The Long Goodbye

What Is It Like To Recover From Grief?
A study of bereavement.
April 21 2009 4:28 PM

The Long Goodbye

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

I began to notice it around Easter, the season of resurrection, the season of regeneration. The daffodils were peeking up out of the seemingly still-frozen ground. The magnolias had come into bloom, their spoon-size petals opening wide. And I started feeling … better. Not "recovered," the way one feels after a flu. But … better. I suppose this isn't a surprise. I simply conform to the clinical norm: Studies show many mourners begin to feel less depressed around four months after the death. Knowing this makes me feel annoyed and truculent. I don't want to conform to a grief scale. I want to be an extremity. A master of grief. Or do I mean a slave to it, a supplicant? But in practical terms, it feels like a relief. I have begun to roll the rock back from this cave, at least.

Mainly, I have more energy. I can crack a joke now and then. (Though I can still detect a kind of heaviness in my reactions, the artificiality of trying to act "normal.") When I'm sad, the pangs are just as painful—perhaps even more so, since it has been longer now since I've seen my mother, and the reality of her death is beginning to intrude on me in new ways. So "better" doesn't mean I'm any less shocked by the odd enormity of loss. It just means it's easier to get out of bed.

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Easter itself was painful. I spent the day being reminded of the ghosts of Easters past: the many times my mother would hide eggs for us to "hunt" and then forget where she had put that last one. A week later, moldy and soft, it would turn up in someone's shoe. (At the time, I couldn't understand how she could forget: those precious eggs! So hard to find!) I walked around in my neighborhood, a mix of old Italian-Catholic families and bourgeois arrivistes, and found it difficult to watch kids and their parents saunter about in the lazy togetherness.

The day put my superstitious magical thinking and my intellect at odds. I am not religious, and I don't quite believe that Jesus rose from the tomb. But the truth is that even now, nearly four months after my mother's death, I still go about privately believing she's coming back. Deep down, I feel that—like Dr. Manhattan in The Watchmen—she will, through some effort of mind, reconstitute herself and appear to me, even as a flickering ghostly form. A friend sent me a wonderful poem by Stephen Edgar, "Nocturnal," which captures this disbelief. The poet describes listening to a cassette play the voice of a lost loved one:

Who ever thought they would not hear the dead?
Who ever thought that they could quarantine
******Those who are not, who once had been?
******At that old station on North Head
************Inmates still tread the boards,
Or something does …
***********************Undeleted,
What happened is embedded and repeated.

That Thursday—one of those fabulously warm spring days that come and vanish—I went for a run in Prospect Park in the late afternoon. I went all the way around the park, which I don't often do, finishing the loop after a long hill near the entrance. At the top of the rise, there is a stand of magnolias and a view of what's called "Long Meadow." Exhausted, salty with sweat, I plopped down on the grass and granted myself 10 minutes to put aside the to-do lists invading my head and just … contemplate. (One downside of feeling better has been that it's become easier to let time pass without noticing how I'm really feeling.) I felt the sun on my face. The grass tickled my hands. An ant crossed my pinkie. The spring sun was warm but not yet hot.

As I relaxed, I was flooded with first one memory, then another, and then, like a BlackBerry tuning in to its signal after a plane trip, a dozen or so distinct memories of being with my mother in this park. First I remembered that one summer day in 1994 she and I met her friend (then-assistant) Diana to sit in lawn chairs and catch up while I read Joan Didion's After Henry. I remembered the many mornings my mother and I would go running together in the park before school. We'd listen to cheesy mixes we made and traded on our Walkmans, or we'd just talk. Running in the cool morning air, discussing our lives, I felt like her friend as well as her daughter.

