The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Grief Magic

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“Do you feel like you’ve just stepped into a new and magical life?”

A writer friend asked me this recently as I was showing her around the converted church I share with my boyfriend Kent. It is, in fact, the most spectacularly beautiful and special place I’ve ever lived, and I’m proud of it, although I’ve only lived here since March, after my son Ronan died. The windows frame trees and light perfectly in all seasons; creatures run around the grounds that Kent built and landscaped, the furniture is sturdy and dark, the art is interesting and evocative and well-placed. Because it once housed an active parish, the living room still has a sacred, sanctuary feeling, with its high ceilings and choir loft (now an office). The north deck looks out to the mountains, the front garden is secluded and tree-heavy. We like to sit in both places and read.

It is in the church’s large and beautiful main room where we held my son’s memorial gathering for my friends and family, a week after Ronan died of Tay-Sachs disease, and this is also where I fell in love, where I’m still in love. I’m obviously house proud, as we like to say, but I’m also proud of Kent, who met me at a time in my life when my child was dying of a terminal illness and I was going through what turned out to be an acrimonious divorce; a man whose hands made this beautiful home and held my son in the moments before he died, and then after. My life at that time was very difficult, full of dread and sadness and the day-to-day worry and care of a sick baby who had no hope of recovery. Now it’s been almost five months since Ronan died, and life is no longer characterized by the feeling of being on call for the worst to happen, and then watching it happen.

The problem is, I’m still on call. Or at least I think I am, if my strange behavior is any indication. There are well-documented grief stages, most of which are too prescriptive and orderly to be true, but this is more like an addiction. An addiction to dread, or an otherworldy commitment to vigilance; an insistent grip on anxiety as the ultimate familiar feeling, an emotional safety zone. I’m like an alcoholic who doesn’t drink anything but worst case scenarios, or anything else I can possibly do to cause self-torment (erroneous emotional algebra is a special gift of mine, where something = something else, and the equation is always wrong) as a way of giving my brain something to do apart from ruminate on those final images of my son’s wasted body lying in his crib, gone. But these images still come to me in dreams, with their violence and finality.

In the aftermath of Ronan’s death, in this moment of pause, in this odd void that is also big and rich and beautiful, I am restless and needy and strange to myself. My identity feels totally whack – am I mother? Am I a worthy partner? Can I possibly write a novel? (And also, about this third point, who could POSSIBLY care?) And it’s not just these epic questions that spring up, but the other, deeper, tenacious, terrible, and highly effective voices that have made up the central narrative of my life for so long, a narrative which fueled me, kept me pushing, achieving, striving, as if one part of the self existed solely to contradict the self that insisted ugly, horrible, unworthy, disgusting, shit.

I feel, in a word, kind of ruined. Or revisited by some nasty, pre-teen, hypersensitive, overly self-conscious, catty mean girl bitch version of myself. She’s deeply unpleasant, this one, and truthfully, I never liked her when she was around the first time, wreaking her uniquely pre-pubescent havoc: slamming doors, berating herself, refusing to eat, and asking herself (and sometimes others, although not as often) annoying questions like, “Do you love me? Am I cute enough? Am I smart enough?” Nobody likes this girl; she’s the pariah of the lunchroom, the playground, the prom, and the person (me) to which she has become, it seems, reattached, although I thought she had been disposed of and her body buried where only I could find it.

Of course, much of my angst could be solved if I could just settle down and relax, but this I seem unable, at the moment, to do, or at least not for extended periods of time. So I drag my ruined, whining, untrusting self around the house, around the world, mad at myself and everyone in it, as insecure and strangely shifting as a sand dune in a wind storm. I am unpleasant to be around; I even annoy myself. There are, however, some deep precedents for this kind of behavior.

What do ruined people do? Weird shit. This seems to be the consensus of psychoanalysts as far back as Freud and Jung; the traumatized self creates, out of necessity, a system of self-care that is keen to avoid repeat trauma. This makes change difficult; it makes people who’ve had part of their psyches destroyed by unmanageable emotions push people and emotions away, create obstacles, generate unnecessary drama. As a side bonus, one also gets the fun rollercoaster ride of a panic attack, the stress moving into and controlling the body when the mind has had enough. The psyche has become the filter, both for the bad AND for the good. Self-protection becomes self-sabotage. I’m reading a super brainy book about this very phenomenon, and it still takes me a while to track these patterns in myself. I also have another brainy book about the brain itself that can tell me why tracking these patterns is a difficult endeavor in the first place, and which lobe of this most mysterious organ it involves.

