With every word I write I honour her. I will go on writing and while I do, every tear that falls remembers her.
Standing here, looking at the devastated landscape that used to be my life, I know everything has changed. Our hopes and dreams are gone. Nothing remains except the anguish in a life completely undone by grief. I don't want this. I didn't ask for it. I am staring in disbelief, but I know in my heart that this cannot be made better. It is inconceivable that there is any way to carry this disaster, which is mine alone to struggle with. My grief cannot be fixed, and yet I am still asking for help, someone to listen, to hear my truth, to acknowledge: Selena, the love of my life, passed away February 23, 2019 of cancer at only 56.
This grief is heavy. It has damaged my memory, so everything needs to be writen down. I have a journal. It helps. If you want to read it, look here.
The pieces below have been specially selected to honor her.
I sit here at my post.
Sentry to Nature's whimsy. Ready to report on yah or nay.
This place is like a station. Perhaps we expect a train, others around so absorbed, the locale a waiting room.
The track, being close at hand, to left and right, we wonder when the schedule says it comes, but fervently hope it will be late. The train must come, we are resigned. Maybe not now or tomorrow, just as "soon" could be years. On that day we are scattered like dry papers or leaves and those behind will gather what they can, and ask aloud the question "What?" or "Why?" to fast retreating lights that blink no reply.
By Albert Henry Tyson
The account of the author, written in the spring of 2019, following the death of his life long partner and spouse Selena Ying Su Kan.
The following is an omnibus of the author's writings as part of the Writing Your Grief course of Megan Devine at refugeingrief.com.
So, today I signed up for a course where I’m supposed to write about my grief. How do I do that? It’s going to be my chance to explore my own grief, a perilous expedition into the crater of loss that follows love, for those unfortunate enough to be left behind in the midst of the aftermath. That means I will not be writing about just anything. This will be for casting new light or providing a different point of view on my grief and its implications. I mean, my wife died, which is a lot different to me than losing a job or my life.
Amateur radio has a wonderful outlook on how to behave when the mic is keyed on. I should remember I might be talking to the world. So act accordingly. There are people in my story, other people who will be protected; they who must not be named. Their privacy is safe with me. I must also protect myself. There will not be any financial details, for example. Nor will I discuss vacation plans, where I live or what my house is like. Also, I am painfully aware I know nothing about how to carry grief, so I will try to stay away from the word “you” in favour of “I” so as not to appear to provide advice to anyone because seriously I don’t have any answers.
After my wife died, I tried to write what I was feeling. I wanted to capture on paper the swirling thoughts and emotions that just kept spinning around in my head. Maybe I thought that if I got them all down, I could organize them, arrange them in some way so I could see if my story was complete and if things were in the right balance. It was a catharsis and a record for the future. Over the week that it took, and it did take that long trying to see the screen with streaming eyes as I edited, I found each day ended in a kind of emotional exhaustion. I felt like a sponge that had been wrung dry. I felt purged. Of course, the next day it was exactly the same, but I did feel less need to tell my story to anyone who showed me a grain of sympathy.
I felt pretty good about what I had written and decided to show it to someone. That turned out to be a mistake. I was told that although I had written a careful piece illuminating deep emotion, it was clear I was over-thinking and even pre-planning for the outcomes of events which were themselves not even on the horizon if they happened at all. I felt a lot smaller after that. Hopefully, it will not be repeated here.
I don’t know what to do. I feel my name is no longer mine. I’m not the same person anymore.
This grief has changed me. Aside from the triggers that cause my body to lock up unexpectedly in spasms of despair for two minutes at a time (not the thing one wants while driving), there have been changes that run deep to the very centre of who I am, or rather, who I used to be. Standing in this devastated landscape, that used to be a happy place of security and commitment, I can still recall the viral meme that I think started one change. Selena (that’s my wife’s name) had been battling her cancer for two months. It had come back for the third time. The outlook was terrible. There was no outlook really, but I had a lot of trouble accepting it. I had just carried her upstairs for bed. Out of the blue, she said something to the effect that in the future if she wasn’t around anymore and if I found someone to be happy with, then she would be ok with that. I didn’t say anything for a moment. It was like I had been physically struck by this notion.
Over the 34 years I have known Selena, I have written many poems and even a couple songs for her. The best we collected into a little book we called “Love Poems from the Clay Plain”. I tended to write about love everlasting. Infinity is a favourite playground of mine, so I guess this was natural. Our love was something enduring. Something that would last forever. When we were married, the vows we chose were the old King James version. The oratory is wonderful: “What God has joined together let no man put asunder.” It contains the famous line, “till death do us part”. In the years following, I often toyed with the idea that perhaps the vow should have been changed to something about love for always and always and always. It seemed nicer. This was the person I was then.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, listening to the echo of Selena’s words about finding new love after she was gone paralyzed me. Automatically, I rejected the idea and paraded out the infinity. I deflected what I now realize was a great kindness (here comes the lockdown). It is one of my biggest regrets. There were deep feelings behind her simple words that evening. What were they and where were they coming from? What was she feeling? She must have been experiencing grief of her own, realizing her own end was coming. I should have been able to stand there with her, at the edge of her grief and help her express it. Support it.
We had always talked about everything. All decisions were mutual. But I couldn’t talk about this. It was too much. Where did her advice come from? I realize now it was an amazing kindness. She knew it would be harder for me than for her. She would be gone. She wouldn’t even know anything had happened. I would. I think it is harder for those left behind. That is why the King James vow reads “till death do us part”. It is a kindness. If I had gone before her, an infinity vow would have doomed her to a life of solitude. I would not want that for her. I would rather live missing her than for her to live missing me. It is a terrible torture. A kind of solitary confinement.
I didn’t appreciate the wisdom of the old vow until I lost Selena. What I would have labelled as abhorrent before, I now accept as kindness. That’s a pretty big change when I think about it. In a very real way, I would have difficulty recognizing myself now, viewed from back then.
I’m sipping my flat white at a local Starbucks, listening to one of Selena’s friends describing her day. Almost all our friends are through Selena. She had a generous and gregarious nature which attracted people. I am careful to stay on my best behaviour. In the early days, after the disaster, I would get texts every day inviting me to lunch or to coffee, like this one today. That doesn’t happen as much anymore, maybe once a week if I’m lucky. I try very hard never to refuse.
She’s asking me how I’ve been doing.
“Fine,” I lie with the best smile I can muster.
“Have you been eating well?”
“Oh yes. There’s always something. Selena’s mom cooks or sometimes my daughter gets takeout after work.”
I try not to mention that I can hardly go into the kitchen. Cooking was Selena’s mastery. She had an intuitive ability at it, developed from the age of seven when she daily shopped and cooked for her whole family on a coal stove. The kitchen is full of triggers that lock me up.
“I don’t need to eat much,” I explain. “ I could lose some weight.”
Over the three months that Selena was seriously ill with her cancer, I packed on a good 10 kilograms. Eating was a stress response. My subconscious knew something horrible was happening and it was doing the only thing it could. Storing food for the disaster.
“You need to stay with people,” she advises, placing a hand on my arm.
“Oh yes, there is always someone home.”
The thing is I see my daughter for 15 minutes in the morning when I drive her to the subway and then for half an hour in the evening at supper before she disappears upstairs to video chat with her boyfriend for the rest of the evening. My inlaws live with us, but they don’t speak English any more than basic niceties. A deep conversation is impossible. I gave up years ago trying to learn their language. It really is very lonely at home, apparently in the midst of people.
“Go out more with friends. Go take a dance class. It would be good for you.”
“That would be fun!” I hazard.
I did that once back in university. Frankly, it isn’t really me. The thought recurs frequently, but it’s hard to overcome the tension. Selena was never a dancer, only once.
I can feel the warmth of her hand through my sleeve. What I want, more than anything else is to find the connection that I lost. Something inside begins to howl at the memory.
Love and loss are duals. I decided to love and now am dealing with the loss. I can’t have one without eventually the other. Selena’s cancer took her quickly. Nothing happened to the love between us. It stayed strong. It is still strong but balled up inside. Sometimes a memory emerges unexpectedly and the loss form breaks out. For a minute I am immobilized by grief, unable to talk, barely able to move, muscles completely contracted. At those times I fight with myself to be silent. It’s embarrassing, so I don’t want anyone else in the house to know. I’m not brave enough to show tears in public.
Our coffees are finished. It seems time to go. “We should do this again sometime,” she suggests. With an encouraging smile, “You’re taking this well. You have your bereavement group. Stay strong for the family. You’ll recover soon. Give it time.” She gives me a big hug and that just underscores what I have lost. Just for a moment, things feel better. I wish it would continue.
