Thursday, December 22, 2016

#SOL16: What Grief Teaches

Rob in ICU last New Year's day. He would die two months later.

Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are. 
                                                 -José Ortega y Gasset

In  the years I taught writing I did not know that it would save my life. I never imagined. I wish I could go back to those many students I taught and say, Listen carefully. Writing might save your life one day. Forget the assignments. Throw away the how-to books. Skip the tests. Write because you have something tugging at your sleeve and you cannot name it. Not yet.

But perhaps I overstate. My love for hyperbole has gotten the best of me. Writing never saved me.

Wrong verb.

Let me try again.


What I did not know as my husband was dying was that writing would be a conduit for opening possibilities. In times of sickness and stress, space collapses. Orientation becomes confused. Last year we lived more like Edwin Abbott's Flatlanders. We were lost in this 3-dimensional world. In those dark days, light could not find us. It could not move up or down, for there was neither. We were more acted upon than acting.

Then, writing helped to reshape, rename, and illuminate the moment where I stood--showing me the top of my own two feet planted on terra firma. Giving me dimension. At first it was the compulsion to name what was happening as my husband's illness, hospital stays, and compounding medical issues gathered weight. Against the myriad of changes, writing helped me to say what I was often too frightened to hear. A lot of this writing I kept private as I did not want to share doubts with Rob. Hope is such a fragile thing. But as his illness grew graver and his touch with reality loosened, I began to record thoughts and share them here on this blog.

I so needed you and you heard me.

You listened when my own husband was too far removed from reality to bear witness. Rob was preparing himself for his own death. He was tinkering at an edge I could not see or visit. The distance between life and death begins well before the last breath is made. As he would later tell me, just a couple of days before his death, "I have figured out how to cross over."

And he did. 

Even now there are moments when his leaving, his death, catches me by surprise. 


As winter edged into spring last year, I wrote because I could see no future. None. I had more energy than sense. Saying the impossible helped to rid my body of pain. In those days, I was more pain than flesh. I wrote to name what was just outside the reach of my fingers. Throughout the spring and summer I was unable to generate a single daydream of a possible life for myself. It was as if I was trapped inside a TV network that had signed off for the night. Instead of a random show playing, there was only a test pattern.

A holding pattern. 

Regularly scheduled life would resume sometime. Later.

I wrote to shatter that screen.


By fall I could imagine.  Perhaps the many months of painting and drawing and writing helped give shape to darkness. Perhaps the act of making, lit up the corners and bid me to be courageous enough to be present.  

And now with winter upon us I am coming almost full circle. 

The nights in late December are deeper and the wind more biting than I recall from a year ago. It is bracing. Lively. 

When a love dies, innocence dies too. I still write most days. I make marks with paint and pen, pencil, too. And I have learned that this pain I have named is not unique. Grief finds expression in our lives, as does joy and all that comes between. 


There is no future--just what we imagine and hold up, now and then as truths. And sometimes these truths become embodied. Each day there is a life to make. Each breath says, I am becoming. Like these digital marks I lay down with the press of my fingers, life is more about what we make and less about what gets made. This is what Rob's death has helped me to learn. I am what I make, what I do. 

Years ago, Thomas Merton explained that "[s]olitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it." 


Mostly I write to deepen the present. I chose to live deeply, intentionally. Even at my saddest, I knew that running would ill serve me. 

Stand in the pain. Be the pain. Name it. 

On that cold February morning when we learned Rob was dying, he commanded me to not hide myself away. A year later, I am like Thoreau's understudy and I know Rob would approve. This year, I too went to the woods to live deliberately. I thought grief was the absence of a future. What I could not know then as I do now is that what we hold in our own hands is what is most essential--not for what it is and isn't, but rather because we claim it.

I am responsible for this life I am making.  


I wonder how it was possible that a mere hour after learning he would die in the matter of days, Rob knew the exact words I would most need to hear. Live brilliantly, he told me. For months these words shifted, took on new meaning as I emerged from the hold of grief. Now, I understand that living brilliantly is what I have been holding in the palm of my hand. 

To write is to savor the here--the now--to embrace the responsibility for your life. 


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