the question of self-pity

I went back to New York and several things occurred.

  1. I broke down sobbing in the terminal. (Because it was hers, the gateway to her new sunburned life, and the last time I went through it was to fly there to confront her death). The loudspeakers were blaring ABBA.
  2. It didn’t feel like coming home. Midtown was too fast, too grey, too loud and, though I matched its pace, I was a stranger there. Perhaps I always was. Perhaps therein lies the city’s charm. We wander among aliens who look (vaguely) like us, like planets who will never orbit close enough to touch. I miss my friends with holy vehemence, but I have wholly acclimated to this other, dappled place. There is that disconnect, that obstacle of miles between (which we will traverse gladly, all too often); I have become a visitor.
  3. New York will always be the city that I lived in when she died, and I am grateful to have left. It feels like I have honored her somehow by my uprooting. I have planted the surviving clippings somewhere else and there is quiet. There is untrammeled dirt.
  4. I realized, in my tidal rides of grief, that I am not alone groping for words. Didion, as ever, got there first. And so it happened that I rode the old familiar subways clutching her crisp paperback of coming to terms. As though I had saved this book for just those days: when the news of loss was three months old, and I went back to some place I once lived (a place my mother always warned would make me dingy from the outside in).

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In this version of grief, we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here likes the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.


~J. Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

5. I was relieved.

If she, the queen of cool and cunning, the queen of measured breath and writing her way out of feeling could admit to feeling this, then I will be okay. If Didion survived this grief (and what she calls “the shallowness of sanity”)—then so, by gods, can I.


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