A Conversation with Grief
I called up Grief, an old friend, and requested that he come for a visit. Now you may be thinking that I’ve lost my sanity. Who in their right mind would invite Grief into their life on purpose? Well, I’ve known grief for more years than a person should be acquainted with such an entity. Our first real meeting was when my dog was killed right before my eyes.
I was playing in the yard while my mother washed her car. We lived in a rural area where sidewalks didn’t exist. Our yard wasn’t so much a yard as a downhill slope that ended in a garden alongside the two-lane road. Most people didn’t have traditional yards. They had houses on hills with fields and gravel driveways where the landscape changed every time it rained. Nancy, my short-haired Lhasa Apso, had been sniffing around in the garden in search of some small creature to chase and had emerged on the edge of the driveway. Suddenly I heard a yell as if someone had seen the devil and was running from him to save his soul. I soon saw that it was the opposite.
In an almost surreal motion, a car pulled into view at the bottom of our drive. The occupants of the car hung out of every window on the driver’s side in anticipation of their prize. Nancy was in their crosshairs and not fast enough to avoid their oncoming tires. The sound of her short, stumpy body as those radials ran over her, first the front then the rear tires, was a sound I can never forget. The most haunting was the sound of her yelp as her skin split and the bones of her small skeletal system crushed beneath the weight as the evil-doers mercilessly left the road to hit and kill the small dog.
My mother reacted instinctively. She ran down the driveway ahead of me to assess the situation. She saw the scene and turned her back to stop me from getting any closer. I was halted by the look on her face. She looked so angry and stern; I could not move a muscle. I stood rooted to the spot. I remember feeling sick and strange as I waited for her to come back up the driveway. She called out for my grandfather, and he barreled past me with a burlap sack in his big hands. His eyes were kind as he passed. That was the moment I knew that Nancy was gone. It was also the moment when Grief stepped up and held my hand.
“You’re going to be sad,” he told me rather abruptly, “but it is okay. That’s what you’re supposed to feel like. Your dog is dead. It’s okay to be sad and to cry. That’s what happens when I’m here. I’m Grief. I’m here while you miss your dog.”
Grief stayed for a few days, and then he was back every now and then for a few moments. If I remembered Nancy, he was there to remind me of my sadness at her loss. I saw less and less of him after I got a new dog. He was never fully gone, though. He was back when my great-grandfather died. And then in tenth grade when two kids I knew committed suicide. He was there for both of these, but not in the same capacity as he was for the dog. I loved the dog but not as much as I loved my great-grandfather. And yet, my grief was different because my great-grandfather was very sick and had lived a very long, happy life. So I wasn’t horribly shocked or stricken when he passed. I was sad and upset, but in the case of Grief for Grandpa, it was more about timing.
I was young and selfish. I wasn’t particularly close to my great-grandfather. He was a quiet, solitary sort who played golf and sat in his chair without speaking a word to me or my sisters. In fact, I hardly recall how his voice sounded. His wife was such a loud, out-spoken woman it was hard to see anyone else in her presence anyway. Grandpa was already very old when I knew him. He was eighty when he died. To me, his was a life well-lived. We were also in Disneyland when Grandpa died, so of course I was not happy to see Grief at all.
With the suicides, I had more questions for Grief. He couldn’t explain anything about why two people would take their own lives. While not particularly close to either of them, I was close to people who knew them well. Their experience with Grief was vicarious to me. It was preparation to the later portion of the decade when Grief would become the center of my world. Grief was not consoling or even very useful for those deaths. He was more confusing than anything. It made no sense.
Over the next decade, Grief and I would see one another often. And our relationship became deeper and more solidified with time and experience. In the span of five years, I lost people of increasing importance in my life. In 1988, my great-grandmother died after a lengthy battle with a debilitating stroke. That year my mother received her own death sentence. Grief lingered in the wings, just waiting to swoop back in and take up residence. The next time I saw Grief, I was very resentful.
My mother died a year to the day of her diagnosis with terminal cancer. Her father, my favorite and most beloved grandfather,followed her the next year, dying of the same cancer. Nothing prepares you at eighteen to lose the person who gave you life or those who raised you. For me, my mother was the only real parent I knew, and my grandfather had served as the father figure in my life. I had plenty of family, of course, but for me it was as though my parents had died in rapid fire. What do you suppose that does to a person?
Losing that many people, two of whom were very precious in my life, gave Grief all the invitation required to set up residence. He lingered like a roommate. I did not function without his presence coloring my every decision, my every action. Every thought, every emotion that I felt was tinged with his awkward existence. Grief marked me the same way the sun marks a farmer in the field. I wore Grief like an accessory I could not remove. I tried to make a happy transition with my life. I moved on, went to college.
I lost a friend a year later, a closer friend than the kids who committed suicide. This was a girl I grew up playing with every summer. We went to school together. She was much cooler and more dangerous than I was, but she remained my friend despite my dorky, nonathletic tendencies. Her death was closer to me in a different way than losing my parent or grandparent. This was mortality on a whole new level. It made my life feel more reckless for a time.
