Saturday, October 16, 2021

Grief: Leftover Thoughts on a Year of Mourning

Here are a few miscellaneous thoughts, scattered hither and yon, that I decided to combine into a single post. None of these were “enough” for me to post them individually. Maybe all together, it’ll add up to something.

The Bobby pin

I came across a bobby pin today. It was on the floor in my bedroom and I spied is as I was putting my shoes on. On automatic pilot, I scooped it up in my hand, thinking, “Cathy’ll need this for something, I’m sure...” and then I stopped, and I just stared at the bent strip of wire in my hand. Even as I was thinking it, I knew I’d blundered into the classic trap. Now, with the reality of the situation covering me like a thunder shirt in a rainstorm, I stared at the bobby pin, looking for, what? A strand of hair? Some clue to tip me off that Cathy wore it at some point?

There wasn’t any. It was just a bobby pin. Likely one that didn’t even make it into her hair. But on that day, it pinned me down and it took a while to get out from under it.

Homework For Life

I started a thing this year called Homework for Life. You can watch the Matthew Dicks’ Ted Talk about it here if you like; it’s not very long.

As a journaling exercise, it’s simple, it’s useful and it’s exactly what I needed this year in order to (a) keep up with myself and my place in the world and (b) take note of anything real that happened to me, in case I wanted to ruminate or write about it. 

I looked back through my notes, and aside from a few personal things, nearly every epiphany or bloggable idea was acted upon. I’m not sure I’ll keep it up, but it’s one of the tools I used to climb back, one entry at a time, like rungs on a sad ladder, out of the bottomless pit that was 2021. If you don't want to journal, but you want the benefits of journaling, this is a simple and easy tool that may fit the bill.


The Card Wall

When Cathy first started getting cards of support and encouragement, she made the decision to keep all of them. She really wanted to thank everyone that sent something to her; it was heartwarming and overwhelming to her that so many people cared about us.

The cards ranged in subject matter from religious to irreverent, from encouraging to side-splitting. “Jesus Loves You” and “You Got This” vied for attention with “Fuck Cancer” and “Shave Your Head and Start a Punk Band.” Cathy loved them all, and she settled on an inspired way to display them: she cut the envelopes in half, keeping the side with the return address. This was affixed to one wall, open side up, to form a pocket, into which she placed the card, now sticking halfway out of it. She could see all of the cards at a glance, without even trying, and it took all of one second to see who sent it.

I’m not being modest or stoic when I say how humbling it was. She got cards from people she didn’t even know; friends of mine who’d never met her, and also fans of mine who heard what was going on and wanted to show some support. She vowed when all of this was over, she’d sit down and write a personal thank you note to everyone. She even started on this herculean task when the initial “all clear” happened after her operation.

For most of the year, all of those cards were still on the wall. I’d sort of forgotten about them; they bled into the fabric of the wall itself, as if to say, “But Mark, we’ve always been here.” I mean, three years is nothing to sneeze at, but enough’s enough.

I stopped in the hall one day and re-examined the cards, one by one. Each card set off a memory, a thought-picture of the person, or a realized idea about the sender. “I remember when Cathy first met her,” and “Oh, he’s an old friend I’ve not seen in years!” and “That card was the beginning of our friendship.” I smiled as I recalled these things. They were tiny islands of good memories in a roiling sea of pain and confusion. Those cards were lifelines, connecting us to our people. Friends, family, fellow humans.

Then another thought crept in. I couldn’t stop staring at the messages on the cards. The vast majority of them trumpeted encouragement, defiance, humility. All of them were hopeful.  All of them were upbeat and positive.

And none of them worked. They were all, at the very least, representative of a crushing disappointment, and at the worst, a reminder to me that nothing worked. Cathy did not, in fact, “got this.” It was the other way around. I know, of course, that’s not at all what the cards represented. It was the exact opposite of that. But in that moment, the wall was just a constant reminder of how things ended up.

I took them all down. I kept them, for now. I keep thinking someday I will write those thank you notes that Cathy never did.


Chris Q said...

So much of your writing's strike memories and feelings that I went through almost 10 years ago when I lost my husband. Sometimes a memory will come out of blue and get teary. I can tell you it will get better each year. I am now trying to look at each memory, saying ( i play the tv a lot just for background noise) and turn it into a smile and think that was a good memory. My heart and prayers are with you during this progress.

Chris said...

12 years now since I lost my best friend to cancer and I still sometimes find myself getting "pinned" down by some random object or memory. I'm comforted knowing I'm not the only one who deals with this.
I really admire the way you show your love for and honor your wife. I think in many ways the personal thank you notes to be sent have already been written & received in this post (& others).
Still sending love and strength...