“‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief—”

Helen

For Sally.

The whole Emily Dickinson poem from which the title of this blog entry comes is here. Unlike some of her other, and some say better, poems on grief, it offers a little comfort. Kind of. Why I like the poem is that it suggests that all grief is grief (“They’re Water — equally —”), none diminishes or elevates another.

My daughter Helen died in January 1996. This week, on April 9, she would have turned fifty. I don’t know what to make of this. Who would she be at fifty? Would she have had children? Where in the world would she be living? How would we get on together? What relationship would she have with her brother? With my partner? These questions, and others like them, encapsulate my loss. So this is what becomes of raw, angry grief, this absence, this not-knowing, this Helen-shaped hole in my world.

There’s nothing sentimental about loss, it’s a hard, sharp thing. And universal. In everyone’s life, sooner or later, one way or another. I’ve just finished reading Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman. Protagonist Adamine is born in a leper colony in Jamaica and her mother dies at the birth. And she is a warner woman, warning of impending disasters. When she goes to England – and what young person from Jamaica hasn’t gone somewhere? – warnings are understood as mental illness.

The Last Warner Woman

Adamine’s life is one loss after another, she even has to fight to keep her name, her birth having been accidentally registered using her mother’s name. She tells her story to Writer Man, who turns out to be … no, I’m not telling … and who ponders on stories and where they begin and what books are for and writes, “… here is the sad truth: Books end, and pages thin, and every word is pulling us towards that last, climactic full stop.”

 

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Missing My Sister

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Usually my posts are about reading and writing. This one is more personal.

This week is my sister Ngaire’s birthday. She would be 75 were she still alive. She died eighteen years ago, by her own hand, as they say. I’ve been thinking about her since we went to see a play last week by the Otaki Players at the Civic Theatre in Main Street, around the corner from where my sister lived all her married life.

I’ve been in Otaki many times since I came to live in Paekakariki, a half hour’s drive away, but this time I noticed things differently. The library on the corner, the building diagonally opposite that back then had a psychiatrist’s office off to the side, where I sat in the waiting room once while she had an appointment. I have the painting she did of that room, chairs lined up under the window. She said the chairs were waiting. The half-pulled blind is depressing—lowered to preserve the privacy of those waiting inside if someone walked past, my sister said—the tree outside I could hope is soothing.

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Otaki’s main street, called Main St, was dingy then. Now it’s been spruced up, there’s been a lot of paint applied and the footpath is tastefully laid. I recognised the inside of the theatre, the particular patterned wood on the side walls and think I remember going to films there.

I’ve read many books about sudden death, loss and grief over the years. One I admire is Karen Green’s Bough Down, which she wrote some time after the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace.  It’s the most raw, the least compromising, of anything I have read about loss and hence somehow consoling. It includes her art works. One sentence: “Everyone gathers, everyone drives off, what remains remain remains.”

I’m pleased to be thinking of my sister and wish she was still living and still in Otaki. She would likely have come to the play with us.