It’s embarrassing to have these old wounds and stories start prattling away, unleashing their nasty smells and unrolling their scroll-like lists of my deficiencies in the aftermath of a profound situation, turning me into a loony bird of insecurity and self-loathing and fantastical story-spinning. I am that pre-teen devilish nightmare all over again, freaking out over a zit on my chin, wandering sightless for three days through the hallways of junior high, moving slowly from locker to locker, smiling at everyone because I couldn’t recognize any faces, all because I had an eye infection but would not dare to be seen with my thick prescription glasses but also couldn’t bear to miss a single day of school.

In reality (not the self-created one), I’ve just weathered one of the worst possible scenarios an adult woman can face, and I’m still here. I survived the sorrow and am still reaching out for life. Very much in love. Determined to move forward and create happiness that Ronan never got to experience in his short life. I still like police dramas and Chantilly cake and action films; I’m still vain; I still do abdominal exercises; I still talk to my friends, although I often think to myself that if I don’t talk about Ronan, then it means I’m not honoring him, even if my friends and I have other things to talk about. I am the best and worst version of myself, and it’s completely confusing. “Don’t join the circus!” my therapist warns me, but I’m already there, staring into all the funhouse mirrors, trying to tame the lions, and outfitting the piano monkeys with red hats and cymbals.

What else do ruined people do? Cry. A lot. I didn’t cry in the weeks following Ronan’s death; I didn’t cry at his memorial. In April at the group remembrance for other children who had died of Tay-Sachs I remained dry-eyed. I didn’t cry at all for a very long time. Then I cried all the time. Some fine thread tweezed through the ecstatic numbness of those first few months: a letter that read like a painting, an unexpected kindness, a book I finally managed to read while finding death in every line, fingering the red-gold tangle of Ronan’s rotting hair in its plastic bag like an unhinged lover. Birds fought for nest space on the roof of the church in the just-budding trees, and I hated them. I was everywhere and nowhere. I was obsessed with a Notorious B.I.G. song that made me weep, and I listened to it several times a day. I wore the world on my finger like a thimble, tapping doors, testing the strength of the church windows rattling like a sign I didn’t believe in but looked for, still. I made Kent pull the dead mice from their kitchen traps. I found the fact that grass continued to grow in the desert a singular unfairness. I wrote bad poetry in the cave-like dark of the television room (the former altar) in the middle of the night. Each day was a weapon: the couple unstrapping their sleek helmets in the supermarket parking lot; the toddler brushing a stray curl from his forehead. A cloud in motion. Light. My head was a balloon, a bomb, a gun, and at night my body expanded like a raft but had nowhere to go. I understood that love is fragile, but I had nowhere to house this information.

*

For the past two weekends in a row, I have pulled Ronan’s box of clothes from the top shelf in the basement and cried into it, fingering his puffy brown coat, the pajamas with the rockets and aliens spiriting across the legs, the hand knit sweater from a friend that he wore as a newborn, the sun hat with the built in SPF and safari-style side flaps. My artist friend came over weeks before Ronan died and made a cast of his hand; it’s so detailed you can almost see his fingerprints, his short lifeline. I hold the stiff plaster in the shape of my son’s hand as if it’s his living hand and think “how?” I sit on lawn chairs and alternate between reading a book and sobbing. My brain continues to try and find work in the form of AM I:

Hideous

Untalented

Unworthy

Ugly

Unlovable

Too weird for words

Less important than a weed

Less important than anything or anyone else, ever

 

-that’s tiresome and anxiety-inducing. Why? Because when I put my face into that box of Ronan’s baby clothes, I wish that I had died and he had lived. Where do you go with that? It’s the primal parenting impulse turned on its head, completely around. You fail by dying, of course, of caving into the grief, plus you’re dead; but you also fail in continuing to live, because you were not able to save your child by making the trade you’d so easily make: me for him, him for me. Even Steven.

That grief five months out makes less sense to me than it initially did is upsetting and disorienting. The grief seemed logical when I experienced somatic withdrawal in the weeks leading up to Ronan’s final decline, when I lost my hearing and speech (strangely or perhaps conveniently, this tended to happen during faculty meetings at the school where I teach), an instantaneous morph into panic. It made sense when I could tell Ronan was about to breathe his last and I felt my heart beating on the ceiling; if I’d opened my mouth it would have flown right in. It made sense during the course of most of Ronan’s life, when every day brought some new regression, some new horror or seizure, some nasty new medication to deliver or loud medical device to maneuver, some stranger’s insensitive question to politely (or rudely) answer, and also the abject heartbreak of holding my boy close, trying to memorize his smell, his sounds, the feel of his skin and hair. I miss him every morning. When will that stop? Will I miss the missing when it stops, if it does? Will I continue to back myself into these illogical corners? And also, what about grief could possibly make any sense? And if it defies logic, then how do you use logic to defy it? Can someone please slap some sense into grief, and also, into me?

