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Essay

————Against other things it is possible to obtain security, but when it
————comes to death, we human beings all live in an unwalled city.

————————————————————-——Epicurus

 

IN THE EARLY HOURS of October 14, 2017, my wife’s cell phone rang. The call was from my son Daniel’s wife, Leisl, who could hardly speak, but managed, “I need you and Bob to come home right now.” My wife—not in response to Leisl, but to what she already knew as death’s sudden assault—cried out, “No, no, no, no.” Then I was talking—to the EMT, Peter, whom I knew from ushering at church. The emergency squad, he told me, was administering CPR to my son, but it didn’t look good.

We were in the Adirondacks. Daniel and Leisl live in Woodstock, Connecticut, where my wife and I also live. Halfway across the Massachusetts Turnpike, I realized what Peter meant: that my son was already dead when he arrived. Two hours later, no one had called back to say Daniel had been taken to a hospital. I asked my wife if she thought our son was dead. She said, yes.

 

I begin here. I have written at least four other beginnings. But there is no beginning. I say to myself, Daniel died. Daniel is dead. But his death goes on living, goes on requiring some response.

Grief begins as the box, which is too heavy and cannot be put down, that Jack Gilbert must carry in his poem about his dead wife, Michiko.

Then it becomes a story that just keeps repeating itself. Or a labyrinth from which I cannot extricate myself. I have no ball of thread, and the Minotaur is of my own making and waits around every turn.

With grief one day becomes another. Every tomorrow repeats today, every day repeats itself. Grief can also be a sudden assault—images of Daniel cuddling the cats that seemed to occupy our house for years; Daniel, maybe eight years old, climbing out his window and walking around the scaffolding we had erected to clapboard our house and knocking on our bedroom window; or later (I must grieve, it seems, every aspect of my son’s life, from child to adult), Daniel as a surly teenager who smoked too much pot and fought with me about everything; or most recently, Daniel, completely at home at the top of a forty-foot ladder or pushing snow from a condo unit’s high roof by sliding down its steep incline and letting the snow build up before him to bring him to a stop; Daniel who could focus on the job at hand so well that all else simply vanished. I wander, round and round, my days punctuated only by these sudden stabs of memory.

 

Daniel was thirty-one when he died. Writing about one’s child is like writing about one’s parents—it cannot help but be bewildering and fraudulent. It is a task that must, in its efforts, round off all the unknown and unknowable jagged edges. As Elena Ferrante has said, “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves cannot understand.”

I knew my son well. I didn’t know him at all. Every parent can say the same. Since Daniel died, I have often wondered if his death would be more bearable if we really knew each other, if there wasn’t the always unfinished business of coming to know.

Thankfully, Daniel was my Shakespearean fool; when it seemed to him that I was simplifying his life or life in general, or entertaining some impossible yearning, he would usually sing out, La, la…la, la, kindly but mockingly, his nonsense for my nonsense.

 

In his last letter, John Keats wrote, “I have a feeling of my real life being past, and that I am already living my posthumous existence.” I’d like to say, I am writing now to make my son live again. That’s true, of course, in the sense that all writing is an act of resurrection, or simply a means in my case of preventing Daniel from vanishing as if he had never been. But I am also writing, in part, to get back my real life. Grief involves a double loss—first, my loved son; and then my own life, at least as I knew it.

I have difficulty remembering what my life was like before Daniel died. I don’t feel what Job felt—those constant belittling memories of all that had been taken away. “Before” for me doesn’t involve some loss of what I was or had. But I do feel, as Job felt, that Kafka-like sense of everything suddenly being entirely different.

 

After Daniel died, I placed a photograph of him on my desk. In it, we are sitting in beach chairs on the Woodstock town beach. We are both in sunglasses, looking at the water. I am in my forties. Daniel is seven or eight. When I put this photograph on my desk, I could only bear photographs of Daniel as a child. They consoled, not because they expressed the innocent joys of childhood, but because they were already lived moments, finished moments of his life. This was Daniel at eight. This was him at twelve. At fourteen. They helped me believe, as I wanted to believe, that every life, no matter how shortened, is a complete life.

