Old fashioned murder mysteries work miracles. Better still if they’re part of a series–a series whose first seventy or so volumes have already been written, so you don’t have to cope with any cliffhanger angst. Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Deborah Crombie, Patricia Cornwell…and Martha Grimes, whose Richard Jury mysteries have soothed my frayed nerves twice in my life–once when I was lying low after a miscarriage, and again these past weeks. (It doesn’t matter that I’ve read them before, apparently. I don’t remember whodunit or why, and don’t really care. It’s just lovely to be among the characters–Melrose Plant, Vivian Rivington, Jury himself, Wiggins–again.)
Rereading, always a joy, is a practical necessity when feeling undone. AJ Jacobs’s first book, The Know-It-All, saved me during several insomniac nights during my divorce. I also tend to gravitate toward Mark Helprin–his combination of earnestness and loveliness and old-fashioned writerly brilliance is, when one needs to be buoyed, the very thing. (You don’t feel like an ass tearing up at the end of a Helprin story.) I have a friend who swears that Dickens and Trollope got him through the end of his marriage.
Rereading one’s childhood and adolescent favorites is a balm to the soul. I Capture the Castle. A Little Princess. The Once and Future King. Anything by Mary Renault. Anna Karenina.
And then there are the books I’ve effectively worn out by too much rereading–Somerset Maugham’s collected stories, ditto those of Roald Dahl, most of Daphne du Maurier (one of my grandmother’s favorites), all of Edith Wharton. Possession, by A. S. Byatt. The Name of the Rose. All of Salinger. Howards End. Maybe, if I leave them long enough, my failing memory will erode their plots and characters enough to make them feel like old familiar friends again.
What do you read when you are feeling lower than low?
I’m staring at the laptop, trying to think of a good way to sum up what I’ve done since I last wrote here.
Well, let’s see. School ended in a flurry of concerts and class plays and standardized tests and half-days. My older son got his driver’s license. My ex-husband moved. I’m sure I will have things to say about all of this at some point.
But for now I’m still muddling along feeling stupid and slow. I drove to get the children at their father’s new house (half an hour away, very inconvenient, the mind boggles) and bumped right into his lovely girlfriend, who was walking her dog on the street. She hugged me. “I’m so sorry about your grandmother,” she said, and I started to cry. Well, that’s an exaggeration. My throat closed up and there were tears and I had to stare at the sidewalk in mortification, and she (bless her heart) got all teary-eyed too and when I could speak, she hugged me again and said, “For god’s sake, don’t worry about crying, I cry at the drop of a hat,” which made things worse. I wish crying were cathartic for me. It never is. I can’t ever progress past the initial stages, unless I’m shitfaced, and I’m never shitfaced any more.
Everyone–you helpful commenters included–suggested I needed time to simply be sad, and so I decided to take a week and do absolutely nothing. I finished an assignment and turned it in on time (this felt like a small miracle, actually) and then I set about wasting several days in a row. I read some books. I went for walks. I swam in the pool, which opened on Memorial Day. I hung around with the children, and drove them here and there, and sat on the sidelines at baseball, and watched my younger son’s class sing songs and perform little skits based on Aesop. I went to my boyfriend’s chorus concert and his daughter’s dance recital and ate dinner with his family afterwards, and through it all I felt as if I were underwater, dead to the world and separate from it. Then school ended and the week became a second week. For fourteen days now I’ve done nothing, and I’m fine as long as I don’t think too hard, or as long as no one is kind to me.
The one bright spot has been a renewed closeness with my brother and sister, both of whom feel the way I do about our grandmother. My sister in particular has been a tremendous comfort. “She loved you. You shared a name. It’s terribly sad when that connection ends,” she told me just today, after noting that not even adopting a Labrador retriever puppy has managed to cheer her up.
I’m starting to feel twinges of occasional guilt, but it’s mostly abstract. There is work I should do, there are projects I intended to start this summer, my driver’s license has expired, the usual chores await. Doctor’s appointments, financial matters, phone calls to insurance agents, thank-you notes. But the children are out of school and around all day next week before the older one starts work and the younger one starts day camp, so I may just coast a bit longer. Another week. Why not? I’m rereading murder mysteries whose culprits I misremember. I go to bed early, sleep poorly, rise late. The kids are a comfort. The days just go by, one after another, at a remove.
And I guess I’ll miss my grandmother forever. The simplest revelations still astonish. Today, for instance, I thought, I will never see her again. Not exactly rocket science, but somehow it shattered me.
I know people talk about the transformative power of grief, and I know that there’s supposed to be some alchemy whereby you internalize the person you lost so that he or she lives on inside you. You convert the pain into a kind of fond reminiscence, you turn the memories inward then back outward, so that the person–so the logic goes–stays alive in your mind or heart or wherever it is you store memories of someone who’s gone. And then they’re, magically, present. And that is supposed to console you. You conjure a ghostly yet vivid invention, and then you breathe some kind of benevolent nostalgia over it all, and presto. Your beloved person has returned.
