Purple is Like That

I’m supposed to be shamelessly promoting my book that’s soon coming out, but this week it’s not going to happen.

Instead, it’s time for another letter from the road nobody wants to travel on. Nine months in. Yeah.  You say, “Oh that’s so fast. How can it be 9 months? It seems like yesterday!”  I say, “Lucky you.” It must be nice.

I don’t really like the word “Grief” because I don’t understand it.  Just the word sounds like throwing up.  It makes me picture someone crying so much they can’t move.  Which, for me, is not one of my choices.  It’s spoken of as if it were a sickness you come down with then get over, yet often referred to as a “journey.” Maybe it is like a sickness—I don’t know. I’ll let you know if I get over it. But it’s the only word we have for being really sad for a long time about something big, so I guess I’ll have to break down and use it.

This is what I want to tell you about Grief, in case you come down with it too, someday, or you have another, less-vocal, friend who gets bitten by the bug:

1. The “journey” metaphor does not work for me AT ALL.  At least not so far.

I love all trips categorically–heck, I even like getting on the bus–but I do not like this one bit.  Geez. If this reveals itself later to have been a journey, I’ll let you know, but for right now can we not refer to this as some type of trip or pilgrimage I have decided to take?  Pretty please?  It’s more like a case of malaria.  If this is a journey, it is The Trail of Tears.  It is a forced exodus from a war-torn country.  It does not feel like being on a journey. It feels like being suspended in time.

2. You get used to things.

I’ve said this already, but here it is again. You get used to things you cannot imagine you could get used to. You just do. Walking in the door and talking to an empty house. Doing absolutely everything for yourself. Eating by yourself. Taking up the whole bed. You get used to the person who’s not there being not-there. You get used to trying to remember what it was like when they were.

You also get used to doing whatever the hell you feel like whenever you feel like with or without a good reason. It’s very selfish. It might be the only perk. You never have to share anything or explain yourself. You just leave when you want to go home, buy something because you feel like it, pour another glass of wine or skip it entirely. Nobody asks you anything. You can go to bed ridiculously early if you haven’t got anything better to do.

3. Being around the wrong people is worse than not being around the right person.

Make no mistake: People in the middle of Grief are not necessarily desperate for company. Or maybe that’s just me being a Scorpio. I wouldn’t know. I’m just saying: being alone is not the worst thing. Not just any human being is a suitable replacement for the one who’s gone. A person experiencing grief may not want to be alone. Or they may prefer it to any other option they can think of. Don’t take it personally. If you propose something and your grieving friend gives a weird answer that sounds a little like they might be putting you off, they probably are. Maybe this is because we get used to being selfish.

You might need way more down time than before.  I can become thoroughly miserable if I give myself something to do every night of the week.  It’s too much.  I just need more space between things.  And at 9 months, I am WAY better at this than at first!  Oh man.  Way better.  At first, I needed a day of hibernation for every hour out of the house.  Emotional overload is like dengue fever–it takes a long time to get your strength back and it doesn’t come all at once.

4. You don’t want people to pity you.

I will say that I make/have made a concerted effort not to seem pathetic. Sometimes I feel pathetic, but It’s not ok with me to show it. I save pathetic moments for when it’s just me and the cats. I don’t mind appearing to be sad, but I don’t want to inspire pity for any reason. That bothers me.

5. You never mind talking about it.

I’m checking back in on this subject. I remember writing before that it doesn’t bother me to talk about Pio. I expect it never will. I don’t mind talking about him when he was healthy or telling you about when was sick. It’s not like I forget about it when I’m talking about something else, right?  And no, I’m not going to lose it on you.  I don’t want you to pity me, remember?

6. Your life does not go on. It stops and starts over.

Lots of people, when they want to be encouraging, say things like, “Life goes on,” or talk about “Getting on with life.” This, in the literal sense is true. Life on the planet does indeed go on no matter what happens to any of us—there’s no arguing that. But YOUR life–when your husband dies or some such thing–your life as you know it? It’s as over has his is. And it would be nice if somebody would warn you about this, that way you will know you’re not going crazy when that’s the way you feel. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die now, too. It means that life is over and whatever happens next is going to be part of a different one. How you feel about that—whether you like it or not—is irrelevant. It just is. You’re welcome.

