May, be.Posted: May 21, 2017
I wasn’t sure what May would hold this year. You never can tell. May does what it wants, dancing you madly up and down the thermometer, bringing everything to the point of bursting with life, and then crushing it all overnight with unexpected frost. May, as I have written ad nauseum elsewhere, is a complicated and storied month. I have learned not to presuppose how May will go.
This year, as the day approached, I searched myself for some kind of feeling. And I felt—nothing. Which was intellectually interesting to me, but also was a terrible portent. There’s no way I’d get away with feeling nothing, and anyhow, I don’t think feeling nothing is a particularly strive-worthy goal. In fact, feeling nothing is pretty much the opposite of what I want for myself, always. Still, I thought, maybe this will be one of the easy years. I could stand that.
There was, though, some rising anxiety that seemed to be unattached to anything real and concrete and point-to-able. Some aggression that seemed to be unrelated to any actual feelings or circumstances in which I found myself. A deep exhaustion I blamed on allergies, but which nagged me with its completeness. A persistent spaciness that had me making stupid mistakes while driving and sewing yesterday. Try not to hit that pedestrian, rip it up and start again.
Still, I thought, I don’t really feel much of anything.
I wonder if I am marked for grief. I know for sure I am marked by it. At the farmers’ market yesterday, we went to get fish from our usual guy. How are you, I asked, as I usually do. He shrugged as if it didn’t matter at all how he was. Then he said, I’m sorry, I’m grumpy. Well, not grumpy. Angry, maybe. But not exactly angry. He gestured with his hands in the empty space between us, as if he wanted us to move on, but then we didn’t. Grumpy, he said again. But, inside. Then: I lost my wife, you know. And I thought, did I know? Do I even know your name? And I said: I’m so sorry. And he said, oh, well. And I asked when and he said December 20. And I thought but didn’t say, ah. Five months. To the day. It’s seventeen years tomorrow for my brother, I said, so he would know I was a fellow traveller.
And then I asked for a pound of haddock and as he bagged it up, he told me how suddenly it had come upon his wife. She was sick for eighteen months, then she was gone. She had just retired. They had planned to travel and do so many things, and they never got to do a one. She loved to garden, and so this time of year is hard, he said. But then, all the times of year are hard. She would talk about the beauty of what was in bloom and he never paid much mind, would kind of pshaw it away, and now he wishes he had those moments back so he could sit with her and appreciate that beauty. I’d like to punch cancer in the face, he said, and I could feel the skin around my eyes grow wet. Right in its stupid face.
Seventeen years for your brother, he asked, and I nodded, and he said, I can see you still feel it, and I nodded again. It’s different every year, I told him. The first year is the worst, because it’s all new. Do something different at Christmas. Go to Toronto, or Mexico, or anywhere that isn’t where you usually go. Because it’s going to suck anyway, but it will suck worse if you try to make it like it used to be. I didn’t tell him it’s never going to be that way again, because obviously it’s never going to.
I got my fish and I got out of there, and I stood in the hallway at the farmers’ market and cried and cried. How could your wife, who has just retired, die five days before Christmas? How could your brother, who has barely begun his life, die before his second-born is even a year old? How can it be five months? How can it be seventeen years? How can I feel nothing one minute and everything the next? How can time keep passing? What is this life and how are we to live it?
You’ll know now, my fishmonger said, if you ask how I am and I say I’m grumpy, you’ll know. And I’ll know about you, he said, if you say you’re grumpy.
I am trying hard to find the sense in all this. The perfect bow with which I can wrap up a perfect package of insight. It doesn’t make sense, and it won’t, and I’ve known that for every minute of the last seventeen years. It was the first lesson I learned in the new country of my grief. I don’t envy my fishmonger the territory ahead of him. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned, and glad I have any kind of insight to pass along to newcomers to my land. But I would trade it all, every bit of it, for one more day with my brother.
We can’t go back, though. The things I want I cannot have. And so, I come back again to the decisions I’ve made in years past: a renewed commitment to live as hard as I can, to do all the things to the best of my ability, to take care of the earth, to appreciate the glimpses of my brother I see in those around me, to quit dicking around, thinking I have lots of time, to appreciate the time I do have. I’d like to think I could have learned these lessons some other way. Still, what I have is what I have. The grief, the joy, the knowledge, the love, the memories, the resolve, the opportunity, the day, this minute, that’s all. May’s message is simple this year: be. Enough.