Tag Archives: Loss

The Circular Ruins

24 Apr

Prince Quote

 

In an effort to rid myself yet again of the mother of all ear worms, Prince’s Purple Rain, I turned this morning to Jacqueline du Pré’s performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, which decision brought with it a whole other unanticipated spectrum of matters to do with grief and loss.

My late husband, Arnie, decided in his seventies to take up the cello. This was after the guitar and the ukulele, and contiguous with Hebrew lessons and teaching Shakespeare’s comedies at U3A.

His cello playing was excruciatingly awful, yet he bent to his task as if he were Yo-Yo Ma.

I can’t hear a cello without seeing Arnie, lost in the joyous experience of wresting music from the instrument, so engrossed in his mission as to be entirely oblivious to the tortuously mangled sound he actually produced.

There is the manner in which we mourn for the ones we loved but did not know, such as Prince, Bowie, and for me James Gandolfini whom I still miss, and when Leonard Cohen leaves I don’t know what I’ll do. And then there is the manner in which we grieve for our partners. The former is a but a pale imitation of  the latter, nevertheless, it has the power to evoke the devastating loss of far more powerful and intimate loves.

Each of us finds our own way to live with our grieving, because what else is there to do?  Yesterday I found myself re-reading a story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins, about a man who dreams a man, only to understand that he himself is the product of yet another man’s dream. Borges begins with a quote from Through the Looking Glass VI : And if he left off dreaming about you…

I read this story again because it was one that delighted Arnie, he read it to me many times. I wanted to read it through his eyes, I wanted to understand why it so delighted him.

I wanted to be with him again. Which of course, I can never be.

The enormity of loss and grief makes itself evident intermittently. Were it otherwise, it would be intolerable. We must get through this thing called life.

But if we leave off dreaming about them…?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cabinet of Wonders

22 Feb

Cabinet of Wonders

 

I’ve decided to re-open my blog The Practice of Goodness as the place where I post stories, poems, fragments, etc, keeping No Place for Sheep for politics and commentary. This piece to my late husband is the last of its kind I’ll post here.

 

Cabinet of Wonders

I dreamed I was walking through the park at the end of an autumn day. The tree shadows were long and the light golden. I saw you on the path in front of me, and hurried to catch up. Your hands were in the pockets of your jeans. You wore the dark purple sweater I knitted for you to keep out the cold you felt so keenly. The pattern was elaborate, it took months to finish, and you marvelled that my hands, with wool and needles, wove for you enduring warmth.

My wife made this, you told people.

Sometimes you would cradle my face in your hands and look at me and say, my wife.

When I caught up with you I slipped my hand into your pocket to touch yours. You turned your head and your look was quizzical. I saw the man I thought was you, wasn’t. The difference was barely discernible, but it was there. Shaken, I pulled my hand out of your pocket. We kept walking side by side, in silence.

We came to a bandstand, painted white with green trim, and hung with paper lanterns. Silent still, we walked up three wooden steps to the platform. We stayed there for some time, leaning on the railing, watching park life. I started to cry. You gazed at me then you pointed to a small house with double doors, off to the right, whose windows top and bottom looked to be filled with hand-carved toys, painted silks, and the mysterious devices of starlit sorcery. A cabinet of wonders, I thought. Our hearts.

You started down the bandstand steps. I cried harder. You looked back at me and smiled and pointed again to the house. I was to go with you there, I believed.

I could barely see for weeping as I stumbled down the wooden steps and followed you. But I was far behind and you forged ahead and I knew I wouldn’t catch up.

That moment in time, between when I put my hand in your pocket and when I realised the man I thought was you was not, has now settled deep in the cradle of my belly, where it has taken on the qualities of eternity.

I watched as you looked back and raised your goodbye hand. I watched as you disappeared into the cabinet of wonders. I watched as its doors closed behind you and I did not try to follow.

Awake, I know again that you are dead, and there is not one part of me that does not grieve you.

Wife. Time. Eternity. Wonders. The mysterious devices of starlit sorcery. Come back, and I will throw my arms around you.

Missing you.

28 Jan

Today, for the first time since you died, I sat with someone in a room and wept and wept for the loss of you.

I know you will understand why it has taken me these whole six months to find the strength to grieve for you. You well know the strength that grieving demands. You thought Freud was firstly a poet, with his “labour of mourning.”

I am trying to imagine which quote you would find for me now, because you always found a quote for me in all my situations and at times, I was less than grateful.

Perhaps it would be Auden: “In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start.”

Perhaps it would be Dylan: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Perhaps it would be Blake: “For all eternity I forgive you and you forgive me.”

I am lost without you.  I have no idea how to proceed in a world that no longer has you in it.

He asked me, the man  in whose room I sat today, a quiet man who well knows the uses of silence, he asked me, what did he do, your husband?

I told him your doctorate was on Shakespeare’s comedies. I told him you loved Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, and Lenny Bruce, and Seinfeld, and Larry David, and William Blake, and Tony Soprano, and John Donne, and Bach’s concertos, and Mahler, and the list of what you loved was way too long,  you were interested in everything, and I told him how sometimes I would tell you that your mind was so open, everything just fell out.

I told him  that you fought with me about Foucault, and feminism, and I fought with you about F.R. Leavis and fucking white male privilege and the damn canon. I told him how you were the only man I’d ever known who was confident enough in himself to tell me I was smarter than he was. I told him how you used to look at me and say, “I could die happy right now, just being with you.”

But mostly I just cried, love.

Buccholz

Grief Porn: the money shot

4 Dec

cricket

The Courier Mail coverage of cricketer Phil Hughes’ funeral includes a heart-rending close-up of his dad Greg, face contorted with grief, carrying his son’s coffin on his shoulder. It also includes a similarly heartbreaking shot of Hughes’ mother Virginia, in deep grief and shock.

I wondered what could be the purpose of these shots. Anyone with a gram of imagination would know the parents are devastated at the loss of their son. None of us needs to see images of their devastation in a newspaper to convince us this is the case.

I could barely look at the images. Not because I’m squeamish about grief, but because I couldn’t help thinking how I would feel if similar images of me and my grief-stricken family were used to sell newspapers. I think that is the only possible reason for these photographs  to have been taken, to sell newspapers. I don’t think there is any public interest issue involved in showing us close-ups of the Hughes’ family’s shock and devastation. It’s grief porn. It’s disgusting.

A subject photographed without consent surely becomes an object. If the image is then used for profit, the objectification is complete. We are so inured to this process it generally passes unremarked, but really, what right does the Courier Mail have to profit from a deeply private expression of grief?

The funeral was a public event, it can be argued. Anyone attending was fair game for the media, no matter what their state of mind. This apparently justifies appropriating grief as spectacle, for Murdoch’s profit.

The agonisingly distorted faces of the bereaved family will always be the money shot in grief porn. As if their loss is not enough to bear.

The house of widows

23 Jun

Mrs Chook, with whom I share a home, two dogs, and much of my life, became a widow some considerable time ago, after nursing her husband through lung cancer. For a while she was a member of the local Widows Club. They had good times, played cards and golf, got drunk and raucous, spoke realistically of the men they’d lost, acknowledging their aggravating complexities, at times speaking ill of their dead because there’s no human being who can’t be spoken ill of to some degree, and the Widows Club women were nothing if not honest.

I was once invited to become an honorary member, not because I was widowed but because I was separated, living life without my husband’s daily presence and sharing it with Mrs Chook, but I declined, feeling out of place. Yes, I’d lost my husband in a very real sense, but to see that misadventure as widowhood did not feel true to me.

A separation is indeed a kind of death. But death has different dimensions, and they must be given their due.

I’m sitting in a bus station watching the World Cup on the overhead TV. I’m between worlds, and remembering another bus station, another World Cup on an overhead TV in Cancun, Mexico, another country when I was alone just like now, and it occurs to me that there is something of a pattern in this, bus stations, football, overhead televisions, a heart in a confusion of desire, loss, grief, a woman facing an unknown future. A sense of the complete unknowableness of certain events, transgressive events that tear apart the fabric of the ordinary, events that force open the portal into the extremities of human experience. I realise I have no control over death, or desire or love, and should I attempt to exert any illusionary control I will make myself ludicrous. There are forces abroad in the world that far exceed my puny human capabilities, and there is nothing to be done but ride them out as best I can.

