The Ways of Grief
"The second year was harder for me. The first year it still feels new. By the second year, the reality of the loss just sits inside you. The permanence has hit you. It takes you to a deeper, darker place."
Quoted by Patti Davis, in "The River of Memory."
Note to my bossy S-i-L
I know you call me to be nice, and I appreciate it. It's more than most of the family bothers to do, these days. But please do not equate your choice to stay home with your kids while living on your husband's very generous salary with my own situation. My "single income" has not one iota of choice involved, and it is substantially less than yours. This is an issue only when you try to "out-poor" me, so please knock it off.
And while you are at it, could you find a way to remind the rest of the family that my work is not just some peculiar asexual "career woman" impulse that demonstrates my unfitness for motherhood, but the thing that keeps us fed and clothed and provided sustenance for my dying husband--your brother? I can't manage to put it in language that translates.
You're a peach,
The darkest hours
Once upon a time, when I was an incidental student and frequent waitress, Sundays and Mondays were my favorite days of the week. As anyone who has worked in restaurants knows, a typical Tuesday-Saturday week generally offers the best chance for tips, so that's when I worked. And, of course, the pressure of restaurant work increases astronomically between Tuesday night (mostly regular diners, a fairly light crowd) and Saturday (regular diners showing up at the last minute, review hounds eager to put a recently reviewed spot to the test, and buffoons who apparently never dine out and therefore think that every single party ought to be able to dine on the dot of 7 p.m. [they also complain that the chardonnay is "not cold enough" or that the fat-ass California red wine they bought "isn't oaky enough." Too many Saturday-night diners are philistines, pretentious boobs, hoi polloi
--and they clutter up the place, excluding the well-behaved, appreciative regulars who tip a lot. But yes, I digress...]). Sundays were for morning coffee, the Times
, a long walk to a second-hand bookstore, and maybe dinner at one of the small restaurants that was open on Sunday, where most of my fellow diners were other restaurant workers. Monday was laundry, shopping, housecleaning, and generally preparing for the Tues-Saturday slog. They were my
days, and I cherished each hour.
When I met my husband, and once I was no longer working in restaurants, Friday evenings became another favorite. After I took a leave from my graduate program (to teach full-time at the lovely college where I am now tenure-line) and he became semi-gainfully employed, it was a tremendous pleasure to come home Friday without feeling any pressure to "go out" that characterized my first post-food-service years (something about the distorting view of the world as a place where all people do is eat out). Some nights we did "go out," but generally to a neighborhood place (our old neighborhood had a huge variety of easy, comfortable places), and then, maybe, to a favorite used bookstore, where I would browse the literary criticism, pop CDs, marked-down fiction, and mysteries, while he explored everything from religious doctrine to biofuels or cookbooks. Even if we stayed in (as we did for a long time, back when _Homicide_ was on TV) there was something so right about just being home, in our cozy little house, together, with everything we loved most in the right place, and the promise of the weekend stretched out before us. And coming home to my husband and daughter, in the brief, glorious weeks after her arrival and before his stage 4 diagnosis, was incomparable for the sense of completeness and quiet joy it gave.
Now, I dread Friday nights. I come home tired and cranky to a cold house, with no dinner planned [yes, of course that's my own fault], a tired, whiny child, edgy pets, and a weekend of chores and work laid out before me. I have several hundred dollars of credit at "our" favorite bookstore, if I could bring myself to use it. As often as possible, I try to get out of the house on Fridays, lest the looming emptiness remind me too unbearably of what we have lost. Saturday morning, there will be chores and duties: pets to exercise, or bathe, cages to clean, laundry to do, a week's worth of mail to sort. These things are not consolations; they merely mask the emptiness with mindless busy-ness.
I've just gotten my first written work of the term from my students, and, as usual, I find myself feeling the inevitable frustration, the tightness at the back of my throat, that accompanies the snidely evaluative tone with which they address the authors of course texts, the rampant disregard for the niceties of the apostrophe, the slapdash use of citation, the reliance on cliché. Just one semester, I'd like to not
get a paper that talks about how the most important factors in literature are "enjoyment" and "relatability"--which means that the text can somehow be distorted to offer a truism the student has just recently discovered! In her own life! And it is Sooooo True! How did Jane Austen/Toni Morrison/Hunter S. Thompson/Brer Easton Ellis know?