What are we here for if it can all end in the blink of an eye? If one split-second turn can crush the life from your body and end every dream you have of becoming a nurse, of getting married, of having a family? I did not accept Grief quietly this time.
Grief and I played chicken that year. I exhibited some even worse behavior … almost as if daring Grief to do his worst. Grief was not amused, but he hung in there with me. He did not participate. Grief was never active in my self-destructive phases. He was simply a leech, happily suckling on my nourishment of despair. He never offered anything useful or helpful.
Grief wanted nothing good for me. Grief was not really a friend, you see. That is never what he is about; it is not his modus operandi. What Grief does is remind you of what is missing. He reminds you of what is lost when something you once loved is no longer there for you to love. But Grief is flawed in his portrayal.
I have lost a few more people since my friend passed. Some were close to me, others were closer to people I care about and love. Sometimes the people lost weren’t even people I knew personally, and yet their stories touched my life through the media and hit a chord in my tender heart. Each time, I have been paid a visit by Grief. Sometimes he is brief. Other times he lingers.
When a beloved Grandmother passed away, my own daughter got her very first meeting with Grief at an even younger age than I did. That gave me even more pain. Her life will be colored by more of his presence than I would like, but there is nothing I can do to stop him from coming.
Grief is a product of life as it happens. You cannot avoid Grief. He cannot be locked out or kept at bay. Grief is inevitable and a transient thing that comes and goes with every breath and every phase of our growth in this world.
This last year, Grief has lingered in my life much longer than I would have liked. I lost a very dear friend last year. The scar from that loss is still tender, and if you touch the spot just right, you can still make it weep. That friend was someone I have always held a little closer to my heart. It was a platonic love, but it had overtones from our adolescence that kept it hopelessly romantic in a first love/crush kind of way. It was never a big secret that I felt that way for him. And I know he was always a little sweeter on me as a friend.
When I got the news that his battle was lost, I wept openly, publicly in such a way that most people would have been embarrassed or ashamed. I could not have cared less. I wept for the boy who would remain the star of all my adolescent dreams. I wept for his wife and his beautiful children. I wept for the loss his friends and coworkers would feel. I wept for all our friends from school who would have to say goodbye to our dear friend without me. I wept for all the hours and days and years I would not get to have him in my life any longer. I carried Grief with me for the remainder of the year, and will likely still be holding him close as my birthday comes. My friend’s birthday was always six days after my own.
As I said, I called up Grief again, but he was slow to respond this time. Grief is a bit jaded, and if possible he feels annoyed with me. I have already been obliged to call upon him for company twice during the first month of the New Year. At first it was for a couple of celebrities whose work I often admired. One was an actor whose work graced two of my favorite movies, as well as an entire franchise of children’s movies based on a set of novels I have read and re-read more times than most would openly admit. The second was a musician of some renown that I have admired since the 70’s. He died from complications of disease rather than hard-living. It was unexpected and unfair to see either of their lives ending too soon. I cried a little when I heard the news. That would have been enough, but the specter of death was not done with me in 2016. The next news was of the kind that rocked my foundation once again.
I had a cousin in childhood, a friend and a playmate who was one of my favorite people from age two to eighteen. This person was the only male in our generation in a family plagued by females. He was the only son of an only son. This was a treasured child. But in our family, so were we all for one reason or another. The reason I mention this cousin is that Grief was appalled when I heard of his impending death. I was struck to my core with sorrow for this person, even though it had been nearly two decades since I’d last seen him.
Grief clearly did not understand why I was so upset.
“You hardly know him anymore. Why are you crying over this man? His death is from cancer of the liver, likely cirrhosis. He was an alcoholic. He had a criminal record. He hadn’t spoken to you for seventeen years. This guy was probably on drugs, too. And didn’t he leave his child to be raised by someone else? He lived a hard life away from family and did not accept help when it was offered. Why would you even want to mourn a guy like that?”
I looked at grief with a hard expression. My glare of disapproval at his judgment did nothing to stem his haughty disdain. I felt obliged to chastise him.
“You obviously don’t know me at all. How many years have we been acquainted, Grief?”
“I’d say at least forty years,” Grief replied in pithy rejoinder.
“Then you should know one important thing about me. I don’t give up that easily, my old friend. Take a look at my life. My own father left me when I was two- he was hardly in my life except when it was allowed. He signed away his parental rights when I was eight. And yet when he showed up in 1988 and introduced himself to me- did I shun him? No, I gave him a chance to redeem himself to me. When I also learned, about that same time, that he had another child who was in his life, one who knew him and had some idea of who he was, was I distant and sullen? No, I met this boy with acceptance and respect.
“When my paternal family refused to acknowledge me except when it was convenient or beneficial, did I give them a hard time? No, I have never asked for more than anyone was willing to give. I accepted that my mother thought it was better to leave me with family rather than force me to travel with her from job to job, even if it meant growing up largely without her in my life—a fact that I would later regret when she died before her time and left me with even less of her life in which to know her. I have never given up on anyone.