 

When I was in graduate school, I felt the immense gulf between the consolations of religion and the actual grief of a father in Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Son.” Jonson begins with a stoic “Farewell, thou child of my right hand” and reminds the reader that our children’s lives are not ours to keep, but gifts lent to us by God. Jonson’s “sin” is “too much hope of thee, lov’d boy,” a hope that fostered his illusion that his son’s life was guaranteed to go on longer than his own. And then the poet offers up all the usual consolations: that his son has escaped the “world’s and flesh’s rage,” and even escaped the indignities and sufferings of growing old. But at the poem’s center is Jonson’s inescapable grief that arrives, as if involuntarily, in this outburst: “O, could I lose all father now!” That “could” announces what cannot be escaped—the flesh and blood of fatherhood, the lost flesh and blood of one’s child. I have been reading Dante lately, and I have thought about his Paradiso, and imagined how, if I came upon my son, he’d be a ray or orb of light, but he wouldn’t be in his body. I know, from Dante’s perspective, the resurrection of the body has yet to take place. But, forgive me, what I want is what Jonson wanted—my son in his body, still full of the “flesh’s rage.”

 

Nachmanides said, when “a man’s child dies, it is fitting that he and those that love him grieve and mourn—but that mourning must be such that it is in service to the Lord.” Though each day my son dies over and over, I turn and turn to the idea that gratitude is necessary for what was, even in the midst of the pain of what is. I turn to the kaddish which, as Leon Wieseltier says, is not so much a praise of God as a prayer for the praise of God. I pray for praise against all those nevers of death: Daniel will never drive up the driveway again in his red truck; Daniel will never again move in that easy, athletic gait of his; his wife, his mother, his brothers, and I will never see his charmed smile, which transformed his entire face and made everyone around him a participant in his happiness. He will never. I will never. He and I are talking. Then I am writing this down.

 

On August 18, 1986, my wife woke me from a restless sleep and announced that the time had come. This was not a planned home birth, but by the time she asked, “should I push or not,” her water broke, and Daniel surfed out with such force that I can honestly say I caught him. I cleared the mucus from his mouth and watched him redden into life in my hands. He arrived in a hurry. And he hurried through life.

What made Daniel Daniel was his intensity. In his poem “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” Yeats once divided people into two categories—those that are like a banked fire, slowly burning through the night and others who consume:

——-—The entire combustible world in one small room
——-—As though dried straw, and if we turn about
——-—The bare chimney is gone black out
——-—Because the work had finished in that flare.

Daniel was definitely in the combustible category. He could work all day, then work again at night on a house he and Leisl had bought to rehab. He loved old houses and barns; he knew how they were constructed and how to make them sound and right once they had fallen into disrepair.

 

The morning Daniel died, I walked on a local road to slow my thoughts and gain the smallest foothold against the assault of my emotions. A neighbor and local contractor drove past me, then stopped, and backed up to where I was standing. He was an old, tough Swedish guy who had helped my son get some good work around town. He rolled down his window, said he had heard about my son’s death. He was sorry. Then he said Daniel was a good boy who worked hard. He didn’t know how that simple statement summed up Daniel’s values, his outsized energies, his attack mode of work.

I taught at the College of the Holy Cross for thirty-eight years. One of the greatest gifts and pleasures in my life was teaching Daniel, who took my course, the Bible and Literature. When he died, I asked Leisl for his college papers and notebooks. They are difficult for me to read, nearly impossible. But his thinking shines through. Writing about Abraham at Moriah, he did not see some easy story of obedience and faith, but rather an altar where all rationality had to be sacrificed. He knew what it was like to arrive at a place where no amount of thinking could make sense of what was happening. He had known real losses.

