Friday, December 7, 2012

six hundred dollars' worth

Poems I keep thinking about lately: Kay Ryan's "That Will to Divest" and Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." That section in Robert Hass's "Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer" where he talks about his divorce from his first wife, how during the whole process he imagined the moment when he would finally, deliberately, and ceremonially declare it finished. He visits a Buddhist shrine in Korea and considers leaving his wedding ring there but then decides not to.
In the months we were apart, I had endless fantasies
about when I'd finally take it off and how. And then one day,
I was moving, lugging cardboard boxes, I looked down
and it wasn't there. I looked in the grass of the driveway strip.
Sowbugs, an earwig. So strange.
I was searching in the rosebed of a rented house
inch by inch, looking under the carseat where the paper clips
and Roosevelt dimes and unresolved scum-shapes of once
vegetal stuff accumulate in abject little villages
where matter hides while it transforms itself. Nothing there.
I never found it.

He ends with a statement of baffled resignation: "Apparently I was supposed to wait / until it disappeared." In her poem, Bishop is similarly breezy, but of course she's whistling through the graveyard as she names things she's lost, from little to big: "And look! my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went."

Well, Elizabeth, by summer, I too will have lost three loved houses.

My father lost his job last summer, and because my parents had just spent a substantial chunk building their retirement home one state away, they put their Knoxville house on the market. They have given away piles of stuff, and culled and packed up a modest number of keepsake boxes. They have painted over the wall where my mom recorded our heights and distinguished among them with notes like "J ____ 8/30/89." My sister's room, which has become a kind of shrine to her hospital stay, has to be packed up, too. (She liked her space relatively austere and likely would never have stood for all the stuffed animals, sun catchers, and boxes of get-well cards we've stored in there). What will we keep from it, and what give away? The still unwashed t-shirts my mother sealed in gallon ziplocks sixteen years ago to preserve Rhea's smell?

Then my Nana died in July, and over the subsequent month, my extended family worked at disposing of her house, which was packed with oil paintings, romance novels (Nana called them “screw books”), fabric remnants, hummingbird feeders, expired tins of spices, shoe-boxed and tissue-wrapped leather pumps, and drawers full of old photographs. 

Even as I speak, I’m also in the process of moving out of the home where I've lived for nearly three years. When we bought it, our realtor called it a “grow-old-with-me house.” It's an Eden with a view of a large pond from every window on the back side of the house, surrounded by woods with hawks and coyotes and owls and deer. The main living space is all on one level, so it would be ideal for a couple who might eventually have trouble getting around. But it's abundantly clear now that it’s a house for a life that we aren’t going to have. We will likely never live in Birmingham again. As much as we adore this place, soon it's going to be someone else's house. So I’ve been in the process of gathering all my things to move to another state and be with D for the life that we are actually going to live. In the past two weeks, I’ve already amassed a half-dozen garbage bags full of stuff to go to the thrift store and about eight bags of trash that have already been sent on their way to the landfill. I’m dismantling my home, even as my grandmother’s house has been dismantled, and my teenage home dismantled. I'm trying to grieve it in whatever way seems most appropriate in that moment. Yes, they are just buildings. But the truth is, I get sad when I have to leave a hotel room where I've stayed for only a couple of days. I ache for a home, a place I never have to leave behind.

To understand why this is important, you also have to understand what kind of family I come from. Some people can’t wait to get out of their parents’ houses when they turn eighteen. I won't say they’re the lucky ones—I don't want to trivialize the very real problems that some people grow up with—but in some ways, perhaps, they started out ahead of me on the road to adulthood. I acknowledge that coming from a household that you hated has to be very tough on a person. Leaving a household you loved can be its own kind of complicated.

My family was a rare group: five individuals who actually had a natural affinity and a genuine liking for each other. We collected an eccentric and highly meaningful assortment of traditions over the years. For instance, as I’ve mentioned before, my dad used to take one of us (we alternated each year) grocery shopping on Christmas eve; we were allowed to buy any goodie that took our fancy. Another habit of ours: because our Tennessee accents made the smug, I-told-you-so exclamation “See there!” sound like “Sea air!” anytime anyone said it, everyone else would immediately chime in loudly, “Oceanbreezes!”

We had a rich store of family legends, as well. According to stories, my Irish ancestors on my dad's side were gamblers. For years, even up into her seventies, my grandmother still had a bookie that she’d call before a big race at Keeneland. More specifically, my dad likes to tell the story of his granddaddy Jeff (short for Jefferson Davis Akers, which should tell you something about the allegiances on that side of the family), who once took my granddaddy to the horse track and bet the daily double on a 7-to-1 horse that won. During the race the two men got separated, but granddaddy found his father later. Elated, he said to him, “Papa, where’s your ticket? Let’s go claim your winnings!” Great-granddaddy Jeff replied regretfully that in the confusion of the race he'd dropped it somewhere. Straightaway, my granddaddy began to raise cane about the lost ticket, cursing and stomping about all that payout they weren't going to get. When he took a breath, his father said matter-of-factly, “Buster, I’ve already grieved six hundred dollars’ worth.”

