There was always something to grieve in 2016. It felt like the other shoe was always about to drop – over and over and over again, a news story broke that someone beloved and famous had died, the enormity of our grief at politics and death snowballing into something nearly unbearable. I was too busy preparing for a ten-year anniversary by grieving old poets’ griefs – mourning Arthur Henry Hallam with Tennyson’s In Memoriam and William Carlos Williams’ mother in “Two Pendants: for the Ears” – to take too much notice of celebrities I could barely name. I coped with grief like I do everything else and made a playlist to cry to. I didn’t want to talk to people about grief – I wanted to consume it. But, all around me, it seemed like grief was a popular subject of conversation. I read one article asserting that grieving for celebrities allows us to practice for the closer, more difficult griefs we will experience in our personal lives.
Fuck, I thought, who the hell needs practice?
I spent a lot of good years during my youth in a handful of local funeral homes, and to this day I feel far more comfortable at a funeral visitation than I do most social gatherings. My mother’s family is enormous and I’m the first great-grandchild, so there were a lot of half-remembered great-aunts and uncles dying in my early years. Funerals are a familiar, painful comfort, and I constantly volunteered for funeral masses as an altar server. The masses for the dead didn’t bother me; I liked handling the big, heavy censor of terribly strong incense and the bittersweet hymns I knew by heart.
When I was eleven, my great-grandpa died. At his visitation, my Meemaw and her children had dug old photos up to put on display. Papaw had the distinctive Ruzanka ears, sticking out at a sharp angle from his head. In his Navy portrait, his buzzed hair only made them stick out more. Even now I can see that photo clearly; I didn’t know until then Papaw had served in the Navy at all, and wondered at the life he led before becoming the quiet old man who let me watch him play solitaire endlessly on the living room footstool in the house he had built himself. At eleven, I acquired my first life-long regret: that he had died before I ever asked him about his life.
All photos used with permission.
It doesn’t bother me as much now. I’m twenty three and a part-time volunteer librarian; I bike to my university library for an hour a week to take care of the photos of other people’s dead so they can be rearranged into a comprehensible narrative. So they won’t be lost to time. On the side, I try and con the Louisville Orchestra into letting me do research for them. Our orchestra was the first to have its own recording studio, and we sponsored and recorded over 130 commissions during our heyday. Now the composers are dying, and the only complete list of commissions is on paper, and when I have spare time I type up the list for them, so when the bereaving family calls looking for the name of the work we paid them to write, the information can be found with a simple Ctrl+F.
There’s a deep, fulfilling peace to the work I do as an amateur archivist. There would be no need for archiving if there were no such thing as loss. Someone has to make sure not everything disappears with time. I can’t turn back the clock or raise the dead, but I can take the work that people have left behind and keep their stories alive.
September is for poetry, because October is for grief. The gamut between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is grueling when every instance of family togetherness is just a reminder of who’s missing, but every year I find myself pulling out old poetry books and revisiting the same songs for the Grief Month. My brother turns eleven on the eighth of October, a joyous occasion only slightly shadowed by the eleventh anniversary of my grandpa’s death five days before. Becket knows about his Pops, who never got to meet him, but I like to think we haven’t let grandpa’s death overtake the wonder of Becket being alive.
Still, October third is always the worst. Last year just before midnight I broke a glass of my grandpa’s, and rang in the tenth anniversary of his death by sobbing for an hour on my kitchen floor until I could bear to collect the pieces and put them on the highest shelf in the cabinet, since I couldn’t throw them away. After I slept, I put in my headphones and stood and cried in the same spot and sobbed while Andrea Gibson’s “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When the Power’s Out” played on loop until I knew every word. I turned to my fall music, soft acoustic and old jazz and folk, and I followed up pure poetry with Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, with Bon Iver’s “For Emma,” with Saintseneca’s “Only the Good Die Young,” and in a fit just called the playlist ‘grief grief grief grief.’ The list of grief poetry and grief music is only ever added to, never retired. I can’t even seem to let other people’s grief go.
“September is for poetry, because October is for grief.”