And now, years later, I saw again how intimately he understood Abraham’s need to control, to think he could know what God wanted. He seemed to know intuitively that Abraham had to come to that place where all rational thought leads only to what is irrational. In his mid-term exam, Daniel draws a connection between Abraham, Jacob, and Job. All three believe they have a hold on the world, and that their thinking divides them from others. And they are right to some extent. But each thinks he can understand what God wants. Each confuses the world that makes sense in his own human terms with God’s world. And each must have, as Daniel wrote, his world shattered.

When Daniel and I talked on the drive to and from Holy Cross, I tried to articulate my sense of life and my gratefulness for it. He would ask me to explain the use of the word “provide” in the Abraham and Isaac story, or just what Joseph meant by “providence.” If I spoke about “provide” meaning more than a ram in a thicket, that Yahweh had already provided a creation and the commandments and had promised in Exodus to provide for the Israelites’ trek in the wilderness; if I spoke of Joseph’s free will, of how “providence” didn’t mean, “don’t worry, God will make everything turn out okay”; or if I spoke of how God did not create Joseph’s destiny, but rather Joseph, because of his experiences in the pit and with his brothers, participated in his destiny’s unfolding, Daniel might nod in assent, and then wonder how our free will and God’s will can work together. He knew the perversions of the human will. Or he might ask a question he knew would get to me: How does God’s love accept that for someone with mental illness every day is torture? How does God provide in that situation? At his funeral service, his uncle read from the hymn to Wisdom in Job: “Mortals do not know her path, nor is she to be found in the land of the living.” Daniel’s life swung between an ecstasy in being alive and the grief of not-knowing, of finding that path to wisdom.

 

His death is a shattering of meaning. Don’t misunderstand me—I never expected my son’s death to have meaning. I mean only that death, suffering, grief—they truly collapse our house-of-cards rationality, all our self-deceitful ways of thinking we know what we do not know. We always know that truth, but we gradually bury it over and over, since it is impossible to live in that blown-open state of not knowing. Grief is the practice of trying to make sense out of something which can never be made sense of. It brings us back to one of the basic truths of our existence: we are not in control. What we want to know so desperately remains outside our grasp, always. Mr. Ramsay, Virginia Woolf’s philosopher supreme in her novel To the Lighthouse, admits he can only reason up to R in the alphabet of knowing. Simone Weil said we must live on the cross of such contradictions. I am trying.

 

Now, in grief, I find it hard to settle down. I sit down to read, read a paragraph or two, get up, wander about the house aimlessly, eat something though I’m not hungry, look at items I’m not going to buy on the Internet, or immediately buy and cast aside in a fit of self-hatred days later. After Daniel died, it was too hard for Leisl to keep a Christmas present he had made her—a photo gallery of their wedding pictures made with the panes of an old window frame. My wife and I propped it against a fireplace screen in our kitchen, where it remained for two years after he died. When I needed to, I’d sit on the floor and stare at the photographs, at his uncontained happiness, and let myself be concussed in tears.

During the days surrounding Daniel’s death, as I walked around my house through the hours of the night, I spoke in a kind of babble, in a sentence untethered from syntax, from subject and verb. I nearly vomited words, not just the No, No of what shouldn’t be, couldn’t be, but irrevocably was, but the endless petitions that he be at peace, that my words—spoken, wailed, whispered—could help him (even though all my talking couldn’t prevent his death) with his passage out of this world.

At times I got dressed and walked in the middle of the night, wandering aimlessly, as if I believed I might come upon someone or something that would help. Though Daniel was dead, I experienced constantly the terror I had felt when Daniel was a teenager and still not home, the clock seeming to shout again and again that it was long after his curfew. I would walk from window to window looking for car lights. Or even drive around Woodstock, pointing a flashlight out the driver’s-side window, as if I could find him. I checked sharp turns in the local roads, places where ground fog gathered, places I feared whenever my children drove off.

 

“Where are you?” my wife cried over and over into the darkness the night Daniel died. We cannot imagine our loved ones are nowhere. Or, perhaps, the question is simply “Are you?” since it is oblivion, not location, we fear.

