…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do: listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them. I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality. Being remembered. (From: The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)
Every now and then, I’m sent a book to read with the request for a review or perhaps, quoting from it in my weekly blog posts. I dutifully try to respond and incorporate as many quotes as are relevant to the theme I’ve chosen for the week. Rarely, however, does a book arrive in the mail that not only speaks to the themes and issues faced by cancer survivors and others experiencing emotional pain and hardship, but envelops me as completely as Cofer’s new memoir on the loss of her mother and that uncharted territory of grief. I am learning the alchemy of grief, she writes, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.”
I am not sure any of us truly masters the “alchemy of grief,” because death, the loss of loved ones and friends, forces us to learn and re-learn what it means when someone’s life ends—whether anticipated, as often is the case in terminal cancer diagnoses, or unexpected, lives cut short by circumstances no one can predict. So it has been with me this past week.
Robert, who had been part of my Moores UCSD Cancer Center writing group, died earlier in the month, but this week, we celebrated his life in a memorial service. I was, I thought, “prepared” for Robert’s death. He’d fought valiantly to live three years beyond the death sentence he’d been given with terminal prostate cancer. But his death was the third in our writing group since December, preceded by Susan, then David, and as I walked into the chapel at his service, the skies outside unusually overcast and threatening rain, my heart was heavy with the weight of their combined losses.
The sky was again gray with cloud cover the next morning, mirroring my sorrow. I stood on the front steps wondering if there was any chance of rain when I saw my elderly neighbor, Carroll, walking down the street toward our house. I smiled and waved, “How are you?” Then I noticed his face. Something wasn’t right. “I wanted you to know,” he said, “Mary passed away at four a.m. this morning in the hospital.”
“Oh no,” I gasped. “What happened?” I had visited them both at home just a few days earlier. Without warning, tears streamed down my face. “I’m so sorry,” I said, as we embraced, embarrassed that I was doing the sobbing as my neighbor comforted me after losing his wife of 65 years.
That afternoon, unable to write, I picked up Judith Ortiz Cofer’s book and began reading. Three hours later, I looked up at the clock, surprised to discover I’d read for nearly three hours. It was six o’clock, and I hadn’t prepared anything for dinner. Still only halfway through her memoir, I’d underlined a dozen or more passages and tabbed several pages to re-read. Among those pages, caught up in her eloquence and soulful writing, I was re-learning and remembering something about the “alchemy of grief” she described.
Mary’s service was yesterday afternoon. The church was filled with their sons, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, lifelong friends, and most of us who live in this little neighborhood. Together, we celebrated her life just as I had experienced a few days before at Robert’s service, as his adventures and enduring humor were shared by friends and loved ones. …what I have come to believe defines immortality. Being remembered
As I considered what to write this morning, I thought about my father and how, when members of our extended Bray family died, he, along with my uncles, preferred to separate themselves from their grieving sisters or cousins, all crying together in another room, and instead recount stories from the deceased relative’s life—the greater share of them filled with humor. I was in high school at one such family funeral, and after several stories had been told, he turned to me, serious for a moment, and said, “Sharon, promise me that when I die, you’ll have a party. I don’t want any tears and weeping. Just invite all my friends, serve them Jack Daniels and tell some good stories about me.” He wanted only to be remembered—and most often, with a chuckle.
There were more than a few “good” stories about my father I discovered at his wake many years later, and hearing them made me smile, knowing that we were remembering him just as he wanted to be: not as a man whose addiction to cigarettes hastened his death, but as a man who loved to laugh, play a good joke on his brothers and friends from time to time, and more than anything, tell a good story. Those stories keep my father’s memory and his legacy of humor alive.
Death steals everything but our stories–the final line of Jim Harrison’s poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” I quoted in my April 5th post,” Why Our Stories Matter.” Our stories keep alive those we’ve loved and lost. We remember them. Grief is softened, even transformed, and one begins to heal. As Cofer reminds us: Writing transforms. And on the page, it is always now.
This week, think about what has helped you navigate the dark ocean of grief in the wake of a loved one’s loss. Try writing from the memories you have of a friend or family member you’ve lost. Or, try answering the question, “How do you want to be remembered?”