On September 12 in 2008, on a sunny Southern California day, Karen Green came home from a short errand to find her husband, who had been fighting severe depression, had hanged himself on their patio. On July 25, 2007, Francisco Goldman’s wife body-surfed for the first time while on vacation in Mexico, floated to the surface of the water immobilized after tumbling through a wave, and died the next day of complications from a severely damaged spinal cord. On December 30, 2003, as Joan Didion prepared dinner in the kitchen of her home in New York City, her husband slumped over in his armchair in the next room and died during cardiac arrest.
The heart aches for the survivors of these sudden losses. The inexplicable tragedy, the depthless hole that’s left behind after the death of a life partner. If we, as mere observers, can imagine the pain of having to move forward through the days and weeks and months after such a cataclysm, the actual experience of it must be exponentially more wrenching.
How do people get through such experiences? In the case of Karen Green, Francisco Goldman, and Joan Didion, part of their process is to write books: Bough Down, Say Her Name, and The Year of Magical Thinking. These three vastly different books chronicle certain commonalities of life after the sudden death of a partner – the disbelief, the self-blame, the numb reckoning. Beyond these commonalities, though, each book explores a very personal journey of grief – that monumental and volatile emotion that rushes through the hole of loss leaving the survivor confused, bereft, immobilized.
Karen Green’s Bough Down (Siglio Press 2013) -- a series of prose poems, interspersed with the writers own small-scale collages -- opens with a snapshot review of the months before her husband’s suicide as if looking for evidence of what was to happen or a way to find the loophole that will allow a different outcome. It’s June, summertime, with shining moments of work in the garden, things being tended to assure their thrive and bloom, as a wife tends her sick husband so that he might, too. “I bake and you eat, digest. Vanish. I pray you back to me and there you are.” Menace, though, lurks, and there’s no way to unknow it: “(But) here my prayers are called prayers and are answered. Here I still see in color.”
The first collage interrupts the narrative at page 15: a small note on which typed phrases have been affixed and partly rubbed out:
September, and so it
It has now
Why the fu__ would anyone send me a pin
I can’t even
And it’s p_______al
In the last
Why did _e
The second collage follows on the next page, more broken lines and unanswered questions. And from here the timeline shifts, the story blurs. Minutes no longer follow their logical tick from one to the next. The husband’s there. He isn’t. There are people “offer[ing] up black and white dreams as consolations.” It’s autumn, it’s summer, there’s pills, more dreams “of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.” The horror of, “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down.” Memorials, wakes, visitors are disembodied vignettes of phrases and faces: “At least he” and “He will live in your”. “Everyone gathers, everyone drives off, what remains remain remains.”
Karen Green, whose husband was David Foster Wallace, writes, to my mind, the most the way grief feels: syntax, logic, time is disjointed. There is no stream of consciousness, there is no flow of days. Memory mashes against the current moment and usurps it, being awake feels like sleeping, sleeping is full of the nightmares of the daily and the tangible. Green’s sentences lurch or wind or morph, her images create disjunctions that reconnect on the next page or the next week. And yet, as grief continues its mad whirl, somewhere outside is a real world, a human on the other end of a phone line, an accumulation of days that becomes the weeks and months of a year. Grief’s strong undertow whips against it, but it cannot stop it.
Nor can the march of the real world stop grief. Rather, the two somehow finally wash together, as a violent surf stills at low tide. The undertow remains, but is quieted. Our muscles and minds strengthen to resist its pull. The loss will never leave, but, as in the last poem of the book, “Another couple made a daughter in the room where we and the bookending dogs had our last nap.” Our human impulse will always be to strive for life – fleeting and fragile as it is: “I can’t help but root for all this perishable animal behavior. I is perishable, can’t is perishable, help is perishable, roots are perishable.” And still, the last line of the book: “I can’t wrap this up.”
Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name (Grove 2011) is a loving homage to his deceased wife, Aura Estrada. The book opens with the stark facts: the date of Aura’s death; that she had just turned 30; that she and Goldman had been married just shy of two years; that her mother, Juanita, blames Goldman for the loss of her daughter; that her uncle, acting on behalf of Juanita, told him to put anything he has to say to him or her in writing. And so he does.
What he has to say is everything: every detail he can remember about their meeting, about her smile, about the smell of her hair, about the custom-made dress she wore to their wedding, about the domestic rituals they shared together. He pieces together from her journals and her stories to him her childhood, her relationship with her parents, her former loves. He shares her writing, her ambitions, her curiosities, and her confidences to her girlfriends. He tells of the joy they experienced in their life together and the anguish he’s felt in his life apart. The book sweeps back and forth from present to past, from their time together to the time before they met and now to the time they been so terribly separated from each other, the motion of the story again resembling the way grief interrupts the present with its pull toward memory, its push toward fantasy, its depleting demand for attention, and its immobilizing washing away of rational thought. Through the writing, though, the reader has been given the gift of Aura’s life, and Goldman’s extraordinary eulogy leaves us feeling the world’s sad loss of this singular person.
Joan Didion’s approach is more clinical, more methodical, and The Year of Magical Thinking ( Knopf 2005) moved me less than the other two books. She dryly identifies her self-pity within the first paragraph of the book, and she refers to the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Dunne, as “the fact,” as in, “I wrote the words…a day or two or three after the fact.” Yet, this is how Joan Didion must deal with her pain and disbelief. In the haze of activity in the hospital emergency room, when the doctor must tell her her husband has died, she preempts him by stating “the fact” first. The doctor’s taken off balance. “’It’s okay,’ the social worker said. ‘She’s a pretty cool customer.’” And so she is, and so she has to be. “As a writer,” Didion tells us early in the book, “I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.” It is this “impenetrable polish” that she relies on to carry her through the mist of days that follow her husband’s death. It is “the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs” that she uses to work though her feeling that she should have seen this coming, that she could have done something to prevent it, that if she figures out where she went wrong she’ll be able to bring him back.
Inexplicably, we do move through these losses. At the end of her first year without her husband, Didion notes the colored Christmas lights she’s strung on a tree in her apartment. They are not the same lights that had been strung the year before her husband died. Those had burned out and had been discarded. “I bought new strings of colored lights,” Didion tells us. “This served as a profession of faith in the future. I take the opportunity for such professions where and when I can invent them, since I do not yet actually feel this faith in the future.” Life will not be the same without her husband, but there will be a future. By allowing us to read their stories of grief and pain, we find faith in the future, too.