Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Treading Water

there's this JM Coetzee book called Age of Iron that i read a few years ago. the protagonist has this degenerative terminal cancer and the novel is set during apartheid in cape town africa. the first time i read it, i wasn't crazy about it. but there's this part near the end i keep going back to; the protagonist is looking at these photographs of her grandchildren (whom she's never met because her daughter moved to america) and she stops at this one of her two grandsons sitting in a canoe in the middle of a resort lake. they have what she calls "waterwings" on- either life jackets or maybe those little floaty arm things- and she she can't stop looking at them. there's this beautiful passage in which she laments that her grandchildren will never have the opportunity to drown:

"it dispirits me that your children will never drown. All those lakes, all that water: a land of lakes and rivers; yet if by some mischance they ever tip out of their canoe, they will bob safely in the water, supported by their bright orange wings, till a motor-boat comes to pick them up and bear them off and all is well again"

I remember when i first read that i was so horrified. i couldn't understand the meaning behind it. but lately i've been thinking a lot about drowning as an opportunity. an opportunity to live, to fight, to feel, to need. when i think back on the very worst times in my entire life, i think about how important they were. the moments that almost broke me made me who i am today. what am i without my scars? in a way, drowing is an opportunity to prove your mettle. just bobbing safely through life, getting carried by the current and awaiting recue calmly- that's not living. that's not anything.

i'd be lying if i tried to convince you that this is not the worst thing i have ever had to fight my way through. it's like i have to rediscover myself all over again. who am i now? who is my husband?

orion and i had a long talk about the grief process last night. he's been having these chest pangs, this feeling like he can't breathe right or the breath is being sucked out of his lungs. it's scary for him. we talked about how grief is physical- it's not like sadness where you can cry it out and feel better. you have to carry your grief- it's heavy. you feel it in your chest and on your back and in your muscles.

we also talked about how men and women cope with miscarriage differently. for women, the loss is a very real physical loss; you were pregnant and now you're not. you had a baby and now you don't. for men, it's a bit more abstract. no matter how much you wanted that baby and thought about it and read the books, it wasn't this real physical entity. it was more an idea. when women are planning motherhood its a physical process- you stop eating lunch meat and seafood and stop drinking coffee and alcohol. your lifestyle immediately changes. your body changes. your heart changes. for men, the change is a lot more mental- their perception of themself changes. they make financial plans and start considering their ability to provide. they think about the emotional demands of fatherhood and imagine this little baby totally dependant upon them. I'm not sure I'm explaining it right, but the idea is that pregnancy is more of an abstract for a dad-to-be. so when you lose that baby the grief process for men and women is going to be very different. while i grieve for our baby and my body's ability to produce and care for that baby, my husband is grieving for himself in a lot of ways. he had already started to reinvent himself mentally- the idea of having a child made him a different person and now that that idea is gone he has to mourn the loss of the self that was emerging.

I don't know if that makes sense or if it makes me sound sexist. maybe it isn't like that for all men, maybe it's just like that for the man i know. i have this online support group and probably the most frequent posts on there are about how hurt women are by their husbands inability to grieve for the baby that they lost. i got eviscerated (by both women and men) when i suggested that the grief process is going to be different for your husbands because the baby wasn't "real" to them yet, especially if it was an early loss and they didn't even get to see a sonogram. there are a lot of women who feel like the miscarriage is splintering their union, creating cracks. i can see how that could happen, there's a lot of misplaced anger after a loss. but it hurts me that these women don't even try to understand that every coping mechanism is different. we're not all going to grieve the same way. i sort of feel bad for their husbands, it's like their pain isn't being acknowledged in any way because its shown differently than their wives'.

there was also a post about how non-believers find solace while going through this. it got me thinking- i know i said all that stuff yesterday about nature and the power of the body but really more than anything else i look to books. i spend hours rereading all the poetry books i own, i find solace in longing. yesterday i wept my way through Robert Hass' Human Wishes. I read a lot of CK Williams and Mary Oliver. i reread a lot of novels. there are times when i'll be making lunch or carrying one of the twins i watch and a line from a book will stick in my head. Yesterday it was "my loneliness tasted like pennies" from White Oleander. there's a line from a (regretably more religious) TS Eliot poem that i can't stop replaying: "Because I know that time is always time/And place is always and only place/And what is actual is actual only for one time/And only for one place/I rejoice that things are as they are" actually the opening stanza to that poem is pretty immaculate too.

I never really prayed very much. it got me into trouble a lot as a kid in a very catholic household. i find that much to my parents' chagrin i look to these words like prayer. i find hopefulness and comfort in the authors i love. i treat their words as gospel. i repeat them in moments of grief and console myself with the wisdom and understanding of their experience. my mind wraps around williams' "a day for anne frank" coiling and uncoiling the nuance, the repetition becoming my rosary, the iambs my "our father."

maybe religion doesn't have to be about god but just worship.

and i think JM Coetzee would agree with me.
"By no means do I wish death upon them. The two boys whose lives have brushed mine are in any event already dead. No, I wish your children life. But the wings you have tied on them will not guarantee them life. Life is dust between the toes. Life is dust between the teeth. Life is biting the dust. Or: life is drowning. Falling through water, to the floor."

as i tread through this flood, as i drown a little, may i find happiness in longing. may i look to literature as a life raft in the distance. amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment