In the absence of usual industry

The Protestant strain of my nature impels me to respond usually to stress by working hard, very hard, often physical work around the house and garden. And summer is when my list of chores is longest. In these waning days of August, I should be racing around, trying to complete all my tasks (wash the windows, paint the barn door, point the foundation, finish edging the beds…).

But. Grief is surprising me with sweet lassitude. I want to sit and think, or merely look at the trees, the sunsetting light, the butterflies on the blooms. When I stop moving, I can feel a heavy sadness on me, one that stills my limbs. This weight envelops me. It tells me that I must, momentarily, not move.

I suppose it is a fine season to sit on the porch and think. I notice that the tree across the street is already starting to shed fine yellow leaves. Peggy would not begrudge me some time to sit still, in her wake.

I may really be tired, as I am sleeping poorly, with vivid dreams of unresolved conflicts surfacing, and fears, and loneliness.

I expected to feel grief. I have felt grief before. I understand grief. And yet, it surprises me, by taking control of my body and mind, somehow outside of my rational control.

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Elegy for a Dangerous Woman

It’s August and I have harvested the garlic,

pruned the raspberry canes,

eaten the tender summer squash and tart blackberries.

The lettuce has bolted.

I’ve abandoned the garden to deer, kale, and weeds,

preferring to sit on the porch

with a gin and tonic,

watching the industry of wasps,

the lazy cat sprawled on the hot sidewalk.

We once talked about the difference

between nostalgia

and what you called “dangerous” memory,

between sweet evocation of feeling

and memories which inform ethics, animate action—

like your Christian memory of the suffering of Jesus,

and how it powered your long and busy life.

I’m awash in nostalgia for you.

But the light has started to change,

the leaves yellow, the shadows lengthen,

and my memory of you sharpens

each day I am not with you.

The Language Year

During the first year of my son’s life, I wrote a book-length poem titled “The Language Year,” in which I thought about his process of language acquisition, my role in it, and the complex relationship between love and language.

Peggy’s last year was a Language Year for me too, though different and not as sweet. After her stroke in June 2018, I think all who loved her were relieved that she had retained her power of language. However, as the months passed, her language changed and withdrew from her. At first, we conversed normally, and I spent many an hour with her at Cayuga Ridge chatting about home and children. Interestingly, her lifelong interest in talking about politics receded at this point–it was a marvel that she did not want to rail about the president for a change! A fond memory from these months is an evening when I streamed Nina Simone songs on my phone and she sang along, transported to a happier time in her life.

About two months into her recovery, she began to babble a bit. She grew fixated on the name “Crystal Sarakas,” the name of a local sonorous presenter on WSKG, the radio station which broadcast the operas Peggy loved so much. She repeated the name over and over, rhyming and changing it, sometimes into “Dukakis,” whom she must have supported, and more.

She went through a time in which she would cry “Crystal! Crystal! Oh, Crystal!” in a yearning voice. When she first arrived at Bridges, the staff asked me who Crystal was. While Peggy listened, I explained that it was the news presenter. Peggy nodded, with what appeared great relief, and I realized then that I had a role in helping to give language back to Peggy to explain what was happening to her.

That continued. When she had an episode of atrial fibrillation, I told her the name of what was happening to her body, and she sighed. Oh yes, she said, I have that.

Later, she spoke very rarely, and usually only single words in response to questions, Yes, No, I do. Those efforts seem to take a lot of energy. Once, when Jon Frankel and I visited, she burst out by saying Jon! Another time, when I read a poem by Inta Ezergailis, The Dress, and said off-handedly, do you remember when she wrote this, she said I do!

I explained more and more. I told her the month and date, the day of the week, the weather. I described the room in which she was sitting and the meal she was having. I told her the color of her blouse. She blinked with what I interpreted as appreciation. I believe her aphasia affected her ability to speak but not to understand. I wonder if it was not necessarily a deficit in the brain area producing language,  but a physical deficit in the muscles which controlled swallowing and speaking.

To the end, I spoke directly to her and gave her information about what was happening. I felt that we had always been honest and direct with each other, and that it was helpful to us both. I hope I was right about that.

After the hospice nurse could not find a pulse and informed us that Peggy was near death, I said, Peggy, you are dying and that is the right thing for you to be doing right now. You have lived a long life, accomplished much, and you are going to rest now.

I am not sure if the ability to speak and to understand language develops simultaneously in infants. It is interesting and cruel that we can lose one or the other or both as adults. It feels very intimate to write about how Peggy and I spoke to each other in this tender year, much as it did when my son was a baby. Both were special times, this moment in which communication was deeply intertwined with a loving, empathetic amanuensis, a midwife into or out of independent communication. What an honor it has been to play that role now several times in my life, with both my children and now with Peggy.

Who am I without you?

The last time I felt grief like this was when my parents passed away, 15 months apart, when I was in my late 20s. Then, grief was intermixed, inseparably, with the natural individuation one experiences from one’s parents. I remember feeling that I did not exist if my mother could not see me. But I did, I learned.

It can be hard to admit, but my parents needed a lot of time and attention, particularly my mother. The fact alone that each died at the age of 57 will tell you that they led lives of poor health, limited resources, and chronic stress. There was a great opening up of freedom in many ways in my life once they were gone. Of course I missed them. Of course I was relieved to be released from the responsibilities of being a high-functioning mainstay within the chaotic maelstrom of my natal family. Grief is a rich stew.

