I’m considering taking down an ungainly splay-leafed maple in the back yard, which grows out of a rock with the tenacity of a hyena stealing kill from a leopard. This tree has left the pines behind it spindly and transparent with brittle branches reduced to naked twigs. It has caused the dogwood to grow sideways in search of the sun and bloom only on one side. It has made the growing of grass beneath its muscular arms a virtual impossibility. And yet? Without it, the dogwood might not right itself, the pines fail to flesh out. And the neighbor’s new storm windows will simply stare. Besides, there is history. On steamy afternoons I welcomed the shade of this unlovely two-trunked tree, blessed the branches that enshrouded me and saved me the sight of the husky doctor who strutted on his deck in his underwear. I railed at tree surgeons for lopping branches I feared would not grow back, and I refused to pay their bills. Now I email my daughter about the dilemma and she responds—you want to take down the tree that had our rope swing? Mom, are you crazy? I tell her that tree went down years ago. She’s here about once a month, so seeing tree ghosts is a story in itself, and psychologically significant, but doesn’t solve the maple problem. Or maybe it does.
You get to a certain age and loss is a daily event— the dress that slipped off the hanger and lies askew on a pile of heels in the dim recess of the closet, the glasses you look for under the bed, in the other case, on the bathroom shelf, and find after the loss of a half hour on top of your head, or the desired item in the fridge you cannot even recall as the door stands gaping and you stand staring, seeking clues idiotically from a jar of mayonnaise. My daughter refers to these things as “mommy lost,” fully assured of the finite nature of their absence. Nope, I assert, I’ll never see that dress again. Looked everywhere. It’s gone. We are in opposition: she believes a tree is there, which is not, I believe a dress is not there, which is. Since I’m not by nature a pessimist, this must have something to do with youthful bright-eyed-ness and persistence vs a mature assumption of the ephemerality of just about everything.
This assumption reared its head with the dismantling of my parents’ house after fifty years (the haphazard labeling of items for auction, the stripping down of floral curtains, the tossing of painstakingly assembled photo albums, the rolling up of orientals) and grew to fruition with daily accounts of global disasters that shred human habitations in seconds: landslide in Colorado, earthquake in Yunnan, tornado in Oklahoma, wild fire in San Diego, flash floods in Arizona, tsunami in Indonesia. I see people on the 6:30 news shuffling through skeleton houses and mounds of cement and blown out toilets, picking up a flip flop that survived, a doll’s arm, a patch of a patchwork quilt, and those people always look at the camera in reeling disbelief and say well I’m thankful for my loved ones and we’ll start again and all kinds of noble testaments to the resiliency of the human spirit. I guess you can’t say much in a two- minute blurb. In two hours could you say what it is to lose all the pictures of your kids, or the couch you just paid off, or the garnet earrings set in twirls of silver that belonged to your grandmother? They don’t give you two hours and there’s a reason.
I lost my grandmother’s necklace of baby sea pearls not to a natural disaster but to a crackhead who came through the skylight of my apartment building, ripped out two Medco locks, and took his time pawing through my underwear, stripping the bed, emptying coffee tins in the fridge and strewing clothes across the floor like the map of an alien planet. I was twenty-six and vulnerable. Twenty-six and violated. That loss was not entirely material, though in later years I sometimes thought the necklace would have enhanced a certain dress. Fleeting thoughts. Inconsequential, really. I never knew that grandmother, but I would see the necklace superimposed on pictures I had seen, she in her navy dress with V-neck collar, a Scottie on her lap, a small-brimmed hat cocked on her head, lips parting in a wry smile. She’s the reason my mom had food on the table. Sometimes I would see the necklace locked in a dark drawer in a pawnshop on St. Marks and wonder what anyone thought it was worth.
Just a month after the apartment incident, I was ambling along 40th Street in Manhattan, lugging a briefcase and pocketbook and eating some yogurt. As the plastic spoon reached my mouth, the strap on my shoulder slid, jerked, pulled—yogurt splattered—and suddenly I was in a tug of war with a big woman in black jeans who yanked as if curbing a massive dog. I hung on like a Jack Russell terrier, purely overwhelmed by waves of indignation–how dare she? It’s mine. So we pulled and tugged under a bald afternoon sun as heels clicked by and businessmen undoubtedly glanced our way. When I yelled at last, she ran, and I stood panting, the cheap bag dangling from my fingers. Some guy remarked I could really throw a punch, but I didn’t know I had. I’d grown up in the age of peace and love and weighed as much as a dandelion. Still, the battle had been thrilling! Power coursed through my veins! Now I could call the police and set in motion the final revenge.