Selena is gone. I lament her loss every day. To feel better is not what I want. I wish to go with her. Every day, feelings of confusion bring the world to a halt. Like a chicken missing its head, I stumble around looking for the connection of love I used to have. How can these two exist side by side? Love and loss. Happiness and sadness. They contradict each other. Go away and stay at the same time. It’s like holding the One and the Many with the mind at once, maybe for the flicker of an instant like seeing someone in a passing subway car. I have been feeling something is terribly wrong with me. Have I lost my sanity? Time will tell.
I try to tell people about these things. I feel a need to tell people these things. Most will listen politely for a while, but almost all turn away eventually. I think they feel helpless in the situation. I am finding it better to put on my game face and pretend everything is fine. That way the rest of the world, outside, seems to act normally. Still, I can’t keep the monster closed up inside forever.
It seems long ago now. My world had just finished a major change. The aftermath of the death of my father and the loss of my career was still very new. Selena and I coped with the garden, a wonderful place of vigorous life on the only remaining piece of pioneered land. A lifetime of hard work was rewarded in soil alive to the touch, soft, springy and in motion. I remember how the plantings there burgeoned with all manner of fruits and vegetables, enough to feed several families if only they could keep up. Our own children were game to try, growing in health and vitality. Selena was always trying something new, changing an approach, looking for the next big thing on which we might build a new future.
Then in the space of a single season, it all stopped. The world changed yet again after only five short years. The master gardener was gone. The soil was forgotten while her minions dealt with the anguish of worry, then the total agony of her loss. Now, no one is there to watch the fruit trees flower. The amaranth and chickweed grow where once were tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. A solitary carrot, having braved the winter’s wrath, stands alone in defiant flower. But I will not see its progeny.
A heavy mist has rolled in from the forest. Ghostly white, it obscures the orchard, pasture and garden. I no longer see that which reminds me so much of Selena, save painful glimpses. A kindness, but I still feel her love inside. Our marriage completed, the book closed, but the certainty builds with each passing week that I will continue to love her for the rest of my days. Whether from in my head or elsewhere I can feel the love drawing me. Still standing, always carrying her urn, we are going somewhere, maybe far from here to some other reality. It is not a choice. It is a necessity. A matter of simple survival in this new world. Somewhere we will find happiness again, in what form, in what person I don’t know. Perhaps on new land for a new life, the next chapter.
I stand in the cluttered room looking at a broken cabinet. Selena has been gone more than two months now, but our bedroom is unchanged from when she was still here. The bed is far too big now and thirty years old. It needs to go. If I got rid of it and the broken cabinet there would be so much more space. I look at the bed. Her indentation is still there. I can almost see her, back toward the rest of the room, sleeping soundly. I sigh. Another time perhaps, for the bed.
Maybe the broken cabinet. It’s one drawer that broke. Just came all apart. The contents have all settled down into the drawer below. There was too much in it. I begin removing the various items; a travel kit, more than one, a half dozen trinket boxes, her jewelry box my mother bought for her as a wedding present, then a golden perfume bottle adorned with flying birds. I suddenly realize the birds are very much the same as those on her urn. But that isn’t the connection that stops me, bottle in hand. I know this bottle. It was Selena’s when we started dating. A bottle of her favourite perfume, her only perfume.
Popping the cover, I take a tentative sniff. The fragrance is still there even after all these years. Suddenly I recall being at the mailbox of my old attic apartment opening a long pale mauve envelope. I was excited since the return address was Selena’s school dorm. It was the first thing she had ever sent me. I remember my hands were almost shaking, but I took great care not to rip any of the envelope. Inside was a card in the shape of a stylized rabbit. It was easter and she had taken the opportunity to send me something. The card along with all the other letters we sent each other reside in a wooden keeping box with a wrought iron stand, on which her urn now rests. I take another longing inhalation. She had spritzed the card with this same scent. Such an impact it had made on me. A perfumed card!
Selena always wore this perfume when I saw her. She was far away then, and taking the card out periodically for another sniff helped get me through the time until our next visit. To this day that scent is synonymous with Selena for me. I’m keeping the bottle.
I met someone called Grief the other day. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you the story.
Thursday evenings I travel downtown to my bereavement group meeting. On the dark way home that night I chose a roundabout route that would take me through old Chinatown, past a favourite restaurant we used to frequent. It was a wet walk. I was thinking about Selena. The rain had been falling all day. My umbrella reminded me it was there with the constant tintinnabulation. When I got to the dumpling house, I didn’t go inside. Glancing ahead, I could see the gleam of a steam vent’s metal grating, discharging a slow wafting fog of warm air into the cool evening. I lingered at the front window, watching people eat. This was where Selena taught me the right way to use chopsticks. We had such a good time, laughing like idiots at my pathetic first attempts. It had been a scene. The pleasant memory brings a smile, until once again realizing she is dead, my throat begins to constrict and I quickly turn away. I can feel the lockdown coming. Something is on the steam vent, almost covering it. As I approach, I realize it’s someone in a sleeping bag, soaking wet with rain. Hair is plastered to the head, but it raises as I walk past. I catch a glimpse of seven dimes and one nickel lined up along the edge of the concrete. A finger is in the process of shuffling the nickel into the middle of the queue.
“Hey!” The voice is hoarse and raspy, muffled by the bag. “Look at my coins! Just tell me where she is. Just tell me! Then they’re all yours.”
I turn to regard the derelict. Heavy eyebrows shade the eyes and the nose is sharp like it was freshly carved. It’s more of a beak, really, on his face. I say him because of the jutting reddish beard.
He starts up to his feet, seeming to recognize me, the sodden bag constricting his legs. “You!!” he yells with surprising ferocity. An Asian girl is just walking past, trying very hard not to make eye contact with us. “Where did you take her! Tell me! Tell me what you did with her! Tell me or I’ll beat the living shit out of you!” Lunging forward he manages to grab me by the front of my coat. The man had an amazing reach!
For some bizarre reason, we connect and I know what he is talking about just as the lockdown hits. “She’s at home!!” I scream. “In her urn, on the keeping box!!” It’s all I can get out. I double up, but he’s supporting me now, holding on until the waves subside enough that he can raise me.
I see his face. The eyes are filled with tears streaming more than the rain. “Gone?” he asks.
“Last February!” I feel the violence inside subsiding.
He lets go, his face an expression of disbelief. He staggers back a step, but the bag holds him. “No. You’re lying … No! This is your fault! Your fault! … Where were you! What did you do! Why didn’t you help her! Why didn’t you save her!! … Answer me!!”
“I did all I could!” I yell back. “I stayed with her all the time! Looked after her 24/7! Worried to pieces! What else could I do? … Tell me that! What else could I do!? I would do it again if I could!!”
The shouting has attracted attention. The doorman from a nearby club calls out, “Hey buddy! Do you need some help? Hey! Need help?!” I look in that direction, not knowing if he is talking to me or the derelict. When I turn back, the derelict is gone. Nothing is there, not even the coins. A cold sweat spreads over me, but I quickly pull myself together and get moving, heading straight for the subway and home.
At this time of night, you might expect the subway to be lightly travelled, but with everyone beginning to leave the restaurants and bars, the trains are mostly full. Not standing room only, but just full. I find a seat against the wall. An attractive woman in a trenchcoat and high heeled boots sits in an adjacent seat. I can tell she is looking at me, but I don’t want to look back. I still feel flushed and shaken by the hallucination. That must have been what it was, wasn’t it? I mean, I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I let my gaze roam the car. Facing me a girl snoozes with her head back against the wall. Her hood hides most of her face in shadow. I can see only her nose, mouth and neck. She is obviously young, the skin perfect. The way the overhead light contrasts against the shadow accentuates the curve of her lip. The tips of white teeth show in the gap.
“Young enough to be your daughter, I think.” says the woman in the trench coat. She has been watching me watch the girl.
I glance at her, completely embarrassed. I manage, “That’s for sure.”
She looks coy. “Nothing to be embarrassed about. You didn’t do anything.”
I smile dismissively. Ordinarily, I think I would have clammed up but instead, I say, “I’m bothered about my emotions these days. They seem to be all over the place since my Selena died.”
This doesn’t seem to phase the stranger who answers, “You loved your Selena, right? So where do you think all that love went when she passed away. Do you think it just disappeared?”
“Uh, I don’t know. It’s an emotion. It’s not real, like a material.”
A flicker shows in her eyes. “What would make it real then? Can you feel the love? Can you touch it? Even now when you have lost her, can you remember the warmth of her body, the texture of her skin, the form of her hand, the taste of her kiss? How does that make you feel? Do you miss her?”
“Very much.” is my immediate reply.
“The physical and mental worlds are linked. You know, mind over matter.”
“You mean if we don’t mind, it don’t matter?” I quip.
She hardens. “Get back to me when you want to be serious. And this is serious.”
The train lurches as it begins decelerating, approaching the station. My remark was offensive, I realize that, but I just couldn’t stop myself. It’s a standard joke. I let that conversation drift away and my gaze returns to the open area of the car.
