One Crimson Thread
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story
Walking Through Twilight
“Be gracious to me, O Lord,” the Psalmist writes, “for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also.” He does not hold back. The agony of grief that drives him to poetry and song provides us with a rich fund of words that still serve us in our sorrow: “My life is spent with sorrow and my years with sighing”; “my eye grows dim with sorrow”; “my soul melts away”; “I am weary with moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” Some of these laments take a turn: “The Lord has heard the sound of my weeping,” he writes, and, extravagantly, “Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was in a besieged city.” But the movement from lament to consolation is not a simple developmental arc; grief keeps happening. It exhausts and bewilders. It overwhelms and enrages.
Writing that gives sorrow words does not dispense with it, but it does, sometimes, make it more manageable, more bearable, even oddly interesting as it becomes a creative challenge. How to tell something for which “there are no words,” as many insist in the early days of loss, has been a motivating puzzlement for Holocaust survivors, veterans of combat, bereft parents and partners and friends. Loss raises questions. Asking them, and finding answers, may take place in music or painting or ploughing a field, but generally, it is word work.
The record of human grief that comes to us through literature is vast: most of us who have enjoyed lives of reading are likely familiar with classic deathbed scenes from Tolstoy and George Eliot and Dickens and Hardy, Alcott and Hemingway and Morrison. We have read, somewhere on our journeys, elegies whose words come back to us in seasons of sorrow—Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” or Jonson’s “On My First Sonne” or Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” or Auden’s “Stop All the Clocks,” to name a few among many within the Anglo-American tradition alone, that invite us fully to face the daunting facts of mortality and loss. “Pain comes from the darkness,” Randall Jarrell writes, “And we call it wisdom. It is pain.”
The wisdom in Jarrell’s bleak words, even for people who live in sure and certain hope of resurrection, is the way they insist on full acknowledgement of agony before assigning meaning to it. Indeed, as we know from the Book of Job, the deepest meanings we seek in suffering remain shrouded in mystery, and what we have to learn is not about why, but about Whom.
Our young century has produced its own rich harvest of writing about grief—so much, due in part to social media, grief groups, workshops, and organizations that encourage and share writing about loss, that winnowing can be its own somewhat daunting task. After our daughter died in 2010, a kind friend, joining us in shock and sorrow, sent us a whole carton of books about grief. Bless his generous heart. We read some of them, perused others, and were helped by many who had traveled that road before and offered their records of sorrow to the public eye. We also realized how, for good or ill, writing through grief is oddly trendy. A lot of people are doing it. Finding “the best that has been thought and said” in our own generation requires a bit of time and discernment. Sadly, sorrow and sympathy do lend themselves to cliché, not only in the genre of pastel greeting cards but also in materials produced for funeral homes, hospice organizations, and support groups. We need one another’s recommendations, available through online focus groups, but perhaps more valuable in the ordinary human encounters that allow us to find fellow travelers in the Valley of the Shadow and sit and talk with them a while. Or read their books.
Among those, three recent books about loss seem worth particular attention here. Different as they are in style and approach, their purposes are similarly urgent and generous: they map their personal journeys in some hope of offering usable guidance, realistic reflection on grief and grace, a stay against the confusions of sentimentality, polite conventions, and fear.
Michael O’Siadhail’s One Crimson Thread, a collection of 150 sonnets, traces a journey from the writer’s wife’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s—eventually complicated by dementia and overmedication—to her death and his early days of grieving. Married for over 40 years and close companions, their successive separations deal new blows as they happen: she goes into skilled nursing care, gets lost in delusions, becomes more frail and erratic, and finally succumbs after a fall and a short period in a coma. Biblical metaphors and allusions serve throughout the poems to thread memories together in fleeting images that offer glimpses of a rich and happy marriage. (“But must my Shulamite and I now part?” he asks in one poem, claiming the exquisite ancient love story as a frame and context for his own.) That marriage, and the shared faith in which it was rooted, prepared them, he reflects, but not enough, for this going. No one is fully prepared for death; even the most expected, timely, hoped-for ending takes place behind a veil of mystery. “Between the motion and the act falls the shadow,” Eliot writes. Between one breath and another death comes, silent and swift, and closely as we may watch, elusive and incomprehensible.