I don’t have time for you, grief, but here you are with your vagabond, thief-stained hands. You don’t appear to belong in my new life, a life of creativity and travel, of good food and good love. My nervous system appears to be wired to a constant state of vibrating, nonstop vigilance. What gives? Grief, get your hands off me, please. They are too various, calloused, unknown, known, groping, lecherous, and mean. I don’t like your touch, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to grow to like it. You’re a molester; you are, as they say in almost every Law and Order episode, “the perp.” Do me a favor and fuck off.

The practice of grief-induced vigilance panic is not so easily dismissed. I was telling Kent the other day that I feel like part of me has been crushed, my identity obliterated, meaning withdrawn, and yet here I am, reading manuscripts and writing fiction again and making dinner plans and enjoying a glass of lemonade. I feel like I’m being massaged in directions I don’t understand by hands I don’t trust. And I’m made restless by my vigilance addiction, trying to find something to worry about, like some kind of weird Pavlovian woman who has become addicted to the “what’s next and how bad will it be?” Ring a bell and I’m ready with a list of everything that could go wrong, and how I’ve failed, all the while knowing that worry is useless and that part of the failure is this self-pitying insistence on making up stories about how I’ve failed. I’m turning myself in benign, indulgent emotional tornados. Oh, C.S. Lewis, if I make up a new Narnia (you can choose the trees and the animals), could we meet briefly in that afterlife where you could write a follow-up to A Grief Observed? I even have a title for you: A Grief Understood, Unwound, Unraveled, Obliterated, Fucked Over Completely. Somebody, anybody, do some magic, make it better.

In Palm Springs, restless, I took a trip to the local bookstore to see if I could find a book that would keep my attention. Reading has always been a religion for me, but I hadn’t made it cover to cover with any kind of attention with any book in almost a year. I was beginning to feel like I was cheating on my brain; in a desire to reassert my faithfulness, I wandered the bookshelves. I saw two of my friends’ recently released hardcover books, and sent two quick texts to tell them how beautiful the covers were and congratulations.

Like all writers, I looked for my book in its appropriate place, not really expecting to find it. Then, suddenly, there was Ronan’s face. The book was turned out to the viewers (shoppers is the better word, I guess), and there was a handwritten bookseller’s note, but that’s not what made my heart rattle its cage. It was seeing Ronan’s face looking out into that bookstore, and wondering in how many stores that was happening, repeating, an endless image loop of that forever eye, unblinking. How many gazes was he meeting with his sightless one? He was everywhere, suddenly, but he was also, literally, nowhere. And yet here was his likeness, a likeness of part of his body, his body that was gone now, disappeared, the body of my boy. It was noon and 110 degrees outside. Through the glass, the concrete and asphalt were on fire. There was a long line at the cash register and a single screaming child demanding a cookie. The espresso machine whirred in the café. I could not move. I wondered (not for the first time), “When will I ever be over this, what would that look like, and how the fuck am I supposed to feel for the rest of my life?” Where’s the grief guidebook, where’s the fancy scientist who can map all the lobes of my brain and insert (I’m willing to endure pain) the balm that will FIX IT.

At the Santa Fe Opera a few nights ago, restless, I listened to an aria I once sang during my short-lived opera singing years – Porgi Amor – from The Marriage of Figaro. The summer night air had finally cooled, and was scented with pine and juniper – for me, the scents of nostalgia, of childhood camping trips and board games in the camper with my brother. The words of the song, “Return my beloved to me or I will die” that I had once belted over the balcony in my voice teacher’s tiny house in Nebraska, the air conditioning unit kicking like a monster truck engine behind me, finally made sense to me. “Do something with your hands,” my teacher had pleaded, trying to school me in notes as well as the expected melodrama of opera. I probably lifted a palm over my head and tried to look puzzled (isn’t that what sad people were? Just momentarily puzzled?), not knowing what else to do, deeply intent on pronouncing the Italian correctly. I had no beloveds when I first sang that song; I had experienced significant loss, but not of people. I had no idea what I was singing about. Now, twenty years later, listening to the mezzo soprano swell those notes just to the point of breaking, just to the edge where they tremble at their most awesome, vibrating, impossible beauty, following those notes up and down the signature Mozart trills and slides, I understood it. Grief sometimes has me grabbing the air with my hands, as if I could pull in a new feeling; trust, or something like it. Or a weapon – an axe to slay grief; a gun to shoot it through its many-chambered, always-changing, totally wretched and selfish and unfaithful heart. If I could still reach those high notes, and if I could stand on my teacher’s balcony one more time, I would know exactly what to do with my hands.