The girl is still asleep. There is something about the lip line. That smooth perfect curve. So specific. I focus on it a bit. Then the realization blasts me. It’s the same shape as Selena’s more than thirty years ago! I’ve hit another trigger. Hunching forward I hold my breath as long as I can, my muscles racking trying to howl. It’s like holding in a sneeze. Pressing my hands to my face helps. As usual, it passes in a moment and I let out a long exhalation. These attacks always drain me.
Wondering what my critic might have witnessed, I look over. Instead, I am accosted by a jutting red beard and chiselled nose. The eyes under those bushy eyebrows glower at me.
“It’s alright to consider the future as described by my better half, but don’t think for a moment you will ever be rid of me, my friend.” He puts a heavy hand on my shoulder. I can feel the weight of it, the reality of it. There can’t be any mistake.
I pull back instinctively. “How is this possible?” I stammer, “If you’re real, who are you?”
The train has stopped and the doors open. He gets up to leave. “You know who we are. We are both love. My sister is more refined than me and carries the proper name Love. I’m the wild one. Most call me Grief. I’ll see you around.”
He gives me a big smile, but there’s something distinctly unsettling about it. Then he is gone. As the train accelerates again, I contemplate my future with Love and Grief, real and part of the world.
(The next story is The Embers of Grief)
It has been hard this weekend, being Mother’s Day. Five white chrysanthemums accompany Selena’s urn. The last I remember, my lamp was casting a pale yellow glow into the room. Now, the walls are washed with the bluish light of dawn. I’ve fallen asleep in my chair again. I used to be disappointed on waking up, the question “Why am I still here?” echoing in my mind. Not anymore. Those darkest times seem to have abated somewhat. Blinking around the room, everything is the same as it was. The bed, unused, the broken cabinet, the sorted pile of Selena’s cloths on the bench, the aftermath of searching for warm stretchy clothing for her at the hospital that last time. The room is a mess, but I don’t beat myself up about it; a kindness, but this is not the first such.
The last time Selena was home she offered me a kindness. She knew our wedding vow would be over when she died. Time was running out for her. As her second to last act of kindness, (her last was to pass away on her own terms, saving me from the horrible decision to remove life support), she wanted me to be happy in the future and she would accept if that meant with someone new. The ultimate kindness.
I worry about the future. It’s in the genes, coming from a long line of worriers. After my mother died, my father rattled around in the house for 17 years, all by himself, before he died alone. He used to tell me how lonely he was. I don’t want that to happen to me. For the future, I consider the present. It takes time, time to slowly prepare an open space on the canvas of life. In the present, the brush is poised above the figure suggested. Just a shade now on the painted landscape. Patience is the key.
That’s my secret really. Patience and the willingness to try; persistence. I offer patience to myself, to watch the unfolding of the leaves of Grief. I will wait for Love. Perhaps a new flower will arrive in the garden. If she does, I can continue the work of art.
Sometimes we can access the subconscious by capturing words and phrases of interest in a random article. It’s called found poetry. I wrote this poem with four verses since in Cantonese the word four sounds very much like death.
From inside the shock wave
“You can hear the shot,”
many bizarre properties
ice is black and hot
among the most abundant
more than 30 years
flowing like a liquid
so far, that isn’t clear
Array of avatars
something very strange
under extreme pressure
what will be the range
illustrate the random
easy or hard to trust
own sneaking suspicions
thinning outer crust
I recall the pamphlet, which I still have from my grief group, describing eight points to keep in mind about recent grief. Intrigued, I followed the given URL to the refuge in grief web site. The site seemed different, its approach, new. I loved the elevator pitch, “Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.” Mentioning it to a librarian friend, I was recommended the book “It’s OK that you’re not OK” by Megan Devine. I hadn’t heard of Megan before, but I soon discovered there was an audiobook version available. Now, I need to explain that audiobooks are not like regular books in the sense that much depends on the reader. The content can be great, but a poor voice will ruin everything. So I was a little skeptical until I listened to the sample. Megan’s reading was galvanic. She was reading her own words with love, poignancy and understanding riding her expression. This was something immersive. It felt so much different than anything else I had come across. I was having trouble carrying my grief, as Megan would say, and needed something to keep me standing. Her reading reached me. I found myself listening over and over, on the subway, walking the dog, or in the small sleepless hours. I would call Megan my guiding star, although we have never met.
I write science fiction. (Spoiler alert) Currently, in my Ash Series, one of my characters progresses through a troubled life. She has more than her share of difficulties in her adolescence and then loses her father in an accident. For the series, the original happy ending I wanted was proving problematic until I realized she could carry her grief rather than recover, overcome or fix it. Exploration is ongoing, but to help with the story, I am attempting to transrealize my own grief into her, using my real experience to discover my heroine and breath life into her struggle, in a way, passing the torch. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that when the books are ready her story might be a virtual guiding star, living in grief and loss.
Where was the red when I last saw you? Cold on the table, black, white and gray, you were.
“No rose could ever live where winter rules the land, but to my darling’s lips its colour would seem bland.”
From our poems. Remember your red scarf? Such contrast for you with your black hair. I can still see you young and beautiful in your little red Qipao wedding dress. You were so light. I carried you around the banquet hall. Supporting you. Red was there when our children arrived too, at the hospital. And in the blood coughed from your lungs in the last days. Maybe you knew. Was that why you liked green, like your garden, full of life, like the emerald your birthstone? Red was supposed to be lucky. Somehow I don’t feel the luck. Maybe red goes with thirteen. No manner of luck at all.
Today is Selena's birthday. If she had lived she would have been 56 turning 57. Ok, with the error made in the official record translation, she would have been 57 turning 58. But let's just go with what is on file, May 15, 1962.
Downstairs Mom is sniffling, eyes red. It's Selena's birthday. She's been crying. Selena is sitting beside me now, on her keeping box of letters I sent before. Beside me, while I work. Beside me, while I write this. (lockup coming) Things happen and I go to tell her, then realize she can't hear. She's just this little urn of stardust now. I picked her up this morning, gave her a kiss and a hug, and wished her a happy birthday. She is still 56. I'm now 55, but next year I will be 56 too and so will she. For the dead never age. She will be forever young. Forever 56.
Such changes in a short time. Two years ago, Selena was alive and completely normal. We were enjoying a good married life. Then in the fall of 2017 everything changed and it was all about cancer. She did not recover well from the surgery or treatments. Pain became part of life and my role changed to the caregiver. A year and a half later she was gone.
It has been a long and difficult road. Now she doesn't know anything about that. But we do. The rest of us have to go on somehow. I have to go on, even though I don't want to. I've been trying to find a way. Some way to live within this grief and carry it the best I can. But it's hard. Who knows where things will be in another two years. So, I better hurry and finish my writings. Time always runs out eventually.
A toast to Selena on her birthday! Still 56!
Wait! Today is her birthday. Forever 56. Cheers!
Now we have nothing. Tears streaming.
Selena is gone. Nothing exists or rather, is it that nothing exists?
Somewhere a notion lingers, memory. Frege and Godel. Exists empty set.
Could she still be there? In the nothing?
I want this more than anything.
Can you hear? 34 years, the original neural net?
I know. See her in a flash. Hear her in a whisper.
From the nothing, in the quiet of the night, she is there.
My new reality is mostly hidden. In the grey mist that has obscured the larger view of my world, I am focused on my efforts. Friends and family visit with puzzled expressions and shrugs. Watching me tend the leafless vine.
Barefoot, toes embedded in the living interface, I fork and rake. No boots stomp here. Soft soles of naked feet kiss the ground. In this strange place, manure falls from the sky, a smattering of beige buns. No one visits for long. Heaping the manure around the base is the only kindness I can offer. But I know the roots of love are still alive. I can feel them. Deep running and old, they whisper secrets and suggestions from the depths.
Dead growth has been pruned away, still raw and white. The vine is bare, the gnarly surface of the old growth a familiar texture to my bare hands. Running fingers met each curve and knob with greeting, an old friend.
The buds are there, primed and ready, but waiting. Selena and I tended this vine for many years. It grew. Weed and water. Cut and correct. The leaves used to be broad and lush, now they have been cried away. I tried to stem the flow of salt with fresh sweet water. Perhaps it worked.
Company has thinned. From where once was almost a queue, now there is mostly silence. A silence that descends heavy and thick, like wet snow, bowing the remaining stock. I hope it does not break.
This silence, this loneliness is toxic. Nothing can grow from it. Not even a weed. The ground stays worked. The bugs and worms hide below even at night. Night is the worst.
Still, I tend the vine. As I did by Selena’s bedside, so I continue here. Not all is lost. Sometimes a visitor comes, tarries, talks, watching me toil, understanding. Perhaps the vine will respond with new growth once again. I can only hope.
(The story starts with The Twins)
I’m nervous. This isn’t what I want to do. It isn’t where I want to be. The parkette behind the townhouses is partially hidden from the street by a small man-made hill. At this time of night, the playground is deserted. I’m not even supposed to be here, but this is the meeting place. Always at night. This time secluded. Abandoned. Alone. And in the damn rain.
