After long thought and much perplexity, to be very brief was all that she could determine on with any degree of safety … Austen, Northanger Abbey
Dear friends and readers,
It’s been 2 days since the funeral, 12 days since the Admiral died; one day this week we’ll have the cremation. I thought when the funeral was over, it had been a good thing to do, a commemoration of him, and had a sense of gratification, closure on his behalf. The closure has gone.
It did go very well. The room was tasteful, not over-lit. One large floral arrangement with the urn and its saying at the center of the wall which was the front of the room before which Michelle stood when she gave the speech. I brought my photos of Jim and Laura placed them about the room. They provided something to talk about as I a couple of times walked with people showing them Jim and I and the children too at several stages of our lives. (Austen: S&S “On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse”). The “collation” as it was called was a good idea too. Coffee, juices, crackers, cookies, fruit, salad, cheese. It too gave people something to do.
The montage on a screen (click on photos and videos) was on part of one of the wider walls (not too big) and for much of the time it scrolled over and over and it was accompanied by Jessie Norman singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs (not too loud).
Unexpectedly four neighbors came, one an old friend of mine from a number of years ago (she lived next door to me), women my age, and a man who had actually known and had spoken to Jim several times. Izzy’s office friends and associates came out for her: 5 people, and they stayed the whole time. Laura had her friends and they were very kind, and some brought relatives, and Rob’s family was there.
Michelle read the obituary I wrote for Jim, the lines from Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey that Mike Powe had found for him, framed upliftingly by assertions like how death was not annihilation because of memory. She did it splendidly and in a sense organized the two hours. I felt I had to say a few words so quoted Sherwin Nuland from How We Die on how the way to honor and remember a person is to carry on living out the values and in the way he had.
I did lose it twice, became hysterical from deep within, welled up but most of the time was under control, just. I wished sincerely there had been people there who had known him, say from his office, or perhaps a few people he’s met with me at conferences we’ve gone to together where there has been some meeting of the minds, or from Columbia where he studied for his Ph.D. But 9 years of retirement and only one reunion at Columbia (about 4 years ago at least) is not enough to continue contact. That is the one thing I regret.
People don’t take photos at funerals.
A friend told me the funeral signals a turning point. Now I am a widow, like Vittoria Colonna whose 600 odd poems I translated.
In the morning I was reading Betjemann’s Summoned by Bells in a copy we bought in a Chichester bookshop; it describes the England Jim himself was too young to have known but which was not yet gone when he grew up. He really liked this narrative poem book. Izzy and I had chinese food together for dinner and played our favorite Irish music. And then I read some more of Swift’s Last Orders — an England he would recognize — watched the film yet again and blogged — it was by way of expressing some thoughts I had, bonding with Helen Mirren as Amy and the consciousness, presence in the book.
Everyone on these list-servs who contacted me that day, who sent cards and flowers (and there were people who gave to charities, and to NPR) is so much appreciated I can’t find words to express it without embarrassment.
I was calm when I went to bed, and remembered what Jim said one day to the regular hospice nurse who pronounced Jim one morning as having all these wonderful vital signs. “Were it not for the liver cancer I’d be just great.” (So the DC mayor said when told of the low crime rate figure, were it not for the murder rate, this place would be so safe.) So were it not that he’s was no longer alive it was a pleasant day, no?
But he’s not. I’ve changed my gravatar for this blog for the nonce: Fiona Shaw as Mrs Croft without her admiral. The cancer epidemic has deprived him of another 20 years of life, tortured, humiliated, killed him hard.
This experience though, the aftermath, is not particular to death from cancer.
I’m in some kind of state that I don’t know what it is. It does not do to call it grief; the word does not encompass it. To be with another person all the time for years and years and they are gone. I surmise you don’t even need to like them to feel a temptation to live in a ghost story and dream them back, intensely want a revenant. (Very dangerous psychological experience.) Human beings are so constituted this is stunning. Devastation. How we actually experience death. Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern says it’s not being here. Well it is annihilation for the person destroyed. They know nothing. When I lament to Caroline “poor man!” she replies, “No, he doesn’t know he doesn’t know.” It’s here, this core from the which these myths of retrieval, re-finding, re-union, retribution partly derive.
Desolation? Half of me gone. Like some machine swooped out what mattered. Don’t know how to live without him? The empty chair. Bedroom. He did so much and some of it I can’t do. Fear the strongest clearest emotion. I’m frightened to be in a world he’s no longer alive in. I feel scared. Almost surprised things carry on working. By themselves. I used to say when he came into a room things began to work because they were aware of his authority. It was a joke between us. It’s silly, irrational, he was not all powerful by a long shot. In Swift’s Last Orders Amy thinks about how frightened she is on the bus now that Jack is dead. I felt safe when my Admiral was here and nearby — like Mrs Croft of Persuasion. If bad things happened, they wouldn’t matter so much. Or they’d be mended. Without his support? Crazed feelings too. Crying suddenly. Maybe this is grief?
Cats are without too. I have a different personality and can’t begin to provide companionship two people did. They are puzzled. Look about them. Ian puts his paw up to me again and again, Clary wanders about or sits on Yvette’s bed.
I don’t know how to deal with it since I can’t define it — maybe the point of these support groups is to meet people going through the same thing even if the words they may use are counter-productive, forms of denial, grating, or sensible advice, comfort, strengthening, little tricks to tell your mind (you promised you’d do such-and-such with so-and-so so no you can’t kill yourself as you are committed). I have found a congenial enough psychologist to visit every week and a half. 45 minutes.