7. It’s very hard to reach out, so you hope other people will.

This is another one I’m better at now than I was at first, but I’m including it in the list because it belongs here.  It takes more nerve to reach out to people than it did before, even for a extrovert like me.  A person in my shoes is probably not going to call you, ask you how you are, and see if you want to go out to lunch. Because you have a life, and what if you’re busy? I don’t want you to have to tell me no. Or say you’ll call me back and then you don’t. I would rather eat my sandwich in peace and not set myself up for disappointment. I’m not going to ask, and then ask again.

When your friend is having a time of Grief, it’s your turn, and it might be for a long time.  And if they make some lame-sounding excuse, it’s ok.  Try again later.  It might just not be the right day.  Or the right week.

8.  You get pretty good at the art of being happy and sad at the same time.

Maybe they’re opposites on the vocab test, but in real life, they’re not.  In real life, they’re like red and blue:  when you mix them, they make new color.   That’s the color of your new life.  Just because one day you’re happy doesn’t mean you’re “over it.”  And because two days later you’re having a complete and unexpected meltdown doesn’t mean you weren’t really happy, then.  Happy things can make you very sad.  Sad things can be very comforting.  It’s ok.  Purple is like that.

 

That’s what I can tell you from here, 9 months after my life stopped and started over.  And I have one last piece of advise for you when talking to your friend who has lost something immense:

Do not say “If you need anything let me know.” Have I mentioned this? Either offer something concrete, or say, “Have a nice day.” This invitation to “anything,” certainly stated with all benevolent intent, is SO ANNOYING. What exactly is it supposed to mean? It’s so open, it means nothing. Is it an offer of money? I don’t think so. You’ll drive me to the hospital if I get bitten by a snake? If I run out of milk or eggs you’ll be right over?  I should call you instead of the fire department if my house catches on fire? I don’t get it.

Try again.  You want to offer something? Offer it. Hey, do you need a ride to the grocery store? Wow, my lemon tree is loaded to the ground—want some? Want to have breakfast tomorrow morning? Need anything from the hardware store? Those offers I can manage. But that “ask me for anything” thing—it doesn’t work. At all. I will probably not ask you for anything, even when I need something. And you probably know that.  I will probably just figure it out on my own.  Which, unavoidably, is the New Normal.

 

 

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Watch the Horizon (A Picture of Time)

I go out surfing in the morning. The ocean is warm and crystal clear–so clear I can see the ripples in the sand two or three meters below my feet as I sit on my board. Waiting. All I do is wait. I wait and wait and wait. I had no idea you could wait so long and still have so much time left. To wait.

The sun climbs. Sets of waves come. When I’m surfing I’m thinking about surfing. That’s all. Watching the horizon for a movement or a slight change in color that means the next set it coming. No more, no less. Most of surfing is waiting. For waves. For the right wave. For the right moment to paddle and stand. At least when I’m surfing, I know what I’m waiting for. Maybe that’s why it’s so much of a relief. Sometimes I surf well, sometimes I don’t. Sooner or later I’m thinking about breakfast.

I ride back to the shore and lay on the sand. Above me in the blue are clouds. I think about water. So much water. In me, around me, above me. I think about Pio and how he filled up with water. I think about how ashes are what’s left of a person when all of the water is gone. I wish it would rain on me right now and the water would be him. The same molecules. I supposed it’s not impossible.

Everything aches. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little.

Eight months have gone by. Compared to the whole rest of my life, it’s nothing. It’s already been an eternity. I wait and wait and wait. As if, if I wait long enough… What? He will come back? I don’t think so. He’ll send me some kind of sign? For what? I’ll die too? Well there’s hardly any debating that. But is that what I’m waiting for? I don’t know. I’m waiting to find out what I’m waiting for. It’s taking such a long time.

I look at pictures of us and we have the same eyes. We have the same hair. I look at us and now I see why some said we looked like siblings. At the hospital in the last days, Pio’s roommate thought he was my father.

Time is not obeying the rules. Or maybe I’m finally learning to understand it. It doesn’t just go, it stands still, thick as giant waves of salt water. A friend tells me I seem to be moving forward. I say I don’t know about that, but thanks. I say thanks because I can tell it was a compliment. I don’t want to move forward. I want to move backward and I can’t. I don’t want to do anything. So I wait. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m moving any direction. It’s the same day over and over and over. I wait for a different day, but every day when I wake up, it’s the same one. So I wait.

