- Elegy and Narrative
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The year after my wife died, I compulsively watched television. I needed distraction, to be entertained. What I could not stream online or order through the mail I sought out at the local video store. I was living in a suburb of Indianapolis, about a mile from a strip mall where I could rent, in a pinch, midseason discs of The Wire, The Office, Friday Night Lights. I got to know the clerks by name, then their shifts, finally their tastes. Once, I tried to make a formal complaint against the corporate headquarters regarding the suspicious and perpetual absence of Battlestar Galactica. It seemed unjust [End Page 135] that the universe would conspire to deny my knowledge of its fictional origins. I worked up a good head of steam before leaving, distraught. The offense was egregious, and entirely my own. I went back a few days later, during a different shift.
On my walks to the store, I listened to my wife’s favorite songs. She was a huge country fan, especially mid-’90s radio country: Garth Brooks, the Judds, Randy Travis. As a child she had lived in rural, then exurban Illinois, attended college in central Minnesota. I didn’t particularly like the music, but I enjoyed that it reminded me of her and also how the emotional range of the music never ran too far from the middle. The walks, however long, seemed to go more quickly.
My wife’s death was violent and sensational. She was killed by a wild bear while we were hiking in the Carpathian Mountains outside Bucharest, where we had lived and worked for the last year of her life. She was thirty years old. More than five hundred people attended the wake, held in her hometown. A cantor from the church led a John Denver singalong, and several people spoke. A large dose of anxiety medication tempers what else I remember of that night. We formed a receiving line at the front door. We shook hands, hugged strangers, looked down the line. Most of the arrivers were strangers to me. As the night went on, my brother sneaked me away to the basement, where someone from the funeral home had set out cookies and punch for the kids.
Numbness is a central feature of my first memories of that year. In order to physically grieve, I learned to pantomime the real emotions I expected to feel, and that I believed were expected of me, until I felt safe with them. In this way, I began to grieve. Every few weeks, my doctor recommended a new activity: journaling, writing letters to my wife, going for walks in urban areas, getting a part-time job. In successively more direct ways, I engaged with the circumstances of my wife’s death, then with my witness of it and, finally, with her absence in the world. All the while, I tried to write poems about her and about my continuing life.
Writing seemed to stabilize my grief. I felt physically better after a long period of writing about my wife’s death. The subject matter intensified. I accessed a range of emotions and an emotional directness more nuanced and honest than what I could manage in conversations. I came to understand better how and why I grieved and mourned. Eventually I undertook to make sense of my own limitations as a husband and witness to her death. Writing allowed me the tools to take a kind of self-cure: to pursue the completion of a narrative interrupted by her death. [End Page 136]
I have three soft-cover notebooks in which I wrote daily accounts of my life during the first year after my wife’s death. The journal was a matter of will and record. I wanted to survive grief. I wanted to write elegy. The doctor I saw said we were personally and creatively redefining the context of my emotional experience of the world. I said it like this: What next? What now?
One of my part-time jobs was to...