Tomorrow I will shake myself off, sit myself down, and remind myself that they don't mean to be patronizing, irreverent, or obtuse. They are not writing this way simply to annoy me, or their other professors. It is, of course, my duty--and almost inevitably, with my students--my privilege
to help them learn to assess, interpret, and critique without resorting to the tone and criteria of their previous teachers: "This author tried to talk about too many points in his reading, and his sentences were long and boring, making them impossible for the reader to relate to." "This poet clearly could not come up with a better word to rhyme with 'Madagascar,' so instead she leaves the reader hanging." "The story had too many characters, and I could not relate to any of them." "Literature is subjective; each person has their own opinion and nothing can change that."
As each semester begins, I remind myself how much they will improve. I relish their insightful contributions to class discussions. I curse whichever previous professor did not actually enforce
the paper deadlines or other course policies so that the students see mine as merely gentle suggestions. I regret the decaying cultural fabric of America, and the popular sense that good grammar is at best suspect and at worst traitorous. I lament the death of the mind, the rampant triumph of late capitalism, and the underappreciation of the semicolon.
And so, the real work begins. Again.
Dare I hope?
The students in both my classes today were prepared, lively, and had interesting things to say. They were there on time; no cell phones rang; no one was obviously
text-messaging. I actually really enjoyed both discussions (okay, the earlier class seems a bit more on the ball than the later one, which has younger and/or flakier students). Could it be that this will be an okay semester, despite the hysteria out of which it emerged?
Fingers crossed. I don't want to jinx myself.
When was the last time I actually blogged about my job
? I do still have one, y'know.
Dear Suicide/Homicide-Prevention Hotline,
I am no longer in immediate need of your intervention. The snow is melting, and my daughter's school has reopened! In addition, I have now realized that the crucial catalyst in Sylvia Plath's tragic death is neither her husband's infidelity, her poetic anxiety, or even a serious chemical imbalance. It was being housebound in frozen London with her two small children
. The article I intend to produce from my insight will bring me fame, fortune, and tenure. And I have an electric stove.
Thanks for returning my calls,
Desperation and Rage
1. We have been basically housebound since Weds. because of bad weather. No school, no childcare.
2. My classes start tomorrow, but because I have had my daughter here full time, my syllabi are not ready. They are predicting bad weather again tomorrow, which may mean that she has to stay home again tomorrow. Talk about Catch-22: is it better to show up for class meeting #1 without syllabi, or to miss one's first day of class entirely because one has no childcare, thereby concealing the fact that one's syllabi are not ready?
3. No one has called to see how we are doing, offer to take my daughter out, or just break up the cabin fever. I am trying not to take it personally, especially with respect to my inlaws, but I am ready to scream and shout.
4. I am feeling bored, desperate, and completely alone.
5. The weather is going to require several expensive new home chores. Which I can't afford.
6. The pets need several services (teeth cleaned, check on medication). Which I can't afford.
7. My cars suck in this weather.
8. The final straw? Like a good girl, I downloaded the automatic software update for my laptop/airport. It appears to have made it completely impossible for the airport/internet link to function--at least without yet another in the series of impossible passwords my husband used to set the system up over 1 1/2 years ago. I solved the frayed/incorrectly ordered/out of stock power cord problem. I reset the Admin password on my own computer, which my husband had also set up (and which was not one of the multiple passwords of his with which I was familiar; I tried each of them at least 29 times). But this latest problem involves too many elements that I simply do not understand and that cause my throat to tighten up, my shoulders to clench, and my eyes to fill with tears.
9. I suddenly have much greater empathy for Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining
. And for every single parent out there. If I, from my position of relative ease, comfort, and privilege (we have power, heat, videos; we can get out to run short errands; we have seen several friends over the duration) feel so overwhelmed with frustration, rage, despair, and impotence, what must it be like for the many, many others who have so much less?
10. I miss my husband. He could have solved 1,2,4,5,7, and 8. And made the others seem far less burdensome.
GRRRRRRRRRRRR. Time for some deep, cleansing breaths. And a stiff drink.
