from people we would not have expected to send one, and the surprise of that touched us. Some people who knew Dad took the time to share their memories – memories that enlarged our own memories of him. Some added a poem or reflected on similar experiences. Each card was unique, each one was appreciated.

We were the recipients of many other gestures-for-times-of-loss as well, such as emails and phone calls of condolence. Last week, we got the list of people who had donated money in honour of our father to the charity we’d chosen. Again, it was a humbling and touching experience, to see the names and think of what these gifts meant about Dad and us and these givers, and for the recipient mission agency.

Some gestures took the givers significant time. One friend spent the day baking cookies for us because she knew we were having a lot of out-of-town company. Several friends and a neighbour brought meals, including some of the most spectacular soups I’ve tasted in a long time. The church deacons came to visit, bearing  a fruit basket.

These are traditional ways of caring; they’re gestures and rituals we bring out for certain times. But like any ritual, whether it’s a daily one like our morning tea, or something practiced for specific circumstances, they build and maintain community. And what a wonderful thing it is to be part of community.

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*Drunk alternately as an infusion of hot water over yerba tea leaves in a container called a guampa and sipped through a metal sieve-straw called a bombilla. (Yerba leaves and paraphernalia pictured left.) Let’s just say it grows on you.