Honestly, it sounds wonderful, but I have no idea how people manage to pull this off. Thinking about, as my mother suggests, the “happy times”–as opposed to the day I left her, the last time I saw her–does not help. Looking at pictures of my grandmother, reading her letters, suddenly noticing the way her turns of phrase and habits of thinking turn up constantly in my life does not bring comfort. At all. Thinking about her makes me miserable.
I don’t want to be miserable. I want to move into a stage when I’m able to re-animate her, to talk about her and think about her, without feeling sick at heart. Right now the best thing I can do is try not to think about her at all. In order to accomplish this, I shut down my entire brain and become a minimally functioning moron. I can’t work. I can’t read. I’m not a lot of fun at parties. Today I went to the library, determined to make headway on an assignment, and I spent about two hours drooling and staring at my desk.
One interesting item: It has not occurred to me to want to talk to my ex-husband about any of this. There was a time when I would have automatically confided in him, perhaps even sought comfort in the dregs of our old relationship. He knew my grandmother well, after all, and knew how much I loved her. He has been kind since she died–I don’t mean to imply otherwise–but I have not felt any nostalgic need to hash things over with him, to describe (let’s say) the funeral, or my last visit, or my grief.
The summer right after we separated, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. On the phone with my ex-husband late one night a week or so after I found out, I kept him on the line as I tried to talk myself down off a panicky ledge, until he suddenly interrupted. “I can’t be your emotional lifeline through this,” he said. At the time, it felt like a slap in the face. But whether he was justified or not–and I tend to think he was, actually, justified–is not relevant. What’s relevant is that I needed him then, and I don’t need him now, which seems to indicate that one’s psychic landscape can, over time, drastically change.
So maybe, given enough time, I’ll change again. Maybe remembering my grandmother will eventually bring me comfort and happiness. Not now, not yet, not even (I don’t think) soon. But someday.
“Drag” is actually a great word for it–everything I do seems weighted down, slow, exhausting. I think longingly all day about the moment I’ll get go to bed, and then when I get there I worry about the morning. I feel terrible in the mornings–anxious, weepy, a mite panicky. I have all manner of fucked up dreams, and I don’t feel particularly dewy and wonderful no matter how long I sleep. I miss my children when they’re with their father. I miss my boyfriend when he’s not here. I miss everyone, and I want to gather everyone up and crush them, or eat them, or something. I have some kind of weird voracious urge to envelop and consume everyone I miss.
The last time I saw my grandmother she was so tiny and frail. It was about two weeks before she died, and she wasn’t demented–she never was–but she was half in and half out of this world already, and she slept a lot. She weighed about seventy pounds and she was tucked up in her bed like a little bird. She had developed a tremor in one hand–it wobbled, slightly, all the time–but she hugged me and patted my back when I lay down next to her. Her skin looked radiant, her hair was snowy white, her beautiful blue eyes were watery but clear. “You smell delicious,” I said, leaning in to kiss her again and again, and she said, slowly, “Thank you, darling. You smell delicious, too.”
I wanted to pick her up and hold her the way you would cradle an infant. There was nothing off-putting about her, nothing even slightly repulsive. For the last few years, my grandmother had seemed both like and unlike herself, and I had been a little afraid of her, physically–I don’t know how else to put it, and I know that that particular feeling was not laudable or kind. But she was on morphine for the arthritis that crippled her, and sometimes she drooled. Her nose ran, sometimes. She was grumpy when she was in pain, or just when she had had enough. I have taken care of children, and I know that a runny nose is not the end of the world, but it alarmed me and I was squeamish about the spectacle of my grandmother drooling or spilling her food or failing to wipe her nose. I felt guilty for being afraid and disgusted. And then, this last visit, that fear and shameful recoiling were gone.
I kissed her face and head and it was like kissing an infant–soft, warm, sweet. I was afraid I’d hurt her–she was so little–but I lay carefully down beside her and stroked her arm, her shoulder, her face, her hair. She liked it. She smiled. I told her again and again how much I loved her, how much I had always loved her, that we were kindred spirits. That was her particular phrase, used since I was a very small girl, for the particular affinity we had.
I was home for three days and I went to see her several times each day, staying an hour or so, leaving when she fell asleep and coming back later. She was happy to see me every time, remembered what we had talked about before, submitted to my caresses. She squeezed my hand, patted my arm. We spent a long time just looking at each other, her beautiful light blue eyes fixed on mine. There was no embarrassment in it. Her gaze was as frank as a baby’s.
My mother and my brother and one of my cousins, all of whom live near my grandmother, had warned me to prepare for the worst. She might be unresponsive, she might not wake, she might not, if she woke, even recognize me, they said. But she did. And when I came into her room the morning of the last day to say goodbye, I was in a wonderful mood. We’d had such a lovely time together. I was buoyed by the visit, and was planning to come again, soon. “I’ll come again soon, in May, I think, as soon as I can,” I told her, as I held her hands in mine and kissed her beautiful face.
