On the 10th Anniversary of My Father's Death

Ten years ago, I was sixteen.
Ten years ago, my mother and I went to the hospital where we were led to a small white room lined with chairs. We sat. A doctor came in and said my father was dead.

At first, I did not cry. No tears. Nothing was real, but, at the same time, reality was intensified. My mother screamed. A sensation beyond words.

A story I've always wanted to write: The moments before someone is told their loved one is dead. The fear, the drive to the hospital, the bargaining with a god they don't believe in. Just let him be okay and I'll do anything.

Another story I want to write: The aftermath of loss, the moments after you're told someone is dead. This new terrible knowledge that you can't unknow.

I was no longer solid. It was a dissolving of the self that gave birth to a deeper desire to disappear. Here was this new world, after death, without him, and in the first seconds of existing in this world I longed to escape. I have ached to escape ever since.

In “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath wrote about the death of her father, or not her father exactly but the looming figure of the dead father, of the longing for a reunion:

I was ten when they buried you.   
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

"I'll never speak to God again," her mother, Aurelia, reports her saying after she was told of his death. Plath was only 8 years old. He haunts her work, like a black ink stain spreading across the page, like a swarm of bees in the distance.

In "Sheep in Fog," Plath describes a horrible heaven that is "starless and fatherless, a dark water." To know that even death will not bring closure, that death promises another absence, a nothingness.

I will die without my father. I will live the rest of my life without my father. It takes my breath away. The finality. The pain I didn't know could exist.

I need to write this, or do I? I'm torn between speech and silence. I know this can't be written, that any attempt is fated to fail. I keep thinking if I write it then I can transform it, bear it, it can be more than just my tragedy. Writing is the justification for my life, my living, my survival.

But this wound resists words.

After her mother committed suicide, the Pop artist Marisol went mute for a year. She was eleven years old. Later in life, when she became a famous painter, she refused to answer the questions of reporters. Silence was her shield.

There are so many grief memoirs. So many works of art that seek to explain and express loss. They testify to our need to make sense of the senseless. Many of the memoirs emphasize a narrative of healing. They want to provide hope that grief can be survived, that grief is painful but necessary and even temporary. You'll move on. It will get easier with time.

But I prefer a different narrative that subverts the idea of healing and a return to normalcy. I write of the mutilation of loss, the permanence of it, how it lingers in the blood. I voice what is unsettling and unacceptable to some people: that grief is forever, grief destroys you, you're undone and ruined by loss.

If there is any hope to be found perhaps it is in the possibility of rebuilding with what is left after loss.

In The Gleaners and I, Agn├Ęs Varda profiled people in France who lived off leftovers. They haunted street markets after the crowds dispersed, sorting through the bruised fruit and random clothing that remained; they picked up stray apples off the ground in orchards. They were poor, living on the margins, ignored and dismissed, but they fought against modern waste, against a society that throws so much away, including people. They gathered the discarded in their arms. They found a use for the bits and pieces left behind.

Maybe that's all you can do after loss. Stoop over the refuse left behind and glean what you can. Keep what's worth having and make some kind of life with it.

Years before The Gleaners and I, Varda used her camera to memorialize her dying husband, the director Jacques Demy. She meticulously, lovingly, filmed his face, capturing extreme close-ups of his hair, eyes, and skin. As his body decayed, she sought to preserve him on film.

The artist has only her art. She may have children and lovers and parents, but her art is her true companion, how she makes herself real and alive and comprehensible. It is her weapon against death.

After the doctor told us my father was dead, we were allowed into the hospital room to be with his body for the last time. The room was luminous white, awash in spring sunlight. He lay there, silent and motionless, as though he would wake from a nap. He was still warm, still my father, but not. Something else, unknowable and frightening and far away. I touched his hair and noticed how soft it was. So soft. So his own.

He was gone. An empty skin. A body. I held his hand, but the essence of him was lost.

Where did that essence go? How could he simply vanish, cease to be?

I will never fathom it.

We are more than our death. We are all the life that comes before that awful moment of oblivion.
So I try to remember the before, the world of him, not just the after. I try so hard. I try to make a life out of the good parts, the beautiful memories of him but, often, I am drowning. I am devastated.

One comfort is our last encounter. The last time I saw him, we embraced and my last words to him (and his last words to me) were I love you.

How Fanny Brawne Mourned the Death of John Keats

The love story between John Keats and Fanny Brawne lasted only a few short years but, when Keats died in 1821, Brawne was plunged into a deep mourning.

