Late last night, after I’d gone to bed for the evening, word went out that a friend, Larisa, had died. Social media blossomed overnight and into today, opening buds of tribute, of remembrance, of love, of grief–words far more meaningful, more beautiful than cut flowers on a coffin. Funeral flowers, in particular, so often ghostly white, sickly fragrant, and ironically dying themselves, have often seemed to me to revel in their evocation of mortality, while at the same time placing distance between the mourner and the realities of death.
But there are others who grieve that way, and I do not begrudge them that. There is no one way to grieve. For me it has has always been a kind of numbness, a sense of existence that suddenly isn’t (even if I knew it were coming), of stepping into a blackness. I don’t know what it is. When I look out on the universe, in its vastness, I do not see life–at least not as we know it, that complicated mix of chemicals and reactions that combine together to create the oddity we know as consciousness. I do see the unknowable, the great unsolvable mysteries. I don’t know what happens in the end. I lack faith, although I do not lack belief. It is not possible for me to comprehend, which is simultaneously comforting and terrifying. Death is an end–to something. Is it also a beginning? Or is it one step on a cycle? Is there transformation into something we might understand? And so I talk of what the person still is in the hearts of others, in my own heart, because death does not alter those truths. Indeed, it can make them more keenly felt.
My detachment from grief has always induced words to flow in the wake of loss as tears never have. I gave eulogies for both of my parents, full of vivid memories, and fond affection and love, and tears were shed–but not by me. When my mother died, I did not truly cry for nearly two months. She had been fading for so long that who she was was largely already a memory. It was not until I heard a bagpiper play “Amazing Grace” by the side of a lake that I shed tears, silently. Not because of the words to the song or its meaning, but because I knew it had been special to her. When my father died, I shed no tears, burying myself in what had to be done to bury him. When I saw him in his coffin–privately, of course–I know it was not him there. For one, he had a mustache, something he had never worn in life. In his last weeks in the hospital, he had not had a shave. Those who prepared him made an assumption. It was disturbing, painful–but distantly so. Again, it was only in music I could eventually express what the walls around my heart tried so hard to conceal. For Dad, it was hearing the Naval Hymn— not at his funeral, where it had been played, but months later, in passing, in a film about the Titanic. In both cases, at both funerals, my parents’ brothers and sisters came, told stories, comforted each other in their grief. My own life was a mystery to them. I stood alone, numb and cold, seemingly aloof. Profoundly and deeply alone, apart, not one of any family, at least not one with the kind of bonds I thought I should have.
And this is why what I feel now is complicated. Larisa was a deeply kind and generous person, artistically talented in an effortless way that belied the hard work needed to develop that kind of skill. When we still lived in Ajax, in the last year before we moved we had joined the archery club in Peterborough and built the habit of going there on Sundays to shoot. She organized potluck meals for us, and gradually, through shared passions and meals I got to know her better. Between her and others, for the first time I started to feel the kind of family feeling in the SCA that so many others had found. It was this kind of hospitality, that ability to make people feel welcome and comfortable that she is particularly being remembered for–and that I’ve always felt was lacking in my own life. And then we moved, and that was lost, and then she became ill, and eventually I realized that there would never ever be a chance to reclaim that feeling. I watched, envious, as she continued to build and support her chosen family even as she fought the thing that would eventually take her. It was just what she did. And she was brilliant at it.
She represents, in so many ways, what I have never been able to been able to create myself, and I find myself angry that she is gone, for selfish reasons– because I did not have more time to learn from her, to be folded into the extended family I have never known. I see what she meant to others, the legacy she leaves, not just with beautiful pieces of art or in the service she has rendered, but with building bonds of love.
Perhaps that is why, this time, tinged with anger, the tears came.
Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
–Song of Songs 8:7
And, in the end, there was music, to help things along.
(I last listened this piece the day my favourite uncle died. It’s fitting for today, a valedictory for a life lived, for one who was special. Shostakovich never heard it performed live. It was his last work).