How can I describe what came next? When I held her face and looked into her eyes, they were filled with pure sorrow, pure sadness and grief and pain. I had never seen her look like that. I kept telling her I loved her, telling her how happy I’d been to see her, but her eyes didn’t change. It was horrible to leave, horrible to walk out of the room and out of the house. Outside, I found my brother, and wept.
It has been all grief since then. Primal, selfish, illogical grief. I wanted to stay with her, I wanted to hold on to her tiny little body for dear life. A month has passed since her death, and I cry all the damned time still–I, who never cry. Please, I think, knowing that even the tense is wrong now, but unable to shake it. Please, swallowing like mad, tipping my head back so the tears stay put. Please, don’t go.
My grandmother wasn’t part of my everyday life. We lived far away from each other, after all, and in recent years I did not call her as much as I used to. I used to talk to her at least once a week and write her maybe once a month, though she wrote me every single week without fail. Over the last few years, her writing slowed, and it became harder to talk to her. She sometimes got confused, more due to the morphine she took for crippling arthritis than to any kind of dementia, and she couldn’t always quite hear. I’m ashamed to say that I sometimes dreaded calling, and put it off, because talking to her could–again, only in the last five years or so–be an uphill battle.
But apparently I thought about her much more than I knew. Apparently an enormous part of everything I do or say is somehow linked to my grandmother. Turns of phrase, scraps of memory, places we went or places she told me about, little things sitting around my house (a lamp she gave me, a picture frame, a box, books, china) remind me of her constantly. I didn’t quite realize this before she died–you don’t notice every step you take until there’s a painful pebble in your shoe. Now I’m brought up short dozens of times a day. Depending on my mood, I either find it comforting (she’s everywhere, and will be forever) or intolerable. I miss her. I suppose I always will. This is how it goes, a friend of mine told me (his mother died, and he knows a thing or two about grief). You miss them until you die.
I’ve been rereading letters she wrote me over the years, and reading some of the letters I wrote her, which I swiped from a drawer in her desk last week. Her letters are astonishing. She was incredibly prolific, and had an epistolary gift that I unconsciously tried to imitate when I wrote her back. So there’s more of her in my letters to her, if that makes sense, than there is of me. I did my best to ape not only her style, but her way of seeing, her manner of describing, her chattiness and humor, her voice.
I’m lucky still to have so much of her, to be reminded of her so often. And I know that this is how you learn about grief, if indeed you are as lucky as I have been. You reach middle age and a beloved grandparent dies after a long and busy life, and then you know what sadness feels like. It’s not a brutal education, it’s what we all earn, what we come to, if we’re lucky. It’s even what we deserve. I’m trying not to fight this grief, nor fetishize it, but rather to live up to it, to bear it nobly and well.
My wits are slow, and while I would love to produce a dazzling essay that would make my grandmother as vivid and wonderful to you as she was to me, I can’t do it yet. I do find it enormously comforting to hear that other people have been so sad when grandparents die, and I’m so grateful to those of you who have written to tell me that you felt the same way. Until you did, I almost felt as if I didn’t have the right to be so upset. She was old, and her death was not unexpected. And a grandparent is not a child, nor a parent, nor a sibling. She was almost fifty when I was born. What did I think, that she would live forever?
And yet she was my kindred spirit and my champion and my devoted lifelong friend. I have no trouble keeping her memory alive, as people always say. I know that I can think of her and remember her and read her letters (she wrote me thousands of letters–a letter at least every week for nearly my entire life) and talk about her and so forth. I know that I can still love her even though she is dead.
But she loved me in a way no one else ever has. Is this what we miss, when people die? It’s not that we don’t love them, but rather that they do not love us any more. That’s what’s gone–that’s why it feels selfish and terrible of me to mourn, why I am vaguely ashamed of it. I’m not just lamenting the loss of my grandmother, I’m indulging some kind of primal, childish anguish that the person who loved me best is gone.
for being absent. My grandmother, to whom I have always been very close, died last week. In March I went down to see her for what I was fairly certain would be the last time, and it was wonderful to see her but very hard to say goodbye. I had, in fact, just made a plane reservation to go down for a couple of stolen days last week–we knew the end was coming, and I wanted to see her one more time (I felt rather childishly desperate to do so)–when my mother called to say that she had died.
My grandmother’s unusual first name is also mine, and it is quite odd to be the only one left. I’ve never known another person with our name. I am wearing her father’s wedding ring, which was taken off her finger after her death. I am determined not to think about any of this. I can’t quite do it yet.
She died at home, in her bed, and it was (it seems) a death free from pain. She was ninety-four years old. Her night nurse, a lovely woman, was with her when she died.
I wish I had been, too.