Their romance began in 1818 when they first met while the Brawne family visited the Dilkes, who shared a house--Wentworth Place--with Keats’s best friend, Charles Armitage Brown. When Keats visited, and later lived with Brown, Fanny got to know Keats. Fanny and Keats seemed like a mismatched pair. He was a poet, she was interested in fashion, but the two quickly forged an intense bond.

In 1819, the Brawnes moved into Wentworth Place, living in the part of the house once occupied by the Dilkes. Keats and Fanny could now spend more time together and their love blossomed; they were soon engaged, though Fanny's mother disapproved of a possible marriage because of Keats's dismal financial prospects. During this time, Keats wrote some of his most beloved poems, including “Ode to a Nightingale” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci."  When he traveled with Brown to the Isle of Wight, he wrote passionate love letters to Fanny. In fact, anytime they were separated, whether due to travel or because of his ill health, Keats wrote letters and notes to Fanny, professing his love and his desire for them to always be together.

Unfortunately, his health deteriorated in 1820 after he was caught in the cold without a coat and subsequently suffered a lung hemorrhage. Doctors advised him to move to Italy where the weather was better for his tubercular condition. The looming trip to Italy was difficult for both Fanny and Keats. According to Jane Campion's introduction to Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, Keats reports that Fanny said "Is there another life?...There must be, we cannot be created for this kind of suffering." After moving to Italy, Keats found it impossible to write another letter to Fanny. He died in Italy in 1821.

Keats’s death devastated Fanny. She wore black mourning clothes for many years, chopped her hair off, and wandered the woods where she and Keats had often spent time together. It’s clear that the depth of her grief matched the depth of her love for Keats. Eventually, Fanny went on with her life. She married and had children, she translated and published short stories. She died in 1865.

In 2009, Jane Campion brought the story of Fanny Brawne and John Keats to the big screen. Starring Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, Bright Star is an exquisite tribute to two extraordinary lives. Campion is careful to capture how the love affair unfolded, beginning as innocent flirtation and then exploding into an all-consuming romance. We do not have Fanny's letters to Keats. We only have Keats's letters to Fanny, which were published fifteen years after Fanny died. The film does a tremendous job of giving Fanny a complex and nuanced personality. She's witty, smart, and stylish. She's a young girl who finds--and loses--the love of her life in a short period of time.

The film vividly depicts Fanny’s grief over the death of Keats. When Fanny hears the news that Keats has died in Italy, she is physically debilitated. She falls to her knees, gasping for breath, and calling for her mother. Abbie Cornish gives a tour de force performance. Few films have captured the painful physicality of grief.

We watch Fanny sew her black mourning clothes and cut her hair. Throughout the film, Fanny is an ethereal presence, wearing daring and colorful ensembles. The decision to wear black and chop off her hair communicates her grief in a visible way. She literally wears her grief on her body.

The film ends with Fanny walking by herself on the heath, reciting Keats’s poem “Bright Star.” As she wanders alone, her face expresses so many emotions.  At times, she cries, but there’s a moment when she smiles, probably thinking of Keats and their time together.

Their love affair was obstructed by distance--she was often kept from him due to his ill health, he was geographically separated from her both in England when he lived away from Wentworth Place and then when he moved to Italy--but language created an intimacy. His love letters and poems deepened and sustained their relationship. So it's profoundly fitting that the movie leaves us with an image of Fanny reciting Keats's words, for they are the one part of him that can never be lost.


Gregor Samsa awoke to a life he no longer recognized, to a self that was not recognizable. I feel this way about my own life.

We are so small, so insignificant, but that doesn't make us ache any less.

It occurs to me that other people go on, they live, but I only live in that day in May 2006 when my father died.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has taught us, there is danger in focusing on one narrative, but, when it comes to grief, we allow only a single narrative--that of resilience and healing. We need to expand our minds. We need more stories. Survival is important but, increasingly, I am interested in those who do not survive, who cannot survive.

When I write on paper, I feel so free. I feel a true catharsis, as though these thoughts and feelings are physical objects. A stream coming out of me. It makes a difference to feel the words being formed, to touch them and be close to them. Writing as a release of emotion, as liberation, as survival. That's what writing has always been to me, this channel for expressing my true self and all that I feel and fear and cannot speak. I think some things simply can't be said to another person or in normal conversation, they have to be written. The words are too raw and intense and only writing can contain them.

