In many ways grief is like a private belief system, filled with its own rituals, tenants, and superstitions. It feels at once so personal and private and yet still so vast, encompassing and permeating every detail of your life until it is indistinguishable from the blue of the sky or the bright scent of childhood pine trees. Grief is something you carry around inside of you, like a secret second heart, its rhythm known only to you. But still, grief emerges from every particle of light, every gesture, every small smile that people thrust in your direction. Grief is like faith, at all times known only to you and yet so multiform as to be unknowable by anyone at all, so strange and apart from you, out there like a wild, savage thing stalking the world.
My mother died in September 2014. There are journal entries hovering that date like dark sparrows, descriptions of the weather, descriptions of a feeling of loss that is keen and specific, a desperate need not to get lost in the softness that typically surrounds such moments. When people die, people who have done to us ugly, hurtful things, we forgive them, after all, their life is ending in a way that they could not have seen or desired. My mother’s illness occurred so spontaneously, so suddenly that I had a difficult time parsing out the news of her diagnosis from what could have been another lie. When I think back—because what is death if not an excuse to look back and search through the past for some minor, redeeming bit of logic, some revelatory moment that throws the rest into order—I imagine that her lying must have been a way of making the world into something that she could understand.
My mother, I think, had a gift for mythopoeia. After all, we grew up in the same place with the same, long dark man for a father figure. My mother and I ran the same Southern woods, haunted by ghosts and wild dogs; when I think of her that way, a girl wandering through the woods in search of a boy to take into herself, I cannot help but to think of my own desire, my own sexual escapades in the pine trees. If time were to bend back on itself, perhaps we might have glimpsed one another, lost in the bramble with a wildness rushing through us. Cleaved as we were from the same forests and the same, charged stories of possessions and demons, it is no wonder that she turned invariably to making her own myths to make some sense of it all. I do not know. This is my own private myth-making. What I know of her, I know only from watching at a distance. She had no desire to have me close to her, and seemed pained by my very presence. She would recoil from me if I reached for her, as if afraid I would try to make my way back beneath her skin and take up residence in her body. What I know of her, I know from stories my grandparents told when she was alive. When someone dies in my family, we do not speak their name, for fear of bringing them back, perhaps afraid as my mother was afraid, to make a place beneath our skin for their ghost to rest. The stories of her, the ones I couldn’t collect, are lost to me now.
In November 2011, my grandfather died, and my mother began to tell stories about his last days. I couldn’t bear it. She was weaving with her liar’s tongue false stories and narratives about my grandfather piling rocks into the shape of a tombstone. The story made no sense. It had no narrative flow. It was a bad story. But more than that, it was an act of treason against the dead. How dare she drape her lies over my grandfather, whose body wasn’t even cold yet. I wrote a series of angry poems about the act of making myth. Of course, there is a technical form for mythologizing the dead: eulogy. And here I am, of course, mythologizing the dead, myself, the very act I was so angry at her for. We are so similar. We are so very, very similar.
In truth, I had wished my mother dead for a long time. At first, as a boy, I prayed every night that God would tear her from the Earth and punish her for not loving me, for not being kind to me, for not treating me well. I had an aunt who loved me best, who treated me as if I were air made flesh, and she gave me toys and played games with me. My father played with me and treated me like I was his best and truest friend. But it was my mother’s love that I craved more than any other. I wanted so desperately to please her and to be taken into her confidences. I wanted her to let me sit next to her on the couch and let me play in her hair. But she had no gentleness or sweetness for me. And I hated her for it. When I still believed in God, I prayed that she’d be killed or would die, slipping away to Hell—in my prayers, it was never Heaven into which I cast her. For my mother, I wanted the fire, I wanted the suffering that was to last forever and ever. As I grew older, I wished her not into Hell or Heaven, because I had stopped believing in God by then, but into a kind of nonexistence. I wanted her erased. I wanted her taken from us and banished into some hinterland behind memory, just out of reach. In my teenage years, I watched as her friends began to die. I watched them drink themselves to death, one by one. Heart attack, liver cancer, stomach cancer—they left her for the cold Earth. But never her. I began to think that she would never die, that this was to be a kind of punishment for my life. That I would never escape her.