“We work in the dark,” Henry James said. Grief is such work. What I write here is written in the dark, out of desperation—words that try to communicate something that was communicated by the death of my son and which I can never communicate.

Perhaps grief is an attempt to hit a note that would shatter this world like glass and allow me to walk through the barrier that keeps my son apart from me for all my remaining days.

 

Nothing new can happen between my son and me. And while I have taught the parable of the prodigal son many times, these days I feel not just why, when the lost is found, there is great cause for celebration, but how truly the zest goes out of life with such a loss. There is no word for the pairings of emotions one feels in grief—the enormity of love mixed with the enormity of sorrow.

 

Today, as I was writing this, Leisl sent photographs to my wife’s phone. After Daniel died, she sold the house they had bought to fix up and either rent or sell once it was finished. The house was about three-quarters finished. She sold it as is, but my wife, who finally relented on buying it ourselves (I didn’t have the heart or the energy for the project) needed to give the new owners Daniel’s plans for the unfinished parts of the house. In the kitchen, a chimney that took up a great deal of usable space had been dismantled and removed, a basement staircase had been moved, the ceiling had been vaulted, the two-by-eight collar ties that ran from one outside wall to the other to keep the structure from bowing out had been boxed, but there were no cabinets, counters, or sink, and the subfloor waited to be covered with new wood boards. And today, incomprehensibly, Daniel’s plans arrived, completed by the new owner, on my wife’s cell phone. Everything was exactly where he had imagined it would go. The posthumous reality of that kitchen was like a letter arriving after the loved sender has died.

 

Near what turned out to be the end of Daniel’s life, he was mostly housebound, often confined to bed. He suffered from terrible back pain and spasms, his granular discs squeezing out between his vertebrae and pressing against the nerves of his spine. My wife and I often drove over to his house to keep him company, reading books to him as he tried to find that one comfortable position in a chair. One day has stayed with me. It was going well (which meant our hours together had passed without conflict), and when I had finished reading and we had talked about a few pages of Erazim Kohák’s The Embers and the Stars, I suggested he come back to our house for lunch. I had another plan in mind.

On the way, I turned into the driveway of a house that was for sale in town. It had a good-sized barn and twenty or so acres of land. We sat in the driveway between the gabled old farmhouse and the barn. The day was one of those perfect New England fall days—cloudless blue sky, leaves just turning on the trees, or drifting down with the wind. We imagined the interior of the house, where walls could be removed to open up rooms, and we talked especially about the barn—how he would partition and arrange it to house his painting business. We never really believed for a second that either of us would buy the property, but we talked on and on about what we would do with it.

 

Memories—so many people say, “You’ll always have your memories.” But even though my son died almost three years ago, memories of him are almost entirely painful. They are not Wordsworthian “recollections in tranquility,” but sharp stabbing pains that arise out of nowhere. Triggered by a sappy pop song or a TV commercial about back pain, memories of Daniel torpedo me when I am least prepared. They never miss their target. First, there is the utter pain; then the horror of remembrance which feels too often like a form of forgetting, of losing sight of Daniel’s features, the way his mouth curled wryly when he said something deadpan and funny, or the way, when he rested, he sprawled, he basked, his muscled body went limp. “The walrus,” my brother called him, humming the Beatles’ song.

I try instead to accept that Daniel is alive. I am not delusional, nor am I denying his death. I agree with Anne Carson: “I have to say this person is dead, but I don’t have to believe it.” I have to say Daniel is dead, but I don’t have to live as if he is. In Wordsworth’s poem “We Are Seven,” a man comes upon a “simple child,” who, when asked about her family, says they are “seven in all.” The man learns that two siblings have died, but when he asks the expected question, how, then, can your family be seven, the little girl responds: “Their graves are green, they may be seen.” She tells the man she knits her stockings by their graves, hems her kerchief, sings songs to them, eats her supper there. When the man insists that they must be five, since two are in heaven, no words will convince her. Her siblings are alive to her even if they lie buried in the churchyard. And, Wordsworth suggests, why shouldn’t they live on in her love for them? Perhaps the little girl possesses a wisdom we have lost in our rationality.

