Book Mark

When my friends’ son died by suicide, I bought them a book.

I can remember standing in a bookstore near the San Diego harbor, pulling book after book off the shelf, looking for just the right one that would speak to my friends’ terrible grief. Then I decided to mail it to them, somehow thinking that whatever insight that was offered in the book simply couldn’t wait for me to return to Milwaukee to give it to them in person. I wrote a weepy note which I tucked inside the cover and sent it off.

The topic of the book was how to manage grief. My sense at the time was that if they read the book, they would feel better. Thinking back, my naivete seems unbelievable, like a 5-year old with a bunch of dandelions showing up at a crash scene to comfort the survivors.

When I saw my friends a few weeks later at a memorial service for their son, I stood in line with many others to give my condolences. When I reached my friends, they both looked so bereft, so torn, that I put my hands on their faces, first one and then the other, almost pushing back their hair like they were children. I wanted to mother them. I wanted to console them. But there would be no consoling. Neither my grief instruction manual nor my physical presence could pull the knife out of their hearts by a single inch.

So I steered clear for a long time. Their grief seemed monumental. Out of my league. I told myself, you have no business butting in on their grieving. You don’t know what you’re doing. You did enough. Sending that silly book.

Then another friend lost her son to suicide.There is no comparing one to the other. Each is horrifying in its own way as only suicide can be. The shock, the suddenness of going from a normal life to one where every moment and every word are questioned, piled on top of what might be called ‘normal grief,’ that seems to be the essence of suicide.

I was out of town when this friend’s son’s funeral was held. I sent messages to her on Facebook and email and then, not being able to stand having done nothing, I took her a book and a candle. This time the book wasn’t an instruction manual on how to handle grief, or maybe it was. It was Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, that traces her coming to terms with her mother’s death as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. A few years later, my friend would post on Facebook that she’d had a Little Free Library built in her son’s name and my book was one of the first on its shelves. I don’t know if she ever read it. She had at least handled it. I’d told her I loved the book and I gave it to her. So there was that. It was not nothing as we used to say but it wasn’t much. She had better friends, I thought, even though I had known her a very long time. I knew she had better friends so I stepped back.

Then, unbelievably, another friend’s son died by suicide. This one was hard. The distant waves of grief I’d experienced with the other two now lapped at my feet. This one felt close for many reasons. So I sat down and wrote a poem. In the poem, I tried to speak to my friend’s grief, speak to my friend. I tried to be wise. I tried to rise above, not realizing until much later that the perspective I needed to gain was my own.

In the months since that time, I reach out, as she calls it. Thanks for the reach-out, she says. That’s all I do. She has better friends. I know that to be true. But I keep on, sending messages every now and then if only to tell her that her grief lives over here with me, too, for reasons I can’t explain to her or myself. So that’s what I do. It’s what finally feels right to do. Not to presume, not to intrude, but not to forget either, not to go on as if nothing happened. So I send my messages and we go back and forth and it feels right.  But still I felt the need to buy her a book. I bought her Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and I bought a new copy for myself because, you know, I had given my copy away to someone else.

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Photo: Syd Wachs, Upsplash

The White Binder

White binder
My brother had our parents’ stuff laid out like a well-organized garage sale with no price tags. Relatives were picking up and putting down my mother’s costume jewelry which was arranged in rows on the basement ping pong table.

I found a locket that had been my great grandmother’s and put it in my pocket, misclassified, I guess, with the jewelry that didn’t matter much. My mother’s tangled nest of wristwatches, including the tiny gold watch with her initials on the back that was her high school graduation present, sat in an old gift box next to my father’s tarnished tie clips and cufflinks, rarely used since he always wore short sleeved dress shirts and clip-on ties. Seeing their things displayed made me feel like I was shopping rather than inheriting.

