When I was very little, a family friend passed away. He had known my grandparents for years, had been my mother's choral director at St. John's, had thrown parties with culinary curiosities. I called him Uncle Duck. My mother and I were in the car when she told me, and I remember crying a little because I knew that my mother wanted to. Later, when Mom was on the phone with a friend, I overheard her saying that I had cried. I had never felt so alien, so unlike myself. Death was strange and foreign - so was grief. We roasted a chicken with orange peel and brought it to Aunt Daisy, fulfilling the role of compassionate mourners who are sad, torn, and helpless in those moments of loss.
My grandmother died when I was nineteen. We made the trip to Indiana, car speeding through long fields of corn and soy, and found ourselves drowning in casseroles, in chicken with noodles, in that same compassion on other people's faces. I read at her funeral and cried because I was supposed to.
When my Grandpere died the world broke. Somewhere in the years before his passing I had begun to understand the end of things, the soft sucking of those last days of life. When Grandpere died, that grief which had been so remote and unthinkable became a part of me, a ticking thing like clocks or the keys of our old piano or the metronome constraining my wildness.
Why is it that we reach some point in our lives where it all becomes real? Everyone dies. People die all the time. What makes us age into the natural order of grief? Maybe it's not the first loss, or the second - maybe it's when someone we love fiercely passes away. Maybe it's when we confront our own limitations - a bad case of 'flu, an inability to process junk food, weight gain, food poisoning, cavities, a tracery of fine lines around the mouth.
When Dennis died I felt that alien thing, a perceived misappropriation of his partner's sadness as my own. I didn't want to mourn. But within the first few moments of his memorial service - before it even began, in sips of wine and nibbles of sandwiches from Clyde's - I cried. Somehow living through my Grandpere's death made me susceptible to the shock of others'.
Death comes too soon.
In my poetry classes at college, Seamus Heaney's work was required reading, and rightly so. I always felt some dizzying sense of gratitude that I had met him and heard him speak at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, that I had a carefully preserved copy of his poem, The Blackbird of Glanmore, signature at the bottom. I didn't know him at all, but I felt so lucky that I had been in the same room with him, drinking tea, eating chocolate biscuits. When he read his work he read with passion, with a calm voice but a compelling one. So many poets can sound dry and frail - his work and his voice were filled with vigor and a commitment to the beauty of poetry. I fell a little bit in love with him. When we studied him in college I was eager to read Digging aloud and share with my classmates some morsel of his wonder.
When I read news of his passing I felt alien again, alien because I had never really known him, alien because that ticking metronome of my Grandpere's death faltered, out of sync for just a moment, loud and brash and imperfect in my head. I immediately thought of Dennis, how he had touched my life through his praise and acceptance of my writing about bipolar disorder - how I hadn't really known him, either. It felt like the three of us - three people passing each other, three people who were seemingly disconnected and removed - were bound together through writing: Sligo, Clyde's; a pen, a keyboard; blackbirds, dogs; tea, beer; turf, the people tree.
I honestly don't know what to say about the nature of grief. Grief is selfish - or at least I feel selfish and indulgent, not really knowing Dennis, not really knowing Seamus Heaney, but crying anyway. Grief can be a celebration, too, and an affirmation of life. Grief separates us and joins us together - it is lonely, it is shared. Grief tastes like my Grandpere's French pastries, lemon curd, parsnip soup. Grief smells like beer, like dogs. Grief warms my hands like a mug of tea with milk, like the sticky residue of chocolate and crumbs. Grief is red and green and orange.
My grief today can be all of those things, but it also must be a blessing. This is the first writing I have done in weeks. I can fairly say that Dennis and Seamus Heaney, as removed from me as they were, are two examples of the kind of person I want to be. I'm not trying to make their passing all about me - rather, I want to make their impact on my life a part of the core of me, a part of making me a better person and a more committed writer. I want to celebrate them.
I've gotten to that age when it matters that people die - matters not only in sadness, not only in grief, but in honoring and rejoicing in lives lived in beauty. Parts of me still feel alien and detached and guilty, sure - but the other parts of me are striving to never forget the words and work of people I have loved.
Death comes too soon - it did for Dennis, it did for my Grandpere, and it did for Seamus Heaney. But the legacy of these men is great and unforgettable.
I will miss them all.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.