One loss leads to another. The chain of loss is never broken.

The past is ruins and bones.

Erase the ending. I want an end to endings.

The past is alive. It's the "now" that feels dead, unbearable.

He is in my bones and now he is only bones.

The past as I remember it did not happen. It never existed. My memory invented it.

Love won't make him live again, but his love keeps me alive.

I've been watching the films of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. Gloria is all action, with Rowlands displaying grit and style. A Woman Under the Influence is emotionally devastating. Rowlands is fearless. She goes to a depth that few actresses ever reach. There's no skin. There's no barrier. You forget that it's a movie on a screen, you think you're witnessing real life. I relate to Mabel. I've never been insane like her but I'm strange, I don't fit, I can't make myself into the right thing.

The childhood vanishes but the child remains, always longing for what is lost.

It scares me that there will be a time without me, that I will no longer be in time.

Spring and summer remind me of childhood. I spent my days outside with the trees and the birds and the grass. I played, I wandered. I waded barefoot in creeks and picked blackberries and hiked the grassy fields. I got scratches from briers, mosquito bites, grass stains on my jeans, cuts on my hands, sprained ankles. I thought youth was everlasting. I knew nothing about the end. I stayed outside until my mother yelled for me to come home. I couldn't wait for it all to begin again.

I can't live without remembering. The places and the people are gone. So I write the memories.

What will it take for me to write as I should, as I know I can write? I hold back. I fail.

Trees--a wall of emerald shimmer.

My love for light is why I adore the Impressionists. They were dedicated to the fluctuations of light, how the sun made objects glow and throb.

The vastness of nature, the wonder of it, the pleasure of witnessing a bird take flight, watching the shadow of its wings glide across the grass.

I like being outside in the mysteries of nature. I can't name trees or identify insects. I know so little, but I own my unknowing. I embrace it. I connect to sensations. I breathe in the sweet scent of cut grass. I listen to the barking dogs and the birdsong. I look at the white vapor of contrails streaking across the milky blue sky. I revel in the now. I live inside the glow of the present.

Being out in nature rinses my mind, wipes it clean so that I can just exist without feeling so damaged and ashamed and lost. The light is a gift.

I can't paint light. I can't write it. Light can't be written, only known. It's so physical, so visual, there's no other way to know it except to see it.

I'm in love with so much but how can I ever express all that love? How can I share what is inside?

It doesn't matter what others think is bearable. What matters is what you can bear and what can break you.

I try so hard to hold on to life but, by holding life, I also hold death. There is no escape.

Life isn't a classroom; it isn't a series of lessons to be learned. Life is chaos. Pure chaos.

My reality: a life, a world, without him

I'm trying to write about ruins, about what loss does to a life, the destruction of it, the darkness, the never healing.

I'm here in 2016 but I'm also in 2006, in his hospital room beside his dead body. And I'm in the years before his death, in the years of his life. I'm at the park with him. We're watching television. He's telling me he loves me. I'm in all these places at once. I am all these memories, all these girls.

He is forever lost, forever untouchable.

I write from pain. My writing will always be pain. My writing will always revolve around my pain. I can't write any other way.

Writing keeps me tender. Writing is the tender part of me. It's my heart and soul.

My writing is and always will be cathartic. It's selfish in that way. It comes from my gut, my blood, my body.

I only get flashes of what is in me. That's what these fragments are.

Where does sound go after the body goes silent? And taste and touch and sight and smell? All the petals gathered over a lifetime drop away. A dark wilting. The living touch the senseless dead. The living touch this new nothingness, in awe of the vast absence. I watch a movie in which deaf and blind people touch a tree, place their hands on the bark and stand there, connecting to the life of it. All we can do is touch. All we can do is feel.

The Voices of the Dead

Christmas 2005. The Christmas before my father's death. The last one I will ever have with him, though I don't know it at the time. His gift to me is a book of poetry that includes three compact discs of poets reading their work. There's all the Modernists--Eliot, H.D., William Carlos Williams, and so on. There's Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. And there is my beloved Sylvia Plath. I've never heard her voice before. I put the compact disc in my CD player and put on my headphones.

She starts to read "Daddy" and then "Lady Lazarus". I begin to weep. I am utterly captivated and moved by hearing her voice read poems I have only ever read in my edition of Ariel. My mother comes into my room and I'm still sobbing and I tell her that I heard Sylvia Plath. Even now, all these years later, I don't know how to describe it and I feel a bit ridiculous about how emotional I was, but I know I shouldn't be. She mattered to me at that time and she matters to me still. It mattered that her voice was there, reading the poems that helped me survive.

