Tag Archives: grief

Diversion: Houses and herons

My grandfather, who has been dead almost 60 years, lives on in the house he had built, a historic building that carries his name. And he lives on in Google, in the many archived electronic versions of his writings on neurosurgery. Leah told me she’d Googled him a couple of years ago, and a few entries had popped up under his name. When I Googled him a couple of days ago, I intended to see if I could find any internet images of his house. While there were no images available there was information about the house, and there were also pages and pages of his work, archived electronically, as well as writings about him. A paperback called In Memoriam: [his name], [his birth and death dates], caught my attention. It was from Amazon.uk.com, and it could be had for the princely sum of almost $50 (with the appalling exchange rate for the euro), and on an impulse, I bought it.

After I paid, it occurred to me that despite the moniker “paperback,” it’s probably his obituary, out of the newspaper, and if so, I already have a copy, folded neatly into the Bible I inherited when my mother died. Coincidently there were four Bibles, and I knew which one I wanted, the one that had belonged to my great-grandmother, with her name neatly inscribed on the front, and the date, 1887. I was afraid my sisters would want that one too, and I have never been one to argue over material things. However it was the oldest, the most worn, with yellowed pages and a ragged cover, and so I got my wish. I inherited, too, a silver dragon bowl from China (there is a fine story behind that bowl and the book my great-great aunt wrote about my great-great grandmother’s missionary trip to China, which has had a surprising resurrection, and is available still in multiple copies through Amazon.com — not reprints, I suppose, just version still extant, still circulating some 80 years later.)

But back to my grandfather and the Google search: As I scrolled through the list of entries under his name, I found a geneology of my mother’s father’s side of the family going back centuries, and made by my cousin (the son of my grandfather’s brother). I think the most common girl’s name in the family is Elizabeth, and that’s interesting because my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth (but named after my great-aunt on my mother’s mother’s side of the family).

And there, in that family tree, was my mother, her date of birth, and her date of death, and a live link that led me to the last letter she wrote before she died, which I typed for her because she was paralyzed. And there was her voice again, so bright and filled with life, apologizing for writing a “Dear everyone” letter, relating her life since the last communication as though her journey through the cancer were just one wild and never-ending adventure, joyful, with a certain happy ending.

Beneath her letter was Dad’s notice that she “has been asleep for a week now,” written a day or two before her death, and the words, “Her passing will leave an unfillable void in my life, she had such enthusiam and interest in all things and people.” It was followed by his brief and factual notice of her death, sent the morning she died. Beneath that was a notice from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer listserv, noting her passing.

I read it, and then I took Zeke to school, and on the way back from dropping her off, as I drove the exit ramp to the road that would take me to work, I looked left, and saw a heron on the winterbrown grass, so close I wouldn’t need a zoom to get a decent picture if I had had my camera — which I didn’t. I thought of Loren’s heron pictures, how clear and precisely they capture the details of the great blue heron, the curve of the neck, the long decorative feathers that sweep down from the back of the head, the cool yellow eyes. I could see all those details as the heron turned his head and watched me drive on to work, and then the details blurred as I felt strange tears of surprise and grief and joy, all at once, fill me and overflow.

Disloyal

I feel disloyal, writing about Mum. Don’t speak ill of the dead, right? And anyway, what I say could be misconstrued. I don’t mean anything to be a judgment on her. She was wonderful in multiple ways. When she died, people who barely knew her, who had met her only once or twice, stopped me to say how she had touched them. She lived lightly, easily, after the struggles of her difficult past. Horrendously difficult, really, if I add up all she suffered. She overcame.

Was it the “Right Speech” facet of Buddhism that taught her not to speak ill of my biological father, though there was much she could have said about him? I didn’t know Dad wasn’t my father till I was 12. My last name was changed by court order to my Dad’s last name, as was Rachel’s, so that we wouldn’t be recognized as illegitimate in a country that forbade divorce till 1997. When I found out Dad wasn’t my dad it was a relief for various reasons, but my mother said little about my biological dad. She could have said plenty: Drug dealer, alcoholic, abuser. Her reticence made a difference. Right speech. Am I not speaking right now in recalling my biological father? I am talking facts about him, but there are other facts too. His mother loves him. Perhaps he is kind to her. I cannot take it further; I have not talked to him since 1988.

I  wrote more about Switzerland yesterday, about my mother after her mother died, but I can’t hit “publish.” She loved all of us in the best way she knew how. It was a complicated love, shaped by her ambiguous relationship to her parents. What surprises me is how parallel our lives have been, in a way — though mine was far easier than hers as a child. But later, her diagnosis, then mine five weeks later. Treatment at the same time; her mastectomy the day before mine. The hope that came afterwards, when 2000 rang in. We were living the fantasy that both she and I would be in remission for the rest of our lives. I got lucky. She didn’t. Maybe if it wasn’t for her dying I wouldn’t be here now, but there’s no point speculating. When her mother died when she was 24, when mine died when I was 38, we both went crazy in our own ways. Dad waited for Mum to find her way. Greg didn’t. That’s the difference. In fact, Greg was finding his own way long before I met Nada, before we knew that Mum’s cancer had metasticized.

What I saw when my father spoke, before I knew about Greg’s lover, was that my father and Greg had their parallels, ways of being in the world that Dad pointed out to me. What I see now is that my life and my mother’s also had parallels. Our lives ran down the same road for a while, but they have diverged. Both my mother and I went crazy at the deaths of our mothers. But Dad waited. Greg didn’t. Dad loved Mum till the day she died, and loves her memory still. Greg was carrying on a secret correspondence with a former student long before I met Nada. He filed for divorce and three weeks after I signed he told me he was getting married to his secret love.  It’s the way things go.

I don’t even want to publish this. I don’t know where it’s going. Stella wrote about repetition some days ago, and what am I doing now but repeating parts of what I knew before, but only dimly. Finding my way through to a new place, recognizing on the way the signposts. This I knew. That… oh that is new. That tree. That moment of connection.

To be continued… maybe.