Waiting is hard work. When you don’t know how long you will have to do it. How hard it will rain, how much the wind will blow. When you don’t know what you are waiting for. But it’s the only thing that seems possible, so you do it.

I don’t know what “grief” means, how it’s different than just being sad. What it looks like. How you do it. I don’t know what “healing” means either, how it’s different than “feeling better.” I don’t want to feel better. Except when I’m surfing. It doesn’t go away, but you learn to live with it, another friend says. Wise words. I don’t want it to go away. I want to live with it. If my sadness goes away from me, there will be nothing left of me. I will be water vapor like Pio. Clouds and ashes.

I sleep deeply. On cool or rainy nights, the cats cry to be let under the mosquito net with me. We have the whole bed. I eat. Don’t worry about that. Then the morning comes and it’s the same day again. I don’t mean to say that I am bored or depressed. I don’t think I am either one. I’m drawing you a picture of time. Eight months. Is that a long time? I don’t know. It’s the same as 10 years. Is ten years a long time? Not really. Eight months is much longer. There’s no use asking how long I have to wait. Waiting is just waiting. Watching the horizon for a movement or a slight change in color.

    Pio and a friend waiting for waves on a flat day in 2009.

Sand

Ashes

I have some things to say about ashes—human ashes, the kind I live with.  I thought you might be curious.  I was.  Pio’s ashes came to me in a rectangular stainless steel box that the Comune di Milano considers appropriate for traveling.  The box is sealed shut because in Italy it is illegal to spread human ashes. I didn’t bother to find out why.  I don’t actually care why.  I will just say that it took a mighty amount of determination for me to get into that box.   Having him (“him”) sealed in there by somebody who felt is was not alright for him to come out just about drove me nuts.

I got it.   It’s a story for another day—but I got it.

And this is what I want to tell you:  cremation ashes look like sand.  They do not look like wood ashes, and they’re not flakey like that.  They’re heavy like sand.  I asked my faithful friend Google about it and s/he explained that the only thing left after a person is cremated, are bones.  It makes sense.  Everything else is water, and turns into steam or smoke, I suppose.  The bones are then ground to tiny pieces and called “ashes.”  What they really are is sand.

Does that gross you out?  I hope not.  There’s nothing yucky about ashes–that’s the whole point of them.  Does it scare you?  Well.  These are the things we need to sit with.  Starting now, or you can wait until you have no choice.  It makes you sad?  Good.  You’re supposed to be sad about sad things.  Sadness is unsettling when it is a stranger, but when it grows to be familiar, not so much.

Sand

Where I live, the sand is made mostly of tiny pieces of shells.  Some coral.  Some stones.  How long does it take a shell to become sand after the animal that made it dies?  I think that should be a unit for measuring time.  The beach is made up of bones.

Bones

I sit on the beach and run sand through my fingers.  Push my toes into it.  Look at the little bones of all of the things that ever lived.  Think about how everything together equals una sola cosa.  I tell myself it’s ok.

How long does it take for water molecules that rise to the sky from a crematorium in Milan to become a cloud above Costa Rica?  I lie in the sand when the wind is whipping and let it pelt me.  Get in my ears and bury itself in my hair.  Everything that is, is made of everything that was.  I tell myself it’s ok.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

But you have to find a way to open yourself up wide enough to let it inside you.  You’ll suffocate, otherwise.  The more you’re afraid or the more you fight, the worse.  You have to put your fingers in the ashes and the sand and you have to let all the little bones pour through your fingers.  You just do.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Put your ear to the ground, to the sand, and listen to the bones of everything.

 

 

 

Wind

time is nothing
time is
all you have
mark its passage
keep it
let it go

can wind be a
measure of it, or
is time a measure of
how much wind
has slid through
your branches?

where are your leaves?
they have fallen and
wind has
taken them away

don’t look
wait with
eyes closed
hear how much time
fills the universe

catch it
hold it tight
all you have is
nothing

Four

this is the poem
about 4 months
of silence

you think that is a
long time but
the poem reminds you
it is only the beginning

in it, you can hear
clocks tick
wind
an almond leaf scuttles
through the yard

it is a short poem
but the 4 months
are long

moonlight
drums on the roof
like rain

My Window

You all so kindly and generously held onto me through the last unbelievable months.  It seems right to me that I should tell you what comes next, what comes now.   I don’t have a lot of eloquent words, but I can pull back the curtain and let you look out my window.

