comments 13

good grief



on west 65th street on Saturday night

I’ve made references, here and there in the last year and a half, to traveling near and far to help care for someone I love who was ill.  I’ve written a little about the push and pull of never quite being where you are, your mind and heart half at home and half with the loved one, whichever place you happen, physically, to be.  I didn’t share a lot of identifying details.  I still won’t.  But I will tell you that the person who was ill was one of my two sisters. She died on February 28th.

She was ill privately, and she died privately, and we spoke in celebration of her life privately, and I am not about to steer the family ship onto another course.  But I did want to tell you where I have been.

I am not sure I could tell you where it is that I presently find myself.  When someone is gravely ill, humans (unlike the wild things in Wendell Berry’s poem, one I have always viewed, gratefully, as a guiding star for the fretful) “tax their lives with forethought of grief.”  We tax ourselves, and we mix the grief up with all kinds of other indigestible things like guilt and worry and fervent wishes to change the truth.

It feels like this time period ought to be about the falling away of all the things mixed up in the grief, and finding the pure sadness.  I am ready for that, any old time now.

It is also, mercifully, about the goodness of friends. We have been so thoroughly fed by the steel network of community that surrounds us that I have lost count of my blessings.  The thing is, a person has to eat.  I have often been grateful for this basic truth, because it means there is usually something to occupy us when we are wringing our hands on the periphery of someone’s calamity, or dancing around with someone’s joy.   I am grateful for it now, because friendship has arrived at our own doorstep as bags of bagels, as spicy noodles and Indian take-out, as a giant box of lemons, as a fruit basket, as soups that taste of an old friend’s familiar hand in the kitchen and a new one’s thunderclap of empathic feeling, as a full gorgeous meal and (also perfectly-timed) as a jar of jam and a bar of Mexican hot chocolate.

Someone who loves us got off a plane from a week-long business trip and made my family a koliva, a Greek food of mourning with deep pagan roots, traditionally eaten on the ninth day of grieving.  Seeds and sweetness and spices were all beautifully arranged in the bowl she presented to us.  The notion, she said, is to take in the seeds in the name of the departed.  Once consumed, you carry on in the spirit of that person, whom you offer eternal life through your continued existence, I reckon, until someone eats a koliva for you, and on, and on, until you see how a person might develop a pretty holy (even if agnostic) association between planting and eating and life and eternity.

Wishing everyone peace and mettle and something delicious in the bowl.  How basic it is, to taste and digest and go on through another day.  We are blessed.


    • janet says

      Do I know rugelach! My first job, in maybe 7th grade, was in a bakery, making (and eating) pans and pans of the stuff. Happy to have your blueprint as I can’t say I’ve made it since. So you did bring me rugelach!

  1. Thank you for sharing your loss, your grief, and your inimitable ability to bring it all home to the most human place. Grief is like a great stone dropped in a pond: the ripples never cease but, in time, they do become farther and farther apart.

    • janet says

      I always follow your lead but fervently wish you didn’t know so well whereof you speak here. On a lighter note, you’ll notice I said “jam” and not “marmalade,” as I would not want anyone to think I had crossed a picket line.

  2. jonquil says

    How lovely for your friend to make you a koliva. A good thing, to be supported by friends, in times of stress. A swift journey I wish your sister. May the passage of time ease the bitter out of the bittersweet memories.

  3. That’s a beautiful poem and a very hopeful mattress. As far as mettle goes, I know you have it. I think it’s made with lemons most of the time.

  4. jenny says

    Thank you for this. And since you possess more mettle and more deliciousness in the bowl than anyone I know, I’m sending you one big wish for a few small moments of the peace of wild things.

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