The bus station today is not in Cancun but Sydney, my husband is dying, and I suddenly recall with bizarre accuracy the notice on the door of a hotel room in Mexico City:

 Many people are injured having fun in Mexico.
Air pollution in Mexico City is severe.
Failure to pay hotel bills or pay for other services rendered is considered fraud under Mexican Law.

 

 I’m at a loss to understand the workings of my memory until I recall that my journey to Mexico caused my husband great angst, indefinite as I’d announced it would be, determined as I was to go without him as he had travelled so often without me. It marked a turning point in the dynamics between us. I had asserted myself as the leaver rather than the left. Twenty years older than me, he was outraged and bewildered, having spent much of our marriage wishing me to be Penelope, spinning faithfully at my wheel at home and keeping suitors at bay while Odysseus travelled the earth. The role never sat well with me and seemingly out of nowhere I exploded out of it, like a woman blown from the mouth of a cannon. This turning of the tables unhinged my husband somewhat, and he wept at the airport. Not even his tears could melt my determined heart. A woman has to do what a woman has to do I didn’t say, but I could have. These were serious endings. I was no longer who I had been up to that point, and neither was he who had never in his life before wept at an airport, while a woman he loved left him behind.

It is tempting to describe these endings as deaths, but I have a profound distaste for the appropriation of death as a metaphor. There is nothing in life for which death can be asked metaphorically to stand. There is nothing in life that can be likened to the radical absence that is the signifier of death. Death is the one situation in which all hope for presence ends. Up to that point, one has merely endured absence.

I have recently become a legitimate member of the Widows Club, though it no longer exists in its original form. More than three decades of marriage, always unconventional, have ended and I am no longer just living separately from my husband while we continue to love one another in spite of our differences. I am widowed. I have begun the labour of mourning, as Freud described the gradual relinquishing of all hope of connection with the loved one that is made inevitable by his or her death. I will never again see his face. I will never again hold his hand. I will never again climb up on his hospital bed and lay my warm body along the length of his frail and shrunken frame.

It’s the finality that brings me undone. I find myself repeating, in my struggle to come to terms with his departure, I never will again.

In the end, I did not leave him weeping at an airport. He left me. I don’t know if he heard me tell him I will always love him. I don’t know if he heard me tell him he did not have to stay, that I did not begrudge him this journey, that I did not need or want him to remain here with me, that I wanted only his release, that he could leave with my blessing, I don’t know if he heard those things I whispered as I laid my body the length of his, and held his beloved head against my breasts.

 Because we’re alive, we inhabit the country of the living; that which is outside, we don’t have the heart to believe, I read, in Hélène Cixious. She’s right I don’t have the heart to believe, yet it is necessary to find the heart to believe, what else is there to do?  We live in the house of widows, I tell Mrs Chook, sitting on her bed in my dressing gown, Little Dog lying on my feet, you’re so pale, she says, and I don’t tell her I’ve woken up maybe ten times in the night, crying those tears you know are serious because they are hot, and burn their way down your cold cheeks. We will be all right, she tells me. You will be all right. In time. It takes time.

As is to be expected at the death of a loved one, memories are crowding in on me, our life together parading itself well out of any chronological order, according to some time line I cannot recognise as having anything to do with reality. I see him dancing towards me across our sitting room, singing, You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it, which always symbolised for me his infuriating reluctance to take responsibility for anything. Give me give me give me give me what I sigh for, you know you’ve got the kind of kisses that I’d die for redeemed him, as he always knew it would. The night before he died I found on YouTube a video of him talking about poetry, made just before his stroke. And then, for reasons I cannot explain, I recalled a scene from The Sopranos in which Meadow Soprano sits beside her unconscious father, crime boss Tony, whom she fears is dying, and reads the Jacques Prevert verse:

Our Father which art in Heaven
Stay there
And we shall stay on earth
Which is sometimes so pretty
 

I shall stay on earth, which is sometimes so pretty. Vale, Arnold Lawrence Goldman.