You wonder how I am.

What can I say? Alright, I think, all things considered. Glad to be back in Costa Rica. Glad to be “home.” I put the quotation marks around the word, because nowhere without Pio feels like home. But Costa Rica is my home and I am glad I am here. I’m better, here, than anywhere else.

I got of the plane from Italy about 2 ½ weeks ago. I moved into a lovely house with lots of pretty wood, an extra bedroom, a huge porch, and my cats. Those things are all good. I got my washer hooked up yesterday, so that took things up a notch. I have a hammock on my porch. My bike works and my legs are catching up to the job of pedaling.

This is the beginning of my second week of work. Work is good. It’s weird, because I hear the truck Pio drove pull up to the office 100 times a day, and it’s never him. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get used to it and stop looking up every time I hear it. His workshop is dark and quiet. Exactly what he feared most. He was so proud of that workshop. I’m doing some accounting clean-up right now, not trying to run the maintenance department anymore. I didn’t love being in charge of maintenance before, and I have no interest at all in doing it without Pio. I’d rather play matching games with numbers. I’d rather sell coconuts on the beach.

You wonder what you should say if you see me.

Don’t worry about it. “Hi, how are you?” works. What are you supposed to say? Unless you say something like “Good riddance,” or “You were never a very good wife anyway,” you are not going to say the wrong thing. And no, I am probably not going to come unglued and bawl all over you if you hug me and tell me how sorry you are. I’ve only done that twice: once with my parents, and once with the closest thing I will ever have to children. So if you’re not my mom and you’ve never called me “mom,” you’re fine.

No, I don’t dread running into you or anyone else. If I didn’t want to see people I know, I wouldn’t have come back to Tamarindo. I would have gone to another province or another country. The only people I actually don’t want to see are the ones that didn’t like Pio–and as you can imagine, it’s slim company.  So, again—you’re fine.

Talking about Pio and receiving the pictures you have of him does not upset me. They make me smile and laugh. They’re like little visits.

But don’t

Don’t talk about “starting over” or “getting on” with life.” Ok? Those are the wrong words. I realize they are the ONLY words our language has for this, but they are the WRONG ones. Don’t say them. I know what my job is now even if I don’t have the right way to say it. I won’t be mad at you if it pops out, I’ll just feel a little sadder and a little more lost.

And don’t say “Everything happens for a reason.” It sounds mean. I’m not telling you what to believe, I’m telling you what not to say. I am at peace with as much of that concept as humanly possible, but I was never a fan of that snooty saying before, and I’m sure not about to convert now. I’m good with, “Everything happens.” Put the period right there. Less is more.

Ashes

Yes, I have them in the house with me.
No, that is not weird.
Yes, I intend to put them in the ocean as Pio always asked me to, but not yet.
No, I don’t know when.
Yes, I tried to open the box.
No, I couldn’t.
Yes, it is sealed.
No, I am probably not going to hold some kind of event where I invite other people when I take his ashes to the ocean.
No, not even you.
Oh, that’s selfish? Ok.
Yes, I will tell you about it afterward.

 

I sleep really well. I’m tired. Everything takes twice the effort. I don’t mean to complain—I’m trying to explain why I sleep like a log when you’d think I should be tossing and turning. Also, it’s warm, and I sleep much better when I’m warm than when I’m cold. I sleep better when I can hear what time it is by listening through my window.  If you live in Guanacaste, you know what I mean: tree frogs and crickets, owls, roosters, monkeys, dawn.

Tamarindo Bay is like a lake right now, but when we get some waves, I’m ready to go surfing.  And then I will be better than I am.  The ocean is big enough for everything.