The sonnet form, though less common than it once was, seems to fit O’Siadhail’s purposes comfortably: fourteen lines at a time, deftly rhymed and carefully metered, each poem traces a moment, a memory, an image or two, an allusion, a feeling. The discontinuity of grief, the way it can, for a time, make each breath an effort, each hour a season, lends itself to the enclosures of prescribed lines where single phrases, unexplained, demand that you stop before going on. Arresting in their own right, some of those phrases become gleanings to take with us as we need them. He writes, for instance, about “the guilt of health,” watching his wife diminish as he stands, fit and full of restless energy, by her bedside. As friends come and go, he recognizes how “we’re gathered in the meshwork of their care.” And what better tribute to a loving life, lovingly witnessed, than his reminder of her “many-mansioned heart”? As I read them, I thought about the lovely discipline of lectio divina, the practice of listening prayerfully for the word or phrase that calls itself to your attention, stops you, invites you to go in before you go on. Designed as a contemplative way of reading Scripture, it fosters a habit of mind that invites the Spirit into the sacred work of reading, more widely considered. If we read searchingly, asking to be addressed, guided to what we need, we may find manna in surprising places.
It is the nature of poetry to open a way for epiphany. In a good poem, both poet and reader come upon gaps, odd images, word choices, patterns, turns of phrase, slips of logic, or small syntactical disruptions that make sudden sense in unexpected ways. In the middle of one sonnet the simple observation, “You’re beautiful as long as you are loved” takes my breath away: beauty, I am reminded, is a function of love, blessing, like mercy, “him that gives.” But that same loving gaze on another day takes in and imagines the “weary mind” that is weakening daily from the arduous demands of suffering. The mental dimension of pain is its own challenge, sometimes subtler but often more strenuous than coping with physical sensations that wrack the body.
Many of the final couplets seem replete with the sum of what has come in the first twelve lines. “Our thoughts like hemispheres cohered one brain. /And who’ll now know that half of who I am?” he asks as he comes to the ending of one, letting the not-so-rhetorical question linger, unanswered and poignant, in the blank space beyond. Another closes in a sudden surge of prayerful gratitude: “Then one by one friends come to watch with me / In this dark garden of Gethsemane.” Moments of dread, moments of spiritual fatigue, and moments of inexplicable peace appear oddly out of order, challenging the ways we might like to “stage” the course of true grief. In this long sonnet sequence—not accidentally, I imagine, the same in scope as Shakespeare’s—every ending is provisional. There is more.
O’Siadhail is skilled at his craft. And though some of the sonnets stand out more than others, the total effect is a compelling, rhythmic ritual of commemoration and grief. His book is a valuable and unusual addition to the literature of illness, caregiving, death, and grieving, inviting believers and unbelievers alike to remember that though we must “endure our going hence,” graces lie along that hard way like alpine flowers that weather the hardest wind.
Douglas Groothuis’ route through the same dark valley in his story of caregiving through terminal illness lies in the fields of philosophy rather than poetry. Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament traces the hard journey from diagnosis through disappointments, disillusionments, false hopes, frustrations, course corrections, and cries in the night—sometimes all of these in the course of a day. He watches his still-young, gifted, beautiful wife descend into early dementia from primary progressive aphasia—a cruel disease that mimics depression, then disorientation, but rapidly worsens and usually strikes people in what we call the prime of life. This is not a story of grief after death; at the time of writing his wife, Becky, is still very much alive, though “lost,” finding her way around an increasingly unfamiliar house, asking heartrendingly, maddeningly redundant questions, and he is trying to adapt.
He is trying, as he puts it, to “smelt meaning out of suffering.” The verb is significant: a hard, dangerous process of heating and melting is the only way to extract precious metal from ore. He is learning to apply the tools of his trade—the philosophy, ethics, and theology he teaches—to the messy, gritty business of daily life with a disease that is both mysterious and unmanageable. Grief, for so many who have to watch those they love linger in that “lostness,” begins long before the final breath. A man of steady faith with a long habit of prayer, he is having again to wrestle with the bewilderment that reduced Job, at times, to cries and questions. “In some cases,” he writes, “I can barely pray. The Body of Christ needs to step in and lift my weak arms.” As for O’Siadhail, the biblical story offers a place of refuge and orientation—firm footing on the slippery slope of his wife’s decline. I can endeavor to “set [my] heart on things above” (Colossians 3:1), he reminds himself, “and to remember God’s power and goodness. Memorizing Scripture is no small comfort.”
