It’s November, and I am forty-seven, a newly single mother, driving home to North Carolina from a conference in Pittsburgh, where I spoke with other women writers on a panel called “A Wilderness of Her Own.” It’s drizzling in West Virginia, and I’m gazing at the fog and branches around me almost to my peril as the car pulls up the mountain and I round a bend. Everything about my life feels shaky now—the possibility of romance, my ability to make sure my son feels secure, the professional path ahead. I’ve just found out that the grandmother who helped raise me, whose existence was a ballast to my life, has had a stroke. I am my own muddy wilderness. I begin to ugly cry, seized the way the body does a thing you were not in the least expecting, as in pregnancy, as in grief. My grandmother has had a stroke, and I’m worried that she regrets her life. (That I will regret mine?)
It’s a week after Thanksgiving, and I’m at the optometrist peering into a Buck Rogers-like machine. I am to focus on the green crosshairs. My grandmother has died. Nevertheless, here I am at my second optometry appointment of the week, at the end of a long week of appointments. I am taking care of things. Taking care of myself.
Of all the appointments, the optometrist is the most soothing. Despite the slight anxiety of choosing the clearer lens.
“Is it clearer now?”
I like the dimness, the doctor’s low voice, and the clicking sound as she manipulates the apparatus. The problem comes when she dilates my eyes, then lingers too long over the left eye with the kind of silence that suggests withholding comment. So, I have come to a second appointment to rule out eye disease. As I walk from one room to the next at the eye doctor, I find that I am crying, and I suppress it. What is in there? I am thinking of my grandmother’s tumor (which led to her sudden surgery, which led to her stroke and death). What is in there.
I peer at the green crosshairs, trying to keep my eyes pointing forward, pressing the button when I detect dots of light to the sides. “You will become more uncertain as the test progresses,” the doctor says. And it’s true. As lights flash in the periphery, my eyes begin to gray out, making the lights harder to spot. I think about the limits of what we perceive. How we might imagine the lights are there and click the button to avoid the bad news. Or how we might somehow perceive it’s there, but with a different sense than the expected one.
On the first Sunday in December, I am alone again after many days not alone. My son is with his father, and with the light-blocking curtains I’ve just hung in my bedroom, I sleep more deeply than I have in weeks. I sleep, in fact, for eleven hours. I think of the mother in the horror film The Babadook, who finally sleeps soundly when her doctor prescribes a sleeping pill. She awakens to a chorus of angels and seems to float out of bed, but I just feel equal parts relieved, guilty, and lazy. And sore. After weeks of holding myself tense, curving in on myself in protection and existential fear, my muscles feel gripped despite themselves.
When I arrive at an afternoon yoga class, the teacher is waiting for me at the studio door. “It’s just us today,” she says. I position my mat directly across from hers at the front of the room, and she asks me if there are any specific problem areas I’d like to address. I explain that it’s been a rough few weeks, that my whole body feels tense. She tells me that we will do a slow and stretchy class, and that if I’m okay with touch, she can even apply some pressure in different poses. I tell her that sounds good, but as the class proceeds, I’m gripped by what I can only describe as fear. What is in there.
I’m worried that if I let go of whatever it is my body is holding, I will fly apart or at least begin weeping. But there is solace in breathing into those spaces. There is solace in women caring for each other. I am in child’s pose with another woman’s foot on my foot, and she is using her hands to press opposite shoulder and hip. “Sometimes,” she says, “what we’re holding is just habitual after a while. The original impetus is gone, but your body is still holding on to it.” What is in there. What can I let go?
After class, we talk about the relief of it being December after a particularly difficult November. My teacher notes that though she isn’t much of a holiday person, just seeing the lights, feeling the second-hand cheer, are buoying to her. I think about solstice, about Advent. A descent into darkness and the possibilities of that. Jeannette Winterson says of winter darkness, “Night and dark are good for us. As the nights lengthen, it’s time to reopen the dreaming space.”
Last year I took an online writing course centered on the theme of Advent from two Catholic writer friends. I learned that Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas, but that it’s also a reminder of apocalypse. Rebecca Bratten Weiss reminded us that the original meaning of apocalypse isn’t “endtimes stuff”: “We’ve forgotten, after all, that ‘apocalypse’ does not, technically, refer to things blowing up and keeling over, nor even to ‘end times stuff’ – but rather to revelation. Literally, the lifting of the veil. That which was hidden from the foundation of the world is made present to us. Reality rushes up, right at us, right in the face.”
My grandmother was born and died so that we, her family, could be born and someday die. With what new knowledge do we go on, having glimpsed that rending of the veil? With what love?
My grandmother, Marion, was beautiful, and when I was a child she was still young; my mother was eighteen when she had me. I often stayed with my grandmother in the summer, and every afternoon she would put on her bikini and sun bathe in the backyard. Once I stood or squatted next to her head and asked her a series of questions as she lay there, until finally she asked me to go inside. The request shocked me. I went up to the kitchen, where I could see the backyard from the window over the sink, and looked at her from there. What she could possibly have been thinking about was a mystery to me.
I worry that she regretted her life. I worry that it wasn’t everything she wanted it to be. There is arrogance, though, in imagining that I know all of what another woman’s life was to her. What is in there.
Friends of her children who frequented the house report being struck by her grace, beauty, and wisdom. How much she loved to laugh. She was, as my uncle Joe likes to say, the Oracle, a person who seemed to exist on a plane of her own. Her own mystery. Her own beautiful wilderness.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Joanna Penn Cooper
Poet and essayist Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl's Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). She holds a PhD in English from Temple University and has taught at Marquette and Fordham. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day feature, as well as South Dakota Review, Zócalo Public Square, Open Letters Monthly, Poetry International, and other journals. Cooper teaches online workshops in flash memoir and lyric essay for the journal Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.