Tag Archives: grief

heartache incarnate

I posted this poem before, about four years ago. It reminds me of my brother. And of others, too. My mind keeps coming back to it. Maybe because it’s that time of year. Or maybe just because.

So here we are, 2011, the Thursday night before Mother’s Day. For the record, she did not have a good one. None of us did.

I read the poem again. And again. Again, until it is carved into memory. The lines that flow endlessly, beautifully, painfully through my heart are these: “You do what you can if you can; whatever the secret, and the pain, there’s a decision: to die, or to live, to go on caring about something. In spring, in Ohio, in the forests that are left you can still find sign of him: patches of cold white fire.”

Whatever the secret, and the pain, there’s a decision. You can go on caring. Maybe that’s easy for me to say—and maybe it’s not. It’s my decision, to go on, caring. I can’t make it for anyone else, but I won’t pretend I don’t want to.

This goes out to my loved ones, my tribe of true affections, who have struggled with this decision or have suffered the struggles of loved ones.

Perhaps I am selfish, but please, please stay. If you can.


John Chapman

He wore a tin pot for a hat, in which
he cooked his supper
toward evening
in the Ohio forests. He wore
a sackcloth shirt and walked
barefoot on feet crooked as roots. And everywhere he went
the apple trees sprang up behind him lovely
as young girls.

No Indian or settler or wild beast
ever harmed him, and he for his part honored
everything, all God’s creatures! thought little,
on a rainy night,
of sharing the shelter of a hollow log touching
flesh with any creatures there: snakes,
racoon possibly, or some great slab of bear.

Mrs. Price, late of Richland County,
at whose parents’ house he sometimes lingered,
recalled: he spoke
only once of women and his gray eyes
brittled into ice. “Some
are deceivers,” he whispered, and she felt
the pain of it, remembered it
into her old age.

Well, the trees he planted or gave away
prospered, and he became
the good legend, you do
what you can if you can; whatever

the secret, and the pain,

there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something. In spring, in Ohio,
in the forests that are left you can still find
sign of him: patches
of cold white fire.

—Mary Oliver

 

I need to go camping.

the kindness of new yorkers

Last Monday morning at 5:43am, I had a few minutes spare before leaving for yoga. I didn’t intend to read the email that had arrived the night before. I’d planned to wait until I was fully awake, in the bright of day, and perfectly able to take in whatever came next. I would not chance any of the sorrows that so easily take over in the quiet hours of the day. But the sun was up, and I rashly decided I was being silly. Why not? So I read.

Previous caution aside, I didn’t fully expect what I read or the affect it would have on me. I teared. I looked at the time. I collected my stuff and myself and I left.

A friend of mine once said, after her father died, that you can’t schedule grief. You can’t plan it, you just have to take it when it comes. This has been my experience precisely. While anger is fairly accessible to me, sadness tends to hide itself, even when I know it should be there, and feel that it is, somewhere, there. Because it is difficult for me to reach, I try to respect it when it comes.

In the elevator down, the tears started rolling. I walked out of my building and up the street, feeling bittersweet memories and the sheer sadness of an ending, and crying harder. I’ve learned in the past that silent tears often go unnoticed, and New York is mostly asleep before six in the morning, so I didn’t care too much about my public display. When I was midway down the steps to the subway, an MTA guy headed up them looked at me with concern. I recognized him as a night-shift elevator operator, and remembered saying ‘Hi’ to him when I came home the night before, just after 10. He said something. I pulled out an earbud.

“What?”

He asked, again, with kind eyes, “Are you okay? Is everything okay?”

“Yes, oh yes,” I answered, and he nodded. We kept going. The tears came a little harder, marveling at the beauty of New Yorkers. Marveling that someone who’d spent the last eight graveyard hours in an underground MTA elevator still has the capacity to be genuinely concerned about a stranger passing by.

A few nights before, I talked to a guy at in a club who claimed that Londoners are much more open and kind then New Yorkers. He complained that New Yorkers are entirely self-absorbed and unhelpful.

“Really? You think so?” I answered, amazed. I understand this might be true as far as superficial concerns go, but never have I found a New Yorker to turn on someone in real pain or need. Yes, there is a certain amount of numbing oneself to others’ pain that goes on here, to get through the daily realities of so many in such a small space. But if someone is truly out or ill or in need, someone steps up. No, not everyone, but someone. You know when it’s your turn. That’s how we work.