I would have loved her if she had let me love her. She was not unlovable as a part of her character. Her friends cherished her humor and her candor. She did not have much of anything, and with my father and me, she guarded her possessions desperately. But to her friends, she gave away things. How could she not? Her mother, my grandmother, is a generous, Christian person. Her father, my grandfather, was a noble and good person. She was raised to do right by her friends and her family. And to most people, she did perform minor acts of charity. The irony is that if you were born close to her or lived with her, she was next to impossible to know. I remember thinking about how she came alive at parties or with other people, marveling at the transformation from the angry, bitter woman she was at home into someone that others couldn’t imagine their lives without. I would have loved her, not the party version of her, but a version of her that could be loved by me. But then, maybe it was all an act, an invention to survive a narrow life.
When my mother died, the air was silver-gray and very cold. There was so much wind out by the lake on the route I was taking back to work. I had gone to my apartment to wait out the last moments of her life, thinking how unpredictable my reaction would be when the moment came. They were to take her off of the ventilator and let her go. There should have never been a ventilator. When she was diagnosed back in June, the doctor had not been positive about her prognosis. His options were chemo or hospice—it was already so far gone. She recounted this to me over the phone, and I felt for the first time in my entire life, genuine empathy for her. She said that she told the doctor that she would fight, but I knew that this was not true. I could hear it in her voice, the voice of a woman who was presented with two short, dark corridors, not knowing which to choose, thinking at least, to choose the one she was most familiar with: death. But my grandmother would have nothing of it. She would not let my mother die without a fight, and so my mother had chosen chemo. My mother requested a DNR (do not resuscitate). It was clear to everyone in my family that this would be the case. After all, she had long professed a desire not to be connected to machines that would extend her life. She wanted a short, sharp break with the living. She wanted to be gone. And yet, here she was, connected to a ventilator. I felt a small outrage for her, being prolonged this way, limping along in life, tethered here by cruel machinery. The reason they had forced her to rescind her DNR was because they wanted my brother and me to come to see her one last time, one last time.
I had no such desire. I had gone to see her in August, almost a month before, and she had been cold and aloof toward me, which is to say, she had been so much herself, though greatly reduced. She did, I noticed, look so much like my brother and my grandfather, with the fullness of her face eroded by the chemo. We had a party for my uncle’s birthday while I was there, and I stood behind my mother’s chair, fanning away the white gnats that swarmed us in the heavy, summer air. They clung to what was left to her hair. There is a picture of her at this party, throwing up two peace signs, surrounded by smiling people. She was so very much alive then, one final time.
With me in Wisconsin and my brother in Georgia, we both told them that we wouldn’t be making it for any tearful goodbyes, so they could take her off of the machine. When they did, I felt overcome by an intense sadness. I cried savagely, wildly for several minutes, but then it was all gone, like a squall. The spot in me from where the tears had flowed went dry or sealed itself off like a private, inner sea. I went back to lab a few minutes later, walking along the lake. I spent the next few days telling various family members that, no, I would not be returning to Alabama for a funeral. My life in Wisconsin was not much easier to navigate. People have a way of approximating what other people should do during grief. I found myself aping grief, doing my best to behave in a way that was deemed appropriate or acceptable, but I in fact had no idea how to grieve my mother, who was so very unknown to me. When I speak to my father or my brother, I can feel their grief still. It’s raw and it’s so very present. I feel embarrassed by it and turn away from them. I find it difficult to relate to them, because my version of this shared experience is so different from theirs. Whenever they call, I have to lie down for several hours afterward, because they are exhausting. Their sadness eats me.
My brother, father, and I speak very different languages. My home was dominated by my mother’s silence and reticence. We are native to silence, to the strained quiet, to the repressed feeling. My mother’s death has freed my brother and father. They speak freely of their love, as if reminded how fleeting it all can be. But I find it difficult to take their love—I have always been the one who loved and was not loved in return. I wanted so much to be loved and accepted by my family, but now that I have it, I don’t quite know what to make of it. I think I spent so much time mythologizing the inner lives of my family that those versions have taken root inside of me. I can’t seem to shove aside the myth I have of my brother and my father to make room for who they actually are. This must be, I think, why we mythologize the dead. The dead are static. We make them into myths to simulate life, the way life changes us and who we are. The dead take on new personalities in the myths we tell.
But a living person invents themselves as they go. The myth becomes the dead thing, and you have to let it go. You have to let the person grow beyond the narrow place you’ve set for them.
If, after all of these years, the person speaks—well, you have to listen, because they will tell you who they’ve become.