I’ve spent the months since Selena died trying to avoid these meetings. Last week I thought I was getting good at it. Who knew that by finding a powerful enough distraction I could prevent having to deal with you? I was looking for a friend to help. Someone who might not mind holding my hand or giving me a hug if I needed it to get through the bad spots. Someone who might help me get to the other side. Hopefully, I don’t mess it all up. It’s all based on trust. Trust is like virginity, we don’t get to lose it twice.
But this task I have been given. This mission to the edge is not served by avoidance. It is not served by distraction. And that’s scary because that’s all that I have. I have to meet you alone. The last time was on Selena’s birthday. The time before that was on the subway after the dumpling house. Despite my best efforts, you still manage to be a disruption at least once a week. And that’s why Megan tells me I need to find the middle ground. I can’t hide from you forever.
I see you. Hunched up into yourself in the rain, on the park bench under the spruce. The distant lamp post accentuating the folds in your soggy sleeping bag. Camping out again, looks like. I walk over beside you, but I don’t want to sit down.
“I’d thank you for coming, but you know,” I begin.
Your red beard juts out toward me as you look up. You are Grief, brother of Love. My nemesis. I have no hope to overcome, from whom I have always run. Your eyes are deep behind bushy eyebrows, but I find them strangely expressive.
“What changed your mind?” you ask, voice rasping in the back of your throat.
I ignore that because I don’t know. “I need to start dealing with you, with us.”
“You’re just going to run away again,” you sneer. “Back to my sister, Love.” He spits. “How’s that working out? Find many takers? Old, fat and broke that you are?” You laugh, but it changes suddenly into a racking cough. As it subsides you add, “Damn congestion!”
“Not this time. … I can’t go all the way right now. What do I need to do as a start?”
You eye me warily. “Well, for starters forget the distractions. Stop avoiding me.”
“Don’t expect me to leave myself wide open. I need to be able to protect myself.”
“Where you need to go is a place of solitude. No friends allowed!”
“What would that be? Let me think. Do you mean like a desert or a forest? No, maybe a devastated landscape of rubble?”
You shake your head.
“Oh, come on. Not the edge of the crater that was our life?”
You bristle, “Not our life! That was you and Love! Not me!”
“Well, tell me then!”
“Long Beach, Vancouver Island. Summer of 2005.” You hold out a smooth ellipsoid of black stone and tap me lightly on the head. “Remember!”
I’m no longer in the park. I am alone in a tunnel made of the trunks and branches of living cedar trees. The walls are impenetrable and I have no choice but to walk toward the light at the end of the tunnel. Emerging, I am standing on sand. Large logs have been rammed up against the cedar scrub, attesting to great power. Clambering beyond the logs the world becomes simple; hardpacked wet sand and mist in the still air that allows at most 30 meters of visibility in any direction. In the distance, the sound of light surf suggests the ocean, but there is nothing to be seen. As I walk toward the sound, the logs and cedar behind quickly disappear and I am contained within a large whitish sphere of bright mist. Only the sand beneath my feet is perfectly clear. The sound continues. I walk, never reaching the surf, passing the occasional kelp stalk. The world has become surreal.
“Remember this now?” You are right behind me somehow, almost over my shoulder. The sleeping bag is gone.
“Yes,” I manage. “I know this place. Selena and I brought the kids here on a working vacation. We drove to Tofino from Victoria this day.”
“Look there!” You point to the left. “Read!”
A message has been scrawled in the sand, the stick used to write, discarded. “Selena & Al, forever. Xoxoxox.” The tears come suddenly at the memory.
“Yes, that’s right. Remember it all. The good and the bad.”
“Why the bad?” I choke out.
“You must honour her. To do that, you honour your life together. All of it. That’s what life is. The joy and the sorrow, together. Shared.”
As I shudder in grief, you support me by the arm, carefully lowering me to the sand beside the message.
“How?” I plead.
“Remember. That is all. Just remember her. To do that properly, you must be in solitude. Like this place. Sit with your memory. It may be painful, sad, or happy, joyous. But you must repeat the experience.”
“But the loss! Must I reexperience the loss?” I search your face for understanding.
“Nothing has changed from what it already was.” From inside your bulky coat, you pull a modest old photo album. “Here. This will help jog your memory. Images from almost everything in your life. Good thing Selena liked to take pictures! Concentrate on each picture and remember as much as you can. Then go on to the next.”
I open the album to the first page. A familiar picture greets me. Selena in a long dress, the stained glass of a church window behind her. This was the first picture in our album. She had been attending a friend’s wedding, almost concurrently with the beginning of our relationship. It was a good picture.
You continue explaining, “The people in these pictures, the versions of you and Selena belong to the past. They still exist in a different now, but we have lost them. Even when Selena was still alive, this Selena from 1987 was gone. They have all been lost to you for a long time. Look how beautiful she is! At the peak of her life.” You gaze upon the next picture. Selena posed with a red rose beside a countertop decorated with arrangements of dried roses. “She kept all the bouquets you sent. Preserved.” Tears ran down your check. The tears of Grief.
Hefting the album I ask, “There can’t be too many pictures in this small album. I think maybe I can get through them today.”
“Hah!” You laugh in derision. “A full lifetime recalled in a day? Good luck with that! And that is no ordinary photo album. It is Cantor’s infinite album. It’s full of an infinite number of pictures, but there is always room for another!”
I goggle at you. “Infinite number?”
“Well, surely you didn’t think this task was something that would ever end? Where did you get that idea from? Not from me!” You pat my shoulder. “Best get started.”
“What about this smouldering ember of grief I keep hearing about? Is this process it?”
“Of course not. Those will introduce themselves from within certain of the photos. Don’t worry, you’ll find them!” You chuckle derisively. “Always new ways to burn you.”
I look down to the next photo. Selena has posed with the flowers again, but this time the mirror above the counter catches her profile from the side. One picture, two profiles, front and side. What a coincidence! Looking up to comment on this I find you are no longer there. I am alone sitting on the wet sand, the album in my lap. In the distance, the sound of the surf is the only indication of anything outside my bubble of visibility. The message is still there. “Selena & Al, forever. Xoxoxox”
(Next story is The Signal)
As did Marcus du Sautoy in The Code, I know a hidden code underlies our reality. Numbers are unreasonably effective at describing and explaining our world. Being connected at birth to the earth goddess Maia, but on the 13th day (it was supposed to be 12), occasionally my birthday falls on Freya’s day; the infamous Friday the 13th. The last time that happened Selena was still alive, 2016. Now, she is gone. The next time will be 2022 and maybe neither of us will still be here. I doubt very much to reach the next one in 2033. I sometimes wonder if it was her association with my 13 that cut her life short.
In the Chinese zodiac, Selena was a tiger and I am the dragon. Happily, those two are friends. A long time ago a coworker introduced me to the sacred Chinese text, the I Ching, an oracle and the oldest book containing an organized system of philosophy. In that text, the world has 64 states of change. Originally, the book was intended to advise the emperor. It was one of the few books not burned since it is inhabited by spiritual entities that might be released. I find it fascinating how it never fails to provide good advice. It scared us, however, when it correctly predicted the death of an uncle. Now, I consult it only for writing fiction. Danté’s incredibly detailed world advises the fortune tellers inhabit the 4th malebolge of the eighth circle in lower Hell.
These diversions are welcome since sometimes they help to provide an explanation to Selena’s senseless loss. She left me so early, at only 56. We thought there were decades left. Selena often mentioned she hoped we would be the old couple, wrinkled and bent, still holding hands. That dream is gone.
Not many of Selena’s old friends check in with me now. Like the uninvited guest, I make some uncomfortable. This is my fault mostly. I don’t have friends of my own. Everyone is connected to me through Selena. Her connections ran long and deep, like roots. Thinking of those roots makes me feel better. Something reliable. When she died, I suddenly realized my exposure. Like a drowning person, thrashing in the water, desperately grabbing at anything and anyone with a death grip, I drove them away. Few want to be around the husband of their dead friend. A couple of them remain in contact, all that tolerate hearing my sad story repeated. My son confides he doesn’t like hearing me talk so. He doesn’t like coming home when everyone is depressed. How can I be anything else? This is likely the new me. He wants things to be normal again. This is the new normal. My daughter does not participate with me in my grief. She adamantly refuses to show that this disaster has affected her, hiding inside her iron armour of clearly forced cheerfulness. The pressure escapes the seams when she argues with her boyfriend, the poor guy. I hope he can handle it.
I have had to realize I am indeed the uninvited guest and that the gathering isolation is nothing more than my new reality. Perhaps this enforced solitude is necessary for healing? I fervently hope not. For advice, I am turning to the government collected statistics, to see what the numbers can tell me about the success or failure at finding any happiness for someone with my lot in life. I fear this is again the 13, the finale, the crossover.
