Two works have been working my mind about grief--Elizabeth Bishop's powerful poem One Art and the Buddhist teaching of the inconsolable woman and the mustard seeds, who finds that no house had been left untouched by death.
A friend of my husband's says you never get over the loss of your mother. It will have been four years in February since my mother's brutal passing, three weeks before worldwide shutdowns from Covid. In my mind, I still sit in the hospital room she was moved to once the doctors had given up, or the hospital understood it would not be paid indefinitely for the care of a failing 83 year-old woman. I sit and spoon feed her chocolate pudding from a plastic cup, and during that time, we seem to connect again through what had been her nonstop delirium that had, until sedation, pushed her to beg every single semi-lucid moment for water.
Before we landed in the room where the two doctors would good cop/bad cop me the next day to send her to hospice, in the ICU a week or so before, I renege on my oath to police the medical staff to keep them from giving her any kind of opioid, synthetic or "natural," as their being prescribed with wild abandon by doctors in the region had greatly dimished my mother's quality of life during her last years. A surprise diagnosis of late stage cirrhosis coupled with a failure to medicate her correctly at the facility where she was only supposed to be getting physical rehab, ended with my mother with compounded issues: a UTI, sepsis, blocked bowel, a re-swollen abdomen filled with liters of fluid. I find a nurse, and say, please, please give her something to quieten her down, and opioids of some sort or another then course her veins. Then a couple of weeks later, even on the dexemedetomidine, lorazepam, midazolam, or propofol when she sees the chocolate pudding, she wants it, the first of anything she has eaten since being brought to the hospital from the nursing facility.
There is one last small pleasure in her life, this chocolate pudding from a cup, and each spoonful I give her, she devours with a look of intense satisfaction.
This past week I looked to inch my way forward on the Big Four Motel project--apparently waste water engineers are famously slow to get in touch, and I need an assessment from one to know the viability of the Big Four Motel and Gallery project for a reasonably priced septic system. Just as I begin to doubt whether attempting this project of hospitality and art may be one of folly, the arts get tossed out at WVU and I come late to the party of Tyler Childers.
Since my twenties I have taken long breaks from pop culture, whether TV or music, in order to have time to pursue my own projects. I have not always had the bandwidth to be both creator and consumer, and often, the pursuit of the former left me without the funds to do the latter. But this week I found Tyler Childers and he hit me with his flavor of high lonesome, of loss and pain and whiskey and love amid the opioids, with telling stories of places and spaces like those peppered throughout Appalachia, ignored but begging to be seen. My mother would have liked Tyler Childers. His music sounds like the country I grew up on, if the edges and real stories hadn't been softened by men in suits.
I remember the goal of this gallery project is for people to be able to come to tell, in their own way, or to learn new ways, to tell, their own stories.
In a dream this week, my parents, who divorced a few months after I left home, were still together and maybe in their early sixties. They still lived in the smallish ranch style house they last resided in together, on Nutmeg Street in Eleanor. Eleanor, still touting that it is the "Cleanest Town in West Virginia," but advertising less in recent times that it is named after Eleanor Roosevelt, who came to visit this WPA project as its residents, paid by the large government program, shaped it into a town just as the men shaped the locks in it on the Kanawha River.
In my dream our sliding glass door faces a different side of the house, toward the woods where I once saw a bear wave off a coyote across the curved paved road. Though the ground outside is covered in snow, it begins to rain, and water floods under the sliding glass door, turning into thin sheets of ice running through the dining room through the wide opening and across the mustard yellow linoleum in the kitchen. The layered sheets of ice halt midway across, and my son, still a baby and in his cloth diaper, sits and plays with the snowcone-like slush. My mom goes about her business in the kitchen at the sink, and my dad sits across the open plan room, reading The Charleston Gazette or Daily Mail (back when they were two separate papers) from his favorite spot on the plaid green, cream, and yellow couch.
I look around and my husband comes through from the hall. We are the age we are now, and I express the need to fix the seal around this sliding glass door to keep the currently pouring rain from coming under and forming these sheets of slushy ice.
He and I set about searching for a seal to stop this flow, to keep the rushing water out, to stem the ice floe inside.
In my waking life, this week I peered for the first time into the container we bought to store some of my dad's stuff. Some. My father had a terrific output of production the duration of his life: artifacts from his business, his work in his business, creative outputs, inventions.
I had expected what we brought to fill up the container--mostly files and leftovers of work not sold. In reality, I see it does not quite even fill the back of the space.
And there I am, a little out of breath, standing in the gravel in my farm boots, then leaning onto my husband's and my old Ford F250, crying. I say, "That's it. You work a lifetime, and that is what is left of you..."
No house untouched.
No need to tire out anyone reading this that there are other kinds and types of grief, those of Bishop's "hour badly spent" in her poem. I have been practicing these griefs, too. Open grief was not part of my parents' vocabulary. It was not part of their generation or culture. They grew up surrounded by people who had suffered the loss of WW I and WW II and the Great Depression, and then later peers or near peers who had been to Korea and Vietnam. Both of my father's best friends, both men older than him by twenty years, had served in World War II. What self-importance it would have been for my parents to openly grieve.
With these smaller griefs, these griefs of loss and trials and errors, and most likely even with the larger griefs, too, my dad would have counseled me to move on, that each "wasn't a disaster."
About fifteen years ago, I called my dad up after I had had to put a beloved pet to sleep. My dad had referred to my dog jokingly as "dear boy" always accompanied by a foppish hand gesture, and during the time he spent with him, my dad sympathized often with my dog about with his plight of having a vegetarian (I am not anymore) as an owner, and my dad would mix bacon grease in with my dog's food.
At first, when I called my dad for sympathy or comfort about this pet, he was short with me, that this was just the loss of a dog, no big deal.
Memory fools me, but I don't know if it was then that the conversation turned, or that my dad spoke up the next time I called, with the closest he would ever muster to an apology.
As the only child at home, and I know often lonesome (as I read between the lines in some of his other stories of his childhood) his dog Shep had been his best friend. Shep had been killed by a car. The adults around my dad had been unmoved.
Since his later 70s, my dad had often said that most of the people he had ever known were dead. With his paid work and other outputs, my dad had busied himself with his interior life to master losing.
After feeling his response to get over the loss of the pet had shocked (this pet had seen me through my being hit by a car and, later through a divorce and then a breakup), he had circled back and mumbled something about being too short with me when I had called to tell him about "dear boy."
My dad gave what some folks would see as unconventional advice--such as this one that stuck: you don't have to do only what is good for you, you can also try things in life because they are interesting.
I think this advice is also along the lines to keep trying, right? Even with and through the grief, to keep putting yourself out there to master losing. Losing, it could be argued, is not good for you. But as Bishop points out, it can be mastered.