This week is the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve lost a lot of people for a thirtysomething, but this time was different not just because it was my mom but because I was there. It was a slow-burn trauma: years and then months and then weeks of watching my mother die, so slowly it was hard to know when it started happening. Each year since, I have started feeling unstoppably sad around the first of November, before I can process why. (An ex-gf of mine had lost her father at a young age, and she got sad in February, no matter how much time had passed. That was helpful to know the first year after my mom died, when I couldn’t bear the thought of winter.) It feels like some gargoyle that has been lurking behind me decides instead to take up residence on my chest, claiming my lungs for its own. I stop caring about anything except listening to sad music. I have a hard time getting dressed. I have dreams about my mom every night, and they make me miss her so much I don’t want to wake up — both because she’d be gone again, and because I can’t miss her when I’m not awake.
Friends who haven’t lost someone in a traumatic way don’t know what to say, usually. But that’s okay: the world doesn’t work the same as it does for those of us in the Trauma Club. Time flows differently. A dear friend (who is a wonderful listener and who has always been there for me) just the other day said, “It’s been four years, wow — that was such a long time ago now.” I understand why she said that: a lot has happened since my mother died. My friend and I both finished our PhDs and became professors. I’ve published more widely than I ever had before. Hell, I wrote a book-length manuscript and a book-length dissertation. People have married, divorced, moved, given birth, grown their hair out, and all that. A lot happens to busy people in four years. But my emotional reaction to that was to think No, it was YESTERDAY.
I know that’s not reality. The day after, the months after, my mom died are blurry to me now: I was a mess. I’m not a mess right now, or if I am one, it is a mess doing a good job passing as a human being. My grief for my mom, and for so many others, is reflective and no longer incapacitating. But — and here’s what’s hard to convey to those who haven’t experienced it — it’s not less. If anything, it’s more, as I realized how much of my life is being lived without my mom and the other people I thought would be part of it still.
One of the best descriptions of how grief changes your sense of time is from Anne Carson‘s remarkable poem “The Glass Essay,” which I cannot recommend enough. The grief she describes is over a traumatic breakup, but it’s the same phenomenon: that sense that you are not in the same space-time as everyone else.
Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.
I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner
up the hill to his house, shadows
of limes and roses blowing in the car window
and music spraying from the radio and him
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.
Law lived in a high blue room from which he could see the sea.
Time in its transparent loops as it passes beneath me now
still carries the sound of the telephone in that room
and traffic far off and doves under the window
chuckling coolly and his voice saying,
You beauty. I can feel that beauty’s
heart beating inside mine as she presses into his arms in the high blue room—
No, I say aloud. I force my arms down
through air which is suddenly cold and heavy as water
and the videotape jerks to a halt
like a glass slide under a drop of blood.
“I can feel that other day running underneath this one / like an old videotape” — yes. That is how I live in winter. That is what grief does to time. Four years is nothing. Four years is yesterday. Four years is four other days where time looped under me, so that December is now a palimpsest of death and grief and memory. Once you start grieving, each additional death adds to the past ones, changes them. I am 34 and I have lost nearly a dozen people I cared deeply about. My mom’s death crystallized all that mortality into one season of the year: the season when the trees look like they are dying and when I feel like I’m living on some arboreal timeline, not a human one.
There’s no way to conclude this, really, except to give you more from “The Glass Essay”:
You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?