A Conversation with Grief
There’s no getting away from myself when Day’s incessant chatter quiets. After her shift ends and Night’s long shift begins. There’s no crawling out of my own skin and kicking it into a corner after the pitter-patter of feet, heading to bed, fade out. When phones are charging and message alerts have been switched to the “silent” mode. When TVs are clicked off. When dogs are sleeping. When cars are tucked inside garages and kids into their beds. There’s no scooping thoughts out of my head, or the ache out of my heart, like seeds from a pumpkin. There’s just me in the pitch-black of my kitchen, sitting by the glow of my computer, tasting the salt on my tongue from my own tears as I watch a slideshow a friend has put together for my brother’s memorial. A slideshow I’d been dreading for weeks.
Forty-three years of my brother’s life are captured in frozen moments strung together as he grows up in front me. A newborn tucked against our mother’s chest. A one-year-old, enamored with toes he’s discovered on his baby feet. A toddler in a highchair, smearing chocolate cake on the tray. A five-year-old, clutching an orange Popsicle, my youngest brother nuzzled beside him, licking his own. Now six, he walks along a beach on a winter day, dressed in a snowsuit. In the next shot, he blows out ten birthday candles. In his teens and twenties, he gazes up at stars, dribbles a basketball, heads a soccer ball, slings arms around college pals, and kisses the cheek of his newborn son and years later, his daughter. His thirties and forties, a Balinese wedding, riding boats in Egypt, elephants in Thailand, motor scooters in Bali. Then there are pictures that mark beginnings before endings. My mother smiling with her son before her stroke, a wedding before a divorce, five siblings, arms around each other, before there were only four.
I reached a hand out (as I often do) to touch his face, to touch a moment that had passed at the same time the camera clicked.
My old pal Grief leaned over my shoulder, brushed my neck with his lips. “I’m here for you,” he said.
I turned, shined my light on him as he draped a black cape around my shoulders, mumbling, “You can wear this for the rest of your life if you choose as a reminder of how heavy I am.”
I sunk into the cape, felt its weight, tied it under my chin. “Yes,” I said. “It will remind me of all I didn’t do while my brother was alive. The trip to Thailand I didn’t take to visit him when I still had the chance. It will remind me of how he was taken away too soon.” I stroked the rough fabric of the cape. “I will wear this to remember all those moments I took for granted, because I thought I’d have more time.”
I wanted to bow at Grief’s feet, shine his boots and say, “I surrender.” But instead I said, “I want to go back to the person I was before.”
“You can search forever,” he said. “But you’ll never find her.”
I let out a sigh, relieved that I’d learned the truth. I drifted, remembering a piece of writing I’d been working on before February 14th at 3:30pm EST; the moment my brother left; the moment I wanted my soul to knock down the walls of my bone and skin and join him there on a fat downy cloud in the sun, dancing to his favorite Grateful Dead tune.
It was a night in January when life was just life and I thought I understood what it meant to have a hard day, the kind of day that stretched back into yesterday and dipped its toe into tomorrow. Snow fell hard and fast, the wind blew. I dressed in full Nor’easter gear and took myself and my thoughts and my endless day out into the night. I stood under the floodlights in the back of our barn, watched the snowflakes slice through the light.
Everything changes shape when you stare at it long enough.
Faces appear in stones, animals in the clouds.
There, under those lights, the snowflakes turned into sleek silver minnows, swimming through the air; their magic dissolved whatever “bad” had been in my day.
I stared Grief square in the eye, willing him to take on a new form. The beam of my flashlight stayed steady on his face, the lines of hopelessness etched into his skin, along his forehead, around his mouth. There, in his eyes, Joy gazed back at me, waving a thin-fingered hand and blew me a kiss.
“When will you come back into my life?” I asked her.
“I never left you,” she said. “Swim beneath the layers of who you thought you were. There’s someone new waiting for you there and I’ll be waiting for you there, too.”
I hit play on the slideshow. This time I looked into it, rather than at it. Listened into the music rather than simply to it. Something new emerged in the pictures. I’d been given the gift to have my brother—not ONLY for 43 years— but FOR forty-three years. I listened to the lyrics of his favorite songs. I shifted my beam of light on the Joy he brought to my life and everyone else’s life he touched rather than on the grief his death left behind. And it hit me. Grief and Joy are wedded; they’re one. Where there is joy there is grief. Where there is grief, there is joy. One is more predominant than the other at any given time, depending on which one we shine our light on.
“I get it,” I said.
“Yes,” Grief said. “Joy and I are partners. We’re here to help deepen your understanding of love, of life. You think I’m trying to crush you, but I’m not. You think I’m the one to be avoided, the one to run away from, the one to distract yourself from as though Joy is the only one who matters. Know me so you can know her. Feel me so you can feel her. You need us both. I help you to appreciate her more. She lives in the most ordinary moments—notice her. Pay attention—any moment can become minnows in the snow. We are both a gift in your life. I’m not about what you should have done or what you could have done or time that has slipped away. I’m about what you’ll do now with the time you have left. I’m here to show you that Joy is everywhere. Feel the grass beneath your feet. Watch a hummingbird suck nectar from a Lupine. Talk to a hurting friend and listen without distraction. Hold your mother’s hand and soak in the wails of a newborn. And remember: You can take that cape off anytime you’d like to.”
My brother and I shared moments that belong to us. They are mine. They are his.
They are our gorgeous-soaked memories and I’ll continue to shine my light on them.
Thanks, brother, for introducing me to Grief, another gift you’ve left behind. I’ll look for faces in the stones, animals in the clouds, and minnows in the snow.