Once we’re out of the city, we sing along with ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ at the top of our lungs. Pink cholla blooms across the green plains, riotous fuchsia at the ends of needly arms. We’re going to a party. It’s a birthday party. It’s her birthday party.
We’re heading home.
Some people think stories and poems are just stories and poems. Mine are the truth and I write them because otherwise I’ll die.
A volcano! I spotted a volcano, she shouts. Maybe it’s a volcano. I bought a giant balloon in the shape of a 6, rosegold. I bought napkins with grinning mermaids that say ‘Let’s Shellebrate!’ When my son was her age, I’d often bring him to the hot springs outside our town. Someone told him what heats the water, and once he was aware of the earth’s hot secret core and unseen cracks beneath us, he was always fearing the world would at anytime go to earthquakes and fire.
Early sunflowers, mullein, milkweed, black medic. Bindweed. Silver sage, yucca, milk thistle, sunflowers just in bud. Prickly poppy. Cholla, cholla, cholla, as far as the eye can see, brilliant against all the grasses I’ll never know the names of. Knowing the name is a small thing though. The plants are an asemic roadside poem I want to read and read and read.
My mama decorated and baked the cake. My sister comes with her son, Jade with her little ones. The kids splash in the inflatable pool. It’s hot. It’s always hot on her birthday. My son’s, too.
Jade and I decide we should go camping. I’ve got a tent but no sleeping bag. I ask my mom and she says she doesn’t have one, but there might be something with the camping gear my son left in the shed. I knew he left things here but I’d forgotten. My face goes blank. I ask her for the key to the shed and the feeling in my chest and the look on her face tells me I shouldn’t. But I must and I do.
What happens in the shed is something that has never happened to me before. Maybe as a child, but I don’t remember. Maybe in the hospital, separated from my daughter, but the morphine made the pain all silvery then. Now, in the shed, I’m not in pain. I am pain. I touch my son’s books, smell them. My hands are searching, clutching, grasping, trying to find the shape of him in his things. Trying to hold him. My hands gesture helplessly and my voice makes sounds to match.
I know someone from the party will eventually hear me and come in here. I’ve never heard a sound like the ones that come out of me, sitting on the hot filthy floor of the shed clutching my son’s winter coat to my heart like a baby. I will lie here and wail until the world dies. I am salt. I will melt into the earth, dissolved in sweat and tears and the sounds coming from my core.
It’s my mama who finds me. She sits with me on the dusty plywood. I can’t look at her but she cries with me. She doesn’t look away from my pain. She sits close and though she is helpless as I am, she is strong in the way of a mother holding her child in pain.
I can’t stay here in this shed, hurting this way. I can’t stop. I must.
Mama asks if I want water. I do. I put his things back carefully and come out. Jade grabs me and hugs me. She’s tiny but strong, too, and I clutch at her. I gotta stop.
My daughter is inside and I’m trying to make my face unterrifying for her. I’m trying to close up the wound enough to walk in the house. It’s raining. My grief is a seizure, a storm. I sit outside and smoke and I can’t stop. So I pull my dress over my head and step into the pool. It’s just large enough for me to stretch full length. I lie there in the rain and wish for lightning to strike me.
Some people think if I don’t mention it, I must have gotten over it or learned to cope. Sometimes I say I’m ok if people ask but I never am. Someone suggested a support group for families of the missing, and I can think of nothing worse than sitting in a room with my grief multiplied and reflected in the faces of others. So I write it, make a container for this thing too big to hold, too terrifying to open.
The water is cold enough to calm me some.
Next morning, it’s hard to wake up. My daughter is used to this. She sings and cuddles and shakes me and gives up. She gets herself dressed and goes out of the bedroom to find food. Everything hurts. It feels impossible to get out of bed. I let my mother feed her. Finally I drag myself up, hug my daughter, and drive into the canyon alone.
Scarlet penstemon, tall yellow primrose, purple geranium. Dark clouds are rolling above. These wildflowers and the curves of the road greet me like old friends. Rose and yarrow. By the river, bluebells and hemlock.
At the other end of the canyon, at the crest of the hill, the view pierces me. I sit by the lake and give a poem to the water. Blue penstemon, indian paintbrush, agrimony. Cosmos. I sweat and see the deep colors, wind on the water, the storm stalled in the valley.
Driving back to my mother’s, near the mouth of the canyon, I pull off to the side one last time and walk towards the river. The bank is steep but I glimpse bright white so I slide my way down. Anemone. I feel triumphant. This is a flower that doesn’t grow on the roadside. They’re easy to find in gardens, but particular about where they’ll grow wild. I love the name of them. I love their shape: the rounded droop of their heads, the circular petals, their angular leaves. I love their habit and their height. I love that I know them.
If the medication keeps you from feeling that deep sorrow, is it also harder to feel joy? my friend asks.
It’s not like that, I say. It’s a matter of serotonin. I can still feel the sorrow, and it’s been hard to access joy for a long time anyway.
Then, as we’re walking, I remember recent joys: playing tag with my daughter, dancing in the grass to Devotchka. And others I don’t mention: seeing wild anemones, writing, making Blank smile that particular smile, listening to my daughter talk in her sleep.
If I were a certain kind of writer, I’d tell you something about the chemistry of grief; why the cholla was blooming so profusely; how things ended up between me and Blank. I’d learn the names of all the grasses and trees and tell them to you, not just the flowers. I’d write ‘Blank and I’ instead of what I did. I’d tell you those fleeting joys make me want to live.
Later, my therapist says, what did you take away from that experience of seeing your son’s things?
That I didn’t die of it, I say. I felt the loss fully and I didn’t die of it.
Chronic pain is hard to explain though. It’s the slow unceasing gnaw of it. The not knowing. The daily grind.
When I speak on my joy, my friend says, make those things daily practices, commit to it. It’s a good idea. I want to. I want to want to live.
Rilke wrote, joy is a moment, unobligated, timeless from the beginning, not to be held but not to be truly lost again.
What I don’t tell my friend or my therapist or anyone is that though I know joy is the way to life, I feel I don’t deserve it. Joy pushes out the loss, and the loss is what I deserve.
I know you know what I mean, and that you often feel the same.
The party’s over. No one got enough sleep this weekend. I pack the big 6 and the unicorns and scented markers and glittery gift bags and wet swimsuits haphazardly into the car. I fold my son’s winter coat carefully into a corner. Going back north, the cholla blooms are closed. The cactus canes and the plains are so dull I wonder if I dreamed the pink profusion on the way here or if the opening of my grief has dulled my sight.
We are heading home.
If I were a certain kind of writer, I’d tell you how to make a habit of joy, that no pain is unbearable, and how everything is gonna be ok. I’d have this story end in a solution.
But I’m me, and all I can tell you is: I haven’t died of my grief, and joy isn’t a thing you earn. It’s not about what you deserve.
Joy is a wild anemone or a brilliant bloom on a roadside cactus you’re not even sure you saw. Maybe grief is the thing that sent you looking in the first place.
What I mean is, like Rilke said, you just can’t hold it. I guess that’s all.