This is day 7 of the writers’ group. 7 of 30. It’s turning out to be very intense, time consuming, mind consuming. There are 40 people signed up on the private Facebook page, but maybe half of them actually share their writing. It’s eye opening to read other’s raw thoughts about their pain of loss while trying to process my own. The first night, when we were allowed to introduce ourselves by sharing a paragraph about why we were there, I felt almost shocked by it all, as if someone had sprayed cold water over my sleeping head. The stories made me sputter and gasp, but I didn’t look away. How do you comment on someone else’s pain when you are not even sure how to feel your own? From the very beginning, my friends and readers have tried to join me here by saying: “I read you, I hear you.” Maybe that’s all it takes. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
But it’s intense. Reading other’s words as they navigate a new loneliness, the loss of their bearings, a new identity, is sometimes challenging. In opening myself to the pain of others, I can feel my own more clearly…like a cool draft that stings my own wet wound. It’s healing, I think, in a way, but now without discomfort first. I had to take a break yesterday from writing (I got stuck on the prompt of the day), though I kept going back to read what other’s had shared. It keeps my head buzzing, involved.
I went swimming on Friday. Usually because I go after dropping the kids at school, my friend Sandy and I have the pool to ourselves. Sometimes we share it with one or two other early birds. But that day there were more swimmers in the water. We had to keep moving over to create extra lanes. I didn’t mind, in fact it changed the dynamics for me as instead of seeing all that blue emptiness through my goggles, I’d catch sight of other passing bodies, kicking and crawling just under the surface. Pushing themselves, strengthening their hearts, breathing underwater. Suddenly it’s not my own tiny world, but one I share with others, keeping to their own lanes at their own paces. It occurred to me that this wasn’t unlike joining others in creative grieving this week. We are each processing things as individuals but learning to acknowledge others swimming in a shared space.
Grief is a ghost.
“I welcome you all,” she creaks from the rafters.
“Orphans, Parents, Widows, Widowers,
Sisters, Brothers, Friends.”
We shudder at her breath, just beyond the surface when a rock star dies,
we hear a friend has cancer, we read the news,
imagining her as some long haired harpy with claws and a veil.
But once you’ve entered in…you feel the change.
She’s not so frightening after all, just elusive and strange.
At times, you escape her magnetic pull.
Still you can’t see her in that space, it’s her world now.
She’s dark, she’s light, she’s old, she’s new. She’s vast.
You can only feel her as she swoops down at any given moment,
passing through you with a memory, a song, an exotic emotion…
most likely when you’ve felt fine for a few days,
when you aren’t paying attention.
You begin to keep your guard up, but she disappears again.
No doubt visiting another hurting soul, pulling them in,
playing with their minds until she remembers you’re still there.
She likes variety. She likes surprise.
You can feel yourself toughening up as you learn the game,
eyes adjusting to the dark.
I found two near-empty bottles of Vernon’s cologne on Maki’s dresser. I’d put them aside in the hall closet when I did a big clear out last spring, but somehow he found them and brought them into his den along with a lot of his dad’s clothes and shoes (which happen to fit him right now.) I sprayed some on each arm and sit here smelling them, hoping the scent will jog some memories or attachments just out of reach.
I close my eyes and inhale the scent on my left arm. It reminds me of a vague someone. Why can’t it remind me of him?
I break into tears because it doesn’t even smell familiar to me. Did he stop wearing it a long time ago? Perhaps it just smells different on my female skin. Why can’t I remember?
The clothes we kept of his now all smell like fourteen-year old Maki. And the scents I remember most recently are nursing home smells, so pungent at first, but you get used to them pretty quickly. You have no choice.
This fragrance smells amazing. It’s MAN 2 by Comme des Garcons. Here’s the description I found online: “The fragrance of a craftsman, a man who loves his work and accepts nothing less than perfection, MAN mixes classic and unusual elements to express a distinctive, masculine, and powerful signature. The scent’s personality comes though a blend of complementary and contrasting hints of moss and wood. Fresh woody incense, white smoke, and saffron notes make way for a heart of essential nutmeg, bright kumquat, and mint. The dry down expresses the precision of the worker’s finishing touches with a trail of vetiver, exquisite mahogany, and leather.”
Maybe words can access my heart more than a scent because this description certainly triggers my memory. If Vernon were a scent, the description fits him very well, even down to the “craftsman, a man who loves his work and accepts nothing less than perfection.” I image he would agree. I believe it’s what he aspired to be.
The other arm now. This one is called Standard. It’s not as strong, but I can almost recall this on his skin a little more. Not completely, but I feel like my memory is stirred. I look up a description:
“An ideology which is more art than tech. Modernist white wood with notes of rusted metal. The overall effect, however, is unmistakably Comme des Garçons: a medicinal-woody scent, vibrant with the combustible, pencil-shaving fumes of cedar and a cold, almost incense-like effect. Highly diffusive, totally distinctive and as elegantly pared-down as Alvar Aalto’s iconic Mid-century Modern designs. You can’t get edgier than that.”
Pegged him again. I’m sure he’d like to be remembered like that as well. What a classy guy. He’s coming back to me now, I can remember him.
(I’ll spend the rest of the afternoon smelling the cologne on my left arm till it comes back to me too.)
What surprises me most about grief is how functional I feel. People have been dying since the first person died, so I keep telling myself, “This is normal. People are meant to move on.” I’ve known a lot of people who have lost loved ones, and they seem so normal, so functional. I wonder why I don’t feel more sad. More angry. I feel like if I have to land on a step of grief, shock is the closest I can name.
But it’s not like the shock of opening the front door, with the children crowding round, when the police knocked that night. Hearing his name, that there had been an accident, that I should rush to hospital as soon as I could. Seeing his bloody face. Meeting the surgeons who said they would TRY to get him through the night. I felt wrapped in a blanket of slow-down. Over and over…I’d feel that shock, a gift in times of trauma. But I think I must have used it up like too much serotonin. The numbness that used to cary me through has lost it’s edge. The game is over, the momentum is gone.
It’s like a drug that doesn’t exactly stop working…but you stop recognizing it. It get’s watered down over time. It helps for a bit, protects you from processing too much reality at once. But then you wonder after time: is this numbness grief? Or is it just that I’ve become hardened with too much of it, like a washed up addict. I need something else to help me now. Something to make me FEEL.
Is this still shock? Is it denial? Or is it a different thing? Is this the new me, and I just need to get used to it?
I need another word for this non-ness, this cushion between my brain and my heart.