The Embers of Grief

By Albert Henry Tyson

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”