Two years after a death, the "my deepest sympathies" are long over and done with; one is naturally expected to have gotten back to, or on with, normal life (though 'normal', as you knew it, ended with the doctor saying, "I'm sorry; we lost him.") But how else could it be? This is why grief is inherently an experience one undergoes, finally, in isolation.
It was at about this two year point that I rediscovered, to my shock, luck.
It was late August, or early September, 2002, here in Vermont. I'd came upstairs to the bedroom in the 1795 farmhouse, once owned by my late Aunt Dot, who died this year at age 100.75 years (you only count fractions of years when the person is under six or over 100).
The bedroom was reclaimed from attic space by her late, last boyfriend, Jim Cherry. He opened it clear up to the rough-hewn rafters, giving it a soaring cathedral ceiling, though all the other rooms of the house are low of ceiling.
The bedroom floors are of wide, smooth planks, so-called "king's lumber" (because in colonial days every board foot of wood wider than 10 inches was supposed to be shipped back to England; ornery New Englanders refused to send their wide boards and kept them hidden by using them to floor attics). Some of these floorboards in my bedroom are 24 inches wide. (Left and above, the fall vegetable garden can be seen from ths room's dormer window).
Since this room is both opened up and on the western side of the house, it gets afternoon sun, and at times, can be too hot. But not for the resident cat or cats, who love to sleep on the bed even in summer.
The day I'm thinking of was at that perfect almost-fall moment, three or four in the afternoon. David, my present and for-the-duration partner, didn't live here then. I was just two years past widowhood, still grieving; David and I had only just met. Our connection was genuine but tenuous.
So this particular day it was me and Z-Cat. Z was a feisty calico who had accompanied me from my old life (married, living in a small town in Arkansas, full of certainties, happy about it) to my new one (widowed, living in an isolated farmhouse in Vermont, full of uncertainties, longing for a life no longer available to me, tentatively making my way into the unknown next).
Besides it being not quite two years after Ned's abrupt death, that afternoon was also not quite a year since I had realized the time had come to leave Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where I'd lived for the previous 33 years.
I'd left for reasons including, but not limited to, Ned's death. Some of what propelled my departure had given me justifiable reasons for bitterness. I was trying to work out how to live now, here, unembittered by those less-than-kind circumstances. Yet bitterness,however justifiable, is an unsatisfactory state in which to reside. What was I to do with all this?
These days, I've come to believe living through betrayal is one of the most difficult, important, and rarely written about of human experiences. For if you come through betrayal and (eventually) work out how to remain open to life and people, you do so as an act of choice, and not because you are innocent, or naive, or a naturally trusting soul. You have made a conscious decision. You know the risks; finally, after weighing them, you take them with your eyes open, as an act of integrity. You know that the world and those in it will sometimes betray you. Yet to live without being open is to allow those who betrayed you to also make you betray yourself and your life.
So I had not only lost Ned, but Eureka. And who the heck would condole you because you feel you have no choice but to leave a town you loved deeply? There's not even a word for that category of grief.
Grief: ultimately you cannot share it any more than you can relieve it. It just has to be lived through. Nothing to do but walk through it. Step, step, step, step.
The way I did this during those shadowed years was just by occupying my life, my new, very unreal-feeling life, as if I was functional and not hollowed-out. I assumed that one day I would feel better. I thought about suicide far more often than anyone suspected, and I didn't tell them, because I knew I would never do it. It's the shittiest possible thing to do to your friends or those who look up to you, plus it's show-offy, pointless, melodramatic, selfish. Just not, for me, an option.
So I made the bed each morning. Did the dishes each night. Kept the bird-feeders filled. Went on walks. Wrote.
What I was working on in 2002, that strange year, was mostly edits of Passionate Vegetarian, a book I had written while Ned was still alive and I was still deep into my old life.
Like most days that year, I had been working on PV edits all day. The chapter I had completed had just been picked up by Kevin, the nice Fed Ex guy, and was on its way back to the editor (who, I think, was clueless about how devastated and barely functional was the writer with whom she was working. And I suppose I wanted her clueless. Fake it till you make it.).
Kevin had brought me a new section of the book to edit. But before I got started on it, I decided to go upstairs and lie down , maybe nap. (The final cover that 1278-page long book would end up with. It still blows my mind that I was a cover girl at age 50. And that Ned never got a chance to see this! Unfair, unfair: he would have been so tickled, and proud.)
I walked upstairs to the big open bedroom. The air was warm --- not hot, not cool, with that almost imperceptible sigh of a fall-tinged intermittent breeze. Light streamed in the windows, so bright the dust motes were illuminated. If the room had had a sound, it would have been that of a droning bumblebee: serene, calm, replete.
There, lying on the bed, curled into a ball, was Z-Cat.
I heard myself say, aloud, "Oh, Z-Cat, how did we get so lucky?"
And with that I stopped. Just stopped. Stood stock-still in that dozy room.
Though by natural temperament I'd usually been among the most naturally optimistic and up of human beings, that had stopped with Ned's death. It had been a long, long time since I perceived myself as "lucky."
Sure, I'd tried to be happy, and sure, I desperately wanted to hurry the process of grief up - it's not only painful, it's monotonous. Who wouldn't want it over? But it takes its own time. I made lists of reasons why I should be grateful and happy, on paper and inside my head and heart. These actions were and weren't authentic; it was, again, fake-it-till-you-make-it, the desperate reflex of a formerly happy person who cannot believe what has befallen her.
Who, to her own disbelief, is not only presently unhappy but knows that even should she grow happy again, she will now, always and forever, reside above an underground aquifer of grief.
Yet without forethought or premeditation, without talking myself into it, the word had been spoken. Lucky. It hung there, reverberating in the warm, quiet, gently moving air.
To discover feeling good again even for an instant stunned me. It was almost as if I had received a blow. I did not know what to make of it.
I lay on the bed, aftershocked with anxiety and confusion, trying to calm myself and figure out what had just happened.
That sweet breeze flapped the window shade. I curled up around the cat, stroking her till she half-woke, purred, then went back to sleep. I just lay there: feeling, thinking, feeling, thinking, in that ambroisial atmosphere, a time of day and a time of year as calm as I was troubled.
My late father used to say, "Write your way out of it." I got up, went downstairs, made a cup of tea, and went back to work on the next chapter.
Laborare est orare; to work is to pray. That's another thing Maurice, my father (also a writer) used to tell me. Writers write. That's our work. And/or, prayer.
Step, step, step, step.
May Sarton, in Journal of a Solitude, writes that the work, the writing, is often farther along than the writer. Something like, "Thus the writing is the arrow of the person, showing us where we are headed, what we wilkl become." Though I hadn't reread that book since it was first published, in 1973, and am surely not quoting it exactly, Sarton's idea had stayed with me. That 'lucky', I thought, maybe it's something like that. An arrow.
Now, it is summer. In six months, it will be ten years since Ned died. Ned, my soul mate, but not, as it turrned out, my sole mate. I'm getting to love and be partnered again, in a wholly different way, with David. We took our sweet, slow time getting here, sorting out our respective individual confusions (not that that process is ever completed). If I fell into love with Ned (and I did, at age 23), David and I slowly, slowly ambled into love. I was 49 when we met, David 62.
I live, presently, in the bullseye to which that arrow, lucky, was pointed that almost-fall day in the bedroom.
Life is always stringing its bow, getting ready, again, to let fly towards the unknowable future. There, for me no more or less than everyone else, luck or perhaps its opposite, is waiting