Last year, just after Andrea moved back to Australia, I was headed downtown on the train during rush hour to meet a friend for dinner. It was packed, and I was standing by a pole between the end seat and the doors. A particular song came on my player and all of the sudden I burst into tears. I’d kept sunglasses on, so I didn’t think it was terribly noticeable. I was silent. My eyes closed in search of privacy, pretending that anyone I could not see could not see me. Because rush hour on the train is so in-your-face, and I respect the right of New Yorkers to have as much space as possible on our confined and difficult commutes (i.e. no one needs extra drama two inches away after a long day’s work), I tried to dam the tears. Just when I thought I’d stifled them, someone tugged on my arm.

“Sit, sit, please sit,” said the man sitting in front of me.

Oh no.

Stubborn, I refused. “No. No thank you.” I shook my head, as accepting meant I acknowledged he was there. That anyone was there. That I was making a scene. His kindness toppled the dam and I cried harder, gulping for air as I tried to regain composure. The train stopped. The man got up. He looked and sounded Middle Eastern. “Sit!” he cried, as he grabbed my arm and forced me down in his seat, seemingly anguished by my pain, and then bolted from the car. The blond woman next to me turned and asked if I was okay.

“Yes, yes,” I answered, humbled by their kindness and totally unable to stop the flow of tears. I refused to make eye contact with anyone else in the crowded car, and refused to acknowledge how many might be taking me in. Finally, by 14th Street, I pulled it together, wiped my face, and prepared to get off the train. It was done. By the time I reached the restaurant, no one suspected a thing.

A friend of mine recently said that NYC is a refugee camp. It takes in everyone who, for whatever reason, can’t or doesn’t want to be where he began (and if not him, it took in his mother or grandmother, and he knows what that means). Given the number of cultural strangers here, it’s a miracle that so little violence takes place, especially considering the behavior and antics of many space-rich middle Americans.

In our own way, we take care of each other. No, we aren’t bubbly or disingenuous. We also know how to stay out of each other’s way, which can be seen by outsiders as rudeness. But on this tiny island of millions, that, too, is an act of kindness.

april again

Ohio_1990-12_007Jim died a year ago Thursday. April 26th. It’s been a painful week, watching the sad, and my resistance to feeling it. I did soften enough to feel at times, and the soft ache in my heart and dull pain in my chest were less painful than all my resistance, “the why should you be so sad” dialogue, the, “what’s a date anyway?” and the “if I give in to the sadness, will I drown?”

One thing that pulls me through my moods is the knowledge, the experience that that the pain will pass, and that simply feeling is often less painful than the mental fortresses I create to numb and avoid it. My fear that the grief is bottomless is daunting, though. Last November, when a meditation friend held me through fits of tears, my brother’s face floated back into my mind, floated back into perfect focus. I held my breath, as not to disturb his image. My friend felt this and said, “Breathe, you have to breathe. Keep breathing.” I did breathe, as I’m trained to do, but Jimmy’s face faded out when I took in new breath. That seemed harsh punishment. As if to keep living, I’m not allowed to remember. What if I’m not ready to forget? It’s ridiculous. We will never forget.

As I cried, she asked, “There, doesn’t it feel good to let it out?” Of course it did, and I released my body into her warm, round embrace. It also felt limited and superficial, as I knew her embrace was finite. I couldn’t go on there all day, or all year. But I needed to. I wanted the tears to flow away. Who has that kind of time?

John Chapman

He wore a tin pot for a hat, in which
he cooked his supper
toward evening
in the Ohio forests. He wore
a sackcloth shirt and walked
barefoot on feet crooked as roots. And everywhere he went
the apple trees sprang up behind him lovely
as young girls.

No Indian or settler or wild beast
ever harmed him, and he for his part honored
everything, all God’s creatures! thought little,
on a rainy night,
of sharing the shelter of a hollow log touching
flesh with any creatures there: snakes,
racoon possibly, or some great slab of bear.

Mrs. Price, late of Richland County,
at whose parents’ house he sometimes lingered,
recalled: he spoke
only once of women and his gray eyes
brittled into ice. “Some
are deceivers,” he whispered, and she felt
the pain of it, remembered it
into her old age.

