By Maurie Traylor
Say the word “grief” aloud and its brevity pulls you up short. First, the hard, guttural “g,” like a moan of pain barked after a fist to the gut. Then, the hissing “f,” like a mad cat, back arched. It’s a word severed from itself, its head hacked off blunt and bloody and then, nothing. Just gaping space, empty and vast. A silence that devours you, soundlessly picking you apart as it pins you down, stripping muscle from bone, tendon from sinew.
Its stealthy force makes strangers of friends, creates enemies where families once stood together. And today, its force stops my brother mid-stride, forcing him off balance. He reaches for a nearby bench. He lunges towards it and I reach to catch him but he’s surprisingly heavy—too heavy for me to keep from falling—and we both land crumpled in the corner of the bench’s hard, brittle form.
We’re halfway on the return trip from our daily outing to get overpriced coffee. For eight days straight, we’ve made this pilgrimage, pretending to inhabit a fairly normal world. Davey’s tiny condominium sits askance on a moody, man-made pond. Our daily walk gives us both a pause from the calls, emails, questions and ceaseless activity that accompanies giving our mother over to larger things. Her death—a suicide—was neither a surprise nor a disappointment to me and I hated myself for feeling so.
Davey’s breath was uneven and labored, a choke-hold from his own dance with cigarettes and drugs. He was two years sober and in light of events, I kept vigil by him, itchy and nervous while I watched the battle.
“It’s pretty here,” he said. He ducked his head towards the pond and I felt the effort it took him to do so. The pond’s gentle waves shifted around Davey’s small outline and I noticed how the sunlight backlit his small, clumping form. I caught my breath and grabbed his hand.
“Yes,” I agreed. The waves rippled stealthily behind him and I worried that if I didn’t hold on, he’d slip down the bench into their still cerulean blueness.
“Maybe you can stay a couple more days. We could go over to Sedona,” he said, not looking at me. “I could get you a later flight. You can stay a little longer in Griefville.”
I laughed at this private joke, one we’d made up after the onslaught of messages to our inboxes and the parade of well-wishers arriving at Davey’s front door. It was Davey’s joke, calling our experience “Griefville”; he parodied the long faces of the well-wishers and mocked, “Call if you need anything” in an old lady’s voice. “Like I even know what I need,” he’d whispered as he swallowed the remaining dregs from his beer.
“I’ll come back in a few weeks,” I said. “I need to get home, check on things,” This was both a truth and a lie and I was tempted to extend my stay. I did have things to check on but nothing that could not wait. My grown children lived in other towns. My dogs were enjoying time with my neighbor’s rambunctious pack of English Bulldogs, undoubtedly having more fun than with me in my solitary, quiet writing life. If I stayed on, I could continue to stay current on deadlines and projects the way I had done the past two weeks when I hijacked Davey’s home office, setting up Grief Central.
Truth be told, I was enjoying my trip far more than I felt comfortable saying. At any other time, this would be a winter escape for me from the Midwestern grayness. Scottsdale looked nothing, felt nothing like my home of Tulsa. Being here, even with the clammy hand of grief upon me, was a cool cloth on my feverish head, a tonic for my own chaotic insides. If I stayed here I might forget the snow crusted corners of my garden as I snatched obese lemons and oranges from lush green trees that dotted the landscape.
I’m ashamed to admit now that it was an afterthought to consider staying to be helpful to Davey. But grief has its own twisted logic, its own way of distorting truth, making you feel that you are the one in need when in fact, you are needed by others.
I squeezed Davey’s hand. “The minute I touch down, I’ll call. I promise.”
Together, Davey and I were the oldest two children in a patchwork of mish-mash relationships, stitched around our mother’s chaotic life. Our father introduced her to heroin, spawned us and then left for worlds we never knew or heard from. Our mother emerged from that life with a crude self-help plan formed from our Grandmother’s Southern Baptist “pull- yourself-out-of-the-gutter-on-your-own” accompanied by bouts in and out of rehab. Then, finally, she spiraled into a spectacular addiction to pain killers, prescribed ironically by the doctor who attended church with our family. Though the pills did not officially kill her, they brought the goods that ended her life: paranoia, fear, hopelessness.
Like all children of addicts, Davey and I bobbed along the rivers of uncertainty, reaching out for each other before every wave of our mother’s life washed over us, taking us under. My desire was to just keep Davey afloat; Davey’s desire was to have our mother’s attention. Both desires were used by our mother who, like most addicts, mastered the manipulator’s art and bent our hopes into weapons against us.
We were tired, and though I tried to grieve our mother, I was distracted. Grief had its slow, painful work to do in me and yet, I could not give myself over to it. My mind looped backwards to events remembered through sepia-stained moments, and though I tried I could not make sense out of their erratic presence. “Quiet!” I wanted to shout (and sometimes did) as the twisted frames holding old lovers’ faces, friends and their disappointments were super-imposed over our mother’s dark hair, her beautifully haggard eyes, her arms reaching for something she never found. Grief’s most effective weapon is one of mocking betrayal: You should have done more, you should have done more, you should have done more . . .
As we sat in the thin, January Arizona sun, I realized that Griefville is a place that I didn’t want to visit anymore. Staying only made me more aware of the mental pockets, the nests of old hurts cobbled together in resentment. I should have sorted all this out through the smaller griefs that were handed to me along my journey here.
But I’ve not done the work. I’ve not sorted through these warning signs and reminders and have, in fact, clutched onto them more furiously. Even those—and especially those—that hurt me most.
“Let’s get you to the airport, then.” Davey said. And then he brought his mouth together in a firm line, a sort of smile that told me he would be all right.
Which, of course, was completely wrong.
The airport crowd bumped and swayed us as we walked towards my gate. When we had gone as far as we could go together, I turned to Davey and said, “I’ll call you when I get there.”
He looked up over my head and said, “Might be out with some friends,”
I smiled and said, “Probably a good idea to be around some folks.” He again gave me the thin almost-smile and said, “Yeah, might be good.”
A cold February wind greeted me when I arrived home. Even with my dog retrieved, my house seemed vast, my refrigerator filled with nothingness. I immediately missed the buoyance of Arizona and though I called Davey several times, my calls were unanswered, going straight to his voice mail.
“Out with friends,” I remembered him saying and I poured a trickle of remaining wine, turned up the heat and waited for a call that never came.
I ignored the “unknown caller” message the next day, immersed in irrelevant work tasks. Three hours later, during a slack moment in my day, I retrieved the call with the message from one of Davey’s friends that he had been found just a few hours after I left. He had slipped away, on a wave of his own making, washed away by Grief.
I am now a resident of Griefville, a citizen among others who, like me, live with loss and regret. They talk to me of things like peace, hope and surrender. Their eyes are kind, their arms strong and capable. I want to trust them, though I don’t yet. I want to trust myself, though I don’t do that either.
Grief still makes its presence known. It still taunts me, like a bully, taking flavor from my food, light from my days. Somedays it sits on me and under its heavy weight, I cannot breathe. On those days, I cry out and reach for steadier hands than my own.
I hold on and I let go. I am saved and I am lost.
I am weightless and grounded and whole.