Today, everyone is home. We had us an ice storm, spring storm Stella I think they are calling it. It’s bitter cold outside, but that hasn’t stopped Sean from joining up with his buddies to shovel driveways for a dollar a pop. Pretty good deal on a crap day like this, if you ask me. I’m still in sweatpants and other sundry bedclothes. I won’t be going outside today unless the house is burning down.
Today is also my sister-in-law Andi’s birthday. It is 81 degrees Fahrenheit out in sunny Durban, South Africa, where she lives. Andi was 12 when I met her back in 1999, attending Kloof Senior Primary, where she is now a teacher. This was 18 years ago. I was in South Africa because I’d chased Andi’s sister Janie across the Atlantic, determined I wasn’t going to let this one go. And while I was so fortunate to become her husband for a while, there was no holding onto her. Death has a nasty habit of correcting our best laid plans.
I read an article on Pitchfork today about Phil Elverum, a musician who goes by the stage name Mount Eerie. While I’m not acquainted with his music, his story is one I can relate to. He lost his wife back in July of last year, and is raising their daughter on his own now. The article’s author goes into some detail about the way the death has dramatically changed the content of Elverum’s music, if not so much the style. The way in which he attacks his craft has changed since her passing, his lyrical content, while still distinctly Mount Eerie, has a new tone of authority. As the author puts it, “the difference between this album and everything else he’s done is the difference between charting a voyage around the earth and undertaking it.” That line struck a chord in me.
While working as a translator, I was fond of spitting out the following Mark Twain quote: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Sometimes, in an attempt to make a given piece of text read better to the audience, I would employ a word that was close or nearly accurate to what was being said in the source language. I hated the thought of a thing being lost in translation, and often times a mental picture is sacrificed for verbal accuracy, and I hated to have to pick between the two. The truth is, though, that as a translator you often have to choose the latter. It is wonderful when you are able in a translation to convey both the art of what was being said in the source language while also being accurate to the text. Moments like that are too rare. Most of the time I’d understand exactly what the author of the source article was trying to say and how, but found a paucity of words in the target language into which to convey the beauty of what was being expressed. Great translators are able to dependably do this. I would often times translate what was being said so that it was clear, but inelegant.
Expressing loss is a matter of translation. Those who’ve never been touched by a major loss, who haven’t traveled along the borderlands of death and seen the waste, sensed the decay or felt the floor beneath and the sky above torn to ribbons will be unable to understand the weariness of the bereaved. Unless it were to happen to them, and you don’t ever want to wish such a thing on anyone. And yet… much of the whole being alive thing is this human urge to communicate.
In the song “Real Death”, Elverum relates how a week after his wife died a package arrived with her name on it. She had ordered a backpack for their daughter shortly before her passing. Elverum sings in hushed, broken tones about how she was thinking ahead to their daughter’s first day at school, which wouldn’t be for a few more years, caring for their little girl even though she must have known that she would never get to see that day. He collapses in a heap on the front stoop of their house. The last line of the song goes, It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.
I can relate to that. Who wants to learn this lesson? Who wants to learn how to talk about loss? Who volunteers to excel at expressing the heart-crushing, horizon-erasing, future-eating, hope-slaughtering reality of losing someone you love so, so, so much? Who wants to tell their kids “mommy died”?
And yet… I did all those things. Somehow, in the noxious wallow through the gall and puke of grief, I found a way through and out back into the land of the living. I didn’t want to become proficient at this, but I did. I didn’t want to tell Seanie and Sophie their mommy had died, but I did. I didn’t want to raise them without their birth mommy, but I am. I didn’t want the life I knew and was so settled into to change and for me to have to adapt, but I did. I didn’t want to have to start living again, but I did. So much of life is doing things you don’t want to do.
How much you surrender to the shaping forces of something greater than yourself will have a great impact on who you become. I’ve described Janie’s death as being like a landscape altered by a volcanic eruption. It’s the same place, but it’s totally different now. How much you embrace that difference will determine how well you’ll be able to make a life in your new/old surroundings. To do that, I learned I couldn’t judge it. I mean, it was awful to suddenly become a widower. It was bewildering to be a single dad. It was confusing to know how to do those things and still feel the yawning chasm of loss in my chest.
I didn’t do it because I’m clever. I didn’t do it because I was gloriously delivered from the sorrow of the valley of the shadow of death or whatever triumphalist narrative someone needs to insert here. No, I did it because I didn’t have an alternative. I would have gladly joined Janie in death had there not been two tow-headed little anchors tethering my boat to shore. I’ve never been a suicidal person by nature but the demons of abandonment her death summoned from the depths of my psyche were intent on eating me alive. I’m still unwinding their tendrils from my spirit.
I did not pass through into the land of the living in order to anything. Some folks like to say “this happened so that you could…” whatever. But that’s not what happened at all. I survived. In the obits, the family of the deceased are referred to as survivors. I think such a title ought to be bestowed later on, but still, the title is apt. If you survive, then you’re a survivor. Survival for me is a multi-step process. First, it was a matter of surviving Janie’s death and loss of her in my life and living community in itself. Phase two is more complicated. It’s about surviving myself.
That’s a story for another day or a series of posts, in fact. It’s ongoing. Susanne, who for better or for worse has agreed to see out the remainder of her days on this rock with me, has seen what is ugliest in me and is still here. I’m trusting she sees something worthwhile. But as mentioned, this is ongoing. We’re working on it together, and I suspect we will be working on this, on us, for the rest of our lives.
I didn’t “get better” to then be rewarded with Susanne and Savanna and this new promise of hope for our family, so that Sean and Sophie could have a mom and an all better now dad. It’s not like that. Things were good. Then they weren’t. And now they are getting better. And we have hope they will be good. Great, even. Better than ever. But none of this was the original plan. Accepting that and moving on is, in the end, the only choice afforded to us when the shittier things of life take place.
Had the original plan held, I’d be in South Africa with Janie and the kids, celebrating Andi’s birthday with mom and dad Spence, Philippa, Will and the girls. And it would have been great. Instead, today I am sitting in my warm house in Delaware on an unexpected snow day, building towers of blocks with Savanna, asking Susanne to check my grammar on this post and dropping in to see what Sean and Sophie are up to. This, too, is great. I want this life, just as I wanted the life that came before it. I’m as fortunate for having this life as I was for the other one. I am grateful for both.