Sunday, January 7, 2018
On Loss - A Brigid Guest Post
I have been a position too many times in the past, where I too had to break the news of a tragic death to a family and it took me back there more than once this week.
The place was small and starting to show its age. The town itself was nothing more than one small living plant among an acre of weeds, robbed of vitality by the economy, its young eaten by the big cities. As I draw nearer to this modest, neat farm, I notice all the homes around here empty, grass overgrowing. Two have election signs still withering in the wild lawn, others with some children's toys abandoned in the grass as they left in a hurry, the only witness to their departure, the bitten and fruitless stalks of corn from that summer's drought. I noticed the small things, it's what I was trained to do.
The people who lived here would look as if they'd been born there, with the home somehow built around them, bright eyes in parchment skin, hands roughened by a lifetime of hard work. They would answer the door, not with deliberation but with patiently unassailable and unflinching weariness, for they likely already knew why I was here. I stepped around a pile of wood at the edge of the driveway, there with a sign "self-service firewood" with a pot to put your money in and take what you needed. This was a home of people that trusted. I did not come for firewood. I had come for something else, to be the confirmation of news that would make any hardship they'd suffered in the past, pale in the light of something much worse.
I then looked past them, out into the acres of a life. Land that they held on for the sole purpose of leaving it to family, looking into the bright comedy of late Fall that hid laughing beneath the dying green. But my face did not show this. My face showed only it's own pouched darkness beneath the eyes from being awake for 20 hours, mouth held firm as if by doing so I could hold in the words, somehow take them back. But I couldn't
"I'm sorry for your loss." You hear the words on TV uttered by people like myself, and no matter where it comes from, it sounds trite. It sounds bad when it's uttered without inflection, a formidable silence hanging over the scene. It sounds even worse if the words are uttered for the TV, just before the playful banter of the golf course begins again. Whether you know the person well or not, they deserve your respect, their remembrance more than the words themselves, words that rush out from the earth, gathering around us in a shadowy embrace; words that have not only a touch in the darkness but weight.
There are never proper words, words themselves are deceiving. Taken out of context in a journalists reports, a hastily written text or email, without the emotion or the eyes, truth becomes lies and dreams the truth. Words are only that, words. Without the feelings behind them, they are only inky blackness. I can only hope that the inadequacy of these five simple words will confirm our humanity and somehow bestow on the trite repetition, its real meaning. "I'm sorry for your loss". The wrong words, words that should have stayed on a page of a script, hidden from anyone other than their author.
As I bore that burden to that family on that day long ago, I saw it in their eyes, they know this as well, and surprisingly the man reached out to grasp my hand, bearing stoically the fields of their devastation, reaching out to me in mine. It was not a handshake of welcome, for I was not, but it was a handshake that confirmed we were alive, with duties that still must be done. On that day, I was brief as I could be and left them in their silence, the only sound an old retriever in his dog run, pacing on whispering soil, his ears bobbing as he went to and fro, sensing as animals do, that something was irretrievably wrong. There were no words for that either. Grief is a strange beast, never showing quite the same face twice. It burns sometimes like a rapacious cauldron flame, sometimes catches us like a silent, frozen breath. Even as it fades away it stays with us, leaving scars upon us even as the coldness retreats.
I left slowly and as quietly as possible, never looking back, because to do so would be to lose what semblance of control I still had. As I leave, I look out across the way, to a vacant house, in which someone's dreams were foreclosed. We go into life eyes open, running wild. We make it through our teen years, driving like idiots and taking inordinate chances. Still in our 20's we usually don't worry about financial loss, death or even taxes. We vote for the slickest campaign slogan, we scarf down food that's bad for us. We are still young. We have so much time left, the rest of our time, with years ahead, all pretty and shiny and new. We still have dreams; of love and trust and living a wide-open life that others will accept. We don't understand. I didn't at first either, bounding into life and love with a pocket full of primers and a knife large enough for any bad news. There was nothing but being alive, of being in love, of buying that dream of believing in good, even as it left you black and blue.