Saturday, January 19, 2019

The gifts of grief

I hesitate to use that title for this post, because it sounds so...Pollyanna-ish. And trust me, anyone who's Pollyanna-ish about their grief isn't being honest with you, and certainly not with themselves. Sure, the process has its moments of grace, as I've written about before, but (as I'm learning) it's far more often about a dull numbness punctuated by searing moments of heartbreak. 

However, this week has brought me two gifts that I feel compelled to share.

Skyping with Mom last year.
Monday--January 14th--would have been my mom's 92nd birthday. While that particular anniversary wasn't as difficult or painful as the holidays were, it was still a hard day. It doesn't help when Facebook's "memories" algorithm kept showing me post after post of happy birthday celebrations with her in years past, including just last January. 

Who knew that would be her last birthday? I mean, when you're in your 90s I guess you know that any birthday could be your last one. Because of a winter storm last year, neither my sister nor I could get to Columbus to celebrate with mom. Instead, we Skyped her, although her cat Lily (who now lives with me) took up most of the screen, as she's wont to do. Grief-induced guilt leads me to say "If I'd only known that was going to be her last birthday, I would have driven through a blizzard to be with her": but thank god, we generally don't know those things. And I know that even if mom had known, she would have told us to stay off the roads.


Tuesday afternoon I was sitting in my office at work, trying to clear some things off my desk before heading home. Around 4:30, I turned to check my email one last time. There in my inbox was a message with the subject line "Joyce Hathaway." In the kind of magical-thinking state that accompanies grief, I had the brief but thrilling thought that it was an email from mom herself. Electronic communication is mysterious to begin with, so what better way for a dead person to make contact?

Of course, it wasn't from her. Instead, it was an email from a first cousin of my father's, a woman I've never met. 

She'd tracked me down in a very circuitous way. Every December, the English Department asks people to submit book recommendations, and then publishes a little accordion-fold brochure of them to mail out to alumni and friends of the Department. I never remember to submit anything, but this year I actually did, largely because I wanted to recommend Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, a book that the students in my young-adult literature class universally loved. 

Apparently, this cousin of my dad's was an English major at WVU back in the day. Mom had told her that I taught at WVU, but she'd forgotten until she saw my name in the mailer. So she tracked down my email address. 

It was the kindest note. An excerpt: 

I met your mother at Aunt Eva's house during one of her first visits there.  I'm a few years younger than Joyce and at that time was quite taken with her because I thought she was one of the smartest and most interesting women I had ever met.  On all the occasions I saw her after that I never changed my opinion.  I last saw her when my husband and I went to Columbus to help with the Hathaway Family Association meeting at the time David made the arrangements for the organization to meet there, but we continued to exchange Christmas cards after David's death. I always enjoyed her notes and missed hearing from her this year although I knew by then that I would not. I only recently learned that Joyce had also passed away. I so wanted to express my sympathy, but didn't know how to reach anyone in her family.  
Needless to say, I had to shut my office door and do some not-so-quiet weeping when I read that. Especially coming the day after mom's birthday, it was a gift to me to hear someone I've never met say such kind things about my mom. To give part of her back to me like that. To know that people I don't even know share my grief, when it feels like such a solitary endeavor.

A couple days later, I checked Facebook messenger (another thing I rarely remember to do), and there was a message from a friend of my mother's, sent on Monday, mom's birthday. 

To preface her message, I need to explain that before my mom's house sold last fall, there was a big tag sale of all the things that none of the children wanted to take. (Or rather, the things we didn't have room to keep in our own homes.) In some ways, that was harder than selling the house itself--knowing that people would be coolly judging the value of a lifetime's worth of accumulated stuff. 

One of the things my sister and I anguished about was mom's wedding dress. She'd had it cleaned and stored in one of those sealed boxes years ago. Neither Pam nor I was tiny enough to even consider wearing it for our weddings. It seemed awful to put it into the sale, but what else were we going to do with it? It was either that, or take it home and stuff it into one of our closets for another few decades. 
So we left it. 

The message described encounter that [the friend] had at the estate sale. A young woman was there looking at the wedding dress. She was clearly really pondering it. She said that she had tried it on and it fit perfectly, but she was a little concerned that it was a bit short for her. I suggested that she could cut it down a bit to make it tea length and that seemed to really intrigue her. I told her that I knew your mother and that I was sure she would be thrilled to know that someone loved the dress and desired it for her own wedding. I saw her again in the checkout line with the dress. When I told her how excited I was that she had decided to take it, she asked to know more about your mother. So I told her about Joyce's time as a train stewardess and how she had raised children while completing her doctorate. The young woman was so happy to learn more about her! My only regret is that I didn't think quickly enough to buy the dress for her. But I am sure that she was a beautiful bride.
Once again, office door shut, Kleenex out. How happy, and sad, it made me to know what happened to that dress. How I wish Mom could know. How I wish I knew who the buyer was so I could send her a photo of mom wearing it, and ask to see her own wedding photos. 

These are the gifts of grief. They are blessings. I hesitate to use either of those words, because they've both become so hackneyed in an Instagram world where people are #blessed and #grateful. Those hashtags flatten their meaning, rob them of the complexity of emotions they evoke. And not just positive emotions, either; there's also a sense of fear and loss attached to them: what if this is the last time someone tells me a story about my mom? How can I live up to the legacy of that intelligent, interesting woman? 

What was even more satisfying than knowing someone bought the dress and planned to wear it was knowing that she also got some stories about its original owner. Mom would have loved that. To her, the stories that were connected to things were vastly more important than the things themselves. She told me more than once that the older she got, the more important family stories, and stories in general, became. 

Stories are gifts. And when you're grieving, there's no greater gift anyone can give you than a new story about the person you've lost.