My own private Festivus
Fortunately, I didn't resolve to quit kvetching for the new year. I'm not foolish enough to promise something that impossible to achieve. Thus, I bring you, better late than never, a partial list of the things and people who disappointed me in the last year:
1. My foundation. No, not my undergarments, but the porous, 100-year-old underpinnings of my home. Here's to the multiple cracks, leaks, and spots too small for the naked eye to see, through which you absorbed water: drops, streams, and the occasional small flood. Here's to the the rugs you ruined, the furniture that smells like mildew, and the backaches I endured while mopping, mopping, mopping.
2. The weather. I'm an ex-Californian. By necessity. I had always considered myself pretty lucky to have remained on the West Coast. I've grown to love--not fear--the conifers. I occasionally get nervous when it goes more than 3 days without rain. But for the love of God, enough! Hurricane force winds, endless pelting rains, mud and sog and puddles and everything I own wet all the freakin' time. Freezing temperatures. Ice, fer Christ's sake. This is not the global warming I was looking forward to.
3. My in-laws. What happened to the offers of help with home maintenance? What happened to the "we're here to help" comments? The once-per-month visits to help with those routine tasks that feel so enormous when there's only me, with my bad back and my general ineptness? The offers to spend time with your granddaughter? The generous checks just to make our lives easier? I know I'm on their Festivus list, too--too busy, too crabby, too outspoken. But please, offer to help. I won't say no. I never have said no. I need some unsolicited time to myself, without having to pay for a sitter. Your granddaughter needs to hear, from you, about her father as a little boy.
4. My cars. I know, I know, I'm lucky to have them. I didn't pay for either one. But a working defroster is not optional where I live (see item 2, above). And to whatever plastic thingy came loose in the sedan dash, so that it rattles irritatingly in time to the bass, "heal thyself."
5. My pets. You know who you are. You have had ten years, cats, to learn to open the refrigerator and work the can opener. I can only conclude that you are not really trying. Dog, when I say "Don't chase the cats," it means forever
, not just "right now."
6. My washing machine. You are new. You were expensive. You are fancy and sturdy and ecologically sensitive. All I ask of you is that you stand in one place (I can't keep shoving you back against the wall) and that you not spew water all over the floor (see item 1; the mopping is getting old) and that you spin the clothes. Even if I don't load them exactly
to your liking. Deal with it.
7. My husband. I know, love, but I really, really expected you to stop all this "deceased" nonsense and come home. I miss you. And I need help with items 1-6, above.
8. My big effing corporate bank. Here's to taking an entire year to remove my husband's name (see item 7) from the house title, costing my several thousand dollars in attorney's fees. And to never letting me speak to the same customer service rep more than once, so that I had to start over with the whole effing saga of widowhood over and over and over. And to relocating out of state, and then repeatedly giving me incorrect advice about the legal requirements for putting the paperwork in my name only. For a house that leaks (see item 1). And finally, for responding to my articulate 3-page letter of complaint with a form letter that addressed not a single one of my grievances.
I'm sure there are more items to be honored for Festivus. To be continued...
I know I haven't written for a while, but you know it's because you are never out of my thoughts. It's been over a year now, and I guess I am supposed to be getting"better" (whatever that might mean); instead, I find I am just getting sadder. Before it was as though there was a gaping hole in the center of my life, but these days, I find myself missing you--the funny things you used to say, or things I imagine you would say. And that missing you doesn't seem to get any better; if anything, it's worse. I went home for the holidays, thinking that being somewhere that held fewer memories would be easier. It wasn't. I was preoccupied by how different it would be if you were there to celebrate with us; the places we'd go, the things we'd talk about.
And it breaks my heart that you can't see your daughter. She's just the funny, spirited, smart, and opinionated child you wanted. I remember M & A's wedding, where we watched all of those brilliantly uninhibited little girls out on the dance floor. We lamented our own introverted childhood selves, and you said, "I want a little girl like that--one who's not afraid to dance when people are watching." And now you've got one, in spades. She misses you, and everything that reminds us of you is precious to us. I hope you know that, although I can't seem to envision you peering down around the clouds like some bad Sunday school illustration.
This isn't working. I can write and write, but it doesn't say what I want to say, and I can't fool myself that you are hearing it.
I love you always, and happy birthday.