Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Surprised by Grief
Today would have been my brother Gary’s 53rd birthday.
I know this not just because it’s written down in my daybook, which I bought and filled in a month before he died, but because when I turned on my home computer I got a Google calendar reminder, and when I got into work I got an Outlook Calendar reminder and an e-mail from a site called Tagged.
The e-mail was what got me. I remember when Gary sent me the invitation to join him on the site, and I remember my annoyed reaction: “Oh please, Gary--another social media site? And one that sounds like it was named after somebody’s dog?” But I joined, and God knows where that login and password is, because outside of joining, and looking around for a few minutes, I’ve never been back.
So why did the e-mail get through my emotional defenses? Or why, in other words, did a randomly-generated automated reminder from a social media site I never visit make me miss my brother more than a handwritten calendar entry, or even my own memories?
Possible answer: the word “defenses.” I’ve already been defending myself against grief since December. It’s nothing I’ve consciously done; I haven’t said, “Okay, today for the next two hours I am going to work on all that grief I feel,” or, “By the time Gary’s birthday rolls around, I want to be able to think about him without bawling my eyes out.” But then I didn’t have to say it, not consciously. I didn’t even have to push a button to start the process. The process takes care of itself. It’s called the day-to-day, and what it does is, it shells you. It distances you. It turns the unexpected into the what-happened.
Carlos Fuentes, in talking about love, wrote, “The most ardent romantic passion can languish and fall into habit or irritation with the passage of time. A couple begin to know each other because, first and foremost, they know so little of each other. Everything is surprise. When there are no surprises left, love can die.”
I think the same applies to grief. When there are no surprises left, we grieve painlessly, behind the armor of our distance, in the comfort of our routines. But when we’re surprised, we’re pierced as if we’re naked. Instead of the distant echo of a long-passed storm, we hear the thunderclap right over our heads and it all comes at us in a rush, like sideways rain.
That’s why the e-mail got me. I wasn’t expecting it. But I’ll be expecting the next one now. I’m prepared. Which means, in a way, something vulnerable has died in me. The way waking up to someone next to me for the hundredth time is something I will never feel as strongly as I felt it when it was a first.
I know it’s impossible to live like it’s a first all the time, to live unprepared and ready to be surprised. I know the day-to-day will eat away at everything on my plate until there’s no meat left to sink my teeth into. I know this, but I don’t have to like it. The fact that I can be surprised by grief, by love, means that there’s something underneath my armor that not only can be touched, but needs to be touched.
An open wound, that reaches out with open arms, and cries out not to be healed because it’s sick, but hugged because it’s alive.