I need my golden crown of sorrow, my bloody sword to swing.
My uncle was diagnosed with a particularly heinous type of brain tumor about a year ago. Dad said it was one of those nasty ones, the ones that can’t be killed; only slowed, that it was only a matter of time. That there was no coming back from this.
Last weekend, I attended his funeral.
A lot of people don’t understand when I say “my uncle.” And how could they? My entire family is a weirdo. A strange mish-mash of Christians, atheists, and agnostics. We pray to God at meals, but not too loudly (and depending upon whose house we’re in). We make space for each other as best as we can. Progressive values abound and so do “traditional” ones. Two bachelor uncles in their 60s and one bachelorette niece in her 30s (me). There’s a lot of love and a lot of sarcasm. So my uncle wasn’t someone I just saw occasionally. He wasn’t someone who wasn’t really part of my life. It wasn’t like that. When we were in the same city, we all saw each other all the time. I never stopped to count the cost of that. I never considered that being in the middle of such a wonderful vortex would one day be the cause of…this. This splinter right down the middle. What will our shape be, now? When one of us is gone where the rest of us can’t follow?
Uncle Les was the hub, Uncle Les was the center, Uncle Les was the kind one, the patient one, the one who could talk about his feelings but also didn’t mind if you didn’t want to talk about your feelings. A nine on the enneagram. The peacemaker. That was Les. He loved theology. He loved birds. He had Classic Dad Energy. He kept the yard in pristine shape. We liked to talk about church drama. He loved to cook. I feel like I have no structure, now, in the silence afterwards. I feel like my bones are missing.
When I first got the news, my whole life just stopped. I just stopped my life. Weirdly, I kept thinking : the sheer audacity of this dear man to go and die on us. He’s got some nerve.
I asked my therapist, “Do you think he’ll even miss us?” And my therapist said, “From the descriptions you’ve given me of your family, I can’t imagine anything else but that he is going to miss you all very, very much.”
It sounds sarcastic in print, but my therapist, bless his heart, was genuine in his belief. Weirdly, I needed to hear that. I needed to hear that someone was convinced that my uncle would miss me. That he would miss us.
But he wasn’t afraid. He had the air of someone getting ready to go on a holiday in the countryside. Apparently, when he first received news of his impending best-before date, he said, “Well, I had a good run.” We all laughed. Dark humor is where my family excels.
I honestly didn’t think it would ever be him.
He was supposed to outlast my dad. He was supposed to be at Uncle Stan’s funeral, and he was supposed to be at my dad’s funeral. He was supposed to read the eulogy. I didn’t know that I was picturing it that way, but I guess I was. Instead, my father spoke at his funeral. Kevin and I heard the cracks in our father’s voice, and it was awful and wonderful.
Grief is the price you pay for love. I keep remembering that one sentence in From Here To Eternity : “Here at this restaurant, I pay my bill. When the feelings come, when the grief comes, I must feel my feelings. I must pay my bill. It is being alive.”
In one of the first few moments when the grief hit me, nearly a year ago, I was putting away laundry in my bedroom, by myself. I dropped to my bedroom floor, on my knees, my heart shredding. What is it about crying that reminds me of vomiting? Feels so awful when it’s happening, but then you feel lighter afterwards.
We seemed so invincible as a unit. I believed, wrongly, that nothing life-endangering would ever happen to any of us this early, because there would always be someone who would rescue the other. But a dying man needs to die, just as a sleepy man needs to sleep.
Grief isn’t something that I know how to do gracefully. I don’t think anyone in North America really does. For one thing, grief is clunky AF. For another, our whole culture is griefphobic. For someone who is Sort Of Melancholy All The Time, I have noticed this. We don’t know how to grieve together anymore.
That was why the movie Midsommar was so compelling. They showed (among other things, it was extremely graphic, I’m not recommending this movie, literally never watch it unless you like horror movies) a culture – well, okay, technically it was a cult – that knew how to grieve together. North American audiences were flabbergasted. Show us again. We want to see it again. We want to know if it can be done. Is there a way for us to do that? Is there a way for us to have this? We want it. We’re terrified.
Some days I feel, all day, as if I am on the verge of tears. As if I must turn my head from others, suddenly caught in a paroxysm of sorrow, a spasm of heartache. The broken heart. You think you will die, but you just keep living; day after day after terrible day.
How long will I have to sit with this awful thing, this death that has entered my home, before it will ease a little? A year? Two years? It just seems so long. It just seems like such a long time. Death also seems like a long time. It wouldn’t be so hard if we could at least write, or call. At least if there was something. But you only have what you have.
I didn’t want him to go. But bit by bit, I could see how it was hurting him to keep him here, with us. His anger and confusion at the ever-expanding unreliability of his brain. Eventually the thing that lived in the gentle brownness of his eyes which grounded us all and kept us moving became just a memory, we could see the shadow of it only. When it’s time, it’s time. Dad kept saying, “Yep, he's done.” Like Uncle Les was a naughty schoolboy who’d gotten kicked out of a sportsball game. “Excuse me, you’re done. Get off the field.”
Sometimes I cry at odd times for no reason at all and I think, this is it, this is grieving, I’m doing it, I’m grieving, it isn’t so bad. I can survive this. But those aren’t even the massive tidal waves of grief. Those are the cute little grief puddles that I wear my yellow rubber boots to splash in.
I can feel my grief sitting in a corner of my mind, holding her arms out to me as a mother to her children. Come home, she says. I long to be held, cradled in the arms of grief. But I cannot go to her. Because if I do, then that’s when it’ll become real. Even realer than it is right now, and right now it’s as real as I can bear it.
Late at night the sadness comes, and I weather it as best I can. Grief shows up like a stranger to my door, and I say okay, let’s see how I can gently keep you company, you are a terribly rude guest but let me make you some tea, let us talk a while, and then I read poems about death, or I listen to Maggie Rogers singing about coming back into her body, or I listen to Florence. I need my golden crown of sorrow, my bloody sword to swing. I watch the scene from Return of the King where Frodo sails to the undying lands and Sam wails, panicked, “You don’t mean it! You can’t leave!”
Oh, Sam. You speak the words of my heart. You don’t mean it. You can’t leave.
Even though he did mean it, even though he’s already gone and has been for quite some time. You don’t mean it. You can’t leave.
I look for him, for my Uncle, just behind my eyelids, not thinking about the fact that I’ll never hear his dry chuckle or gentle voice saying That’s our Sweet Megs right after I say something particularly appalling, loud, and abrasive.
There we all were at the funeral together, some of us believing that Uncle Les had just gone on ahead, some of us believing that he had just gone. Full stop. It is strange, in families. The silence that we keep and the language that we speak to each other with. The language that only we know.
My cousin recovered my late Uncle’s cell phone and was texting other family members with it, something that makes me laugh every single time I recall it. Sending texts like, “cell service better up here than in Renfrew.” Uncle B texted back, “Where are you? Mom’s looking for you.” Like I said, dark humor is where we excel.
Were we, those of us who believed it, just believing it because it was comforting? And even if were, didn’t we deserve that? Didn’t we deserve to be comforted? Nobody but us can know what we lost.
But I don’t think I’m believing all of this just because of my own emotional fragility. If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. But I’ll live my whole life as if I’m right. Imagine how I would be, who I would be, if I lived my whole life as if I really believed that God loved me.
That’s how Uncle Les lived. He lived as if he really believed that God actually loved him. He also lived as if he really believed that God actually loved me. And the rest of us. But it was never a pronouncement or an indictment. You didn’t even notice it. Not really. Not until the day he was gone from the world.