“Yes, I’m on 40th and this woman, she tried…”
“Did she get anything lady?”
The cop laughed and hung up, and I stood there in a phone booth feeling like a dust mite.
In subsequent weeks I had a story to tell, and I told it repeatedly, but friends looked at me as though I were high and said, so what if you lost your bag (which held about $10), you could’ve lost your life. I shrugged and conceded, knowing but never essentially feeling that they were right. It was never my own life I worried about losing except in childhood dreams when bad guys clipped the screens of my windows and I raced from my room only to find my parents had become bad guys too and having lost them I was that much closer to losing me as I tore down the stairs and out the driveway with faceless bad guys bearing down until waking up saved me and I didn’t have to look at my own dead self, though that happened once when I was too young to ask–and then?– or wonder about whose consciousness was cognizant of my lifeless body.
I lost Nick Halloway when I was thirteen after wearing his ID bracelet for a year and sneaking out the window past midnight to walk around town with him and drink Coke. I lost the envy of those eighth grade girls, too. For days I sat on my yellow quilt listening to Smoky Robinson croon about the tracks of his tears while my own wore grooves in my soul. Staring at his photo, all affable smiles and ingenuous eyes, I could find no rationale and that was stunning. He had proffered no rationale, simply walked away, literally, across the room at a party and that was that: a valuable initiation into meaninglessness and absurdity, which still I often failed to see simmering on the horizon in later years.
In a dreamy, disassociated state kids lose teeth, sweatshirts, notebooks, homework, North face fleeces, and– roughly proportionate to socio-economic bracket– I-phones and laptops. These losses rarely have an impact beyond the hassle of retrieving Sam’s number, and no parent dealing with the financial consequences can applaud edenic obliviousness or transcendence, both of which could be survival tools in the face of lost friend, dog, grandparent, youth. People say loss makes one grateful for what one has, but a kid isn’t going to like some other sweatshirt more because he lost the first and may, in fact, resent the remaining sweatshirt, which had not been worn for a reason. But what of the value of have-not-ness, the palpable insistence on absence as something unlike anything else, with its own barbs and ambiguities and labyrinthian tunnels? Forty years after the fact I safeguard the have-not-ness of Nick Halloway, which has nothing to do with him.
You get to a certain age and a season doesn’t go by without a friend emailing about a failing, dying, or dead parent. Out come the pat phrases and palliatives: you were expecting this, right? Or, how sudden, but she lived a long life. She was in such pain, at least that’s over. Or, I know you feel old now. But you shouldn’t. Think young! The implication is getting over such loss is analogous to getting over a sore throat, which is expected to run the usual course of raspy throat to clogged nose to coughing of phlegm and then it’s done. Death is the only certainty, not our symptoms in the face of it.
When my mother died eight months ago, friends wrote well meaning letters that danced around that certainty, favoring reminiscences of life, mine and hers, and issuing bland gestures of sorrow over what they could not say. I don’t know which is harder, reconceptualizing a lost person or lost years. One has finitude and unity, the other pointillist images borne loosely in a net submerged, a net full of whole years forgotten. When my children die, no one will recall my mother. Will that be her death, or is it now?
I know my mom made me who I am, to some extent, and I was a source of happiness to her, to some extent, in long years of decline and shrinking possibility. Beyond the significance of that reciprocity, her death, that certainty, brought only greater awareness of what I don’t know. And so I keep asking.
What if I could believe death is a void you could paint with the oils of a life in just the appropriate hues and with just the appropriate heft without the mechanical echolalia battering inside and reminding me: ah, but then it would not be the void you know that it is, and it must be the void you know that it is, and there will be no eyes gazing into a childhood dream of death.
What if you could believe all negative space is not a lack but a complement to what you have that is whole. What if when the moon is a marble crescent, the ash gray outline of the remainder caught your eye first, made your heart beat, made you mention to someone, the moon is bright tonight.