Self-conscious meta-emotion of the moment: Wondering how much all this public documentation of my grief is really helping. At the moment it seems to be — it’s helping me process the grief and make sense of it, and it’s helping it seem meaningful. But I’m also having the self-conscious “am I doing it right?” worry that this grief diary project will make me hang on to the grief for longer than I need to. I’m also wondering if it’s going to seem weird when I start wanting to do it less often. Well, I’m not going to stress about it too much. I’ll cross those bridges when I come to them.
Ingrid continues to be so patient, and so present, and so saying the right thing and knowing what tone to take pretty much every time. Yesterday at breakfast we were talking about the whole meta-emotion “worrying if I’m doing this right” thing, and she said, “You’re allowed two levels of meta. After that, I’m going to smack you with a newspaper.” It cracked me right up.
Had a hard time this morning: insomnia is a bitch, it’s been bugging me intermittently for a while as I’ve gotten older, and more so since Dad went into home hospice and my latest depression hit, and way more so since he died. My mind will not shut the fuck up about things I don’t want to think about, and will not let me switch over to happy fluffy restful thoughts that let me drift off. But much of the day today was okay. Am starting to feel more like my normal self for longer stretches of time. Rick and Ingrid and I took a long walk around the neighborhood: the neighborhood where I grew up, where Dad lived, where Rick lived until pretty recently. It was one of those ridiculously perfect Midwestern autumn days, and we walked and walked and walked, reminiscing, and talking about Chicago history, and admiring the beautiful neighborhood (Hyde Park really is sort of ridiculously gorgeous), and showing Ingrid the place behind Rockefeller Chapel where I used to get stoned in high school.
Tonight we had a small commemorative gathering: not any kind of public event or service, Dad wouldn’t have wanted it and none of us did either, so it was just a few family members and friends gathering to eat pizza and schmooze and remember Dad. We were hosting it at the bed-and-breakfast where Ingrid and I are staying, and I was flitting around anxiously beforehand making sure there were plates and glasses and chairs and clean flat surfaces and no junky crap lying around, and in particular getting very fretful about the exact right place to put one of the two soft comfortable chairs. Rick said, “You’re obsessing” — and I said, “Yes. I know. Every atheist on the Internet says it’s okay for me to deal with my grief however I want to. Right now, I’m dealing with it by displacing it into obsessing over where to put the furniture. Suck it up.” And we all started cracking up. I do love my family sometimes. My brother especially. We’ve had ups and downs, of course, it’s far from idyllic… but most of the time, we can tell each other the truth. I’m beginning to realize how rare that is in families, and how valuable.
Speaking of the truth: I keep waiting for the moment when I wish I wasn’t an atheist, when I wish I believed in God and an afterlife… and it keeps not happening. I’m beginning to think it’s not going to. This surprises me somewhat: Dad is the first person I’ve been close to who’s died since I abandoned any belief in any sort of religion or any sort of afterlife. (There was Jude, Rebecca’s son, who I loved; but he wasn’t around long enough for me to get really close to him. And there were cats, of course, but that’s not the same at all.) I’ve been assuming that this was going to be hard, that I’d be having a hugely hard time accepting the finality and the permanence of this death. So far, that’s not how it’s playing out. So far, facing this death without God feels totally normal. Beneficial, even. I’m not twisting myself into knots trying to make a nonsensical story make sense. Godless grief is hard, but it feels clean.
I get that this isn’t true for all atheists, that some grieving atheists do sometimes wish they believed. That’s totally fine, it makes sense… and, of course, for the zillionth time, we have the repetition of the grief mantra, “everyone does it differently.” But so far, I’m not having that reaction, at all. Some of that may be because Dad himself was a big old atheist, and facing his death without God feels like a way of honoring him and remembering him and keeping his memory alive. And some of it may be because my own atheism is now so deeply ingrained in me, such a central part of my philosophy. Falling back onto religion just seems alien. I’m way too familiar with all its weaknesses to see it as a useful or desirable crutch.
The commemorative gathering was good, by the way. Me and Rick and Ingrid; a friend of Rick’s; our aunt; some cousins I haven’t seen in ages. It was good. A little weird at times: more “schmoozing and catching up” than I’d been expecting, and not as much formal “telling stories and memories about Dad.” There were some poems that some relatives who couldn’t be there had suggested we might read, and we never found the right time to stop the conversation and do that, and that felt a bit awkward. It’s making me see the advantages to an organized service commemorating a death instead of an informal social gathering. But I think this was something that Dad would have enjoyed if he’d been here, probably more than a formal service. Just sitting around shooting the shit, telling funny stories about our childhoods and wild years, and comparing notes on New York pizza places, with pictures of him propped up on a nearby table.
I am wishing we could have read the poems, though. So here they are. The first is one that Dad loved, and recited often — especially the lines with the profanity. The second is from the Spoon River Anthology, which is strongly iconic in our family, and it’s the one Dad read at his own mother’s funeral: it speaks more to her life than it does to his, but the last few lines are very on-key. And the third is so perfect it almost scares me.
i sing of Olaf glad and big
by e. e. cummings
i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or
his wellbelovéd colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but—though an host of overjoyed
noncoms (first knocking on the head
him) do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments—
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds, without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”
straightaway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)
but-though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skillfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat—
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died
Christ (of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you
by Edgar Lee Masters
I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed —
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you —
It takes life to love Life.
Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear
by David Wright
for Richard Pacholski
Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys. Ask
for more troops than you think you’ll need. Listen
more to fools and less to colleagues. Love your
youngest child the most, regardless. Back to
storms: dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,
don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling
down—the winds won’t listen, and no one will
see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear
you over all the thunder. But you’re not
Lear, except that we can’t stop you from what
you’ve planned to do. In the end, no one leaves
the stage in character—we never see
the feather, the mirror held to our lips.
So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save. Drink rain like cold
beer. So much better than making theories.
We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.