I left my parents’ house that day with pockets full of watches I would never wear, an old bait bucket, and my father’s 18-month old cobalt blue iMac which I found sitting on his desk just inches away from his 1938 Underwood typewriter. I’d sent him the iMac as a Father’s Day present three months after my mother, his wife of 64 years, had died from Alzheimer’s disease.

Dad was stoic and quietly good-humored in his grief but lonely and wandering the worn paths of his life, from kitchen to TV room to the grocery and back home. He read fat novels from the local library and watched CNN with the sound muted, pretty much all day long. I figured an iMac would zip him into the 21st century, perk him up, and connect him to the world, connect him to me.

I wanted him to send me an email.

And send emails he did, dozens of them, short one or two-liners telling me about his bowling score and giving me pep talks about my teenage children. After he died, I printed off all of the emails he had sent to me and put them in chronological order in a white three-ring binder. I slipped a snapshot of him under the plastic cover and put the binder on a shelf in my office where it has sat undisturbed for the past eleven years. I put the emails in the binder figuring I would want to see them sometime but that time hasn’t come and I don’t know when it will.

Dad’s iMac sat on my office floor for several months. I walked around it and stepped over it until one day I put it on my desk, plugged it in and turned it on. The screen came alive. I was looking at my father’s iMac screen with the cheery row of iMac icons along the bottom. I clicked on Documents and found one, a long poem about mourning the death of a beloved wife. It appeared that he had re-typed the poem from a book so he could save it. Seeing it there, the only document in a vast amount of computer storage space, I imagined him typing it one night when he was especially sad. By typing it he was saying it, keeping it somewhere safe.

I hovered over the email icon, trying to convince myself that there might have been emails I’d missed that ought to go in the white notebook. It still seemed like an invasion of privacy. A dead man’s emails should die with him. But maybe I needed to check to make sure there weren’t emails I’d left out. In the back of my mind, I wondered if my father had been emailing other people, my sister or brother. What would he have said to them? I wanted to know. I shouldn’t know. I clicked on the icon.

It asked for the password. My father had his email password-protected. I tried a couple of obvious choices with no luck. When the offer of a password hint came on the screen, I clicked yes and waited.

Pudding. That was the hint: pudding.

What was his favorite pudding? Chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch? Rice? Tapioca? Was pudding a stand-in for a nickname, a term of endearment? No guess worked. A techie friend offered to get around the password; I declined. It seemed like cheating.

I put the iMac back on the floor where it stayed for two years, reminding me of the poem and how I thought I should read all my father’s emails. Now, I look at the white notebook up on the shelf and think, what else did I need to know? I knew enough.

How Sad Do I Want Them to Be?

Wearing black for a year is a quaint custom but that’s what I think my husband should do when I die. I think he should wear black, eschew festive occasions, and only watch black and white TV, just the network stations, no cable, for an entire, long, gloomy year.

At the end of the year, he should go to Barbados for two weeks, sit on the beach drinking rum out of coconuts, proposition beautiful women, and come back a tanned, healthy, free man. Then he should get married again.

If I could manage his life from the grave like I’ve tried to manage it while living, that’s what I’d orchestrate for him. Intense, ‘throw your whole self’ into it’ mourning followed by the resumption of a great life.

There was a wisdom to clearly defined mourning, the custom of withdrawing from much of normal life, expecting frivolous people to keep a distance, recognizing the enormity of loss in a tangible, visible way. If I am dressed head to toe in black, it means that I am apart from you for this time, busy reflecting and mending myself. So leave me alone.

Oh! It’s not healthy to be alone when you’re in mourning. No? I think it is. We expect people to re-enter normalcy too soon after a loved one’s death. After my mother died, we all wanted Dad to join a new bowling league, have lunch with that single lady down the street, come visit us in another state. He would have none of it. He drew a tight circle and stayed in it, he traveled every week to her grave an hour away, he saw his old buddies now and then and went to the library. After a year, he started to look up and around, ready for new.

That’s what I want for the people I leave behind. For them to immerse themselves in grief and then wade out of it, come to the shore and be free to be happy.