So I sat there, thinking of her and lookingaround me. I had for a moment the distinct feeling that she had asked me to do this—that she had said, somehow: I can't look at it; will you look for me? And as I sat there, a robin hopped toward me. Its red breast was shiny, and it had bright, bold eyes. And I thought: OK, so, resurrection; I don't know. But what in the world—in the universe—made this creature? Can evolution account for the mystery of life? As a theory, it doesn't go as far as you'd like toward explaining the world. I wanted the sky to open up and reveal universal secrets to me. My whole life, I had been taught to read and study, to seek understanding in knowledge of history, of cultures. And here I was, ready to learn! But: silence. A robin hopping closer. I watched it for some time, half-wondering if in any way it could be my mother. What made you, robin? my brain practically shouted. Then the bird lost interest in me. I stood up. I brushed the dirt from my pants and jogged the rest of the way out of the park. I thought about that bird all day. How could I disregard the bubbly, foolish sense of beauty I felt looking at it? And: How could I reconcile that with the pain my mother endured before she died?

The poet Anne Carson wrote that after her mother died she suddenly felt that everything she read was in strikethrough font, like this. I understand what she means. I write and want to strikethrough. I smile and want to strikethrough. It is as if, for some time, the world exists mostly in strikethrough. Over time, the strikes get lighter, and you can see the words underneath more clearly.

1_123125_2210175_2210176_2211149_090421_grieve_strikethrough4


Just the other day, nearly a week after Easter, I had to make an apple pie for a video shoot about mothers and daughters. The recipe I used was my mother's recipe, and for a day or two before I made the pie I was in a gloomy mood. I felt anxious, irritable, resentful that I had to make the pie—a pie I'd been wanting to make but was frightened of making ever since my mother died. It was absurd how much mental space this pie was taking up.

The day came. I made the pie. I pulled out the old recipe book my mother and father had given me and my brothers—the 4A Cookbook, they called it, after the apartment we lived in. And, step by step, almost as if it wasn't happening, I made the pie. I didn't let the dough chill for long enough and it came apart as I tried to roll it out. The result looked messier than usual as it went into the oven. But I felt OK; it had been strangely comforting to read my mother's words and revisit her way of making things. I loved that at the end of the recipe for pastry (butter, Crisco, flour, sugar, water) she wrote, philosophically: "This will constitute the dough."

But as the pie was cooking, I had a little meltdown. I was supposed to turn the heat down from 425 degrees, I remembered. But … to what temperature? Time to call Mom. I reached for the phone. And realized—I couldn't ask her anymore. From now on, I would have to answer my pie questions myself, through trial and error. The pie made my mother more absent. And yet—it also made my mother more present: When it came out of the oven, it reminded me of her. It almost, through some strange synesthesia, looked like her.

Afterward, I called my dad. I asked him why he thought making the pie had brought me so close to her, when other, abstract things I learned from her don't. He listened, then said, "A few months ago, you were talking about how you were envious of certain cultures where there are rituals—you put on black when you mourn. And it just seems to me that within our family, when things happened, whether good or bad, we tended to get together. And when we got together, we ate together, which meant cooking. So you learned from your mother how to make pie. And, yes, it is a concrete thing she gave you. But it's also that when you make it, you are part of a tradition. Someday you're going to be the person to teach someone else."

That brought tears to my eyes for a second, and I told him about that impulse to call her. He said something that stayed with me. "The making of the pie is the phone call. To make pie was to call your mom." Then, classics teacher that he is, he embarked on a mini-Socratic dialogue of his own. "Why is it that every time you made the call and asked those questions you never bothered annotating the answer in your own notes? Because making the pie was a shared experience, even though your two households were not going to both be eating the pie that night."

Then he added, "Next Thanksgiving, you've got to make the apple pie."

"What do you mean I've got to?" I asked.

"Well, we were just trying to figure out why ancient societies did the things they did," he said. (We had been talking about old mourning rituals and how different some were from ours.) "But the common thing across societies is this idea of yearly commemoration—Easter, the empty chair at the Seder, the Egyptian feast called the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, when the Thebans crossed the Nile to picnic at the mortuaries that held their ancestors and recent dead. It's almost like forced remembrance. But it's always structured in such a way that it's hardly forced. Next Thanksgiving, you've got to make the apple pie."

And so the tradition has been broken and renewed. I will make the apple pie from now on.

It's not the resurrection I was looking for. But it's not nothing.

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