Deep Space

I didn’t write this; I came across it this summer in an article about Lady Diana’s death, and I copied and pasted it into a Word document on my computer so that I could come back to it later:

“Grief is exhausting, as we all know. The bereaved are muddled and tense, they need allowances made. But who knows you are mourning, if there is nothing but a long face to set you apart? No one wants to go back to the elaborate conventions of the Victorians, but they had the merit of tagging the bereaved, marking them out for tenderness. And if your secret was that you felt no sorrow, your clothes did the right thing on your behalf. Now funeral notices specify “colourful clothing”. The grief-stricken are described as “depressed”, as if sorrow were a pathology. We pour every effort into cheering ourselves up and releasing balloons. When someone dies, “he wouldn’t have wanted to see long faces”, we assure ourselves – but we cross our fingers as we say it. What if he did? What if the dead person hoped for us to rend our garments and wail?”

There’s so much there, I don’t really even know where to start.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot—all of it.  I’ve been thinking about Sadness and how well/poorly-prepared we are for its arrival.  Because it comes.

I think maybe the Victorian’s were onto something.  And I think we modern folk are stupid, trying to convince ourselves that some type of forced cheerfulness in the face of loss has any spiritual merit whatsoever. It perhaps provides some relief to the audience, but it is of no help to the person performing it.  If you ask me how I am, and I tell you I’m fine, does that make you feel better?  Do you believe me?  Why would you?

And we are wise not to confuse Sadness, sorrow, even, with depression.  They are not the same.

I’m terribly sad right now.  I’m not depressed.  How do I know that?  I do, and it is your job to believe me.  No, I’m not happy.  Yes, I cry sometimes.  No, I often do not want to talk to anyone.  Yes, sometimes my favorite activity is looking out the window for a good long while.  And no, I repeat, I am not depressed.  If it disturbs you to hear about my sadness, I don’t have to tell you.  But if Sadness frightens you or makes you uncomfortable, well, what can I say?  That one’s on your plate.

If we feel fine about being happy over happy things, why should we be concerned about feeling sad over sad things?

Yes, I can laugh and enjoy things.  Yes, I have been accepting dinner invitations from Pio’s family, not crying over my pizza at them, and having a perfectly good time.  Yes, I still try to like something about every day.  Maybe walking.  Maybe shopping.  Persimmons.  (OMG, persimmons!)  Maybe looking at pictures of Pio and me.  Maybe packing my suitcases.  I love packing suitcases.  If all else fails, I can fill the bathtub up with water so hot it makes me dizzy, and just feel warm.

I never thought I would say this, but I would love it if social custom required me to wear black (or specific in some other way) clothing right now.  It would be a relief.  It would speak for me.  Then I wouldn’t sometimes think, when I find myself having a good time, that perhaps I have for one moment forgotten to feel appropriately sad.  Then, when I am crying into the telephone at the train station, no one will wonder if I need them to phone the police.  The haunted look I sometimes catch on my face in the mirror would make sense to other people who see it.  No explanation needed.

I have no intention of being sad for the rest of my life.  I know Pio would not want me to be sad for the rest of my life.  But I think he would be alright with me being sad right now.  He did not want to leave me—he told me he didn’t—and if dead people can have terrestrial emotions, I think he’s sad too.  Or he was at first.  If dead people have terrestrial emotions, for how long do they have them?  So please don’t try to cheer me up.  We can have fun together.  We can talk about something else.  You can distract me.  You can make me laugh.  But it is breaking the rules to try to make me feel any particular way.

You want to know what it feels like?  Don’t be scared.  I will tell you.  Because this could be you someday.  Death is normal.  It feels like instead of being full of blood and bone, inside my skin, I am full of deep space.  Light years.  Deep, deep, deep silence.  Complete stillness where nothing moves or makes a sound.  And it’s not frightening.  It’s just very deep, and very quiet.  Still.  And infinite.  And now you’re thinking, “Oh—dark cold nothingness!  See! She’s depressed!”  Shut up.  I didn’t say dark or cold or nothing.  All of that is beside the point.  Besides, the less you say, the closer you are to being right.

Shhhh.

Yes.

Rilke’s “Letters To A Young Poet,” the only book you ever need to read, has an entire letter devoted to Sadness.  It’s Letter #8.  You should read it.  I would paste the whole thing right here if I thought you would read it all, but I think you might not, so I will only paste  one paragraph:

“So you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better. In you, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like some one who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.”

So anyway.   That’s where I am.  That’s what I’m thinking about.

Four weeks and about 1 hour ago, Pio left me here with you.  Tomorrow, I will pick up his ashes.  In 10 days, I will take him home.

Deep space is where everything ends and begins.