To prepare for the sale of our house, D hired a contractor and his band of merry men to descend on the property and make the necessary repairs. They've been removing all the overgrown privet that has gradually obscured the view of the pond, replacing soffits, re-grouting bathrooms, patching and painting walls, and repairing the little-girl's playhouse on the edge of the yard that we never tore down (and instead used as a shed for storing garden tools). In the basement, there's a fireplace that our realtor thought needed a strip of crown molding near the ceiling in order to look finished. On Wednesday, while the guy was working on that, he took down the picture that had been propped up on the mantel. The frame wasn't fully attached to the painting, and it fell onto the concrete floor and shattered.

It was a painting that my Nana gave me. I don't know how much it was worth in purely monetary terms; I don't think I want to find out. But it always fascinated me, ever since I was a little girl and it hung in the finished basement of my grandparents' house. It had an elaborate black frame. The picture was painted on the back side of a pane of glass, an unusual technique. What I found most haunting was the scene it depicted: a castle with stone turrets, by the light of a full moon; a wide, glinting moat in front of it; and a drawbridge, painted with foreshortening so that it looked as though it was descending towards the viewer herself. There was an inexplicable gap between the end of the drawbridge and the viewer: in the moment captured in the painting, you would never be able to cross that water and reach the castle. I think it was very old. I don't know who painted it. The paint was peeling off the glass; whenever you moved it, even slightly, more flakes detached themselves and fell down between the glass and the backing. Sometime between childhood and its tenure in my basement, the painted moon had dropped out of the picture and left a transparent circle in its place. 

I understand that this painting represented something more than itself to me. The summer after my sister's death, when my mom and Nana had a big fight and didn't speak for several months, I lived in a state of subdued anger that sometimes erupted suddenly into fury, surprising even me. My anger had odd targets. One was Rhea's high school ex-boyfriend, to whom she hadn't spoken in years, and who I used to see in the Humanities Building before one of my Tuesday-Thursday English classes. I wanted to grab him by the front of his ironic plaid flannel button-down, yell into his smug face, "She's dead! Stop smiling, you asshole!" and watch with sadistic satisfaction as shock and regret dawned in his eyes. Nana was another habitual lightning rod for my ire, particularly since she had so many critical opinions about the way my mother handled her grief. That fall I wrote a poem and mentioned the painting specifically:

(The story of my date with Mr. Tennessee is a tale for another day.)

Notice how I marked out the last line, probably because I feared that it wasn't very nice. It succinctly expresses my somewhat clichéd response to loss over the past sixteen years, though: a hyper-self-sufficiency that refuses to expect or need anything from anyone to begin with, so that if I lose someone, it minimizes the loss. This doesn't work, by the way. If you want to know why, well... let me just quote Steve Martin's monologue at the end of Shopgirl: 
As Ray Porter watches Mirabelle walk away he feels a loss. How is it possible, he thinks, to miss a woman whom he kept at a distance so that when she was gone he would not miss her? Only then does he realize that wanting part of her and not all of her had hurt them both and how he cannot justify his actions except that... well... it was life.
The night I found the destroyed painting, I had gone downstairs to work out, and when D called I wandered into the other room to talk to him, at which point I spotted an empty frame propped against the couch, a box full of glittering dust and paint chips, and one large, triangular glass shard with a drawbridge painted on it.

I was speechless and then immediately I was weeping. D's response was the opposite, but just as characteristic: ever protective of me, he was furious and boomed that he was going to call the contractor immediately and let him know what his man had broken that day without bothering to tell anyone about it.

It's interesting how differently all of us handle loss. Even a single person's responses might vary wildly from moment to moment. I long ago left behind the notion that there's any right way to do grief. The old bit about the "five stages" has been largely debunked, anyway. (Just ask Ruth Davis Konigsberg, whose book, The Truth About Grief: The Myth about Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, is on my to-read list.)

But for me this experience impels another, more troubling question: how much grieving is six hundred dollars' worth? Is there a point at which a person should stop? 

