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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

Karen Green’s Bough Down

December 19, 2013 | by

From Bough Down, Karen Green, 2013. Siglio Press. Copyrighted by the artist.

From Bough Down, Karen Green, 2013. Siglio Press. Copyrighted by the artist.

For several years during childhood, my younger brother and I shared a room. When silence eventually fell after we’d been put to bed, I often began to worry. If I couldn’t hear his breathing, if he didn’t shift in his sleep or answer my urgent whispers (“Hey … hey … ” “What?” “ … Nothing”), I willed myself motionless, listening for signs of life. If I still couldn’t hear anything, I got up, tiptoed across the room, and leaned over him. He was never not breathing. Yet I continued these fretful nocturnal journeys throughout our childhood.

As we grew older, my concern became more practical. I wondered how I would react if I found his breath had stopped, what course of action I would take, and whether I would be able to even move from the spot where I’d be helplessly rooted to the floor. I was haunted by his possible death—an absence I could not understand as a child—and by my inability to conjure a suitable reaction.

I do not fear my own death as actively as I worry about being left to cope with the death of someone I love. And while I have lost loved ones, I’ve managed, because those deaths made sense, to hover at the edges of grief. From there, I watched others muck through it, station to station. (Inevitably, I imagine each of the stages of grief less as a pilgrimage than as suburban park trail, where Denial is a set of monkey bars, Anger a stepping post, etc. Mourning, to me, is a compulsory obstacle course.) From the safety of the path, so to speak, I found myself rationalizing away what felt like an improper response to loss with the argument that we all manifest grief differently. In my case, I insisted, it was by maintaining my distance. As a consequence, I have avoided mourners. I’ve skipped out on funerals. In shameful moments, I’ve forsaken those in need. Never because I didn’t care, I insist, but because I am too weak.

And so I didn’t want to read Bough Down, Karen Green’s memoir of loss and mourning. Despite myself, I brought the book home and put it on the shelf, where I intended it to remain, a vellum-shrouded apotropaic object, its presence enough to ward off misfortune. Read More »

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Francisco Goldman on ‘Say Her Name’

May 3, 2011 | by

Aura Estrada and Francisco Goldman at their wedding in 2005. Photograph by Rachel Cobb.

“Esto es tu culpa,” Francisco Goldman was told by his mother-in-law, as his wife, Aura Estrada, lay dying in a Mexico City hospital. This is your fault. Goldman and Estrada had been vacationing on the Pacific Coast when Estrada was fatally injured by a freak wave. She was thirty years old, a writer on the brink of a promising career. Goldman is also a writer; his latest novel, Say Her Name, centers on Estrada’s death. The narrator, also named Francisco Goldman, is grappling with his mother-in-law’s accusation of murder. The book is part mystery, part biography, part meditation on grief, and, finally—mostly—a love story. Goldman’s writing has astonished me in the past (notably his underread 2004 novel The Divine Husband), but Say Her Name is powerful and surprising and even funny in ways that feel unique. He has, in a sense, invented a form. Goldman met me for drinks recently at a bar not far from the Brooklyn apartment he and Estrada shared. This is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation.

How long after Aura’s death did you start working on the book?

I started working on the book in December. She died in July. Those ensuing months after Aura’s death were so horrible and I was probably drunk for almost all of it. In December—I was dreading being alone in our apartment over the holidays—Chloe Aridjis, the writer from Mexico City who was living in Berlin, offered me her apartment. It was this very literary apartment with a very nice writing desk, and it was good to be someplace where I didn’t know anybody. And the city itself—it seemed cold, gray, a rainy drizzle coming down every day that almost made nighttime seem like daytime—it somehow matched my mood perfectly. I started it there, and in a way the book accompanied me through my mourning. It was like my indispensable other self.

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Meghan O’Rourke on ‘The Long Goodbye’

April 25, 2011 | by

Photograph by Sarah Shatz.

In 2008, on Christmas Day, Meghan O’Rourke’s mother, Barbara, died after a two-and-a-half-year battle with advanced colorectal cancer. O’Rourke was lost in her grief, which she found overwhelming and unlike anything she had ever experienced. Her book, The Long Goodbye, is her attempt to understand her grief, documenting the years before and after her mother’s passing. In reading The Long Goodbye, I braced myself for the tears (which, yes, did come) but, by its end, discovered that O’Rourke had written a beautiful memoir about a daughter’s love for her mother. We spoke recently about her book; an edited version of our conversation appears below.

How did this book come about?

I started writing things down, for myself, before my mother died. It was a private recording of what was happening. Writing has always been the primary way I make sense of the world. My mother was going through this really intense experience: she had been sick, she had been diagnosed with advanced cancer two years before she died, and she went into a remission that was unusual. Then the cancer came back—it went to her brain, which again was not common for the cancer that she had. It was bizarre to see someone change so radically and so quickly; I had to write it down in order to not go crazy with the strangeness of it all.

After my mother died, I was supposed to be writing my column at Slate, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t read. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I had thought of grief as being sad, but instead it was like being suddenly aware of all the luminous, fragile elements of existence. It was also lonely in its way. My editor at Slate said, “Why don’t you write about what you are going through.” I didn’t think what happened to me was extraordinary. But it was what I was obsessed with, and so I started to shape what I was experiencing into a piece.

I was very unprepared for grief. It was isolating. There was no language for it, and no language around it—but I felt that I was in contact with all of these deeper realities; even the sky seemed strangely bluer. But there is a discomfort that surrounds grief. It makes even the most well-intentioned people unsure of what to say. And so many of the freshly bereaved end up feeling even more alone. I came across a quote of Iris Murdoch’s: “The bereaved have no language with which to speak with the unbereaved.” I thought, What if you could find a language that would describe the experience, with all its mysteries?

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Joyce Carol Oates on ‘A Widow’s Story’

March 22, 2011 | by

Photograph by Murdo Macleod.

Joyce Carol Oates is hardly an author who needs introduction. Her famously vast and varied oeuvre—more than fifty novels and hundreds of short stories, as well as critical essays, books of poetry, and plays—ensures not only that no two readers will have the same opinion of her but that the same reader may well have more than one. And yet, as we learn in A Widow’s Story, her recently published account of the year following her husband's death, outside of the public eye she was not “Joyce Carol Oates” but “Joyce Smith,” a devoted wife whose husband, Raymond Smith, had read little of her fiction. I asked her about this divide between public and private personas, the difficulty of writing while grief stricken, and the role of the woman as elegist in a conversation conducted recently over e-mail.

Early in this memoir, you write that “the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling.” Is A Widow’s Story an attempt to reclaim that tale?

The memoir is assembled from journal entries, which were driven by the “surprises” of the day. When I began recording the hospital vigil, I did not know the ending. Only two or three chapters were written in a more conventional way, as flashbacks or background information, about Detroit in the 1960s for instance. I began the memoir—deliberately—in mid-summer 2009, when I found that I was not able to imagine a novel at that time. Since I was haunted by this material, and had hundreds of pages of notes, it seemed quite practical to write what I could, beginning with the first of the really startling, to me, epiphanies—“The Message1.”

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Annotations

  1. “The Message” is the title of the first chapter of the book, and refers to a note Ms. Oates found on the windshield of her car, which she’d parked poorly outside the hospital where her husband was recuperating. The note read, “LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH.”

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