The loss of a friend is different, and the same. What I have been thinking about the last few days is not so much what I have lost in Peggy’s death, but more, what of the who I was with her am I able to take into myself and sustain? I enjoyed my friendship with her so much, in part because I liked who she was, and in part because I liked who I was when I was with her. She led me to be more open, brave, creative, accepting, generous, discerning, and pleasure-seeking.

Over the last year, whenever I had a spare hour in my busy life, I would hop into the car and go to sit with her at Cayuga Ridge, and later, Bridges. She’s been gone three and a half weeks. It is still my reflex, in those few open moments in my busy life, to turn to her.

Wild muscadines, black and sweet

Grief is a curious emotion, one that arises and surrounds me outside the realm of rational thought. It is like my grandmother’s diamond ring on my finger, its facets sparkling as I turn and turn it in the light, looking at all its differences. Grief is like love or nostalgia, in that you walk around in it despite your outside circumstances. Peggy lived a long and fruitful life and was released from a sort of suffering by her death (although she was very peaceful despite her limitations and always said she had no pain). Nonetheless, I am inner-weighted on these bright summer days, reminding myself to smile at my children despite the dark weather within. The feelings which we can’t talk ourselves out of are a place where poetry grows. Here is a poem Peggy wrote about nostalgia.

 

Don’t Walk Back

 

Don’t walk back through too many summers.

The sand of Eastham is too far

from the gravel pits

and pine hills of Mississippi.

A door ajar can be a trap

as well as sweet release to memory.

So don’t walk back through too many summers.

It’s over. Let it go.

 

There’s more to life

than cotton fields and stubble-corn,

sweet-faced cows and spring-time foxes.

More to life than attics filled

with cast-off trunks

and cardboard boxes to rummage through.

It’s over. Let it go.

 

And don’t walk back

to the sad refrain of a freight train

on single track through deep pastures,

to the crazy sound of a mad-dog hound

at bay within your sleeping head.

It’s over. Let it go.

 

Let go hot ground beneath your feet,

wild muscadines, black and sweet.

Let go rivers filled with stones,

arrow-heads and cattle bones.

Let go graveyard apple tree.

Too many summers,

let go of me.

Our Last Happy Summer

It’s possible what I am marveling at and missing is the friendship I had with Peggy, the solid all-knowing of each other’s hearts without the tug and pull of need or desire. Of course I am missing her too–her mischievous smile, her charm, her intelligence–but strongly feeling the lack of what we made between us. Peggy and I used to talk about reticence in poetry, how it was ok, even desirable, to have private thoughts only alluded to, to secrets untold, to codes and signs which resonate for very few. Readers in the presence of those, I told her, will sense the secrets and be intrigued. No need to give them away! Friendship has a lot of unsaid signs and signals. Well, ours certainly did. Here is a poem she wrote about secrets, which has not yet been published. I can tell that she is thinking a little bit about Dylan Thomas’s poem, Fern Hill, in this.

 

 

Summer of Secrets

 

Secrets surrounded us like swarming clouds

of honey bees in that summer season,

secrets surprised us in the tops of trees—

oaks and magnolias, the whispering pines.

 

Secrets in lightning strikes and sudden storms,

in the tangled grass beside the freshet

cutting its way through the field into the woods

where it grew larger, swollen by the storm.

 

Secrets, too, in the words we found carved deep

in the wooden railing of the bridge

where the freshet, now a growing stream, flowed

under and into the pasture beyond.

 

We were wild in the wildness of the place,

and golden in its morning light.

Our lightness lifted us to the crests of hills

where we flew back down as if born with wings.

 

We were the children of dragonflies, and

rode with them on the backs of black panthers.

Fearless, we slept through moonless nights

where they roamed securely inside our dreams.

 

Somehow, I don’t remember the year.

If you were here, you’d know.

It was to be our last happy summer,

the season before we learned to wear black

to mourn the deaths of dragonflies.

 

We must see these things without you now.

I am feeling my grief in my body today, with a sour, tentative stomach and weariness on my shoulders and brow. It is very hot, as were the days after my mother and father passed, and there seems something unrelenting about the heat and light, as if one must look at grief straight on, without protection from the glare. Other, smaller losses have been accumulating, too, and comfort not in the place where I would usually reach.

Still, Jon Frankel cooked a good meal last night, and we drank wine and talked of Peggy, and I am always at home at that table.

Here is an elegy that Peggy wrote a while ago, for Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. This line jumps out: We must see these things without you now.

 

Elegy for Wislawa Szymborska

 

Oh daughter of simplicity,

you are now free of fame’s field of gravity.

 

Its force almost silenced you, but

you’re no longer poet with a capital P—

 

clumping across the world’s stage on stilts

like a trained acrobat.

 

You will dance now with angels,

at ease in old shoes from Chelmek.

 

In your hands, ordinary things like laughter

and a hospital room turn golden,

 

while hidden clues to cruelty and oppression

leap from the paintings of Brughel

 

and the glories of ancient Troy.

We must see these things without you now.

 

But will you be content with perfection?

Or like a car left alone, will you chew at its edges—

 

Sure of a flaw—until a thread comes loose

which you can pull and bat around.

 

Perhaps then you’ll be content,

having mussed Perfection up a bit.