I've spent the past sixteen years mourning my sister's death. Sometimes it feels embarrassingly self-indulgent and protracted, especially when I look at it alongside the fresh grief of someone else. (Here's a useful explanation of the difference between grieving and mourning, by the way.) At the beginning, I wanted to feel pain but felt frustrated by my persistent numbness. At the service I hugged hundreds of people; there's still a peachy smear on the left lapel of the vintage suit I wore, from all those women's cheeks that leaned on my shoulder while they whispered their condolences. It took at least six months for the grief to hit me, and by that time most people had stopped sending cards and asking how I was. Just as I would have, before Rhea's death, they expected me to be okay "that far out." And I was, I guess. I looked fine. I missed only one day of class that semester, and I had prearranged it months in advance with my professors. I took four English classes, most of them on the novel, so I read three long books a week. I made straight A's. And I kept doing that. Reading, succeeding, getting high grades brought a certain comfort, a measure of control over my life, whether real or illusory. I could still manage everything, just as I did the semester Rhea died, when my perfect GPA reassured me that all was not lost. Looking at it from this angle, it makes sense to me that I kept comforting myself that way and went as far as I could with it: until I'd gotten a Ph.D, the terminal degree in my field.

In the last year, I have witnessed an unusual number of students, acquaintances, and friends encounter grief—big grief—mostly for the first time. Some of them are not close friends; hence, though I want to draw near them and offer them something, mostly I just feel tongue-tied and inadequate. I don't know what I can say. Every loss is different. I compare mine to a trick knee that comes as a result of an old injury: you can be fine for months and months, doing all kinds of jumping around and running and activity, and one day you're just walking like normal and you step on it the wrong way, and you end up balled-up on the floor in agony.

D once had a conversation with a coworker that sums up the point I'm trying to make. At the time, another colleague of his had just had to put his dog to sleep after she suffered a pulmonary embolism, and D was empathizing with the man's loss, because he remembered what a hard time we had with Molly's death. She was like our child, and he said as much to his coworker Alexis. She scoffed that of course it couldn't be as bad as losing an actual child, but D protested: how did she know what a particular loss meant to someone? How could she quantify it like that? Like the problematically subjective pain scale that medicine uses, grief doesn't mean exactly the same thing to me as it does to you. And I would add: turning it into a pissing contest doesn't help.

D and I spent a good bit of last weekend organizing the mess we've accumulated over the past decade or so. Some of it we each brought from our respective old apartments to this new house, without having organized it first. We just sealed up our boxes of junk and lugged them with us, intending to sort through it later.

Saturday night, after we'd waded through at least a dozen boxes and sent the papers and junk-to-be-shredded and keepsakes to their rightful places, we sat down and watched a movie on Netflix. This is usually an undertaking, since our instant queue is over 250 movies long. We've amassed so many options that making a choice is overwhelming. Amazingly, we agreed on Everything Must Go, a Will Ferrell movie from last year that didn't do very well in theaters (which, as usual, augured well for my liking it). It was excellent. 

It won't spoil things to tell you that Nick Halsey, Ferrell's character, gets fired from work one day and then comes home to find his wife has left him, put all of his stuff in the front yard, and locked him out of the house. Early in the movie, Nick stubbornly replies to a friend who is encouraging him to sell everything and start over: "This is my corner. I'm not leaving my stuff." Watching the movie made me anxious (though I think in a productive way). It was a reminder of how many things we leave behind: some that burden us unnecessarily, but also other, precious things that are literally wrested from our grasp before we're ready.

In truth, the fundamental condition of our life on earth is loss. Everything is transient. In one of my favorite poems, "Ode on Melancholy," Keats points out that loss is built into all the things we treasure:
                     Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
We value these things precisely because they are fleeting, because we know that we will lose them. Why I forget that, I don't know. It's hard not to remember it, when the longer we live, the more things we lose: our loved ones, our keys, our minds, the use of various body parts, and even memories that felt indelible at the time we made them.

I keep trying to think of consolations for the losses. There are dangers to this line of thinking, of course: it's the tactic friends and acquaintances often use to try to make grieving people feel better—and often this merely masks an attempt to make themselves feel better so that they don't have to think about what our loss might feel like. I've been there, even to the point of what William Stafford describes in "Consolations":
“The broken part heals even stronger than the rest,”
they say. But that takes awhile.
And, “Hurry up,” the whole world says.
They tap their feet. And it still hurts on rainy
afternoons when the same absent sun
gives no sign it will ever come back.
Or what Tennyson complains about in In Memoriam:

         One writes, that ‘Other friends remain,’
              That ‘Loss is common to the race’—
              And common is the commonplace,
        And vacant chaff well meant for grain.

        That loss is common would not make
              My own less bitter, rather more:
              Too common! Never morning wore
        To evening, but some heart did break.

These poets are talking about platitudes, the kind that well-meaning people deliver when they want you to shut up because your pain is making them uncomfortable. I don't blame those people. Like I said, I've been on that side of things, too. Not knowing what to say. Unable to just witness someone's brokenness without wanting to fix it with the perfect words.

After I had calmed down on the evening I found the box of broken glass, D made a polite call to the contractor, who was horrified to learn what had happened. He asked the worth of the picture, and D told him that it was impossible to say, that its value was purely personal. Since he couldn't replace it, by way of sorry, the contractor offered to fix a hole in the siding of the pool house, for free. Okay, we said. That's nice of you. Thanks.