How I interface with the space around me has changed, which also changes the space I am in. I’ve never tried contacting you this way since we were dating, Selena, because you are always in my head. I talk to you. This time, however, I decided to write you a letter.
You haven’t been gone long, but there have been subtle changes here. After Dad died and I lost my career, you and I tried to make something of this place. Something wasn’t right. The nature of the place had developed a dissatisfied brooding. Remember the evening that weird mist rolled out of the forest and started spinning columns like figures?
You and I did our best to live into the place. We had our own dreams and aspirations. We worked hard, hoping to make something of them. Then you got sick and nothing here mattered. Things got really bad for the homestead, almost abandoned.
Since you've been gone, the onrushing spring has forced me to revisit the place, at least to cut the grass. I find the atmosphere different now. The anger is gone, replaced by a wistful regret, an almost palpable feeling of loss and loneliness.
If you were here, you would see your gardens mostly full of weeds, the flower beds choked with grass. The orchard I planted for you is failing to green apple borer. Everywhere nature is forcing its way in with bramble and bush, attempting to erase us from this earth.
You would be horrified. I feel you would insist on staying here, toiling long hours to put it all right, but I can’t do that for you. These are all your projects, your landmarks, or at least created for you. I’m having trouble. Looking at the pear blossoms brings me to tears. I choke on them trying to till the garden. I must fight against collapse as I trim back the willow around the pond. This is not work done as easily as before, but I know it is what you loved, this land, this garden, which is where I would absolutely take you.
Here is what I have learned about myself so far.
I have had fun with the writing prompts. They have certainly helped keep me busy.
I am disappointed that the core impact of Grief, that of the severe emotional outbursts resulting from triggered memories seem to have actually become more frequent. This may be a result of my being better able to maintain a focus on Selena’s memory, by becoming aware of different and effective ways to remember and honour her.
Some have said my writing is improving. At least I have learned a few interesting techniques for reaching a new perspective.
I feel less unhappy about waking up in the morning, but I am still very lonely. The feeling of a new relationship being desirable is still present in the responses.
Writing a really powerful piece seems to temporarily ease Grief by evoking a little happiness. It also seems to provide a good outlet to drain emotional energy.
Ok, it’s a start. Nothing earth-shaking, but I’ll take it.
Sixteen is a good number. In a number system of 16 rather than 10 any numeral of pi can be calculated without first finding the preceding digits. Today, I will see if this notion extends to jumping directly to the condition of my heart.
I am asking you, Selena, this question of myself in all sincerity. What is the condition of my heart? In meditation, you show me an image of running water. Perhaps made of tears? Drops fall from the sky, collecting on the ground into pools and rivulets, adding and multiplying in a cascade. It flows everywhere, filling everything up, and does not shrink from any dangerous plunge. The cataract flies, arcing into a dark ravine. The sound of its fall echoing and crashing again and again into the depths. The flow is continuous, never stopping or pausing, like all the misery of the world combined.
You tell me that the continuous flow of tears, by its nature is consistent. Each tear following the last. Over and over. The repetition helping me to learn, to understand and cope.
The downward plunge of the waterfall is always in motion, like the streams and rivers of the earth that give rise to all life. Far below I can still see the twinkling of the collective tears, hidden within the depths of the ravine, like a heart locked inside the body. Light enclosed by darkness, like reason.
You warn me to be careful. “Don’t try to be too clever!” you advice. “Each tear repeats the dangerous plunge, but that is not for you! Don’t grow too accustomed to the surge!” I realize that all that counts is performing what must be done, a thoroughness, in order to go forward. Staring at the terrible drop, my footing is slowly eroding. If I stay too long here, I will fall and perish.
Stepping back from the precipice, I can catch my breath and wonder what it is like to see this dark condition of my heart. The darkness causes me problems. If somehow I could open a window and let in the sunlight, I might be enlightened. I might begin with the lucid and simply proceed from that point. Perhaps I need help. Anyone with an honest intention would do.
I want to be delivered from the burdensome pressure of this Grief. To begin the process of slowly and gradually inching my way toward a new normalcy. I wish the rain of tears would make the buds burst open and relieve this atmospheric tension. Hopefully, you will forgive my mistakes and pardon my misdeeds. I was just trying to deal with your loss. Please pass over my unintentional transgressions, as thunder dies away and the rain washes everything clean.
Grief is everywhere. Grief is everywhere now. It didn’t use to be this way, for the two of us. There used to be sunshine and joy. You loved the countryside. It was a happy place. Now you have gone and the darkness has come. Walking the open fields, the greening winter wheat is pushing toward the future, but I don’t feel it. The stalks sway and ruffle in the wind which courses everywhere across the clay plain. There is nothing the wind does not disturb, just like my grief at losing you.
Grief has affected everything, even changed my interests. As a kindness, somehow you lead me to this group and the support it offered through Megan. Her help has given me an example to live into. By contemplating her own Grief and being visible in this dark land, she has been a tower from which you and I can see exactly how Grief extends across my life, the changed version of our life. Following Megan’s words as closely as I can, I have not yet attempted what she has wished for us. I want to, but it is difficult to trust. Grief has shaded even that. People I thought could help have often turned away. They are friends of yours, so I don’t blame them. For me, they are just more of Grief’s casualties.
Grief has influenced everything. Don’t you agree? All natural occurrences have been uniformly affected by Grief. Contemplating the meaning, of the Grief underlying how my new world works, is supposed to give me, and people like Megan, the means to influence it. A shift or change. She says I can influence Grief but not remove it, as it is now fundamental. I can only try, but Grief is everywhere. Where do I start? On what part do I focus first?
You say, “Focus on the breath.” The breath of Grief, like the wind over the fields, goes everywhere, sees everything. Softening with the breath is a kindness the wind, full of its own energy, could never allow. This is a time for not going anywhere, for not doing anything. I may learn. It is scary to open in this way, risking the collapse of barriers so solidly built. I must explore, softly and quietly. It is not cowardice, but wisdom to submit to the breath. On this foundation of practice do I build my trust.
Plunging into Grief,
the waters flow without pause or interruption
toward their end.
As with a boat
attempting to cross this great stream,
may we, The Tribe of After
unite in the joint task.
locked within the depths of the body,
cannot be known or reached,
like the bottom of a deep gorge.
Ask for courage,
not to shrink from the edge
but stare into the depths.
Ask for sincerity,
so you and your heart can survive.
Ask your heart,
to penetrate the meaning of your pain.
Ask to be brave,
to fear not the surge of the waters of Grief,
for we will hold you high, out of harm's way.
Ask for patience,
for your pain is irredeemable, binding and shackling,
but with us, your bonds might loosen slightly.
Ask for compassion,
that the broken heart might be eased
and the waters of Grief dispersed into foam by the wind of gentleness.
May you find music and ceremony,
to honour your Grief with us who care,
the tide of emotion shared by all hearts in unison,
awakening the consciousness of our common connection,
our Tribe of After.
We have many memories, Selena. In honesty, our times were both pleasant and painful. But if I could have you back again, just for one conversation, even an argument, I would forfeit anything. You are gone now, so the future holds nothing for us, neither good nor bad, just none. Our story is done. You have no more reason to worry or hurry. Take your time. You have so much now, in the nothing.
Me, I have not been as lucky. You left me behind and didn’t come back for me, but I am slipping. Now the thunder and the rain have set in, so we must pardon our mistakes and forgive each other. It would be youthful folly to tarry at the edge while the cataract erodes the bank.
Each week I seem to have more trouble remembering. Maybe there is something I can do. Holding memories close by collecting items, like photos, I hope will help. So many have gone astray in crossing between the film and digital realms. It is too late for a video, but I try to advise our children not to make the same mistake. What I would give for five minutes of you from 30 years ago. Your voice. Your face. I am afraid I will forget. I need to hurry.
This Grief has cost me terribly. I must reacquaint myself with who I am to find our memories, else friends who know us better will mistrust me and stay away. If I properly refresh and prepare myself, why would the future not go well?
Please, if you can grant me a wish from the nothing, bless me with this. Like a stream that avoids stagnation by flowing on and filling all the hollow places, so let my memory be preserved by a thoroughness that skips nothing, and like water, slowly and gradually fills all gaps and so flows on.
My dear Selena, you died suddenly. I knew it was coming but not when and then it happened like a bolt of thunder leaving me quaking in the reverberations. What remained of you I wanted to keep with me always. It seems like a very long time has passed, but it’s been only three months. It feels like three years. You rest in your urn. Every morning a greeting hug, every evening a kiss goodnight has become our routine. Being with you as much as I can helps continue your existence.
The sorrow I endure to stay there with you is daunting. It drains me to exhaustion. The loss of sleep, lousy meals, missing purpose, is it survivable? I turned to distraction to cope. For most of a week I felt better, but then I was horrified at the reaction I received. I went back to the practice. The practice of honoring our love.