Arnie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stranded in the shit field

30 Oct
Shit Field, by poo on you

Shit Field, by poo on you

 

Now and again in a life, one runs into what I like to call a shit field – a series of apparently unconnected events that occur simultaneously, or hard on one another’s heels, all of which share a common theme.

It can be difficult to recognise you’re in the shit field at the time, because its very nature clouds the mind and takes a toll on perceptions.

For the last twelve months, and particularly the last four or five, some of the effects of trudging through the shit field have been an increasing lack of creativity, loss of interest in the world, crippling anxiety, depression, and a sense of having completely lost control of my life and my ability to make good decisions.

I apologise to everyone who has stayed with the blog, for my increasing lack of output, and the deteriorating quality of the posts I have managed.

I wrote here about the experience of being with my beloved husband last year, after he suffered a massive stroke. I underestimated the length of time it would take me to recover from the loss of the man with who I had shared a long, fraught love affair of such intensity that I couldn’t ever imagine loving anyone else. I’m familiar with the Kubler Ross theory of the five stages of grief, though in my experience they are not necessarily consecutive, and I don’t recall ever doing any bargaining, probably because I don’t believe in a higher power so I don’t have a transcendental exteriority in my life with whom to cut a deal.

Apart from that, I’d say the model is fairly accurate, and applies to important loss of any kind, not solely death and dying, if one needs a framework to help explain the chaos inside.

I also underestimated the exhaustion I would feel and for how long I would feel it, after week upon week of sitting at my husband’s bedside, watching him deteriorate, watching in shocked despair as he railed and screamed at me in a language I could no longer understand, and at the end of these rantings, trembling as I watched him break down, as he stroked my face with his one good hand, and begged me for I knew not what. I assumed comfort. Many times I climbed onto his bed and laid my body the length of his frail frame, and held him while he fumbled, sobbing, for my breasts.

I would leave him at the end of these gruelling days, and make my way back to the Bondi Beach apartment a friend’s daughter had loaned me while she was overseas. Sometimes I’d catch a bus. More often I’d walk, as a way to calm myself, and reconnect with the world outside of the nursing home. I was not really a fit companion for anyone, and generally too exhausted for dinners or meetings with old friends. I found it difficult to sleep. These days I hate the city, and found adapting to its racket after the silence of my north coast home, almost impossible. I missed my dog. I missed him something awful.

Our life together, mine and A’s, had been largely conducted in Bondi where we lived at the beach, apart from a brief period when A realised a life-long dream, and bought a converted Pittwater ferry that we moored at the Newport Marina and lived on for a couple of years on and off. Our weekend pleasure was to motor slowly round the waterways, and come back to haul up our crab pots full of blue swimmers that A would then cook in a huge pot and we’d eat for supper with wine or a beer.  I remember once standing beside him at the boat’s wheel, my skirt flying open in the wind, my hair whipping at my face, and A turning to me and saying “If I died now, here with you, I would die a happy man.”

I told him this and other stories of our life as I sat beside him, holding his hand. I think he heard. I think he remembered. I think it gave him some sense of who he was, and had been.

I know now that I had never loved him more than I did those months I sat vigil at his bedside. I don’t know where that love came from. I felt it enter me as I walked through the nursing home doors. I felt its energy fill me as I climbed the stairs to his room. I felt that love sustain me through everything that occurred, every day it occurred. That love overwhelmed me.  Without it, I couldn’t have lasted a week. I’m not a believer in anything much. But I believe in that love.

When my friend’s daughter returned from New York, I moved to the glorious cliff top eyrie owned by my friend, Elisabeth Wynhausen, who recently died, who swore me to secrecy when she discovered her cancer, and whom I miss.

The theme of my shit field is emerging.

Then, to my utter surprise, when I had decided such things were over for me, earlier this year I fell in love.  The circumstances were challenging. Everything indicated this was not going to be easy. And yet again, out of nowhere, that love swept in with such power and took hold of me, even harder than before if that was possible, and I said a yes.

