Whenever I need to think, there is a stretch of road I like to drive upon. For a long while, it runs parallel to some power lines, a field that, at this time of year, looks golden, and a set of train tracks. There are times when I can pace the train driving on those tracks for a while, both of us rolling smoothly forward. The sun behind the clouds ahead of me makes it look as though I am driving into a painting. This feeling persists until the road curves, and the path the train and I are taking diverges, and suddenly I am back here, in real, ordinary life.
Here in this real, ordinary life, I have been thinking a lot about words, their definitions, what of them I’d like to own, to inhabit. I have been thinking about the words given to me by others to wear. But most of all I have been thinking about their precision, or lack thereof. Years ago when my brother died, I kept searching for a word that would explain who I was then. There were words for the motherless, words for those who had lost their spouse. There were no words for what I was, bereft of sibling. What was I then, when I had become brotherless? Once sibling? No-long-sister?
It is a similar train of thought that has been circling in my skull lately as I have been driving these and other roads, the lack of precision when it comes to naming who I am now. Widow, yes. But “single parent” seems inaccurate. Is “only parent” a better moniker? If I were to think about the defining characteristics of an only parent, it would seem fatigue would be chief among them. It is true that I work roughly 56 hours every week between my 2 jobs, that I am once again fighting off a cold that is no doubt due lack of enough quality sleep. But it isn’t the physical fatigue I am speaking of, but a deeper kind of fatigue.
When I was in graduate school, I was immensely productive. For my thesis, instead of compiling one book of my poetry, I made two. Now I struggle with creating a couple hundred word blog post a few times a month. Last Friday there were again midmorning deer, and the light beyond them, a pale washed out blue. “Look,” I would say to my son, but they would be gone before he saw them, or not gone, but the brown of them blending so perfectly into the dry spring branches that, still as they had become, he wouldn’t be able to see them. I would still see one, its eyes so dark, like water at night, the same liquid cast to their blackness. They would still be as lovely as the first time I ever saw them, their startled grace as they moved through the trees so unlike my own movements.
I would want to say something about the deer, but it would take me days to formalize the thought. The thought instead, was not about their loveliness, but how I felt heavy in my body when watching them, how tired I was, if we were going to be honest. How for four days the only two words I would write in my notebook were “midmorning deer.” If we were going to be honest, I liked the sound of those two words, the possibility of them, more than I liked the idea of making anything from them. I was so tired that more than those two words felt, for days, like more than I could bear. I was tired from the tips of my fingers to somewhere deep inside of me, that place where perhaps my soul might be.
“If we are going to be honest”—these words could be a phrase that should preface most of my conversations. I may not understand people well, but I understand people well enough to know that most people like honesty more in theory than in practice. Many months earlier a coworker would tell me how she didn’t like it that I was down sometimes because it was bringing her down. If we were going to be honest, I would have explained that I didn’t want to be down either, only that I didn’t always know how to be other. That some days I struggled with a loneliness I had no adequate words for. That I was grieving the death of my husband and the loss my child was too young to claim yet for himself but that he would inevitably one day feel. That before my husband died I had been grieving the loss of the man his depression took from me. That I was grieving a thousand things that depression took from me—the second child I knew, even as our first was just being born, that we would never have together. The 50th anniversary. Feeling safe instead of anxious in my own home. But that day I told her nothing honest. I told her instead that I would try harder, watched her face as she seemed pleased with herself, as though she had been doing me a favor by essentially telling me, in less obvious terms to “get over it.”
But I was angry with myself nearly instantly afterwards for doing so. I understand my culture’s view of grief well. It is one where, if you must grieve, you are to do it quietly and not for long, and then “move on.” But that didn’t mean I liked it. That didn’t mean I found it to be an adequate representation of the arc that grief took through a life. Its course couldn’t be plotted with any consistency. No solving for x. No “average” time to move on.
What does it even mean to move on? Even when addicts stop abusing their drug of choice they are still addicts. Alcoholics, minus alcohol, are still alcoholics. The clinically depressed, the bi-polar, the schizophrenic, are still these things even when well medicated or even when counseling is working. Perhaps, like them, I am merely in recovery. Should I be any more ashamed of my grief than they should be for suffering from a medical condition? Does my lack of honesty benefit anyone? Did theirs?
It is true that time itself is moving on. Each new day moves me further from him, further from a me that no longer exists. But for a while there we drove smoothly it seemed, side by side, so seamlessly in sync even our silences were a kind of speech. Until it was as if he was the train and his death the curve in the road where I was left driving suddenly alone, or him, that startled deer, staring at me briefly until bounding away into the thicket, lovely, fleeting.