I am seventy. My son is not here any longer. And he is not not here. I don’t eat my supper at the cemetery where he is buried. But if I am asked how many children I have, I still answer, three. If pressed about where they live and what they do, I have no trouble saying one of my sons has died, that he lived in Woodstock his whole life and loved the town and area. He married his high school sweetheart who still lives and works in the area. He loved old houses and ran his own painting business.

But the answer can only be three. I don’t ever say to someone I had three sons, but one of them died. Am I trying to cut off the sympathy, even pity, I know will follow such a statement? I don’t think so. The truth is the dead go on living in our lives.

I do say—if only to my wife and close friends—that I can, at times, feel Daniel’s presence. Such a strange word—it can mean the fact that someone is in a place; or it can refer to the feeling that someone is still in a place although they are not there or are dead. But I mean something else. That Daniel is alive in more than my grief. What does saying such a thing mean? In part it means his presence makes a claim on me, even if it is beyond my ability to understand it. I certainly don’t mean I feel his presence in this or that room or at this or that specific time, what the philosopher Gabriel Marcel referred to as a “vaporized object.” I could simply say that I have had the experience of Daniel becoming part of me. And that would be partly true. But, when I speak about Daniel’s presence, it is something more. I experience it as a calling forth of something in me, some way of meeting it, even “answering” to it. I often hear his voice, though it is usually saying something like, “Stop writing down the things you think I’m saying.” His presence, which is mostly felt as the pain of his absence, nevertheless has a “hereness” which defies logic: Daniel is emphatically not here in precisely the way I would most desire—in a solid and tangible body. And yet.

When he first died, I found myself narrating my days to him—I’d say, a red-shouldered hawk that’s nested down by the barn just swept in above the patio, as if it were looking in on your mother and me as we grilled hamburgers, its kee-year, kee-year, coming close, then fading into the distance. When I walked, I acted as if he were beside me, noting, as if to him, the first appearance of the lily pads that would choke the pond in a month’s time. I was that little maiden in Wordsworth’s poem, and I lived in a kind of perpetual present in which he was both alive and dead.

I know now that there was a purposeful illusory dimension to that constant narration of events. I could not, I would not give up my fatherhood. I even prayed for the continued pain of my son’s absence. At least then I was hurt into the love I needed to feel.

 

The first summer after Daniel died, I was teaching on Whidbey Island, off the coast north of Seattle. My wife and I went off one day to find two potters who advertised their pottery as oven and stove-top safe. Their business was in the middle of the woods, and their isolation suited the two women just fine. As we talked and then bought a baking dish, giving them our phone number and address, our area code immediately registered with them. Their business had first started in Chaplin, Connecticut, just down the road from us. We even knew the street where it had been. And now here we all were, talking as if we had known one another for years, on the other side of the country.

As we returned to our car, we noticed some small clay church-like buildings made to house votive candles. The woman who made them called them spirit houses. Usually such a name would have sent me running to our car. I’m more the meatloaf or bread-baking dish kind of person than the votive candle lighting kind. So is my wife. But we paused over one we both liked, then bought it and had it shipped home. When we returned from the Northwest, it was waiting for us.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to do with it. My wife set up the Scandinavian-looking church on an old English pine chest in our kitchen with a picture of our son behind it. She’s lit a votive candle in it each morning, and the smell of the match and, after, the candle burning, travels to my study, just off the kitchen. At family gatherings, she sets it on the dining table.