The days crawled on. One day I realized I had not greeted you in the usual way for a weekend. This was a terrible thing, for no one is truly gone if there still exists one person who remembers them. I stopped looking for distraction. Still, I find I am not missing you so much since I am not thinking of you directly for most of the day. I do think about loneliness. I do think about loss of purpose. Seeing happy couples in the mall or on the subway stirs depression, rather than anger or jealousy. I try not to go out much. I am afraid of what I will forget, but if everything in my mind is tough and inert like mire, then movement is crippled and I will live forever in this Grief.
I find my memory is getting much worse these days. When I look back into my past, why do I see mostly unpleasantness? The bad stays sharp and hurts, makes me cry out sometimes, gathering curious looks from bystanders. But good things? They gradually soften and fade to the point I am not sure exactly what happened, if they were real, or if I am remembering an old photo. I don’t want to be left with only bad memories of you.
I have been told that love will stay. How do I know, for me? My mother died decades ago. I’m not even sure when, now. I know my mother loved me but I can no longer conjure any evidence to support that from memory. Only photos remain. Will that happen to you?
I don’t want to lose you any more than I have. I want to continue this devotion since I feel my life depends on it, is defined by it. You were my piton slammed into the cliff of the infinite regress, stopping my fall. You called out, we are the self-evident truth! Now what? What will become of me if your piton rusts away?
I remember your art in the kitchen. The gas flame on full, the steel wok hot, its oiled surface streaming in odd patterns. Hands quick and sure, the freshly washed bundle of watercress or spinach or bok choy is flung from the colander into the intense heat of the wok. Loud searing complaint alerts the household that supper will be on the table in a moment. The air is heavy with vaporized oil. I wish we had a vent. It will recondense on every surface, a sticky varnish that demands TSP to scrub it free. Thankfully the dish is done. No more oil, but wait! What did you add? Was there some salt or soy? I don’t recall. All I know is I cannot rework that magic. My food now is just a feeble attempt that only I will try to eat and even then throw most of it away.
There is a potluck coming in a few days. I’m supposed to bring one of your favorites. How? What? I really don’t know. You always liked congee, but by the time it arrives, it will be cold. Maybe I will ask your mother to cook something. Fat-back bacon and sausage steamed on rice perhaps. That’s not bad cold. I just need one dish. There should be so many, why can’t I clearly recall? If nothing else, I will buy something at the store. It won’t be the same, but maybe it will represent you a little. I wanted everyone to know something about you, not just a dish. Your work. Your art in the kitchen. We should have opened a restaurant years ago in Kingston. Everyone said so. You offered to make dumplings and wontons. How those would have sold! Too late now. Opportunity lost.
I wonder if your grandmother knew how cooking would influence your life, how it would become the unappreciated core of who you really were. Imagine, seven years old, you walked to the market every day, bought all the food the family would eat, carried it home and cooked it. The vendors would be different and the quality variable, but you bought the best you could with the little money you had. You judged the character and the quality, being sure the amount was correct. And the cooking? The stove was just a round metal pipe. First, start a fire of sticks then add the coal. Don’t forget to open the windows to let the smoke out. A different world.
Now you’re not here. No one can cook like you did. No one can manage the household like you did. We’re all up the creek without a paddle. I don’t know what to do with your folks. They just eat clear soup and noodles with maybe just one little piece of vegetable. They can’t last on that. But who could have had the foresight to predict what happened to you? You knew what was coming, apologizing three times to me. You were so sorry. That broke my heart. Even now it still breaks it.
(Written in Selena’s voice)
At the end of my suffering, there was a door, or a threshold really. I did not want to cross that boundary. I knew what it was, but I wasn’t ready. There were things left to do.
I had realized my lungs were bad. The last day on the oncology ward, when they came to help me breathe, I told my daughter I might not make it through this one. I wish my husband was there beside me as the ICU people prepared my bed, but he was out in the hall with the guests. Saturdays are always so busy. Too many people coming to visit. I wish for weekdays. They’re quieter. I don’t have to talk so much.
They put a tube down my throat to help me breathe. It’s so uncomfortable, it makes me feel like I’m choking, but they gave me drugs so I don’t care. Sometimes I need to cough, but the machine keeps forcing air. Then they jam a smaller tube down the larger one to try to suck bloody mucus out. It hurts and I feel like I’m going to die, just for a moment. I have to poop in my own bed. Then they kick everyone out and clean me. It’s so embarrassing. They feed me with another tube. At least my husband won’t worry about my not eating now. The thing is, I needed to talk to my husband. There were things we didn’t say. Now with this tube, I can’t tell him how sorry I am. I can’t say I love him, just nod when he says it. Why didn’t my daughter tell him I don’t want the tube? I wanted to go naturally. This isn’t natural. He knows I told him before to make sure the doctors do everything they can. But this is too much. It’s torture. If they would just take this tube out, I could talk to him one last time.
I feel out of it, but that’s a kindness. Things are happening to me I don’t understand. My memory is fading. It must be the cancer in my brain. Sometimes I can’t recognize the people around me now. Today, a man came and looked me in the eyes for a long time. He was holding my hand, squeezing it. I didn’t know him. He asked, “Do you know who I am?” I shook my head a little, which hurt. He said, “I’m your husband.” I can’t seem to recall. Later I might. Quite likely.
Today I’m in trouble. I can’t breathe well. The drugs almost make me sleep, then I can’t breathe and I wake up to force in another breath through the tube from this damn machine. I don’t think I can take much more. That threshold is right there in front of me, even when my eyes are closed. My husband is here today holding my hand. Oh, no! The doctor is forcing my husband to decide on when to remove my breathing tube. I can’t breathe on my own. He has to decide to kill me. That’s going to kill him! No. No! I won’t have it. I will help you sweetie! I will cross over now and save you. Here I go!
If I imagine you speaking, imagine you loving me through this, you would tell me you were sorry you couldn’t talk to me those final days, that there were many things you wanted to say, but the tube down your throat prevented it.
You hug me close as we sit on the sofa, watching TV like we used to. “I don’t want to hear you say you wish you didn’t wake up each morning.” You wag a finger at me. “You promised you would continue on, remember?” You smile at me. “You always kept your promises.” You give me another hard squeeze.
“I just don’t know what to do anymore. The loneliness is terrible.”
“Cheer up!” you say. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” smiling at me. The first line of the song I sang as part of our wedding games.
“I’ve been Writing My Grief every day.”
“Did you finish your books?”
“Well, no, but I have extended the notes a lot. And I think I have a way to end the series a bit more naturally. A better example for the reader to live into.”
You nod as if the story is familiar to you, then change topic. “You have to look after Cassie and Kurt.”
“But they don’t want to talk about you.”
“It’s just too painful for them. They need you to be cheerful. The house should be somewhere they want to come home to, not a depressing place.”
You put your legs up on my lap and I start massaging your feet out of habit. “How am I supposed to be cheerful when you’re gone? I miss you.”
“Mmmm! Oh, that’s good,” you exclaim, enjoying the massage. “I’m talking to you now, isn’t that right? And I’m right there too.” You rap me on the head with your knuckle. “Get it? Got it? Good!” You give me one of your mischievous smiles, that million dollar smile that first captivated me.
“You know, I put a blowup of that picture with all four of us in the chair up on the wall. When was that? Must be 1996 or 1997. I remember you zipped in from behind, between the two kids just as Mom took the picture. You look so happy and energetic. The camera caught the motion perfectly. Much better than a pose.”
“The kids made me like that. You need to remember.” That smile again. God, it makes me feel good to see it. “Call Kurt often. See if he minds. Otherwise, let him call you. And try to be home for Cassie. Just be around so she’s not alone. Give her a ride to the subway. They still need you now.”
“Ok, but the thing is, I need you here, too.”
You rub my hair then pull me in for a light kiss. “Of course you do. But the thing is, I’m not.”
Ok, here’s the thing. If you, dear reader, and I were approaching each other on escalators going in opposite directions, as we passed I could whisper to you one short sentence that sums up what I write about. I would say, “How much of the universe do we just fail to notice?”
Megan’s prompt brought this immediately to mind. Let me explain. Until quite recently there was always this tension. Scientists, following the scientific method, were only concerned with the observable. The universe was thought to be finite. This approach was at odds with the notion that an actual infinity could exist in the world. Mathematicians, on the other hand, have been working with infinities of various sorts and sizes for much of history. If you want to know more, read this excellent book by Rudy Rucker called “Infinity and the Mind”.
My heart had been captured by mathematics long before I ever met Selena. I can honestly say it has been a great love affair that has lasted my whole life. I keep coming back, like a moth to the light. This love is toward what I have always been seeking. The secret fundamental I have been chasing my whole life, as some of my earliest memories. It is found in many forms and instances. I am captivated by it. I need the elevated handhold it provides. It supports me, protects me with its permanence. It offers security and a kind of caring and I offer it love and dedication in return.
