(Grief and the Threads That Bind Us)
It’s difficult to write about grief. It’s difficult to write about someone who’s dead now who was never really present even when he was alive. I barely have any memories left of my father. I feel like everything I could write about him I’ve already written (here). There’s that little in my memory bank.
It’s really all the memories we never made together that I’m mourning. The hope that there was still time yet to make them. Someday. Then there’s all the memories he’s just so clearly and painfully missing from. Scientific research shows memories are like that. You tend to remember most vividly the worst ones. It’s one of those good ole fashioned evolutionary survival tactics, like fear and fight-or-flight. Paying attention to the bad memories helps us to survive future threats. My memory is always waiting for the next disaster to strike.
I had a whole childhood filled with incredible Christmases and ample joy and excitement. I know that to be true. But the two Christmases I remember most are the year my parents got into a really bad fight and my mom didn’t come to church with us, and the year after that when they were divorced and Dad wasn’t there until after we had already opened our gifts. He didn’t stay too long visiting. I remember how red his eyes were that day more than I remember any gifts I got that year or the year before. I see that glossy red color as clear as if it were yesterday. The way he sat on the couch with his hands in his lap, drooping like a weeping willow. It was 5 days before my 10th birthday–I don’t remember that either.
In this way, memories are rather unfair because they act more like a sticky patchwork catalog of emotional trauma, than a historical account of what actually happened. The brain processes positive and negative experiences in completely different hemispheres of the brain. It actually requires more brain power to process our negative experiences. This emotional asymmetry is explained by the valence hypothesis in cognitive science. We ruminate and brood. Then our bad feelings and experiences get stamped into our memories. Forever branded.
My dad’s been truly gone for two years now. But two years isn’t really that long when I think about it, because he disappeared for two years pretty regularly when he was alive. Usually hitting jail a few times in between his sporadic phone calls. After the age of 12, all my memories of my dad happened on a phone call.
I can remember pacing around my little studio apartment in South Philly while he told me how he got into a drunk driving accident. He laughed it off like it was some knock knock joke because they gave him pain pills at the hospital. I remember how sticky my hardwood floors were and how I thought I needed to get off the phone with him and mop them–but I was too scared to say goodbye. I never knew when I might reach him next.
I can remember pacing around Point Breeze in the dark while he told me he drank just a few beers on St. Patrick’s Day and that everything was fine and life was good and things were looking up for him finally and he wasn’t going to do anything stupid like he did last time he was drinking–the time he robbed the donations from his seasonal Salvation Army bell ringer’s job. He left his post with other people’s spare change in his pocket to go directly to the liquor store. It wasn’t his fault they stationed him right outside of the liquor store. He didn’t mean to end up in jail that time either. I can remember crying and wondering if people could hear me from inside their barred windows, and how my tears froze on my face because it was still winter in Philadelphia. How nothing I said made one speck of difference.
I can remember talking to him after he had cancer surgery on his lungs. After they put him into a short-term medical-induced coma to help him detox from alcohol long enough so that they could perform the surgery without his DTs. How he swore he was a changed man now, how he wasn’t going to take life for granted anymore, how he wasn’t going to drink or smoke anymore, as I paced through a park in Cincinnati. I can remember how pretty the flowers looked and how the sun seemed to shine a little brighter that day. How I felt hopeful. I can remember the call from my estranged cousin a week later, pacing the same park, and how Dad had gotten kicked out of their house for smoking, drinking and apparently stealing money from them.
I can remember pacing the grocery store in Berkeley on Easter after not hearing from him since I lived in Ohio, but I can’t remember anything I bought there. How he had no explanation for being so out of touch for so long and how I broke down on the drive home and told him I hated him. I threw a tantrum on my bed and then shook with betrayal and rage and vowed to never, ever speak to him again. There were papers all over my floor. I had been writing essays for grad school. I tore some of them up.
I can remember pacing the hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah two years later, where we spoke our last words to each other. How cold the air conditioner was, how loudly it buzzed. How unfair it all felt, how unfair it always was.
How I was always pacing.
In a way, he was with me all those places, the ghettos of Philadelphia, the suburbs in Ohio, a grocery store in Berkeley, a random hotel in Salt Lake City. Places we’d never gone together and never would. Yet we were never really together, except through an alternate reality connected by copper telephone wires and cables, and later electrical energy and radio waves. Stuff I don’t really understand. Like that Georgia O’Keeffe painting, From the Faraway, Nearby. My dad was faraway, but nearby too. In this alternate reality that seemed to barely exist, because afterwards I’d put down the phone, wipe the tears, tell myself it’s fine and keep pacing forward.
What I can’t remember is a single time my dad told me I love you. Even though I’m positive I heard those words from him many times. I also know, deep down, in his own sick and limited way, he meant it every time. So I mourn for that too, for those good memories I can no longer recall. It’s raining as I write this and that seems fitting for a state of good mourning.
I got a phone call recently that a girl I knew died tragically. I feel like I didn’t know her that well, but half the furniture in my room used to belong to her. Sitting here, looking at myself in her vintage vanity mirror that’s mine now, I realize I might not have moved to San Francisco without her. It’s humbling, the cosmic threads that bind us to other people. We’re inextricably tied up in each other. Sutured. Stitched up in ways that never seem that poignant until the threads are cut. So it seems, we are unraveled by each other too.
It makes me wonder what people would remember first about me if I died right now. What would come first? Because those memories that pop up first, they might not be my shining moments. Which of my trauma is resting in the shadows of other people’s memories? How many of you are weary from carrying that weight? How many different threads are interwoven? How many have already been cut?
When I think about my grandma, the first thing I do is shudder. I shudder from instant, crashing waves of sadness and what it was like at “the end”. My grandma had dementia that peeled her away like the pages of a book that hasn’t been bound. Flashes of her 75 pound body bag of bones when she died. The sunken-in-ness of where her cheeks used to be. How her lips dried up like prunes and the way they looked while Mom was trying to get her to drink Ensure through a straw. How she stopped recognizing me and looked at me with empty eye sockets. She didn’t get to keep a single memory, good or bad.
All of this floods back into my mind at once, and how it shows up is heavy and with shudders. But I’m able to leap purposefully to the sound of her laugh, the way she always sighed and said c’est la guerre. How she always did crosswords and drank martinis and kissed all my boyfriends on the lips and told me I was simply mah-ve-lous -dah-lin’ with her sweet Southern drawl. How she never cooked or cleaned a day in her life and kept newspapers in her oven. I’m grateful to at least have a little good mourning there.
But sometimes it’s tedious and painstaking work just to have good mourning. Some memories are forever buried. Some memories no longer exist–those sweet little memories I’d give anything to have back.
Yet, I’ll never be able to wash my hands clean of other memories. Some things just aren’t meant to be cast away.
I don’t get to choose which memories take which path. These are vast open spaces still left to heal.
Pictured: From The Faraway, Nearby by Georgia O’Keeffe
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