Six months after Rhea died, my family traveled out West as far as Nevada, in a kind of pilgrimage. We went to Zion National Park (what I like to imagine heaven will look like, if it's a physical place) and stood under the tears of Weeping Rock, which have fallen incessantly for thousands of years. We returned to the Grand Canyon, where we had been the summer before with Rhea, when she was buying time before her transplant. One night, in a tent at the Albuquerque KOA, I had a conversation with my brother about his wild, popular high school friends. For the first time since we were kids, I lay there in my sleeping bag worried about him, and impressed and surprised by how much he'd grown up, instead of feeling the way I had for most of the year beforehand: pissed at him for worrying my parents by getting into trouble. At that moment, I began to see Jeff in a way that I hadn't before. He was witty and loved our family and missed our sister, though he didn't talk about it much. In the years since that trip, our initial acquaintance as young adults has ripened into a deep friendship. We are very different, but I respect and am genuinely delighted by the person he is, over and above loving him with a sister's duty. Every time I get to spend time talking to him, I feel profoundly lucky to know Jeff and call him my friend. I'll tell you more about him sometime.

When we were kids, Rhea was always the hinge on which we three siblings turned: she and Jeff were best friends, and she and I were best friends, but Jeff and I didn't have that much to do with each other once we became teenagers. Her absence opened a new possibility for our friendship, both because she was no longer our go-between, and also because he and I had now shared the experience of losing her. For a long time I struggled with guilt because I was able, in the wake of her death, to befriend my brother—as if conceding my gratitude for this consolation was somehow tantamount to being glad Rhea had died. 

Now I am trying to separate those two things, because they are each true. Her death is a loss I will never reconcile. But that dying tree brought a windfall. More than one windfall. So, when I can manage to do it—and I can't always—I try to say goodbye to what I have lost and thank you to whatever it is that sends me recompense. Sister who will never know my children: goodbye. My legs work well enough to run several miles. Thank you. I miss you: goodbye. I know the value of what I have. Thank you. My lost friend: goodbye. I love my brother, and he is still here. Thank you. I have survived so far. Thank you. I have a new home to go to. Thank you.

And this, I think, is life: saying each thing as often as we need to. Thank you. Goodbye. Again and again, goodbye. And thank you.

Now here's some food.

sautéed brussels sprouts with bacon + onion
makes enough for 4 as a side dish.

1 lb. brussels sprouts, trimmed of brown ends and leaves
a quarter of a Spanish onion, minced
3 slices bacon, chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. turbinado sugar
1 tbsp. sherry vinegar
salt and pepper
several tbsp. water

First you'll need to shred your sprouts. Corral somebody into the kitchen with you to keep you company and pour you both a glass of wine: this will take a while. Once you've got all the sprouts trimmed, carefully halve each one through the stem end, and then place it flat side down and shred each half into ribbons – almost like you were making coleslaw, only with tiny cabbages. If you want, you can core each one first so that they shred better. If you don't core them, there will be both bigger core pieces and tiny shreds, so in theory they will cook unevenly. Myself, I didn't take the time to core them because, frankly, non-homogeneity don't bother me none.

Cook bacon pieces in a skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally. (I cheated here: I had made bacon for breakfast, and I poured out and saved the drippings but didn't wash the pan, so all the browned bits were still in the bottom of it. I just used the same skillet for these sprouts. I recommend this.) If there are too many drippings, spoon off some of them. Leave a generous tablespoon or so in there.

When bacon starts to get browned and crispy, add onion and a little salt. Sauté for a minute or two, scraping the bottom of the pan to get the browned bits incorporated.

Add sprouts to pan, along with olive oil, turbinado sugar, and a little more salt. Stir carefully to incorporate everything – there will be a lot of sprouts there, but they'll shrink as they cook down. Let them sit for a minute and then stir again. Repeat. If it looks a little dry (mine did) and too brown, then add a few tablespoons of water and stir again.

Sauté everything for a few minutes total, stirring occasionally, just until sprouts are softened but still green and slightly crunchy. Add sherry vinegar (more than what's called for, like I did, if you like things a bit tarter) and some pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings.


Tanvi Patel said...

Beautiful post Heather. I think of "thank you" as a kind of prayer one should say everyday so I'm glad you ended on that note. Transitions are hard - I remember how sad I felt when my parents sold our childhood home (even though it was for greener pastures). Til this day, I avoid that street every time I'm in LA. I can't seem to go back there. Hope your move goes well - where are you all moving to?

Heather Akers said...

Thank you for your kind comment, Tanvi. I agree with you about "thank you" as a prayer - I say it more and more, the older I get. I feel bad that it took me this long to understand how much I have to be grateful for. So, we're going to be down in Louisiana! Perhaps some Cajun dishes will make their way onto the blog in the near future...