Grief Comes Home
Recently, a friend just older told me something about death that seems now obvious – the observation that sometime in a person’s fourth or fifth decade there is a subtle shift of awareness that shows up as no longer understanding one’s life in terms of how long it’s been since birth, but rather in relation to how much time is left. It’s a shift that calls forward a new relationship with death – and with life, too.
For the most part, I live on the far side of that shift. For me, the awareness was less like the flip of a switch than a gradual concession to cozying up with impermanence. It’s been something like taking on “just relax” as a mantra and thereby transiting the otherwise obscured arc, sometimes called maturation, from idea to direct experience. Like it or not, life’s twin has been right here all along.
Like many, I’ve tended to think myself lucky that few who are near and dear to me have died. All of my grandparents died in their 80’s and 90’s. Both my parents and all my siblings are living. Recently our family lost one of our uncles, my mother’s older brother, he too in his 80’s. He, like my grandparents lived long, full lives. Death has made sense with their stories.
In the end, though, I don’t know if it’s luck or not. It’s the experience I’ve had. I’ve also had experiences that have shown how no human life moves very far in its years without loss. And I’ve come to recognize that what is lucky is my growing sense of death and loss as spectral – the way white is the presence of all light, or black the absence of all color.
It’s paradox. Frustrating and terrifying, intriguing and enlivening all at the same time. It’s what saints and sages have rendered in poetry and scripture, in sutras and silence. Always pointing attention back this moment and the next – the glittering procession of space and time here at our feet – the reliable ground for the meaning we make.
A bit over a year-and-a-half ago, the moment came for me to meet the man I would marry in January of this year. It was brilliant. It was a miracle. That very day, hours before we met, he had sent off the first draft of the memoir he’d been working on for more than 6 years – the story of the tragic death of his wife of 25 years in a canoeing accident on a wild river in Canada.
I remember how he mentioned sending the book to his editor at the East Coast publishing house. I remember the way he matter-of-factly moved off the subject to talk instead about his 22nd book, the one that had just been published, Opening Doors, documenting the life and work of Carole Noon, a tireless and heroically effective advocate for the humane treatment of chimpanzees.
“Oh, but wait,” I said, thinking the first topic was worth slowing a bit to acknowledge. “I really want to hear about the chimpanzees, but can we go back for a minute? It sounds like the book you sent off to the editor today – well – it seems like a pretty big moment.”
Gary shifted in his chair. He smiled a little. “You’re right,” he said. And he told me a bit more. He told me where the book’s title came from – how only a few days before the accident, as they rolled together down yet another blue highway, Jane had reminded him of a conversation they’d had some 12 years earlier – about the five wild places, anchors to the most precious experiences of her life – the five places she’d picked out for her ashes to be spread on the occasion of her death.
Her reminder, random as it seemed at the time, became Gary’s guide through the unspeakable loss of a few days later and the years of grief to follow. Each place Jane had designated was at the same time wild and familiar. All of it moved as her life had, along its own perfect and finite path. Between scatterings, there was for Gary the place of home – Red Lodge, Montana and the people who loved and lost with him. The people who wove the net of community sturdy and soft enough to catch him – to hold them all.
All these months later, Gary Ferguson’s 23rd book, The Carry Home – Lessons from the American Wilderness (Counterpoint Press) has finally reached bookshelves – a deft and generous celebration of Jane’s life and their times together all across the wild places of our country.
Last Saturday night, Gary read from this book for the first time. For this, he chose Red Lodge, Montana – the place he and Jane called home for 17 years, the place that is now home to Gary and me in the months we’re not in Portland. As Gary says in the brief video above, Red Lodge is a primary character in this story. It’s the community that is the story’s home. Where better for grief to come full circle for all of us.
I never knew Jane, but her life and her death are part of my story now, too. And, with your reading these words, that’s also true for you. This is the way death works to link us together. It invites us to story – to telling, to listening, to making sense as best we can. It demands we pay attention and then whispers reminders to live fully – to live well.