I’m just now reading Donald Hall’s Without a series of poems about his experience: his wife, Jane Kenyon, a powerful poet, died of leukemia. The story of the illness has this paradigm I’ve now come to recognize; they are told, they are horrified and frightened; she has excruciating treatments and they think she is recovering, recovered. Kenyon and Hall did get more time than my Admiral and me: maybe a year or more, but then it comes back, and is relentless. (Don’t believe the stories of how leukemia is a chronic disease — it’s another of these falsifiers. So then the poems tell of terrible deterioriation, pain, frustration, and she dies. Then most movingly — probably the most powerful part of this quietly sincere book, what it’s like for him afterwards. Hall has awoken me to understand I don’t understand what I’m going through but am in this state like the one he writes these poems out of.
As ever I’m finding reading powerful texts central to helping me. Hall keeps writing her letters though he has no address (Richard Feynman did the same thing when his young wife after 5 years of marriage died of TB). He tells her what’s happening. People have gently hinted I could dream Jim still alive. I know that the summers he went to England to be the American (joke here) representative in England of DISA and tests for NATO, he’d be gone maybe 4 weeks; we’d join him (Yvette and I) for 2 in a landmark trust place (by eating in he could afford to have us there for 2 of his 4 weeks in these rented centuries old places in the English countryside). Well I would pretend he was home with me sometimes; especially at bed at night. I loved how loud his voice came across using cell phones (one did not feel he was any further off than around the corner). He’d call mid-day his time, early morning mine. It helped my mind slip less over the course of the day because sometimes it would; I did feel the stress bad, and the worse when he was long ago 6 weeks in Germany, before the Internet, before cell phones, I did not hear from him for 3 weeks. That was an experience analogous: it was like he had vanished, and I was alone with little Caroline. But I knew (supposed) all times he was coming back.
Here are two of Hall’s poems. Remember I said time divides: there was when the person was alive and nearby, your other half, and now they are not alive, and there’s only the silence and palpable absence.
In the last hours, she kept
her forearms raised with pale fingers clenched
at cheek level, like
the goddess figurine over the bathroom sink.
Sometimes her right fist flicked
or spasmed toward her face. For twelve hours
until she died, he kept
scratching Jane Kenyon’s big bony nose.
A sharp, almost sweet
smell began to rise from her open mouth.
He watched her chest go still.
With his thumb he closed her round brown eyes.
Jim did raise his arm that way, but towards the end of the two day and night ordeal his two arms were quietly laid by his sides. I stayed right by his left side, falling asleep sometimes, my hands over his as long as I felt them to be warm and looking like living hands (with a sense of their slender bony structure by that time — they began to go cold and round like a doll’s, or a glove), and then I tried for a while to put my arm around his chest. I did better at talking to him. I watched his chest go still. And then I don’t know what I did.
This is after; now she’s gone, dead. It’s long but it does bring together how the experience of having cancer together (as it were) feels. You are cut off from everyone else. On another side where things are colorless. Time means nothing, weather irrelevant (except to ache your heart if you go out in it). The world with its ugly terrors goes on: I’d tell the Admiral of this senseless murder, that massacre, how Obama wanted war in Syria and Kerry was his bully-man on TV all day, but what was this to the Admiral’s pain and he did not know the chemotherapy Jane Kenyon endured. The poem is also particular to cancer.
And how it feels afterward ( a great ghost story by Wharton is called Afterward). Some parallels. No opera. “How are you doing today” they ask Emma Thompson in Wit. The bewildered pet. The unuttered sentences — terrible Hall surmizes but Lear knew better.
we lived in a small island stone nation
without color under gray clouds and wind
distant the unlimited ocean acute
lymphoblastic leukemia without seagulls
or palm trees without vegetation
or animal life only barnacles and lead
colored moss that darkened when months did
hours days weeks months weeks days hours
the year endured without punctuation
february without ice winter sleet
snow melted recovered but nothing
without thaw although cold streams hurtled
no snowdrop or crocus rose no yellow
no red leaves of maple without october
no spring no summer no autumn no winter
no rain no peony thunder no wood thrush
the book was a thousand pages without commas
without mice oak leaves windstorms
no castles no plazas no flags no parrots
without carnival or the procession of relics
intolerable without brackets or colons
silence without color sound without smell
without apples without pork to rupture gnash
unpunctuated without churches uninterrupted _
no orioles ginger noses no opera no
without fingers daffodils cheekbones
the body was a nation a tribe dug into stone
assaulted white blood broken to shards
provinces invaded bombed shot shelled
artillery sniper fire helicopter gunship
grenade burning murder landmine starvation
the ceasefire lasted forty-eight hours
then a shell exploded in a market
pain vomit neuropathy morphine nightmare
confusion the rack terror the vise
vincristine ara-c cytoxan vp-ro
loss of memory loss of language losses
pneumocystis carinii pneumonia bactrim
foamless unmitigated sea without sea
delirium whip marks of petechiae
multiple blisters of herpes zoster
and how are you doing today I am doing
one afternoon say the sun came out
moss took on greenishness leaves fell
the market opened a loaf of bread a sparrow
a bony dog wandered back sniffing a lath
it might be possible to take up a pencil
unwritten stanzas taken up and touched
beautiful terrible sentences unuttered
the sea unrelenting wave gray the sea
flotsam without islands broken crates
block after block the same house the mall
no cathedral no hobo jungle the same women
and men they longed to drink hayfields no
without dog or semicolon or village square
without monkey or lily without garlic