As a historical note, Kurt Godel showed us that arithmetic, which we all study for years as children and is essential to civilization, is completely bizarre. There is no axiom system, no model which can reach every true statement in arithmetic. Arithmetic is incomplete. Instead, we get a collection of regions of arithmetic, neighborhoods, one for each possible model. Now that it has been shown repeatedly that the universe is, in fact, infinite, it is possible to embed a representation of arithmetic into the world, the counting numbers being the smallest infinity. The consequence is that a theory of everything, a grand unified theory (GUT), which the physicists search for, is impossible since such a theory would then describe our embedded arithmetic and become an axiom system for arithmetic which we already know does not exist. This scenario is not possible in a finite universe. So, no GUT and the universe is really a collection of different regions, different neighborhoods. The sheer size of an infinite universe means many duplications happen. Some neighborhoods will be the same as ours and others very different.
I just remember this one guide, “Existent if and only if consistent.” The guide tells me that anything I can imagine, however bizarre, otherworldly or precious, is guaranteed to exist as long as it is self-consistent. It will be out there somewhere if I could go far enough. It is an infinity after all.
Occasionally, I return to this realization. It gives me great comfort. I can imagine Selena, my loved one. I knew her well. She was real so I have no worry about the consistency of her truth. Somewhere out there are many neighborhoods containing Selena who didn’t die. In some of those, there is another me, with her.
Awaiting your return.
I asked you to come.
Come to the window with the light.
For days and nights, the lamp burned.
And I waited and hoped.
I wanted to go too.
But you didn’t come.
So I am alone. Just me. As it will always be, now, I think.
Or not. But that leaves an odd feeling.
Where did you go?
Are you near or far?
I suppose I will never know.
The you that lives in my head will talk to me,
if I pay close attention,
if I concentrate very hard, it sounds just like you.
I can almost see you.
But then exhaustion sets in and I have to let go again.
The loneliness is broken, however, by good friends
and those who truly want to help.
I have been lucky to find one such diamond in the ruff.
Is it possible you are helping me in this way?
I want to believe that you are.
You only wanted me to be happy. Are you happy? Wherever you are?
A passage was selected to be cut into sentences or phrases, then those that caught the eye selected and rearranged.
As I was selecting a writing, printing and cutting, I found it less than thrilling. It was slow tedious work. I preferred writing. Then I had a pile of text on the table like some Garth Nix’s, Keys to the Kingdom series, and I dutifully started just placing the bits on the table.
I didn’t line them up or anything. They were not all horizontal. It ended up looking like a cloud, of course. Then it suddenly hit me, all these little pieces are like the shards of my life left behind after it all fell apart.
Then I started pulling out shards. Some caught my attention more than others. Some seemed to want to go together. Ok, lets put them together then. I got a few collections. Some were left behind, like other parts of my life. All in all, I got five verses of a sort.
Here I go!
It must be the cancer in my brain.
They gave me drugs so I don’t care.
The drugs almost make me sleep.
Later I might.
Today I’m in trouble.
I can’t breathe well.
I want to go naturally.
I can’t breathe on my own.
This isn’t natural.
Sometimes I need to cough.
They came to help me breathe.
The machine keeps forcing air.
It makes me feel like I’m choking.
I don’t think I can take much more.
The last day on the Oncology ward.
There were things left to do.
There were things we didn’t say.
He said, “I’m your husband.”
I don’t have to talk so much.
It’s so uncomfortable.
Things are happening to me I don’t understand.
I can’t seem to recall.
My memory is fading.
I will help you, sweetie!
I didn’t know him.
He was holding my hand, squeezing it.
It’s so embarrassing.
That’s going to kill him!
I won’t have it.
This is too much.
The last couple of lines of the sample I selected, which is from ‘The Door’, were hard to write, so I skipped the details. I guess this is the most loaded section because it holds extreme emotional pain.
"I will help you, sweetie! I will cross over now and save you. Here I go!"
Expanding, I should say when Selena died, I had been holding her hand at the hospital intensive care bed. Her eyes were open, looking at me, as she fought her cancer in her lungs for each breath, even though her ventilator was working hard to help.
The attending physician came in and there was confusion over what the family wishes were regarding Selena's care. We did not want her to suffer and were prepared to accept the medical team's best professional recommendations. Selena was receiving substantial pain killers. Between that and the intubation, it was not possible to have a reliable connection with the mind trapped inside, but perhaps she was able to listen, although it had been a week since she had reliably known who I was.
The physician recommended removing the breathing tube, which would likely result in Selena passing away relatively quickly. I had been assured that in such action there would be time to assemble the family. I explained everyone had gone home, since it was 5pm on a Saturday, most having spent the day visiting in the waiting room. The physician countered by suggesting that I specify a time the next day at which the extubation would occur.
At that very moment, I noticed Selena had shut her eyes and was no longer trying to breathe. Even the ventilator was not making progress in forcing air into her destroyed lungs. Her chest moved but only slightly, not like breathing. She must have heard the physician pressuring me to remove the tube. Was she afraid or relieved? For me, it was a terrible thing to ask. I was balking at planning to do it the next day, delaying to answer the doctor. Maybe she realized how excruciatingly painful this decision was to me. In my mind, I think she decided to save me from this mental torture. She would not want me to go forward feeling the guilt and anguish of having decided to kill her in removing the tube. So she had decided to go herself, under her own power and on her own terms. For me, this is the most emotionally sharp and painful memory I will ever carry. I am still not convinced I can actually carry it. And I know it will never soften.
Since she was palliative at this point and since cancer had ravaged her lungs and brain, it had been decided CPR would not be attempted. It would not have been effective and would be an assault on her body. The physician went to the ventilator to adjust it, but Selena's heart rate began to slow gradually from about 150, down through 100, then 80, the trace of the beats losing amplitude and frequency gradually, like a flywheel spinning down, through 60, then 40, then 30 and fading away to a flat trace.
She was pronounced dead at 17:54. Her death was graceful and calm, without struggle or discomfort. I was so proud of her. She had mercifully spared us from making that awful decision of ending her life. I called the family back and waited while the tubes were removed and she was made ready for a brief viewing before being taken to the morgue to await the funeral director. Her struggle was over, but mine was really just beginning.
The world can see the shape of you in me. Did you know I can still see and hear you? If I concentrate hard, your voice comes. Even the tone and grammar. Why should I be surprised? These days the big deal is neural networks, like deep learning, but we have the original neural network in our heads. I have thousands of hours of training in what you look like, what you sound like. With all this, is it any wonder the neural network in my head can predict what you would say or what you would do? I can ask for your advice and get a pretty accurate prediction, I think. I don’t know if this is part of your spirit or the ghost in the machine.
But you aren’t just there, in those few neurons dedicated to knowing you. I’ve been watching myself watching you too. Things you do have become part of me directly. There are the obvious ones, like language. I’m terrible at languages, but after thirty years I can actually tell the difference between a real word and one just made up. I don’t know what it means, but the real one just sounds right, and the made-up one is weird.
Before you, I didn’t know anything about your culture. Now, I can go on about it for quite a while. Many of your favourite things have become mine too. Just look at the bookshelves. Half the books are yours, the things you liked, your truths, your aspirations, all there represented in the choice of text. But I keep all these. They have become my friends too. Part of me that was part of you.
Then, of course, there is your greatest passion. Your garden. I didn’t think I would have a garden anymore, could even do the work required. Then, as spring came around, without much prodding I find myself tending the soil again and planting, but not cramming them in too much like you used to. I need more space. So the garden, the growing and nurturing, that you did so well, is still there, rejuvenated as a part of me.
I think there is more too. Some of your personality has rubbed off and become indelibly embedded in me like a tattoo. Friends and family have become more important now, as they were for you. I like to talk more, telling our story to anyone who will listen. Talking and texting as you used to on social media. You always brought a case of fruit or something to gatherings. Well, guess what happens when I get invited to dinner at someone’s house? I bring a box of something, like mangos, because I feel a compulsion that this is what I am supposed to do. If that isn’t you, then I don’t know what is.
Others can still get to know you. You’re still here with me, not physically like you used to, but in a very real way, not something that I have to imagine. In a fashion that can be seen and experienced by anyone, just by really knowing me, anyone can see I loved you so much that I wanted you to be part of me always.
The story of the story that isn’t a story at all.
Perhaps a bit of background first? It might be that in the past, someone, it might have been a parent, guardian or teacher, said something about fiction. Why read about make-believe if you can read about reality? Sure it's an interesting tale, but it's not true? They might have held their opinion in such high regard that they, on point of principle, never stooped to reading fiction. It makes me laugh really. If they were as knowledgeable as they wished they were, it would have been known that truth is not finitely definable. Let me say that again since it is one of my favourite touchstones. “Truth is not finitely definable!” Meaning, we never really have truth. We just have stories.
