August has passed, it seems, with little to show for itself. Smoky skies and an air quality rivalling that of some of the most polluted cities of the world curtailed much outdoor activity here. Further to the west, where the smoke originated and forests burned, it was worse. Now, as skies clear, temperatures are dropping and summer’s fading fast. Leaves are turning yellow. Autumn nears.
Two years ago today, September 1st 2016, a dear friend took her life. A second attempt after years of trying to fight off crushing bipolar depression. Unable to work and living on savings, treatment often meant driving to a public hospital, an hour each way. She lived in a small village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. We only met once. I spent a week with her in 2015, but from the moment we first met online, it was as if we had known each other forever. We could joke and riff off each other, falling into a regular routine as a dysfunctional divorced couple that often fooled others. In truth, we were bound by queerness, books, and bipolar disorder. Soul mates shipwrecked in our own lives.
But, of course, I couldn’t save her.
In the months before Ulla died I held a certain distance. I was reeling from the recent death of my mother, followed closely by that of my father. Knowing that she was fragile, and, after three years, still grieving her own mother, I was unable to reach out to her to seek or offer support. We were both drowning, but her sea was darker and more deadly. It had been for a long time.
With my parents’ sudden and tightly timed deaths, I had imagined the possibility of an exercise of writing immediate grief—echoing Barthes and Handke—but the burdens of being an executor distorted and distended the mourning experience and, for the most part, these losses remain unwritten. Then again, my parents were in their eighties with long lives, well-lived, behind them. My friend’s death, at forty-six, was more complex. I knew it had to be addressed, not simply for myself but for a community of followers who responded to her actions intently and personally. It took three months to salvage words and craft a 300-word piece which was published, with my own photographs, in late November of 2016. Each time I come back to this eulogy I realize how much of my immediate grief is contained there, perfected and concise.
Who, and what, in the end, do we write grief for? If we are looking for catharsis, a way to move beyond grief, we may be disappointed. Perhaps grief simply moves with us, evolving and softening over time.
If Ulla’s death sits especially heavily at this time of year, at the moment there is an extra weight. Earlier this month, my son’s best friend lost a difficult battle with opioid addiction. He had been at our house quite a bit in the last weeks, and although clean at the time, he was really struggling. My son is devastated. He’s been seeking refuge in alcohol and routinely breaks down in a flood of tears and despair. His sister and I feel a loss too; Dylan was a common presence in our lives over the past twelve years, but to be honest, in recent times I wasn’t always happy to see him on the doorstep. He and Thomas have both, at twenty-eight, been fighting their own mental health and addiction issues for a long time. And they were not always good for each other. They could be up all night arguing—usually about politics, but sometimes about really “important” matters like the difference between a canon and fugue. Things could get violent. One morning Thomas broke his hand on Dylan’s head (and glasses). But music was their real bond. They wrote and recorded songs together and spent hours busking on street corners over the years. They believed in each other when neither could believe in himself.
As a parent it is agonizing to watch my child in pain and know that his is a mourning song I cannot write.
As September begins, I am aware more than ever that we are surrounded by a constant procession of ghosts. I’ve bought a two-bed flat and, at the moment, I’m deeply engaged in the process of emptying out closets, cupboards and rooms of accumulated stuff so that, by October 1st, my house will be empty and I will be settling into a much smaller space. The sheer volume of junk that needs to be dumped, donated, or moved is overwhelming. And with it, reminders of the losses of the last few decades keep resurfacing when I least expect it.
Out in my unfinished garage where I have amassed a mound of old, damaged furniture and broken objects waiting for pick up, I found a windshield propped against the wall. I have no idea what it was for or why it is there, but I know it was something my father must have picked up and forgotten. I’m surprised how much of him I couldn’t part with after his death—his Russian literature, a bust of Beethoven, a grandfather clock—all tangible reminders of a man who was so elusive, so hard to know.
Of my mother, there are few objects I wanted to bring home but her presence permeates so much of my life. Especially the one I tried to live in her image. As a girl and woman. Packing up children’s clothing for donation I find the beautiful outfits she crafted for her precious granddaughter—lined coats, fancy dresses—her attentions to Ginny’s wardrobe becoming ever more feminine as I, her only daughter, transitioned to male. I also unearth all the outfits I myself made for both my children in their early years when I was still determined to play the part birth had granted me. A part that, ultimately, has nothing to do with gender at all. I truly enjoyed creating beautiful things for my children. It just didn’t alter the sense that I wasn’t female.
And so, this house is also haunted by ghosts of myself, the selves I wanted to be, the self I became while living here. The self I still don’t know what to do with. I haven’t even uncovered the boxes filled with all my childhood photographs or angst-ridden adolescent writing. But documents with my old names, once-treasured possessions, and even a wedding dress have been revealed. Some will be retained, others hastily stuffed in bags and carted off to Goodwill.
Then last night, another more recent, unresolved ghost emerged. In a closet I found a manual from a leadership workshop I took a number of years back. At that time I was confident, more secure in my sense of self than I would ever be. My transition, in my mind, was complete and a success. But within a few years, my brief, yet promising, career in not-for-profit management would be destroyed by circumstance and my own mental illness. A loss I still have not come to terms with and yet it seems like something that belonged to another person. As if my life has just been a series of reincarnations that seem to leave me no wiser or further ahead.
And no more certain who I am.
And then there is my own addiction: books. Spread through three rooms, with most shelves double stacked, I shudder to think how many boxes there will be. No mercy for old magazines and outdated textbooks. They are bound for the recycling bin. But every time I scan my bookcases to collect charity sale donations, my decisions about what to hold on to shift. My anthropology and ecology texts are now gone, but my philosophy, classics and ancient Near Eastern history volumes remain. I notice that so many of the books I bought during my years of bookstore employment in the early 80s are still valued, even if I didn’t appreciate some for decades after purchase, whereas the literary bestsellers I devoured in my thirties and forties have been, and are, regularly pruned and sent off to new homes. Some of the obsessive tangents reflected in my collection are held dear, others are an embarrassment.
The books we read, and perhaps even more tellingly, the books we buy with the intention to read them, reveal a lot about who we are, who we want to be, and who we want others to imagine we are. More ghosts in our own lives.
And I suppose moving is one more opportunity to encounter, reshape, and even resolve a few of those ghosts—our own and those of others whom time, distance, or death have taken away.
Maybe even grieve.