I’ve been told I read a lot of depressing books, but it is mostly because I find many of them comforting in their ability to articulate loss. Most recently I read Elizabeth McCracken’s book about her experience grieving over her stillborn child. She mentions that death doesn’t just change your physical life, it changes the entire landscape of your life. She acknowledges “that life goes on but that death goes on too. A person who is dead is a long, long story.”
This morning I went to the library and sat down to flip through some magazines. I came across an article about Gwyneth Paltrow in In Style where she discusses her new cookbook (what doesn’t that woman do?) full of family inspired recipes. The interviewer asked her if this process made her miss her father and her reply struck a chord. Obviously I’m paraphrasing but she said something about how the saddest part of losing someone is when the memories fade. And how when she thinks about her dad now, she thinks about how he wouldn’t know where to find her. He doesn’t know where she lives and has never met her husband or children. The family home that they shared is gone and that she sometimes feels more worry than sorrow because he would probably feel lost.
Right afterward I read a snippet in the new O Magazine about Meghan O’Rourke’s newest book The Long Goodbye, a memoir about losing her mother. She says, “After a loss you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.”
Today is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 57 and even though he has been gone for 13 years I am still learning to believe that he is dead. O’Rourke is right, it does not come naturally. His loss is something I have to remind myself of daily, and inevitably I do. It has absolutely changed the landscape of my life in every way. Grieving is this never ending drive down a long and curvy highway. You get further away from the point of origin, but you never really stop traveling. And no matter where you end up, it is always measured in relation to where you started.
The year following my father’s death I spent a lot of time driving. I was commuting to a town 30 miles south of where I lived for school, then back up to a town 20 miles north of where I lived for work. I spent hours on various highways in my cute little pink Jetta that I had bought all by myself 2 years prior, crying all the way to school and work, only pulling it together at the last possible minute so as to be presentable to the public. Each time I opened the car door to get back inside I was overwhelmed by the weight of the sadness that waited inside.
McCracken says in her memoir that you can’t out-travel sadness, “You will find it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavors the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stands out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants. You may even feel proud of its stubbornness as it follows you up the bell towers and monuments, as it pants in your ear while you take in the view. I travel not to get away from my troubles but to see how they look in front of famous buildings or on deserted beaches. I take them for walks. Sometimes I get them drunk. Back at home we generally understand each other better.”
Shortly after my dad’s funeral my mother’s good friend Marilyn gave her some scalloped edged handkerchiefs, “For the land mines,” she explained. “You won’t always see them coming, but at least you will be prepared.” The land mines are always there, no matter how much time has passed. And when they hit, it’s like a punch in the gut that makes you sob until you feel like you can’t breathe. This year, one of the biggest land mines that I’ve uncovered was right there in the the library reading about Gwyneth Fucking Paltrow. My memories are fading. They are all that is left, and even they are no guarantee. It’s not that I don’t remember who my dad was, but the little details are getting fuzzy: how he said my name, the way he smelled. I think I can remember them, but I can never really be sure. And the fact is, I will never be sure again.
Uncertainty is just another part of the landscape of this journey. Another chapter in the long story of the dead.