“We tell our stories in order to live…” —Joan Didion
I just finished a very special book, The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. I don’t even know where I got it, I must have picked it up at a free-library box or something. It’s been on my bookshelf for at least a year without my once cracking the spine. I try to keep my bookshelves limited, not holding onto books I won’t open again, but I’m glad I kept this one, which seemed to jump off the shelf into my hands the other night, exactly the the day I was ready for it. I’ve read a lot on grief this year…and I will continue to, but Didion is such a good writer, that this book is immediately set apart. She wrote the book a year after her husband of forty years died of a heart attack and as her daughter was fighting for her own life in a hospital. As a friend says about her work, you feel like she’s at the table with you, talking about herself.
I admit I’ve never read any Didion before, but she is quickly becoming a favorite author. Her voice resonates with me. She also makes me want to be a better writer I have been thinking for a long time about what to do with Vernon’s blog. Do o I rewrite it as a memoir? Do I try to find a publisher? Every so often I’ll go back and dig in, but then my emotional resistance raises its head and throws me into some sort of fog or panic, and I put the ideas aside till I’m more healed up. Now, reading Didion’s book makes gives me courage to think about trying—to try to write like her? I wish. No, to try to write like myself…but better.
So I’ve started writing. Just fifteen minutes a morning…if I stick with this, it will be a long time till it’s done. But the point is, I’ve started. I’ve gone back to when we were first married, eleven years seems so long ago. Now the thoughts of the past are with me throughout the day, which isn’t bad, just…interesting.
Here are some standout quotes from her book, the Year of Magical Thinking. I love these because in this first year, I have often felt that I am losing my mind. I’ve questioned my own mental health. No where else have I seen these symptoms described and affirmed so clearly.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
“Marriage is memory, marriage is time. Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time.”
“The mourner is in fact ill, but because this state of mind is common and seems so natural to us, we do not call mourning an illness…. To put my conclusion more precisely: I should say that in mourning the subject goes through a modified and transitory manic-depressive state and overcomes it.”
“We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
Justine turned seven yesterday. She has been waiting for this birthday for a long time…at least five months. Everyday, it’s been: “How many months/weeks/days till my birthday?” Whatever shall we count down to next? Now that the day is here, the future lies open…and possibilities are infinite.
I remember turning seven. I had a birthday at the park. I sort of remember the party, but mostly I remember being grateful that it happened. My little brother was due from the womb around the same time, and my mother had warned me that she might miss the party. “NO!” I remember crying. “You have to be there. You’ll just have to make the baby hold on longer.” Good for me, he did. (Shouting a grateful thank you to Hyatt IV, a handful of decades later! Xoxo) Another thing that happened around that time is that my family moved into a new home, the same one my parents live in now. (We moved around a lot but the house continued in their name.)
So it’s not lost on me, the poetry of Justine holding her seventh birthday party at that same house yesterday. My mom, of course, was the star, as she has always been. I lack those extra kid-friendly ideas, and my mother delivered the way only she can. It was her idea to do a craft time, which kept the kids busy and happy. Plus there was a piñata and swimming time. They really didn’t seem to need us at all! It was great to see them all so happy. Look how cute they all are!
So seven, here we are. She cried a little about missing her dad in the morning wishing he could be there for her big day. But as we learn about children, (and so, about adults) they are resilient. The definition of resilient is this: able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.
This birthday is a test to my own resiliency and the healing of time…as her fourth birthday, the one just ten days after the accident was mixed in my memory with the terrible news of Vernon’s kidneys failing suddenly due to some coma-inducing drug. The doctors extended his life by inserting a catheter so he could be dialyzed three times a week (and we all know how that turned out…) but I remember getting this news over the phone, while I ducked into the corner of the Chuck E. Cheese, hoping to hear better amid the rabble of children’s glee and dancing animatronic animals. I still haven’t forgotten that birthday, as it was marked with such drama.
But Synnove reminded me this week of another recollection of the day. She had flown in to be near Maki, and had her youngest, Jenni, in tow. Justine and Jenni were instant mates…or more like sisters, because they argued as well as they played. It was a wonderful distraction. She reminded me that we had thrown a party earlier in the day, up on the rooftop of my friend’s coastal home. Darling little friends and their mothers joined us as we had cake and opened presents. So it wasn’t only dramatic after all. My memories have tricked me. And I expect they will continue to as we go through many more birthdays and special events in our future. The day will be marked by all the collected fun Justine has over the years. It’s already starting to happen.
Incidentally, Justine asked me today how many days till she’s six-and-a-half. This kid does not live in the past.
Look what I found in Vernon’s font just now on the inter-webs. It’s clearly one of his messages. 🙂
“The end of a matter is better than its beginning”—Ecclesiastes 7:8
I just dropped the kids off for their last Tuesday of the year. Three more days and then…SUMMER!
