but every year I find my brother
in the shed where we store the lawnmower,
the wood steeped in
last summer’s grass.
He cradles a bottle to his chest
and he cries for a woman who left
and fell in love with death —
six months later,
whipped into an affair
that no pleading could cut loose.
The next morning,
the hangover holds him;
he says her name once more
before making coffee,
and I can hear the longing
stand before us in the kitchen
not knowing what to do.
I'm struggling to write about my current state of mind. It's spring break, which means I'm home for college this entire week and I'm realizing that "home" is becoming a complicated place for me, fraught with tensions and conflicts created by the clash between past and present.
Every corner of this house reminds me of my father. I am reminded of those artists who find the sites where vintage photographs were taken and hold up the black and white pictures against the sites as they exist today. You get this startling juxtaposition of history and modernity, a sense of the shifting nature of life and the way the camera stops time forever within a world of perpetual change.
So there is my house as it is now and there is my house when my father lived here. When I stand in the kitchen, I can see him at the sink washing dishes or at the dining table writing out checks for bills. In the living room, he's watching television or listening to music. Outside, he's mowing the lawn. I see these memories, project them onto the space of the house itself. His absence intensifies my longing. My time away only serves to increase my sensitivity to the house and all that these walls hold. This is where my ghosts are--my dead--so some part of me always wants to be here with them.
Maybe I haven't accepted his death. Maybe he is still alive to me in some way, through my memories and my attempts to resurrect him inside the house. I keep thinking about this Joan Didion quote from The Year of Magical Thinking:
"I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead"
But to what should I relinquish him? I already gave him to the earth. Nothing is left but a few photos. I've lost his voice, his presence, his warmth. Maybe I can't let go of everything. And yet I know that this obsession with him, this relationship that I maintain with him, the way I allow him to possess me, is destructive, but it's the only way I can live.
Psychoanalysts often talk about metaphorically killing the dead if one is to truly mourn. What about those of us who, like Victor Frankenstein, keep reanimating the dead? What if we can't stop even when we know that the people we long for are gone forever and our attachment to their phantoms is slowly annihilating us?
I often feel that I love the dead more than the living.
I just want him back. So I conjure him in all these empty rooms. I imagine us together again. I imagine us as one. I dream of the past becoming the present, the memories becoming reality. This house is like my mind, forever haunted by him.
I want to dispel the myth that loss is something one can "get over." I even take issue with the term "moving on." I survive, I continue, but can I ever really "move on"? To me, it implies that there is a neat line between past and present, that you were in one place and are now in another when I don't think it's that easy. I think past and present bleed together. Yes, you move, you wake up and make a pot of coffee and read a book and perform ordinary actions, but (and this is still hard for me to articulate) you exist in multiple worlds at once because the smell of the coffee reminds you of your grandmother's house and the book dislodges a memory from your childhood and all the dead, your dead, the people you loved and knew and thought you could not live without, are right there in your mind, in the room, and there is no escape. And some days, you can't move at all. Of course, no one means "move on" as a literal action but it evokes motion and a forward trajectory when I think some of us are always stepping back or stopping or stuck in stasis. We see what is ahead but we see it through the lens of the past, the lens of our loss. Everything is radiant because we know it will vanish.
What offends me most is the idea of "getting over" loss. What does that look like? Does that mean pretending as though your loss never occurred, or that it happened for a reason, or does it mean you no longer feel anything when you think about the dead? And why the emphasis on "over"? I prefer to go into loss, not over or above or under, that seems like a way to avoid, find a convenient detour, and maybe that's necessary for some people but it doesn't work for me. In my experience, the people who want you to "get over" something really mean that they want you to stop talking about it, they don't want to look at your grief and pain, they want you to keep it inside, and our culture encourages such attitudes. We value stoicism, the person who is perceived as "strong" in the face of adversity, who keeps their emotions under control. Public mourning is frowned upon. We no longer wear our loss. Our bodies are not visibly marked by bereavement. At the same time, we assume surface appearances are a reliable way to judge other people. I can still remember someone commenting to my mother only months after my father's death that she looked fine. It was assumed that, because there was no external manifestation of her grief, she must be okay. There is this contradiction when it comes to grief and mourning. We are at once expected not to be too demonstrative but, if we hide our emotions completely, we are viewed as cold and unfeeling.
Almost seven years after my father's death, I still cannot look at photographs of him. I cannot listen to the music he loved. I cannot smell his cologne. I cannot bear to live without him. I have not "moved on". I have not gotten over him. I saw him every single day for sixteen years. He read me bedtime stories and kissed me goodnight and told me I was beautiful. He brought me into the world; I watched him leave it. A few years after his death, a violent storm ripped a neighbor's dogwood tree in half. I can still remember the way the wood was cleaved, how the two halves lay strewn on the ground--what was once whole was torn apart. I remember thinking: I am that tree. Loss cuts your life into two parts: the one before the loss, and the one after it. You don't "move on", you move back and forth, between past and present, life and death, love and loss. There is no point at which the loss is behind you or not mingled in your blood. You don't get over it, you are always inside it. Until the day you die, you will ache for what you have lost.