Years later, in 2009, I come across the only known recording of Virginia Woolf's voice. It is late at night. I have no headphones and my mother is in the room so I have to keep the volume very low and position my head close to the laptop speakers.  The voice sounded the way I expected it to--erudite and intellectual. Her voice made her seem more alive despite her death. To hear this woman writer was to experience her in a different way, to come closer to her even while knowing you could never really grasp her at all. I don't remember crying when I heard Woolf's voice, but the recording moved me.

I have no recording of my father's voice. I cannot open an audio file and hear him speak to me. He died in 2006, before the sudden burst of new technology, like cellphones and laptops, started to saturate our lives. We had no money for such things. We were poor, barely surviving. So there's nothing of him left except some photographs and a few VHS tapes that he doesn't speak in.

Often, I want to hear his voice. I hear it in my mind, though I feel like my mind is a tape cassette that is slowly degrading and I'm not sure if I remember his voice as strongly and intensely as I once did. How do you write a voice? How do you describe it? I have the voices of all these dead writers--Woolf, Plath, Sexton--but not of my own father. There's a cruelty about it. I can look at a picture to remember his face. I still have his bottle of cologne that evokes his scent. But I'll never have the sound of him. It makes me feel empty. I cry about it. I can't change it.

I want to encourage those who are reading this post to not end up like me. If you have people in your life whom you care about and you're able to record their voices, you should. Save their voicemails. Interview them using your laptop microphone and record it and save it somewhere. Do what is in your power and financial situation to have some sound recording of those you love because when they are gone and you can't hear their voices again it's agonizing.

The voice can outlive the body. Plath and Woolf died long ago, but we have their voices, we have a small part of them when they were alive and we treasure it. They make contact with us through time and space and impact us through their voices. I wish I had my father's voice. I wish I could go back and get it somehow. What if, one day, I forget it entirely? It frightens me. He seems to disappear as the years go by, time separates us, we are so far from each other now and the distance will only grow. I'll try to keep remembering.

Ted Kooser - Painting The Barn

The ghost of my good dog, Alice,
sits at the foot of my ladder,
looking up, now and then touching
the bottom rung with her paw.
Even a spirit dog can’t climb
an extension ladder, and so,
with my scraper, bucket, and brush,
I am up here alone, hanging on
with one hand in the autumn wind,
high over the earth that Alice
knew so well, every last inch,
and there she sits, whimpering
in just the way the chilly wind
whines under the tin of the roof —
sweet Alice, dear Alice, good Alice,
waiting for me to come down.

from Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser

Something My Mother Said That I Will Never Forget

Recently, I was talking to my mother. I was distraught, inconsolable, thinking about my father.

"I'm a failure. Daddy wouldn't be proud of me. I haven't accomplished anything," I said.

"You accomplished surviving something horrible," she responded.

We were sitting outside. It was sunny and beautiful and warm and I was crying and when she said that to me it's like she gave me permission to not be okay, she validated all the pain and brokenness that I was so ashamed of. I couldn't have loved her more in that moment.

Sometimes, your survival must be enough. You may not thrive or succeed in ways that other people think are valid, but you wake up and you live and that matters.

I will never forget her words. Never.

Sharon Olds - To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now

Though I never saw you, only your clouds,
I was afraid of you, of how you differed
from what we had wanted you to be. And it’s as if
you waited, then, where such waiting is done,
for when I would look beside me—and here
you are, in the world of forms, where my wifehood
is now, and every action with him,
as if a thousand years from now
you and I are in some antechamber
where the difference between us is of little matter,
you with perhaps not much of a head yet,
dear garden one, you among the shovels
and spades and wafts of beekeeper’s shroud
and sky-blue kidskin gloves.
That he left me is not much, compared
to your leaving the earth—your shifting places
on it, and shifting shapes—you threw off your
working clothes of arms and legs,
and moved house, from uterus
to toilet bowl and jointed stem
and sewer out to float the rivers and
bays in painless pieces. And yet
the idea of you has come back to where
I could see you today as a small, impromptu
god of the partial. When I leave for good,
would you hold me in your blue mitt
for the departure hence. I never thought
to see you again, I never thought to seek you.

from Stag's Leap: Poems by Sharon Olds