The Art of Grieving

Perhaps Elizabeth Bishop’s most frequently anthologized poem is her villanelle “One Art.

The poem begins calmly, the speaker stating matter-of-factly, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

In the second stanza, she adopts the imperative mood as if she’s conducting a training session on how to lose. She instructs the reader to

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

As the poem continues through its strict regimen of repeated lines and restrictive rhymes, each item in the catalogue of what she’s lost becomes increasingly more significant: her mother’s watch, a house, two cities, a continent. She misses them, “but it wasn’t a disaster.”

There’s a pivot in the last stanza that belies all that comes before it:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

What we have in the last two lines is a breakdown, nervous and otherwise  — of rhythm, of the pattern of diction, even of syntax.

As it turns out, the art of losing isn’t all that easy to master. Nor, I might add, is the art of grieving.

In light of – or should I say through the clouded lens of – my wife’s death, I have been trying to come to grips with the reality of her not being a tangible, breathing human being. In other words, coming “to grips” with the immaterial, with vacancy, with losing her.

Of course, she still exists in memory. I get that, but it is difficult to accept that I will never again see her softly nodding her head or slowly blinking her eyes or her hesitant smile exploding into a wide, orthodontically impressive grin.

Never again encounter in the flesh her manifest serenity.

I grew up reading Hemingway and watching Bogart movies, modeling my persona on stoics, on realists, tough guys unafraid to tell it how it is; “Time hath, me lord,” Ulysses says to pouting tent-bound Achilles, “a wallet at his back wherein he puts alms to oblivion.

I remind myself my wife’s fate was Shakespeare’s fate and Madame Curie’s fate, Amy Winehouse’s fate and your first pet’s fate.

It’s the fate of that adorable baby cackling and crawling towards you in the Facebook video.

“If it be now,” Hamlet says,
“’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.

But how in the hell do you get ready? Especially if it’s not you doing the leaving?

* * *

Here’s how Robert Grudin begins his Time & The Art of Living:

In a railroad car at nightfall, when the natural light outside has diminished until it is even with the artificial light inside, the passenger facing forward sees in his window two images at once: the dim landscape rushing toward him out of a pit of darkness, and the interior of the car, reflected with its more or less motionless occupants. At this hour most passengers unconsciously give allegiance to one of these two polarities of vision; and the individual momentarily aware of both may be struck by the profound, almost tragic duality between outer and inner worlds, between the rush of experience and the immobility of awareness. The uneasy contrast implied by this image is to my mind one of the special marks of our condition, one of the tragic divorces between our lonely humanity and the pulse of nature.

My wife, I think, created equilibrium between these two states – observation and contemplation. I can’t remember ever catching her staring into space. Maybe it’s because she had virtually no ego, no need to impress, no need to blast fanfares of her own importance that she died more or less happy, a little sad to be leaving but not at all dreading death, which she saw as a dreamless sleep. She had lived a life distinguished by integrity and died without regrets.

Unlike, Dr. Igor Borg, the protagonist of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries, which my younger son and I watched last night, thanks to the genius of science.

In the movie, Borg, a very old man, is traveling by car with his daughter-in-law on a 400-mile trip for him to receive an honorary degree. Throughout the journey, he finds himself traveling back and forth between the inner and outer worlds that Grudin describes above.

 

Here’s Bergman remembering his inspiration for writing the screenplay:

Then it struck me: supposing I make a film of someone coming along, perfectly realistically, and suddenly opening a door and walking into his childhood? And then opening another door and walking out into reality again? And then walking round the corner of the street and coming into some other period of his life, and everything still alive and going on as before? That was the real starting point of Wild Strawberries.

What Professor Borg discovers as he shuttles back and forth between his memories[1] is that although he is revered publicly, the people he knows privately don’t like him, not his incredibly ancient mother, not his would-be fiancé back in the day, not his brother who steals that fiancé, not his dead wife, not his son, nor the daughter-in-law who accompanies him in the close quarters of his automobile.