I’ve had over a decade of practice at this godawful grief thing but I don’t feel like I’m any better at it. When I was twelve, it never seemed to stop hurting. If I thought about it, I felt guilty for obsessing. If I didn’t, I felt guilty for not grieving enough. My mother took my sister and me to a children’s grief counselling group and I made a box for the clay thumbprint I’d gotten at grandpa’s funeral – his only, since he was born without a right thumb. I commemorated him in green, the color of the clay and the blanket he was buried with and the truck he drove across the country that was always breaking down until he got so sick he had to stay home. These were nearly the sum total of things I knew then about my grandpa: left handed, trucker, frequent napper; he had also umpired at Fort Knox, and loved children, especially his grandkids. I learned to feel guilty about that as I got older, that my grief for his dying outweighs the love I had for him when he was alive. I’m still unlearning it.
It turns out you don’t really have to know somebody to love them or grieve them. Proportion has nothing to do with it. My grief is automatic, uncontrollable, bone deep. So I keep collecting, and I add C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and Wolf 359’s Variations on a Theme and American Gods and Murder by Death’s “Send Me Home” and “Yes” and countless more to the list of words and songs and stories about grief that remind me I’m not alone. This is my grief list. The old familiar tune comes back, the one I sang more than any other the day he died: Through all the tumult and the strife / I hear its music ringing / it sounds an echo in my soul / How can I keep from singing?
Exactly one year and seventeen days after my grandpa, his mother died. She had lost her husband and her son in the span of two years, and the next cancer took her too. She died in the house that Papaw had built them, not a hospital, and I spent so much time reconstructing loss that came before that I don’t have many memories of her death. I know I sang “On Eagle’s Wings” at her funeral. When I think of her at the end, my clearest memory is a false one, the repetition of grief confusing the order of things. But the way I wrongly remember is truer to how it felt. In my mind’s eye she holds a folded American flag next to an open grave, and on the other side of the hole in the dirt I think No mother should ever have to bury her child. The flag is Papaw’s, but this lesson is hers and my grandpa’s. One grief is inseparable from the next.
“Grief isn’t a muscle you exercise. Grief isn’t riding a bike.”
My grandpa, if he had lived, would have turned sixty eight the day that Carrie Fisher died. I had barely registered that she was gone when her mother died the next day and the world began to mourn them both in earnest. I did cry for Carrie, and for Debbie, because last autumn I had finally begun to learn about Carrie’s always joyful tweets, her outspokenness about bipolar disorder and addiction, the work she did as a script doctor, and the goodness that just radiated from her. An old panic – I barely knew her, and then she died, and then grief took a mother, too. I didn’t cry as much as I had when I broke the glass, but it was a near thing. I joined the masses in public mourning and listened to stories and practiced my grief without caring if I’d ever get better at it.
Grief isn’t a muscle you exercise. Grief isn’t riding a bike. Practice doesn’t make perfect and just because you’ve grieved before doesn’t prepare you to do it again. Sometimes it feels like if I could just write the perfect story about my grandpa dying, I could undo the trauma it caused. If I read the right books – if I memorize the right poems – if I sing the right songs, then I will have grieved, and it will be over. I know better than that, but it doesn’t keep me from trying. My favorite piece from A Softer World is on the grief list, too: “You and me will die the way we lived, telling ourselves stories to make it mean something.” I collect grief and keep it safe, because I don’t know who I am without grief. My grief list lets me know that, while grief may not end, I’m not alone in it.
My grief, my grandpa’s death, is traumatic. I will spend the rest of my life repeating it in songs and stories and my own writing, but I’ll keep living – no mother should have to bury her child, and there are more stories to be told. There’s a stack of old letters waiting for me to translate in the archives. The Louisville Orchestra, in conjunction with local musicians, are premiering a work in November to honor the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali – I think I’ll go. Before that, in October, I’ll sing my brother happy birthday and I will put on the grief music for not the last time, and I will be more careful with the glassware but I will grieve in concert with those who have told their grief stories, and when those people pass I will sing the songs they leave behind.
How could I keep from singing? •
Emma Johnson is a volunteer archival librarian from Louisville, Kentucky. In her spare time she tries to chronicle the Louisville arts renaissance, reads hockey scores like horoscopes, and chronically stress-bakes. You can find her on twitter, or her arts renaissance project on tumblr.