Well, the trees he planted or gave away
prospered, and he became
the good legend, you do
what you can if you can; whatever

the secret, and the pain,

there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something. In spring, in Ohio,
in the forests that are left you can still find
sign of him: patches
of cold white fire.

—Mary Oliver

memories of victor: one last bulk

The news of Victor’s death finally reached me from Afghanistan via e-mail, twenty-three hours before a midterm and minutes before teaching a yoga class. When I skimmed the e-mail, “Oh, so that’s where he’s been,” flashed through my mind in that first split second. Then my heart crashed and I began to wail as I understood where he’s been.

My difficulty processing grief is well established, and Victor’s death poses a unique challenge in that I am far from his friends and family, from the places where we were. But I haven’t seen Vitya in years. We kept our friendship up online, as so many do these days, and that is where I have turned to grieve, to mourn this beautiful man and pay him the respects I owe so deeply.

viktor larin and polina Though he was a Samarqandi by birth, we worked together in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I was a tour guide and he was a hotel manager. Vitya taught and supported me in ways I will never repay, and I hope that under my arrogant, obnoxious façade that he knew how much I loved him.

I’d have preferred to—I’d have been honored to—go out and wail with the women, beat my chest and meet the intense, tamasic pain which the “strong” demand the impure live out for them. But I had a Hinduism midterm to prepare for and I was not about to ask out of it. Instead I treaded a middle ground. I studied as much as able, concentrating on the meaning and rituals of death because we’d recently covered it and that is where my mind was rooted. Alas, Yama [Hindu god of death] barely graced the midterm (he can be such a tease!), but I worked in what I’d learned as best I could, and now sit down to write. To wail.

And to acknowledge that it does not feel right to march on in polluted strength when there are tears denied and pains shooting through my rib cage on to my heart because Vitya, and another part of me, is dead. But how to grieve when there are no family and friends around to sit with and remember his warmth and beauty? In that, this electronic connection has bridged a painful separation.

Vitya loved to argue as much as I do and we debated endlessly, in his office, in the Taj restaurant on Chekhovskaya Ulitsa, and after I left, by e-mail. We offended each other daily, but he never gave up or shut me out. Instead, he explained himself, his culture and his way of seeing time and again, and encouraged me, ordered me, to keep interpreting it for those not willing or able to venture to Uzbekistan. And, of course, for the tourists who did. So now it’s time for me to sit and remember, to write the Victor I knew from my way of seeing him, which might be, please understand (as Vitya would have), quite different from your own.

victorlfamilyVictor was larger than life, almost mythological. He loved to take care of people and he lived for it, sometimes to his detriment, when he didn’t say no and others took advantage. He knew this and he had started to fight it around the time we met in 2000, perhaps before. But once identified, these habits are still tremendously hard to break. Hell, being a sexy hero has its merits. By the time of his death, Victor had two families to care for and an endless list of friends, lovers and business associates who counted on him in different ways.

In the last year, Victor and I stopped writing as much. Nothing he wrote was really meaty and interesting as our correspondence had been, and as that’s all I really respond to, I didn’t much respond (yeah, you aren’t alone). I’ve been enjoying my inward journey of late, minding my own nonsense, which is interesting to very few and annoying to the rest. I sensed it was annoying to Victor, not because he didn’t appreciate the inner-world, but because he was moving out (as I will too at some point), traveling and working madly, trying to establish the business in Afghanistan. So much for balance. I sigh in pain as it’s unlikely that I have to explain to you my take on workaholics, those who run in bright-fast circles to numb the pain of their existence, full force against a second’s rest to simply breathe the depth of life, its torments, and its fertile joys. What’s hell is that Victor knew it but fell anyway. For the year, with small exception, most of his emails looked like this:

My life here more and more become gypsy style. I stay in Kabul for not more than 3 nights a week and my knowledge of geography of Afghanistan is getting better and better. I’ve seen nice places on the north, east and south – on the way visits to Kandahar, Helman and Herat. Than Badahshan. As you see not enough time for something more than a couple of words to write. I’d like to write down some impressions, but I’m afraid I won’t. Anyway – good to know that you’ve been safely landed at home. And I’d like to see your central asian diaries published and signed for me.

and:

Sorry for being silent for too long. Just owervhelmed with business issues and absolotely have not time due to the very tough travelling schedule. I’ve made around 2 thousand miles in the last couple of weeks(also on SUV, but just 14 years old Toyota Surf). I’ve been in Jalalabad, Wardak, Kunduz, Takhar, Saripul, Wardak and few more less prominent places. Tomorrow I’m leaving again to Shibirgan, day after I have to be in Kunduz, than one night in KAbul, then Jalalabad (to pick up my team) and then to Ghazni. After Ghazni I’d probaly have to go to Herat and Kandahar and somewhere in the meantime to visit Badahshan and Fayzabad. Few pictures were made, of course no comparison with your professional ones, but anyway reflecting unimaginable wonderful scenery of this country. I would like to get a bit more time to learn Dari finally. I’d like to get a bit more time to write down some of my road impressions. May be later.

lataband-008Belinda, a New Yorker to whom Vitya introduced me in Tashkent, who’s helped me immensely in this grief, had the same complaint. “He’d made a choice about where he wanted to put his time.” Belinda expressed her annoyance to him but I let go. He sent me boring emails (with some beautiful photos) and I didn’t reply. I just waited for this stage to pass.

Victor was forever pressing me about writing my stories down, which he knew all too well doesn’t happen much when you are trying to get the big life done. But the reason I stopped writing about him, and about much in Central Asia, was because I got too close and it got sticky. I cared about the people too much to write them simply, and didn’t feel I had it in me to explain my friends’ different decisions and different ways of life to folks back home.

In one of our last great debates, which always included a great misunderstanding, Victor showed me his vulnerability in a way he seldom did. He told me I’d hurt him, that I flattened him, made him two dimensional and poked easy fun at him in my comments about his life decisions. I don’t recall now what I’d said (I’m still unable to look back at those emails), but I can still feel the shock of pain in my heart when I read it. I immediately emailed him, “No no no, Victor, dorogoi! Please, no, that’s not what I meant, not how I feel!” I didn’t say that often, and certainly not enough. I’ve never felt that about anyone I’ve lost and it feels, it feels like my heart muscle has been stretched out like a rubber band and ZING snapped free, left to find it’s form somewhere new, somewhere again. We took for granted that “May be later.”

A little more than a year after I left Uzbekistan, Victor moved to Moscow because life in Tashkent is abysmal (much thanks to Karimov) and he eventually wanted to get his family out. He didn’t bring his family though, because it took awhile to find a job and set up. Ethnically Russian or not, being Uzbekistani did not make life in the big city easy for Victor and he didn’t like it there. Nevertheless, he fell for his landlady and married her. They had a daughter, Anastasia, in May of 2003. (Given the nature of time, I thought she was 18 months now, but she’s already two and a half.)

This involved leaving his Uzbek wife, which never totally happened as he was ever-dedicated to supporting his family. And now families. Victor thought that I judged this brand of heroic masculinity, and, yes, I did. Most Americans would, which is why I never told the story. I didn’t know how to do it without flattening him. Though it looked all the while like Vitya was building himself a heavy cage, one he simultaneously yearned and plotted to escape, he knew it and fought it. Beneath his heroic, manly mask there was poetry aching to break free. This made him human. And loveable.

byVityaI never told him that though, and he thought I looked down on him. I didn’t. How could I? When in Uzbekistan, I benefited from his generosity like any other. He watched my back, taught me without letting me know it, and never, ever once made me feel like he wanted something from me, physical or otherwise. We talked about relationships and sex, and he certainly had all sorts of lovers, but he never once let me feel that irksome pressure of fanciful expectation that most hetero friendships have now and again. Nor did he presume it of me. He was an excellent friend.

Yes, I was frustrated that he chose to work himself to the end—he must have had so much to say about his life there!—but we both thought it was just a stage. At least I did. I really did expect him in New York, my borderless city, one day. I’d take him about to my favorite Indian places, as I did in Tashkent. Yes, that’s what I thought.

I encouraged him to go to Afghanistan, because though he was working like mad and escaping his families, justified by trying to support them (a man’s man), he was also having the adventures he always wanted to have. Of course I understood his wanting to be somewhere else and we related heavily on that note. He loved my bulks and encouraged me to do more with them. I didn’t. But now, with Victor gone and so much left unsaid, this memorial is the very least I can do for him. The photos capture his beauty, at once his heroic, manly stance and his sad, searching eyes. Oh, beautiful Vitya, may you be happy and free. You are loved.

Photos in this post are by Victor and his friends and family.