However, by floating back and forth through time, he realizes his shortcomings and at this late date begins to emend them, asking his housekeeper if he can call her by her first name after 30 years of working together (no), forgiving a debt of his son and daughter-in-law that had been a bone of contention. Near the end, the daughter-in-law has grown fond of him and kisses him goodnight, in essence tucking him in.

If I could, like Borg, open doors to the past of our lives and renter those scenes, these images would come to mind: our inventing a dance on the floor of Captain Harry’s un-air-conditioned warehouse bar while the Killer Whales play “Johnny Too Bad,” my losing the bet that she won’t shed her bikini as we lie on straw mats at Paradise Beach in Mykonos, her toothpick legs shaking violently as she gives birth to our older son, her hacking with a machete to the top of a ridge to contemplate where to build our house on the river, watching our second son get the winning hit in his little league championship, eating in a restaurant with a dirt floor in Mexico, graduations, graduations, walking the dog, enjoying the Soul Rebels at the Leaf Festival, wrapping the dead dog’s carcass in a blanket, walking with my wife as she drags her chemo-on-rollers through the halls of Roper Hospital, enjoying a beer at the bar in one of the hospitals at MD Anderson Cancer Center, eating al fresco in a bar at Houston. These, even the last images are good memories because we had each other and a modicum of hope.

 

This life was a good life, and it ended as lives tend to, in sickness. Therefore, I can look back and savor these memories, not in tears because they’re gone, but with smiles knowing that they were good.

Also, I’m embracing great movies and drama. I wrote recently about the live performance of Godot I saw, and in addition to Wild Strawberries, I recently watched Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf. Great movies take you away from yourself and deal with life’s most profound problems. They point to the universality of suffering, which points to the fruitlessness of self-pity. That all the actors and actresses of Wild Strawberries are now dead, except for 88-year old Max Von Sydow and 82-year old Bibi Andersson, underscores the brevity of time and the inevitability of not being. My contemplation of time and these old movies has underscored to me that losing my wife is no way a tragedy and that neither she nor I have “been robbed” of anything.

Hit it, Marcus Aurelius: “No one can lose either the past or the future – how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess? … It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.”

My advice to the bereaved is to replay your happy memories without a thought of the non-existent future. Hang with your friends when you feel like it and talk freely about the person you’ve lost. Sometimes, a tsunami of sadness will wash over you. You can throw yourself on your bed (my equivalent of donning sackcloth) and sob. When I sob, it seems too much like laughing, which always makes me stop, as if a switch has been flipped. Anyway, though sometimes impelled to don the ol’ sackcloth, for me sobbing isn’t all that cathartic, not as productive as going to see Godot or watching old movies or reliving old memories or having a couple of beers with my sons and daughter-in-law or friends or former students who have become dear friends.

Like Lou Gehrig said at his last appearance at Yankee Stadium, I feel fortunate, maybe not as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” but now I can look back with love and forward with nothing to dread.


[1] He’s always his decrepit self in his reveries although the people he remembers are their younger selves.

8 thoughts on “The Art of Grieving

  1. I’m so sorry, Wesley. I had a few words I wanted to say, but as usual I blank out when I try to fit them into a conversation. Consoling has never been my strong suit. This essay is so amazingly complex, but easily understood. Everyone should be so lucky to be as admired and revered as Judy.

  2. A friend posted this on FB and I’m so appreciative. You certainly know how to deliver a message. You use references, both old and new, like no one I’ve ever read before. Of course tears are streaming down my face….and I once again find myself petrified about topics I try desperately to avoid. I can’t imagine your loss. The simple act of trying to imagine makes me sob (and when I sob it’s nothing like laughter!) I have no idea who you are or where you live or what you do. From this piece I’m guessing you live in Charleston and ‘hoping you’re a professor. ‘Hoping because I don’t live far from CTown and want to take your class! I’m about to Google you…sorry that sounds gross but I must know more. I am so sorry for your loss. You are a very talented man and I want to read everything you’ve ever written.
    Peace,
    Alice

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