Neither of us thinks this object houses our son’s spirit. In fact, that idea was so ludicrous to me at first that I ignored the little church in the kitchen. But now I visit it when I take a break from writing or reading, when a wash load needs to be moved to the dryer, when I make a cup of tea. I stand before it and look at Daniel. And most days, he is more than simply a photograph. In the picture, he is bent over his phone, his look mischievous, as if he’s just sent off a sly text to one of his brothers or to my wife. I can’t imagine it’s me since I don’t use a cell phone. Who am I visiting?—I’d answer, my son, who’s become part of my daily rounds, part of my day. Some days I touch his face as if he were alive, and break down, but most days I just look at him and think of him watching me make a cup of tea, or carefully folding his laundry that he would never put away. Or I don’t imagine anything at all, just sense the candle burning, or look at the clay church glowing on the chest in the middle of another gray day. In a few hours, it goes out. Tomorrow, my wife will light it once again. It’s a way, at least for now, of sanctifying time, of making—if we are there to meet him—Daniel’s life a continuous present.

 

These words from the gospel of John have lodged in my mind: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” Jesus is speaking to his disciples. And, presumably, the disciples’ reaction would have been something like Ben Jonson’s “O, could I lose all father now.” How can this nebulous Comforter replace the living and breathing Jesus who walks and talks and drinks wine with them? And what kind of deal is this: if I don’t go away, then no Comforter? Not a deal that makes rational sense. Not a deal anyone would choose. But a deal Love offers perpetually, and we can refuse or accept.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Daniel is sending me the comfort of the Holy Spirit. But I am saying I have had some sense of the Comforter these past years. When I say I feel the presence of my son, I am saying—at least it feels this way to me—that Christ’s death and resurrection is both a one-time event and a perpetual event, the way each year the Christmas hope is that Christ is born in us anew. Christ’s going away involves his resurrection first in Mary, and then in his disciples. And then in us. His going away, his absence even, is found now in the comfort of my son’s continued rebirth in my life. I feel like my role is to conceive my son over and over. This is not some desperate task of a grieving father, but rather a belief in the ritual of remembrance. Christ’s death is an act of love; it completes the story of Yahweh, who tells the Israelites, “I will walk with you and be your God.” Now Christ says, I will suffer as you suffer, die as you die. And when I die, I will send the Comforter to you.

I am saying that Daniel goes about my day with me. But how? The comfort is not so much the promise of life after death, but rather the possibility that there can be life-in-death-in-life. Perhaps love is as strong as death, as the Song of Solomon asserts. I know love is what goes on in death. I am always my son’s father. He is always my son.

 

My son died of an accidental drug overdose. He was addicted to pain medication, and he had had one back operation that failed and was scheduled for another in two weeks when he died. In fact, my wife, Leisl, Daniel, and I had a conference call with the surgeon from Mass General the very morning he died. In time, his back problems would most likely have been solved—a fusion was in his future for sure, though surgeons thought that having one at such a young age would probably weaken other discs and create the need for two or three more fusions later. But Daniel’s now was unbearable. We often hear people say, “Live in the moment.” In many ways, pain, ironically, is a total living in the moment. The future doesn’t exist. The past feels long lost. The present is all there is, and that present is nearly unbearable pain. I remember my wife doing a mindfulness meditation with Daniel from a book called Full Catastrophe Living. When it was over, she asked him what thoughts had come to him. He said, “Only thoughts of pain. Where it was located exactly and how I could adjust my body to lessen it.”

I do not blame the surgeons who worked with him. I confess I have real hatred for Purdue Pharma, and the corporate greed that so casually trumps human life. And for the medical world’s belief that painkillers, though not ideal, were still the best possible solution for pain, even when most doctors freely admit that the relationship between the mind and bodily pain is an utter mystery, and that MRIs cannot give them an image of what someone is suffering. And I do not blame Daniel. He had the strongest of wills. But the pain he felt day after day, year after year, without relief, wore him down.