If I want to feel proud and accomplished today (which I do!) I will dwell on this truth: We made it through an incredibly challenging year, both schools in opposite directions, both needing to be there at the same time. This has been when the age gap has felt the widest, spreading out a couple extra miles. Lots of tardies and calls to the office. Vernon dying on a school night their first week back. Not being able to show my face at back-to-school night in September. Justine’s early-year grief-group on campus, the family’s later foray into our own grief counseling. Tuesday-volunteering at the elementary school, watching those six- year olds settle into their seven and eight-year old selves by the end of the year. Homework, finished and unfinished. Coexisting with insecure thoughts about my parenting. All those advice phone calls with friends. Inconsistent dinnertimes. Inconsistent cooking. Maki’s finding a voice through his music. Justine’s teeth falling out. Mood swings in all of us. Happy times. Sad times. My managing to pick them up on time most days. Justine crossing the bridge by herself. Maki getting taller than me. Another level of independence in them both. I can hardly believe we made it to the finish line. No wonder we are ready for vacation!
This was the first school-year of grief. If this was the worst of it, I think we will be fine. The point is, we survived!
The next big thing that Maki and I are looking forward to is a trip, first planned over a year ago, to Norway. His mother and his younger siblings will be flying up and meeting us in the north of Norway, which is where he spent many of his childhood years. I’ve never been up that far, nor have I met his grandmother, who still lives there. Maki will be staying longer than I will, as I won’t have Justine with us, but I’m thrilled to be included into the reunion. Even before Maki came to live with us, I imagined that one day he would give us a tour of his Norway. (Just a shame Vernon can’t join us in person). It’s a place I know he still has a nostalgia and perhaps a longing for. I know it will be a special trip for all of us…and it’s finally almost here! We can hardly wait! I’m looking forward to spending quality time with Synnove and her sister (and mother) and watching Maki play with his own younger brother and sister. I’m grateful already. This has been a long time coming.
But first…get through three more days of school. I can smell the freedom!
(photo of the backroom at the studio where Maki has his guitar lessons. Finally a place to use it!) 🙂
I wanted to mark the 23rd of May somehow. The day has been so important to our family since Vernon was hit. Every passing year, we did something special, but this would be the first year that we couldn’t return to him afterwards. I’ve been thinking about that too: how life is simpler because we don’t have to return to him. As much as I miss him, I can remember how hard he had it. It’s right to be thankful that he’s not suffering now (and that we don’t have to watch him suffer.)
So…how to celebrate this day now that it had arrived. How could we make it positive and not sad. Suddenly, I had the idea to buy the kids presents. Doing things for others, after all, is a great way to fight the blues. What would Vernon get his children if he were here? What gift would give them comfort?
I bought Justine a fuzzy blanket…knowing she loves being cozy and snuggly. A blanket is like a warm hug, which is I’m sure what she most misses about having a dad. For now, its’ her favorite thing— it waits for her on her car seat and then goes in and out of the house with her.
Maki said he wanted to go to Guitar Center after school, if only for an hour. I knew Vernon would have dropped everything to give him that small wish, so it was an easy choice. I listened to him play a few different guitars for awhile, then bought him a guitar strap to mark the day. Just like Justine’s love language seems to be wrapped in cuddles, Maki’s voice is securely set in music these days.
For myself, I didn’t get a gift, but decided pretty spontaneously to move my wedding band to my right hand. It struck me as a good compromise…I haven’t wanted to take it off for fear of losing it, but I felt that I needed to make some physical and symbolic change to help me move through a stuck-stage of grief. This is small enough and big enough for me. I tell myself I can always move it back if I want to. But for now, I’m just feeling it out. So far, so good.
In the evening…the ones who could make it from the Tribe of Vernon came together around a fire-pit at the beach. These are the ones who walked through hospice with him and the ones who helped us disperse his ashes. We didn’t talk about him really, we just set up camp, roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, watched the children play, listened to the young ones make their music, and fell into the comfort of familiar togetherness. That’s all that was needed to gently cross the threshold into Year Four.
The program in which I share about Vernon’s connection to Waterloo Sunset was broadcast in the UK on Wednesday and is available to everyone online now. If you have a free half hour, please take the time to listen. Here is the link.
I didn’t know what to expect really. I knew a few other people would be sharing their thoughts on the same song, Waterloo Sunset, but I could barely remember what I had said that day. I knew the producer would make it all make sense somehow, and she did a wonderful job, weaving the stories with one musical thread. Each story was interesting and touching in its own way. It was an honor to be part of such a beautiful show, and I loved how it came out.
Something remarkable seemed to happen when I realized that Vernon’s story had been released over his home island. (And he was singing too! Did he ever think in a million years he would be singing out loud, let alone on the BBC?) It was a new sprinkling of the ashes, so to speak—a way of returning Vernon to the place from which he came, but in story and in song, for others’ ears to hear. It was as if it was no longer my story but something else—something different, told in a way that I could not have done alone. The homing pigeon returns. There was a new feeling of release for me, which filled me with an odd feeling that I can’t escape today. I suppose, other than this blog, and the speaking engagements I’ve had, I knew his story had reached a greater audience—but they weren’t an audience I could see. I just have to trust it went where it needed to go. I received some lovely notes on here and on Facebook from British strangers, who were moved by Vernon’s story. One kind person wrote these to me on Twitter:
It makes me realize how American I really am…I forget that living here. I don’t know how people grieve in the UK because I didn’t live there as a griever. Of course, I also know that over here, each person grieves as they live: in their own fashion. Vanessa told me that after her parents had listened to the show, she thought they would be able to move forward in their own grief. So if I was involved for that reason alone, telling his story this way was a good thing.
I’m grateful. I’m sad. But also I’m grateful.