“I have always befriended the sort of people most folks would not take the trouble. Granted, sometimes it has been to my detriment, but I am a sucker for lost causes. I am a hopeless romantic. I am never one to give up easily. And as for my cousin, I never gave up hope. He may have been down a bad path, but I hoped that one day he would make it back up to the main road. I know he was a man with demons, but sometimes people overcome them. I know he made mistakes, but we are only human. Even Jesus picked a few criminals and losers. Noah, if you read the Old Testament carefully, was a drunk. His own children could not face him in that state for they were ashamed. And yet this was the man God chose to save mankind from destruction.
“So yes, I held out hope that though my cousin was weak in his vices, that his demons spoke louder than the voices of those who loved him, that one day perhaps his heart would hear the voice of hope, and peace would find him before it was too late. You see, we hopeless romantics are fools when it comes to the people we love, especially if that love is familial.”
Grief looked at me and shook his head and in derisive laughter said, “You are a fool. You mourn a lost cause. This man cannot be helped, and you cannot hope to see him live up to this fantasy you have envisioned now at the hour of his death.”
I sighed heavily. “Again, that is where you are wrong. I do not mourn this man. I’m not mourning what he has become. I do not mourn the weak, weary soul who is lost. I mourn the boy he once was.
“I mourn the little toddler who once sat up on a hillside with his baby cousin where the older children had left her mercilessly abandoned. He told her to, ‘(s)coot’ down the embankment on her butt. So down they went together, dragging themselves little by little, digging their heels into the red Alabama clay, until they safely reached the bottom. Then, with their aunt, mother and grandmother watching like mother-hens from around the corner of the house, they walked away hand-in-hand, his butt covered in notorious orange-brown clay stains and hers bare to the breeze-her disposable diaper no match for the dry summer crust of an eroded washout.
“I mourn the adventurous tyke who once thought his full name was Grant Allen Wade Get Inside. I mourn the boy who liked to chase critters, who once scampered after a lizard to his own peril, falling over the edge of a sink for a girder and crashing head first into the bolts. All the way to the emergency room to get stitches he kept his prize—the squashed lizard- until his Aunt Susan could figure out how to dispose of it before the nurses saw it. I mourn the boy who got toys for his bravery which he shared with the cousins who stayed up to keep him conscious in case he had a concussion, for that was the way they did things in the 1970’s. We were young and never complained at staying up late to play together.
“I mourn the boy who could soothe the strain between squabbling sisters with a few jokes and a little laughter. He was a gentle boy who wanted everyone to get along. He sometimes wanted solitude, but most of the time, he wanted to play with the entire bunch. He was always up for our adventures. For every forty-eight hour weekend he spent with us he was an abandoned orphan, a wild wolf in a pack, an Indian brave, a frontiersman settling untamed wilderness. He was a detective, an action hero, a cowboy, a sports star. He was our everyman fitting neatly into every scenario we could imagine.
“He was there the weekend we decided it would make our pretend private investigation agency more legitimate if we painted the visible side of the barn so that the name, ‘Private Eye-balls’ could be seen. I’m not sure if he got in as much trouble for ruining school shoes the way I did—mint green paint on the red barn was not exactly appealing to our folks, but it was even worse on saddle shoes I was supposed to wear all through fall for school. These are the memories of just a few things that made him special to me. And he was special to us all, not only to me but to every one of our family members. We all have a favorite memory of him that we hold close to our heart.
“What I mourn most is that there is a little girl in this world who will never know how wonderful her father was when he was a boy. She will never have the opportunity to meet this person or see the sort of beauty in him that we knew when he was happy. Sure, he did not accept his responsibility and raise her, but at least he did not force her to be raised by an alcoholic, drug addicted father. She grew up safe and loved. She was cared for and never did without affection or necessity. That was a gift most addicts don’t give their children. So say what you will about him, but that he allowed his child to have a loving home shows me that he did love her andwanted better for her. It’s also proof to me that there was goodness inside him, even if he could not see it in himself. It was always there.
“I cannot mourn the addict he became in his later years. When last I saw my cousin, he was practically a stranger to me. His body was gaunt and thin. He barely spoke to me. He was almost unrecognizable as the happy, brown-eyed and ginger-tanned boy of my youth. He was already at the mercy of his addictions, and it showed. I remember begging him to do the right thing. I hoped he would do right by his child, for she was there—a golden-haired angel not much older than my first-born. I hoped he would hear my words and take them to heart, but my faith in his ability was less certain. That was the last time I would ever see him in this world.
“Maybe if I had known this I would have tried harder, held him longer, hugged him tighter. Maybe I would have tried to remind him of who he was and what he was capable of being rather than what he was already heading toward becoming in his way. I will always feel regret for the things I didn’t say and do that Christmas. But I will not regret mourning him or missing him. Not now, not ever. He was family, and I will love him forever. You don’t stop loving someone just because they’re not the same as they were when they were five, ten or fifteen. People change. Love evolves, but family, however imperfect, is forever. You don’t always have to like them. You love them because they are part of you, and that part never dies.”
Grief waited for me to finish talking, and then he stared at me for a long moment.
And then he opened his arms wide to me, and together we wept.