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It's Nelly's World

Reading, Writing, and Resurrection

alec vanderboom

Recently I read the new book by Francisco Goldman, Say Her Name, a remembrance of his young wife, taken by a freak swimming accident in Mexico in her thirtieth year, and only a couple of years into their marriage. It is a hypnotic work, both because of the raw mastery of the writer, and also because of the morbid fascination such a thing exerts on the reader. We can only imagine it happening to us, such monumental loss, and we also think just reading it might perform some sort of voodoo to keep us safe from a similar terrible event ever visiting us.

But since we live and love, we are never safe. And this we know, as we read from outside of such shredding emotions that they can only truly be experienced from inside. It's all a big egg of paradoxes: happiness cracks open to reveal pain; "having" releases the possibilities of "losing."

Mentioning this on a certain social networking site that shall remain nameless started an interesting, if anxiety-provoking, dialogue among people who have never met one another. Unbeknownst to me, one of my interlocutors, whom I do not know personally, responded that he had lost his wife recently, his partner of decades. Uh-oh. Why should I even presume to say a word on subjects I know nothing of? --Because someone who knows much, much better is going to mow me down, with overpowering experience.

I recognized in his words--sent out to strangers--the undercurrent of anger, of wanting to collar anyone who chances by so that they might listen. Then to cry, "But you cannot know!" (And indeed we can't.) I recognized the offerings of despair--I drink too much; I fear I will never feel happiness again--as if to simultaneously say, "I need you to understand . . . you will never understand." I recognized the oversharing in a public place, because this is all you can do. You are alone; you don't want to be alone; your aloneness defines your grief, and may not be taken away.

We both know it will come and deny that it ever could. It is just too big. And we are faced with it daily, now that we have all these inputs, all these immediate yet distant ways of viewing the death of others on our little screens. Stalin understood (did he understand anything? yes, and no) when he famously said, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." We have millions of deaths coming at us from the radio and the television while we prepare our dinners in the cocooning warmth of our kitchens, the heart of the home that is to preserve us in eternity of course.

And then it comes. Out of nowhere. Or the somewhere that is the life that we never asked for, but once it is here, we cannot imagine our way out of.

It is interesting that for some of us, life is a succession of partners. One after the other, jettisoned for some reason or another, even the "Till death do us part" as meaningless as the speed limit on a stretch of desert highway. Multiples of multiples. And for others, there is only one. What is spoken means everything: Forsaking all others. The binding of two into one not only through love (something I do not truly comprehend, the more I try), but finally in heartbeats, long years together of something heard in the other room and assumed to be there forever, since it is your heart as well.

How many times in a life can you say, "I love you" to different people before it becomes as diluted as those water drinks with which I try to trick my child into believing he's been given juice? "They don't taste like anything, Mom." How many times before the wheel of hope turns down toward disillusionment, abandonment, then back up into another new hope before we wish to take off the axle nut once and for all?

I remember, shortly after the rupture of the life that I had too blithely assumed was going to go on and on and on (the disappearing point in my own life, way off in the distance), a vision one lonesome night at the grocery store. Ahead of me, an ancient couple stood at the end of the checkout. Silently, slowly, with enormous concentration, they bagged their food. Together. He would pick up a package, hand it to her. She would reach over to hold up a handle of a bag in order to help him. I watched, rapt, stunned. It seemed the summation of partnership, and it was a sharp knife touching my throat. This is what I will never have. This is what I have lost! Or it was like falling and hitting my head against the ice. I watched with tears running down my face, the sudden slap of loss stinging and stinging.

A few days ago I wondered, aloud in type, about the obviously imperative need of a writer upon suffering the loss of a spouse to write about it. When this is your lot in life, to create things out of words, it is also your fate to re-create things out of them. To go over the details, to offer them up; in reciting the narrative of the past, to make it present again. The pain is never assuaged this way, but it is presented to us. We make of it what we will; the writer is a bit of a god, bringing momentarily back to life that which he lost. We see her there suddenly, alive, until the last page is turned.