“For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.”
-Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica”
When I teach poetry to my students, I tell them that poetry has two major functions: to make the abstract concrete, and to make the concrete abstract. For example, when defining love, an abstract term, one must use concrete descriptors, like “a red, red rose,” or “a melody,” something solid that people can hold on to. This is, I think, an easy way to explain the function of a genre many students are intimidated by, if not downright frightened by. Poetry, you see, is rather difficult to understand to those who are not poets.
I am not a Poet. My husband is; several of my friends are; I study poetry and its writers. I have worked on the Romantics, those purveyors of Poetry as an Art Form, those creators of the capital P Poet. I have taught for years (16, yes, 16 of them) poetry and its creators, trying to explain to high school students or college undergraduates why it is important to read and understand poetry today.
My mother has been gone for two weeks, and I realize, I use the strangest terminology to say that she’s dead, anything other than the word “dead.” I’ve said, “Mom’s passed,” or, “Mom’s gone,” or even “deceased,” but never “dead.” Here, my vocabulary comes in handy, because I’ve realized that people don’t want to hear the word “dead.” It’s too harsh. It’s too real. Something gentler is needed. Something like “passed.”
So, too, have many people asked me, “How are you?” to which I respond some version of “hanging in there,” or, “better,” or, “getting along.” Because again, I don’t know how to put into words a very visceral feeling, an intense emotion that cannot be fully explained or articulated, because even my knowledge and capture of words is failing me.
How am I doing?
My mother is dead.
And for once in my life, I am at a loss for words.
I have been thinking about this blog entry for a while now, because I am a writer, and when I am in pain, I want to write. It helps, you see, get the feelings out, a catharsis of sorts. An emotional release. But there is no release, because everything is pain.
What does that word even mean? “Pain.” It’s an abstract word, and I don’t have a cute emoticon scale to show you, from 1 to 10, the depth of my hurt. Suffice to say I am screaming on the inside, constant and eternal, screaming silent and loud, all at the same time. I want to shout at smiling people, to dare them to tell me how their world is still going on while mine is shattered. At the same time, I want to embrace them, thank them for their beauty and love, for reminding me that life does go on.
What is “grief”? How to define such an abstract concept? Archibald MacLeish does so in “Ars Poetica.” He defines “all the history of grief” with the very descriptive and visual “an empty doorway and a maple leaf.” And that line has been running through my head for days now.
An empty doorway, and a maple leaf.
If I were to attempt to define my grief, it would not be in visual descriptors but rather, in contradictions. I both want people to comfort me, and I want them to leave me alone. I both want to smile, and I want to scream. I want solitude, crave it, even, resent those people who just will not leave me alone, at the same time that I am desperate for company, begging silently for someone, anyone, to distract me from this pain in my head, in my heart. I want the world to stop asking me “How are you doing?” because I know that 95% of the people who ask don’t actually want to know. They want comfort that I’m doing better, because we are ashamed of grief, embarrassed by such displays. But another part of me knows that people are asking because they are genuinely concerned about me, and I’m embarrassed by that, by the fact that people are paying attention to me, thinking of me, worrying about me.
Writers, you see, are also contradictions: raging egotism coupled with crippling social anxiety.
I have been thinking most of Sunday, May 4th, the moment I found out mom had died. I was in my friend’s car, coming back from lunch. I had already bought my plane ticket home to New Orleans because mom was in ICU. We were going to head to campus to get some paperwork I needed to bring with me. I was in her car, in a parking lot, when I discovered my empty doorway.
I screamed. At least, I think I screamed. I remember screaming. There was a sound in my head, a rushing overwhelming sound that drowned everything out. And I needed to push out that feeling in my chest, that overwhelming, emptiness, and so, I screamed. At least, I think I did.
That’s been my experience of these past two weeks: strange, stereotypical things happen in response to grief, and the critic inside of me, the detached, disinterested critic, examines them, picks them apart, and questions whether they were real, or were typical. That is to say, did I scream because I could not handle the grief, or because that’s what people do when they grieve?
When I walked into the funeral home and saw my mother in her coffin, I fell down on the ground.
When they put my mother in the mausoleum, I almost fell over. Someone–I still don’t know who–grabbed me and said, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
When we went to mass that Saturday, the priest at mother’s church talked about her passing. I cried in the pew, and could not, for love or money, stop my tears.
Little things, even: the moment my family left and dad and I were finally alone in the house. Staring down at paperwork. Seeing her handwriting. Finding her jewelry.
These are my empty doorways. These are my maple leaves.