Here it is Day 4, a Thursday. In my blog, Frying the Onion, Thursday is significant because it is the day of the week that my dad died. Soon after this happened, a friend told me that the Tibetans have a tradition of remembrance. The day of the week on which the person died becomes sacred, a day to do things in that person’s honor: enact a kind deed, give to charity, or start a new venture. Then, after seven weeks, the deceased’s soul will have decided its next move, and off it goes. Those left behind can relax, trusting that the soul has found its next bardo, or level. So we hope.
For me, Thursday has remained full of meaning, and a year later, is still frought with grief. On top of this, it seems that everywhere I turn, a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or acquaintance is battling cancer or some other life-threatening illness. And I don't mean the terminal illness called Life. I mean something serious. Something that changes how a person does things.
Last week, when I visited California, I made a five-hour detour off my main purpose (which was to visit friends in the Bay Area), and drove down to the San Fernando Valley to say goodbye to a friend in hospice in her home. I last saw Diane in January, 2014, and before that, in the summer of 2010 when she came to Wisconsin for a visit. She was sick, but pretty high functioning then. Friends were giving her and her husband trips to Paris and London and the use of their homes in these romantic places. At the time, she said, "I should die more often."
Diane is my age, and was my colleague when I worked at the Getty Museum. She was the writer/editor in the Education Department and later an editor at the Getty Research Institute. A good portion of our friendship developed through email after I left Los Angeles and came to Wisconsin. She was a great correspondent and had the most wonderful dry sense of humor in her writing. When I saw her last week, she was barely awake, though her doctor said she would probably hang on for a couple weeks yet. She said "It's unfair," and I said "I know." She said, "It's unfair that you will get to see the next season of Downton Abbey and I won't." We laughed. At one point, she looked me right in the eye and said, "Good things are going to happen!" I would like to believe this, but without her in the world? I'm not convinced. I’m so glad I made the effort to get to her and hold her hands and cry. She is an excellent writer, editor, and friend. I miss her already.
Then, in Berkeley, I attended a poetry reading on the UC campus in honor of someone I did not know, had never met: the poet Hillary Gravendyk. Hillary died on May 10 of this year, age 35. Five years ago, she had a double lung transplant. She was a young professor at Pomona College, much loved by her students. She had done her dissertation at Berkeley, and her colleagues there clearly loved her, too. They spoke of her exuberant energy, her support of other writers, her strength, her words. Several people shared how she had collaborated with them. I love that. I love when poets join forces. We should do this more often, you know?
The reading began when her husband, I think not a poet himself, graciously—and with a wry smile—said he was starting off, “to set the bar low.” He was followed by a veritable pantheon of poets who read Hillary’s poems to the gathering of about forty people. The readers included Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, and many others. There were tears, pregnant pauses, and a bit of laughter too.
What can I say? Everywhere, death. It is one thing for someone who has lived a long life to go. It is another thing entirely when someone dies too young. It is autumn now and the year itself is dying. It comes back, I know. But still.
What are we going to do about all this death? Is this why I write? So I won’t be forgotten? So I will touch some person faraway in a future I can’t see, won’t see? One of Hillary’s prose poems from her collection, Harm, struck me in connection with this topic of using words to reach out across boundaries:
A blurry rope you throw me. Familiar. The color of air, doubled. The hand
imprecise as a stilled wand. I surface. I submerge. The wink of meaning
fleeing the scene. A letter clasped between the finger and the eye. We add
them up and they equal troubling dreams. Worry buried in the folds. Ex-
tended across a simple language, there is a confusion of longing. Techni-
color handprint, clasping at need. Absent clarity, I waiver in the harsh light.
But beloved error: a long braid of signs, given. Everyone is glowing with
listening. Little syllabic string. Little tether. Line cast into a blacker sea.*
I hang onto my dad through the tether of his work. His imagery was abstract, but called forth birds and feathers, butterflies, sailboats, and things that loft upon the air. There is a storage room full of art work that I am in charge of, executor of the estate. It is a task, believe me. There are inventories and values to be assigned. There is probate, still not completed. There are claims against him—artists go into debt, you know?—and no fluid cash at the moment. Just art.
Each person leaves a legacy. Some leave paintings and drawings, some leave poems, and some just leave the love they gave, the wisdom they shared. All the living have to do, on a Thursday or any other day of the week for that matter, is cherish and remember.
Today’s final words go to Gerard Manley Hopkins. (I have a feeling I might have posted this poem the last time I blogged for BAP. I guess it means a lot to me. Its sentiments bear repeating as fall approaches.)
Spring and Fall, to a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins
Me in front of a mixed-media collage/drawing by
my dad, Georg Vihos, in the collection of Betty Smith,
hanging in her dining room in Corralitos, California
*From Harm, (Omnidawn Publishing, 2011). The text of the poem should be left and right justified, but I can’t make my computer do this. My apologies to the poet for the improper formatting.