This morning, restless, I left my beautiful writing studio – a studio built by Kent’s hands, my favorite hands, hands that are one of the strongest memories of Ronan’s death, in his last moments, those hands on my shoulders, steady, one of the few sensations I can resurrect from that moment, although I know I was shouting, and I know I was lifting, part of me going with Ronan, or so it felt, because who can imagine making that transition alone? There was a division, in any case, so it’s a good thing Kent’s hands were holding me to the ground. My hands create nothing but sentences; they hold memories and feelings but can barely pour cereal in a bowl.

On the gravel road to the coffee shop there was a little boy, nearing three years old I guessed, although having parented and buried a child without mobility has forever skewed my ability to correctly identify an age, ran toward me. The sun was already bright and strong at nine o’clock, the road soaked in shades of yellow and white. Llamas bleated in their “habitats” nearby. A few chickens poked around on the other side of the street, wandering out of their cages before the heat became unbearable.

The little boy wore a hat like Ronan used to wear, a hat I had pulled from the pile of his clothes and fingered just days before as if it were a piece of delicate lace, a colorful sun hat with a brim and side flaps. Ronan’s was dark blue with light blue sharks swimming around it; this little boy’s was covered in blue and yellow and red fish. He wore sandals and brown pants and (remarkably, given the heat) a light blue sweater.

“Mama!” he said, and ran to me. Instinctively, I moved toward him, like the image from a dream, as if all of my wishes for Ronan to reappear had just been granted, the veils between the worlds suddenly thinned, the last two years all a dream, or an unimaginable nightmare, and this was what was real. My boy – healthy, happy, saved! – and running in my direction. What had been a fantasy of the afterlife was suddenly a reality in this moment. When he realized I was not his mother, he gave me a hairy look, but then quickly recovered and turned to his babysitter, offering up a chubby hand for her to hold. “He thought you were his mom,” she explained, shrugging apologetically. “You look like his mom.”

A similar encounter took place this past October, while I was running through a park in London. A three-year-old boy had walked into the path, his hair a blaze of red, and stopped to look at me. “Mama?” he asked. I ran on, barely able to see through the instant tears, and when I looked back, there was no child there, nobody there at all. Had I imagined it? Maybe.

This time I saw the boy again, as I was leaving the coffee shop. He was looking ahead of himself, past me, his soft face fixed in an attitude of toddler concentration, those charged initial reactions with the sensory universe, reactions Ronan never had. I put my hand on his head. “Good little guy,” I said, and walked through the screen door into the garden. When I turned back (had I imagined him?), he had turned around in his sandaled feet and was watching me leave. I’m not sure what it felt like – maybe a benediction, a blessing – but it felt real the way only magical moments can feel. I felt, in that moment, with just the look from this little boy, that the boundaries of my body had been redrawn again. I wasn’t just melting into the world, helpless and afraid and fucked up. Relief, at least for the moment.

Almost five months gone. Before I know it, Ronan will have been gone as long as he lived, and then longer. How long will it take to lose this grip on vigilance? What span of time, what trick of the light or the season will obliterate this addiction, not just for the moment, but for good? And who will die next, and then when will it be my time? Who will put their hand on my head, close my eyes, wrap me in a shroud and see me out of this world?

This new and magical life that I have stepped into, yes, but this life and the life before Ronan’s death are not an even trade. It’s not out of one life and into the next; there’s always going to be some bleed. What is ahead then? Everything.  Also, and eventually for all of us, nothing at all.


A former Fulbright scholar and graduate of Harvard University, Emily Rapp is the author of the books The Still Turning Point of the World and Poster Child: A Memoir, in addition to many essays and stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Bark, Bellevue Literary Review, The Sun, Body + Soul, StoryQuarterly, Good Housekeeping, The Texas Observer, and other publications. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers' Award, a James A. Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas-Austin (Michener Center for Writers), and the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence fellowship at Bucknell University. She has received awards and grants for her work from the Fine Arts Work Center, the Jentel Arts Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Fundacion Valparaiso. She has taught writing in the MFA program at Antioch University-Los Angeles, where she was a core faculty member, the Gotham Writers' Workshop, and UCLA-Extension. She is currently professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. She is at work on a novel. More from this author →