Two years after he died, my neck started spasming in severe pain. I couldn’t stop the spasms, which came about four or five seconds apart. The pain was physical—my brain sending false signals to my nerves—but it almost felt psychological, as if I needed to experience what my son experienced the last two years of his life. Two days into my forty-eight hours of pain, I would have agreed to anything—shoot me full of heroin, but take this pain away. I understood at that moment what Daniel suffered, and how pain becomes a demon inside one’s head that runs rampant and must get what it needs. I would have taken anything to escape my own shouting brain.

 

I have often thought about our conversations on Daniel’s back deck during the last year of his life. Our subject was often drugs: he believed he needed more pain medication; I pleaded with him to use less. We argued, both enraged, and with a kind of calm, steely rationalism. In the lulls between arguing, I’d tell him how much I loved him and beg him, “Just let me in. I feel like you’re holding something back.” I’m sure he lied more than once about his drug intake. Shame makes expert liars of us all. Often we just sat together, a few feet apart in our chairs, ill at ease in our separate solitudes, both wanting our hours together to pass without conflict, yet feeling that conflict just beneath the surface of everything we said. He sensed my yearning and at times would look at me with both disdain and sympathy, as if he felt sorry for me, as if my desire for him to open up to me were so far beyond possible that I was a fool for asking.

 

During the last year of Daniel’s life, my wife and I did a year-long version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I love the Exercises, especially for the way they bring me back to a posture of gratitude. I feel the same about the Psalms.

But pain and grief can’t help but find the grate in gratefulness; some days, being grateful can actually grate on me. Why? I am still thankful—for my life, for Daniel’s life. I am thankful, surely, for the fullness of the love Daniel knew in Leisl, and in her and our family’s love for him. And for his friends and for those mentors and teachers who gave him the example of their actions and lives. I don’t feel as if he was cheated out of more life, though I think each day how he would enjoy this meal, or Sunday Patriots’ game, or that crystalline sky, or just something funny his brother said. And if I go somewhere new, I think always of what he would or wouldn’t like about that place. But that’s just how it is now, and how it will be. What grates, I think, is my stunted capacity to be grateful.

I get mired in my own thoughts: How desperately Daniel wanted to be healed—why couldn’t I help him? What grates is that Daniel savored life, and then it became bland and repetitive—another day of not being able to work, another day of pain. My plight is no different from so, so many others. Two of my wife’s sisters have lost children. Two of my closest friends have lost a child. In this current pandemic, someone is dying of Covid-19 almost every minute. And all over the world, people die horrible deaths for no reason, victims of crime, war, ethnic cleansing, territorial and political disputes, and so on.

 

I had a dream in which Daniel said to me, “Just let life bring you back to life.” I heard his voice perfectly. He is right, of course. Grief desires not what is, but what is not. And joy cannot exist without gratefulness, without that casual astonishment of just how warm the russet-brown is on a towhee’s side, and how the color is made warmer, offset by the towhee’s black and white. Or how, now in spring, the towhee has changed its song, lifting its bill into the air and trilling, drink your tea, drink your tea. I’m bringing back one of those days on Daniel’s deck. We had given up reading from Full Catastrophe Living and bypassed yet another meditative exercise. I said, let’s just close our eyes and listen to what we hear. There was the sound of locust leaves shaking in the wind above his barn. And louder, the leaflets of ash that lined one of his property’s boundary lines. A car and then a truck came toward us and faded away. We could hear a plane out of Hartford, heading north, high overhead. When we opened our eyes, we looked at the border ashes and their fringe of leaves against the sky where the silence of huge cumulus clouds drifted with the wind in a kind of procession. There was nothing to understand, but all our senses felt opened, and we were floating, not long, just a few minutes at best, before we returned to the world where his back and legs still spasmed.

But we had felt the mercy and renewal we needed. We felt grateful. We didn’t give thanks. We didn’t need to: when we looked at one another again, each of us could have said with Jacob, “Your face is like the face of God to me.”

 

 


Robert Cording is professor emeritus at College of the Holy Cross. His most recent poetry collection is Without My Asking (CavanKerry). Recent work is in the Georgia Review, New Ohio Review, Hudson Review, and The Common.

 

 

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