Well, in keeping with the theme of the shit field the challenges were too great, and I find myself once again in the stages of grief, or perhaps I never really got out of them.

What strikes me as remarkable, however, is that something so comparatively short-lived can cause an anguish not dissimilar to the loss of the love affair of decades. Of course there isn’t the history to mourn. But the loss. Oh god, the loss.

Or perhaps it is an accumulation of loss that finally overwhelms. I can’t tell yet. I’m still too much in love. I haven’t caught up with events. I’m still talking to him in my head as if he hasn’t gone. I’m still hurt when there’s no good morning and goodnight. I haven’t got used to the loss of him beginning my days and ending my nights. The absence of his presence.

So, I doubt I’ll be out of the shit field anytime soon. Thank you for staying around.

 

Love. That is all.

20 Jul

A few months ago I wrote here about spending time with my seriously ill husband, and my experience of coming to terms with the end of a love that had been everything to me.

It took years to accept that love was over, and what I eventually took from that lonely, arid time was painful instruction on the power of human attachment.

When I visited A last year,  desperately ill after a massive stroke, unable to speak coherently and only intermittently recognising me, our life together did indeed parade itself before my eyes, and I laid many things to rest as I sat for weeks beside his bed, holding his hands while he struggled to tell me he loved me and always would.

The miracle was, that after everything that went wrong we did still love each other. I wasn’t altogether surprised to find that in me, because I am very bad at endings. The life may no longer be a shared one, but something in me, deep in my belly, refuses to entirely let go of the love. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, it just is. So I can look at someone I loved years ago and think  oh, yes, I loved you and oh yes, the ending was hard and I hated you for a while, and oh yes, though I don’t want to do anything about it and my life has changed, still there is tenderness, and gratitude for what we knew together.

Grief is an altered state. It can take you by surprise, long after you think you’ve done with it. It becomes less wild, less consuming as time passes. It can take on a sorrowful tenderness that for all its softness, still wrenches the heart. Grief can be triggered unexpectedly, long after you think you’re done with it, and you find yourself needing to hide away while you work out what has suddenly gone wrong with your breathing, and why out of nowhere you badly want to cry.

For example, I walked into a room today where someone was playing Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, #2 in D Major. I listened to this Sonata, along with the Brahms #1 in F, during a very rough period in my marriage, during the last of many journeys A and I made together, down the Mekong, through Laos. I’ve heard both many times since, of course, but never without some emotion, the power of which has lessened over time. Yet today, for reasons I can’t explain, I heard the familiar first movement as if I was back on that long boat, sitting on my backpack beside A, both of us silenced by the misery of knowing it was too late for this journey or any other journey together, and neither of us able to end it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I don’t have a list of things I want to do before I die. At times I think, vaguely, of travelling to places I’ve never been because it would be excellent to leave the earth having seen as much of it as possible. At times I think I want to go back to the place where I was born one more time, because every time I return to that North Yorkshire country I feel a primitive and powerful sense of belonging that I have never felt anywhere else.

But lately I’ve been thinking that these things come a poor second to love, in all its frequently unexpected and varied manifestations, and it’s likely love that tops my bucket list.

Today my friend said, there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship is there?  There is, I said, after a while. The perfect relationship is the one where you care enough to bother struggling through the shitty bits and find you still want to stay in it. The perfect relationship is the one where you don’t want to struggle through the shit, and you have the decency and the courage to leave before you cause anymore damage to yourself and the other. Love is required for both. Isn’t it?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Today I re-learned that nothing ends when you think it has. This annoys me, because I don’t live easily with loose ends. Somewhere along the way I’ve got it into my head that one must have “closure,” resolution, well-defined endings in order to move onto anything new. But actually, I’m coming to think that’s crap. My life is a chaos of ongoing love of varying kinds and depths, and I can’t think how to tidy up any of it. Perhaps I don’t have to? Perhaps instead I must learn to live with the disorder of a functioning human heart? Perhaps for years to come I will unexpectedly feel grief for my husband, for my dead mother, for my friend, for everyone I’ve  loved and will love, with various degrees of complexity and difficulty, success and failure.

There is a human being. There is love. That is all.


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