Four weeks later

Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns you somehow.

I thought I understood this song before. I had no idea.

Sufjan Stevens released “Carrie and Lowell” last year and I went through the usual cycles of album appreciation. Repeated listens, changing rankings of favorite songs, long considerations of where it ranked in his repertoire, and finally moving on, returning to it once in a while but trying not to listen to it ad nauseum.

Carrie and Lowell feels new now, because before now I could not begin to understand it. The above lyrics used to strike me as poetic. Now I realize: like the best poetry, it is a description of real feeling, not a metaphor. I always assumed grief would be a single swing into despair. It’s so much more complex than anything I’ve been through. Since my mom died, some days go by and I realize I haven’t felt terrible and that feels triumphant. Car rides, dinner, and the routine of finding my mom every morning to greet her, to seek her out to say goodnight, are when I most notice she’s gone. That, and every single time I look forward to something and realize that I’m not sharing it with her.

Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow.

There are no stages of grief. If I didn’t know that was a myth already my experiences would have confirmed that anyway. Clearly delineated stages are far too neat to resemble life. At times “The Only Thing” is the only song- not just on this album, but ever sung- that feels true. But the disorienting haze of grief inevitably dissipates. I move on. And I will return to it, and then move on again. Grief has no stages. It’s not a path, but a whirlpool.


Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?

Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch

My mom died four weeks ago today. “Surrounded by her family” is how the obituary reported it. Obituaries typically attempt to paint death as something resembling idyllic. But the truth is, the last few hours of my mom’s life will haunt me forever. There is no softening that trauma; there is only not allowing it to paralyze me. The most vivid and difficult part of grieving for me has been realizing that there are no true comforts when someone you love dies. The best I can do is move on, and to be there for my family.


 

There’s another Sufjan Stevens song I’ve been thinking about and listening to a lot lately. It has nothing to do with death. It has everything to do with memory. The horror of the memories of my mom’s death are countered only by memories of her life. “The Only Thing” is the truth of grief. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” is the truth of memory.

Yes, it’s about children at a summer camp and first love and heartbreaking nostalgia and it has nothing to do with anything in my life. In the past I’ve always loved it for its sheer beauty.

But it’s the one song right now that truly comforts me. It is about feelings and moments and fragments of time long ago, so vividly rendered that I can place myself in them. And that is what I cling to. Someday the dark cloud, still so thick after four weeks, will dissipate enough that I will feel again the sunlight on the days I walked with my mom to the Dairy Queen in San Diego as a child, the evenings spent listening to her stories of growing up in the Philippines, of sharing our love of stories and telling them as I followed her footsteps into journalism school. Someday I will tell those stories myself, and if I can find a shred of the clarity and honesty that this song has, I can make sure my mom’s story continues to be told. Perhaps not today. Four weeks later, the sadness still sits heavily. The trauma, the horror, are still raw. But someday. Never trust anyone who says words don’t matter. Words have the ability to bring memories to life like nothing else. And my memories of my mom are what I have to hold onto right now. Someday, I will do them justice. That is my source of light.

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About johnmichaelmaximilian

Freelance writer from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Movies are my favorite thing.

2 responses to “Four weeks later”

  1. Cassie says :

    Wow. It’s a whirpool, how incredibly accurate. It’s taught to us as steps, like a ladder we ascend to the level of being just fine, one more step and it will all ease away. I’m so sorry you had to know this hurt to break down those theoretical rungs and pass along your findings to those of us who have been spared thus far. It is probably no consolation but the portrait you and your sister have painted of your mother shows a woman who was not color blind in any respect. She taught you joy and to feel it, she taught you pain and to feel it, she taught you to numb nothing, to reach for the handholds outside of the prescribed path to the ledge of “just fine”. She taught you the beauty in all the different mountains facing us and she is a great loss to this world badly wanting of women like her. Thank you for letting us share in the intimate details of who she was and not just that glossy, laminated obituary that told us nothing. She is much better depicted here than in smudgy newspaper print.

  2. Nicole McLernon Eckerson says :

    This is a beautiful tribute. I think we try to collate grief into stage because we feel like it is a way to control it. But I don’t think that’s possible in the slightest. Still think of and praying for you.

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