When I started writing it was Christmas Eve. Mo was taking her nap, and Robb and I were trying to finish the last few holiday preparations left on our list. The gifts had all been wrapped and piled under the tree. The cookies were cooling. Robb made a quick run to the hardware store. And I should have been tying up some loose holiday ends. Instead I was here at the desk thinking about death. I've been thinking about it a lot this month. Death. My dead. My multiplying ghosts.
My right index finger is recovering from a terrible infection. I'm not sure what started it. A small cut? A hangnail? And it gets me thinking about Reuben
Brigham. He was in Chicago attending the National
4-H Club Congress at the end of 1946. He wrote a letter to his little
grandson, my father, sending his love and complaining of his sore toe. Ruby drew a picture of
foot with one big red toe in the margin. And on December 6, 1946, he died of the blood
poisoning at the age of 58. My own finger swelled to double its normal size, grew hot to the touch, and throbbed with pain. I checked and
rechecked to make sure
the telltale red streaks had not begun creeping up my arm. Is this how
it ends? I thought. But Robb returned from his trip and lanced my finger. When he squeezed it I swooned, grabbed the kitchen sink, queasy. Stop, stop. But a little while later, I found my resolve and took over nursing care myself.
A week ago my last grandparent, Dorothy Breen Josephine Offutt Dreisch Jensen, passed away at the age of 86. Aside: If that seems like a lot of names, then you're probably not Catholic. It goes first name, middle name, confirmation name, maiden name, married name, re-married name. The indignity of Alzheimer's kept her soul in suspense for several years. Her mind became like Hansel and Gretel's loaf of bread breaking off pieces of itself, bit by bit to the end. An excruciating slow motion sequence. And it is what I see in the crystal ball rather than a sore finger.
We are three weeks away from the tenth anniversary of Dad's death. And I also happen to have just finished reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. It's been in the stack on my night stand for a while. And in Didion I find a kindred spirit. Of her husband's death she writes:
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be "healing." A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to "get through it," rise to the occasion, exhibit the "strength" that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lied the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (188-89)
This puts me in mind of an Elliott Smith song called Pitseleh. It begins, "I'll tell you why I don't want to know where you are: I've got a joke I've been dying to tell you." I've got a joke I've been dying to tell you. That sums up my experience of a decade without my father. ...the unending absence that follows...
It is the evening of Christmas Day now. Robb is watching tv in the living room. In a moment I will go and join him. I do not have a neat way to wrap up my reflections. No summary or casual comfort. No paradise. There are people I wish I had known better. There are impossible conversations. There are motives I can only guess. The baby is sleeping. My collection of ghosts compounds.