The Passing Word

Sophie Klahr

Nov 16, 2011

Where does grief begin? What is the first word of grief? (This (and all of the below) is what I write in my journal while flying back to Houston after 24 hours in Ft. Lauderdale, oddly disembodied after barely sleeping on the floor of an apartment where my grandmother is dying. I write it as if towards someone, a mode weirdly formal for my journal, but it seems to be the closest I can get to what's happening. I send the writing to a friend when I get home, then to my mother, who sends it to my aunts- the thing wants to be shared. I trash my other Gulf Coast blog essay, try to revise the below work a little, but I can't fully, and I don't have time, so I choose to let it be raw. And, so, here we are): I think of this fragment of Pablo Neruda's, from "Ode to the Book": I learned about life from life itself love I learned in a single kiss and could teach no one anything except that I have lived with something in common among men when fighting with them when saying all their say in my song. When I arrived last night, my mother told me that she'd bought a book at Goodwill, a collection from "The Favorite Poems Project," started by Robert Pinsky. "I thought it would be good for me to have some poetry now," she said. I'd brought her a collection of short stories, grabbed from my shelf. "I almost brought you poems," I said, "I should have." She said it was okay, that stories would be good too. " I can disappear into them. Poetry takes some work." What she meant, I think, was that poetry puts us into the moment, into the Here and Now. And right now, slowly losing her mother, the moment is painful. But poetry was the literature she was drawn to. Perhaps this was the closest thing to prayer that made sense. This is what the living do, I kept thinking, a line of Marie Howe's, and the title of one of her wonderful books. But she wrote the book in the aftermath of her brother's death. Here I was thinking, This is what the living do, standing with my mother and my aunts around a bed, each woman touching a piece of my grandmother's still breathing, speaking body. It is easy to forget sometimes, how fundamentally we measure human life in words. My grandmother has been in decline for weeks, in pain. Now, she's in home hospice, where saintly Caribbean nurses preside over this trio of neurotic Jewish sisters from New Jersey, their dying mother, and her deaf 92 year old boyfriend. She's been on Haldol (for panic) and Morphine (for pain) for days. Before I visited, my mother warned me: "She didn't say anything today. All she said yesterday was 'Your hair looks nice.'" I prepared myself to speak to someone wordless, a woman half-knit to another place where there is no language the living know of. But when I arrived, accounts of my grandmother's words unfolded. She had called herself "the main event." She had offered to "tell the family secrets." She recited nursery rhymes, Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater. One, Two, Buckle my shoe. Sometimes she spoke of her pain. My grandmother spoke to me. She shook her head smiling: "I say No to everything," she said. "You're SMILING!" said my mother. "Why shouldn't I smile?" All of us laughed then, except she, who couldn't laugh, smiled. My father likes to tell this joke, if it is a joke:
Q: What might you say now, when you call someone on the phone, that you never would have said 50 years ago? A: "Where are you?"
"You can read so much into everything that she says," said my Aunt Jill, laying curled around her mother in the hospice bed. In the den, away from my grandmother's room, my mother started to pull things out of her bag and pile them on my lap. An article about a movie; an article about political cartoons; a New Yorker she'd folded opened to a page of comics she thought I'd like. Beside her bag was a stack of books, a few more New Yorkers, a copy of the New York Times. This is how we stay here, I thought, this is how I learned to ground myself. My mother taught me to find words that made sense, that moved me and kept me, that made a world. We sat in the kitchen while I ate dinner and my mother flipped through the book of poems she'd bought. We read Yehuda Amachai aloud, William Carlos Williams. My mother's not a poet, not a writer. "What do you think of this one?" she said, opening another poem towards me. Another moment: my grandmother was gazing loosely towards my mother and I, sitting beside the bed. On the bureau were little trays of rings, earrings. A few vases, a jewelry box. A purse with Penelope Cruz airbrushed on the side. A framed picture of gauzy girls in a boat in sunhats tipping slowly over a pond. My grandmother had been quiet for awhile, though my dear noisy aunts had been rattling about one thing or another, about ducks, about spicy food, about work, about the history of their sisterhood. "Employee of the month!" my grandmother exclaimed, "Out...out of the blue!" Her face delighted. This sweet fragment, untouchable, a piece of a husk of a narrative. All of us laughing, again. There was a moment in the morning when she cried. My mother and two aunts around her, I next to my mother. Perhaps it was seeing all of us there. We hadn't all been together in years. None of us had spoken. Her face seemed to pull itself inward as she looked suddenly quickly at each of us. She began to sob, as much as a woman who has hardly been eating or drinking or speaking could sob, which was very little, except it was such clear, clear sobbing, hardly a sound, but in our bodies everyone, we felt it, the sob. "Make believe," she said "you're in the desert." "No, mom," said my mother, crying too, "the beach. Why the desert?" There was no response. "Why?" my mother said again, and it was the only moment in all of thi s that I wanted to push in, disrupt the narrative, re-write the scene. I wanted to say, "Ask her what is there."