Our story has different faces. Which face you are presented with depends on how you approach the story. Parents will likely stress the line that shows career’s fail against the distractions of love. The poet will prefer the part where the author of many a love poem leans his head, heated with the strained effort of imagination, against the cool pane of the window. The family man will focus on the appearance and development of a healthy girl and boy, embraced together by their beaming mother for the benefit of the camera. There are the shades of others, but all lead eventually and inevitably to the same dark cold reality. Death.
From that singular black locus, story threads emerge phoenix-like again. The grief-torn grandmother demanding why her daughter has left her alone in her failing years. The husband, shell-shocked, left with nothing but a shell for life and no clear purpose at all. And don’t forget those children, prematurely deprived of their mother, resolutely protecting themselves from the shrapnel all around by maintaining their iron curtain of cheerfulness, while inside is nothing but molten grief.
Take your pick. What is your fancy? Are they gripping stories? Yes, indeed they are. All being the offspring of my fancy, none is truth except in the totality of all the others. And they are legion, beyond the telling, beyond counting.
This is the end, the last writing prompt and perhaps not surprisingly the most difficult of all. The question before me is whether I can see my own self the way love sees me. To me it is a very important question, because it may be the keystone to my entire situation. I think the honest answer to the question is a quiet but firm no.
In retrospect, I must have been unreasonably lucky to have married such a wonderful girl as Selena. Lately, I have discovered that in the early days one of her best friends, on hearing Selena was on the cusp of a relationship with a gwai lo (ghost person), purposely travelled to see her and ascertain whether she knew what she was getting herself into and maybe talk her out of it. This sets the tone.
I know Selena loved me and was fiercely loyal, but I have always wondered why. There are plenty of reasons why she might not. Aside from just trying to be helpful, the only positive aspect I can suggest is my own persistence. To quote from an excellent sci-fi novel called Stardance, by Jeanne and Spider Robinson,
“This is what it is to be human: to persist.”
Selena told me once that if I had not been so persistent, that she likely would not have married me. I guess I do have the nature of not giving up. We had a long distance relationship. There were the daily phone calls and weekly letters, but I also wrote Selena a poem for the anniversary of our engagement, wedding anniversary and of course Valentine’s Day every year for thirty years. That’s ninety poems. They weren’t all worthy of remembering, but the few that were a bit better we published in a book called ‘Love Poems from the Clay Plain’, for posterity. The thing is, how can being persistent be the key to how love sees me? I mean a dog tick is persistent, but nobody loves those.
Perhaps, in the end, it all comes down to what Jonny Houlihan sings about in his song “Feels like Home”. Maybe being together just felt like home. Maybe we just happened to have a similar enough set of values, the axioms of life, that we stuck together somehow, through the ups and downs and the thick and thins that everyday life pitched at us.
I think it might be appropriate to let one of my poems speak. It’s our favourite. First I need to explain that Selena’s original name is Ying Su, which is quite a classic and literally means “Reflection from the Snow” referring to an old Chinese folktale. As a contraction, her mother used to call her Su, or Snow, which is the name in the poem. The poem is called Winter Snow, which I wrote her for Valentine’s Day back in 2014, five years before she died.
The wintry flakes are falling
and my wife's name is snow.
Which means on every Valentine's
I know I love her so.
For always are her eyes so bright
as diamonds held within,
just like the sunlight's dance upon
the crystals frost does spin.
No rose could ever live
where winter rules the land
but to my darlings lips
its colour would seem bland.
In the brightening days to come
the gentle breezes play
the ice shards in the evergreens
and bring to mind this way
how like the silver bells
her happy laughter seems,
in happy couples dreams.
The world is full of loneliness.
It must be the worst thing that can happen, being so resistant, surrounded by millions of people.
How many of us are there? The passed over, the cast-off, the forgotten.
Because we aren’t young we have no value. Our worth was supposed to be to spouse, to family, to career, but what if those are gone?
Parents passed away, A spouse dead, children grown distantly independent, jobs packing it in, what’s left? Does anything of value remain?
Only loneliness remains. I see you loneliness.
Now you are camped out with me. The day’s distractions gone.
Desperately, no new ones are appearing.
You wrap your arms heavy with the smell of defeat, entombing me in silence, thick and dense.
I try to escape, looking to my social media list. No one is sending. I call, advertise, put cards in mailboxes, but there is only dead air.
Everyone is busy. Everyone has their own lives. I used to have a busy life. Now my life is gone. She is gone. My other ¾. My interface to the world. My advisor. My confidant.
How… Why… What… I can’t form the question. First I need a question in order to have an answer. My mind is blank. Abandoned. Still in shock? Depressed?
It is true. Words fail. Wittgenstein was right once. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
The silence of loneliness.
Download the epub version (recommended if you have a reader).
Download the pdf version.
This is the first Christmas without you. I didn’t bother getting up. The kids will not be back from Disney World until night. (Once again the veil of darkness descending.)
The last time I saw you, was at the crematorium. The colour was gone from your face, ashen white. I gave you one last kiss. You were so cold. I knew for sure you had left me. No one was there with me to see the hot tears land and roll down your face.
You tried to give me a kindness to look for another. I don’t want to, Sweetie. I think it would disturb my memory of you, and maybe worse. It might hurt you wherever you are.
Do you remember what I told you I had realized about arithmetic from Kurt Gödel’s work? Axioms are like Lego blocks. There is no collection of kinds of Lego blocks that will let me build all of arithmetic. (There is such a set for other things like propositional logic.) This is not a disaster, as most seem to think, it is hope. Arithmetic breaks down into neighbourhoods I am calling locales. Each different set of axioms builds us a different locale of arithmetic truths. It turns out, this idea maps over to our usual reality too. Since we have an infinite universe, there is enough room to represent all of arithmetic. I think I can use twist like in yarn in the connections between entangled particles to represent arithmetic expressions. Twist is addition and plying is multiplication. If that works, it means there is no Grand Unified Theory possible, for otherwise there would be an axiom system for arithmetic and we know that does not exist. So even though there is only one reality, it breaks down into locales, as shown us by arithmetic (one of the simplest and important parts of our civilization, to the point we all make our children learn about it for years). Our experience of reality depends on what axiom set, model or point of view we decide to take. This is not a belief (that is the acceptance of a statement as true, whether or not it really is). This is just a choice among actual truths. Which set of self-evident truths will YOU take as pitons, to hammer into the cliff, stopping your fall into the infinite regress? Like the USA constitution, you say, I take these truths to be self-evident!
With this realization to stand on, I have been working hard to find a way to you. There are two important clues.
Firstly, Kurt Gödel’s proof, the unpublished Ontological Proof. Usually, that would be a proof for the existence of God. Gödel didn’t do that. Something more subtle and wonderful. He didn’t publish because he didn’t want people to think he was religious. His proof is for a modified statement of existence. He found if God is not impossible, then it is necessary for God to exist. There is no middle ground. There is no place to hedge your bets. If not impossible, then it must exist. He didn’t say who or what kind.
The second clue from Gödel is from his own practice. He was a mathematical realist. Intuition, he realized, was a special sense. The flash realization provided by intuition is the connection to someplace else. Mathematical entities are not created by us, rather we just discover them. This was Plato’s idea. Gödel would spend hours meditating on the Platonic Realm, looking. He would be looking for the mathematical entity he was guessing should exist. In Platonic he would find it, with all its character and in a perfect state.
How does this help?
Your own mind, Sweetie, has two mappings. One connects to the Mindscape. All possible thoughts are found in that landscape. It is an infinite place where the mind’s eye roams. There is no reason to suspect that eye goes away just because you are no longer here with me. Your eye is still there. You know this if this message is reaching you. I hope this is coming across. It is terribly emotional for me. I can hardly see to type.
I know, from all the years together, that there is an essence to you. It’s what makes you who you are. Not just your particular thoughts, but more about what makes you, YOU. That is your perfect essence. Think of it as a perfect description of you. Mathematically, that would be your own collection of axioms, the self-evident truths that in your case, make your character. Those axioms are still there in Platonic, like a crystallized version of you.
My idea so far is to try to improve intuition to reconnect to both the Platonic and the Mindscape maps of yours. It will all come together in a particular locale, the very view of reality you are currently residing in. If this can be done, I think this is as close to being with you again as I can get, without actually finding how to move to your locale, which I think might be impossible, at least not and still be considered alive here.
I do this with much hope and love.
Yours as always.
Evening Falls, by Enya
I owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Megan Devine at refugeingrief.com for her compassionate book "It's OK that you're not OK". She has taught me to look for my tribe of after.
Our culture is grief adverse. We don't understand what grief is and often hurt people in grief when we try to help. See here.
Here are a few choice quotes from the book.
I write to cope and to discover. Join me here.
Are you here because someone has died?
I'm here because someone has died.
I can't find you,
but maybe you can find me.
My address is albert dot henry dot tyson at gmail dot com
(against web robots).
Come sit by the fire.