The book covers a wide range of experiences that expose layer after layer of life with chronic illness—the initial rage and despair; the successive small and large losses of capacity, each one to be mourned; the challenge to faith and hope in the relentlessness of the disease; others’ misapprehensions; and along the way, moments of respite, connection, even dark humor, and the kindness of community. Groothuis pulls no punches. Living with chronic progressive loss of brain function is brutal. The wisdom of theology and philosophy is a rich resource, but it does not offset or diminish the emotional pain and suffering; those must be endured, part of “our going hence [and] our coming hither.” Wisdom may come from such endurance, but slowly and at great cost. “I can neither find nor write a roadmap for this death march into ever-deeper lament,” he writes. And yet the book does map the labyrinthine course of a journey in caregiving not yet completed, and a dark night during which faith does, after all, provide a lifeline.
And writing itself turns out, for some, to be a lifeline. “We cannot write about death without writing about life,” Edwidge Danticat observes in The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, her long reflection on writing about her mother’s death. In the course of this generous retrospective on writing as a healing art, she cites numerous other writers who have set themselves a similar task, among them Don DeLillo, who wrote, “There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live.”
In that sense, writing is also an act of faith. One sentence leads to another. Not entirely without plan, it also happens, at its best, in a state of mind governed as much by what I might call guidance or grace as by plan. One is led from sentence to sentence through doors that keep opening. Danticat’s own recollections of her mother’s dying are amplified by recollections of her father’s death, as well, and by the many narratives—fictional and nonfictional—that have given her encouragement, hope, and direction in the process. Writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, C. S. Lewis, Michel de Montaigne, and Michael Ondaatje become points of reference in what widens from musings on her own process to an inquiry into how writers bear witness to the great mystery we will all enter. She writes not only of personal encounters with death, but of public catastrophes—among them 9/11 and the earthquake in Haiti—moments when we see the face of death large-scale and looming, and gather beneath it, seeking help from one another.
As Groothuis calls upon philosophy and theology as well as personal faith for a stay against despair, so Danticat seeks in her own craft the courage she needs to deal with the profound loss of a beloved parent—elemental and fundamental whenever it comes. She writes:
Reading other daughters’ accounts of their mothers’ deaths …. —Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death, Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother, and others—I sometimes feel as though we are all the daughters of the same mythical mother … we have all been orphaned, except by our words, which we eventually turn to in order to make sense of the impossible, the unknowable.
Perusing her mother’s Bible her eye is caught and held by the command, “Write this! Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on” (Rev. 14:13). “It seemed like a command,” she recalls, “not just to the Apostle John, the reported author of Revelation, but also to me. ‘Write this,’ it said, though as my mother’s life neared its end, I could barely sign my own name.”
And so she does, coming at last to believe with Margaret Atwood that all writing is motivated by “a fear of and a fascination with mortality.” More and more fully, in the process of watching her mother die and making a record of that death, she claims that fascination and also something deeper—a desire for the holy, for prayer, for the kind of writing that becomes prayer. And, indeed, this writing does: near the end of the narrative she writes, in the first person, a two-page prayer she imagines would be her mother’s as she lies dying, giving it the title “A New Sky.” Imaginative and compassionate, full of trust and attentive to the details of what will be left behind, laced with humor (“Please let them not bury me in an ugly dress”) and some regret, it is an expression of the hope that remains when all hope of survival is gone, fully human and open-hearted and expectant.
It is not, finally, writing that saves Danticat from despair, or either of the others, but the faith that grows new shoots in sentences put down in dark hours. To write is to find a way, words leading to the source Word, who is the Way. Not all grief needs to be written, but in our own grief we need writers who give sorrow words, whose words may be borrowed, remembered, resorted to in the hardest times, reflected upon, and by whose words we may find ourselves restored. Grief memoirs, the good ones, are the opposite of self-indulgent. They are generous offering to the rest of us. Annie Dillard, another of the many writers Danticat identifies as kindred, offers this pertinent suggestion: to write as though every story were our last, to “assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.” As one of those patients, I am grateful.