Monday, July 27, 2009

Grief and Literature

I just finished "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski. While this was an Oprah pick, I heard about it from a patient's wife and finally picked it up. A brief background: Edgar was born mute. His parents raise and train a fictional breed of dog that is quite remarkable and known for their companionship. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, his uncle Claude insinuates himself into the farm and their lives. Think Hamlet. I won't go on any further with a synopsis so as not to spoil the novel except to say I was fascinated from start to finish. What I'd like to share are a few of the passages on grief, first from Edgar's point of view, then his mom Trudy, and finally his dog Almondine. They are beautifully written insights that will resonate with anyone who has mourned or works with those who mourn.

There followed for each of them, good days and bad, and often Edgar's best moments coincided with his mother's worst. She could be cheerful and determinedly energetic for days on end and then one morning he would walk downstairs and find her hunched at the kitchen table, haggard and red-eyed. Once lapsed, nothing could deliver her. It worked the same with him. Just when normal life felt almost possible- when the world held some kind of order, meaning, even loveliness (the prismatic spray of light through an icicle; the stillness of a sunrise), some small thing would go awry and the veil of optimism was torn away, the barren world revealed. They learned, somehow, to wait those times out. There was no cure, no answer, no reparation.
He returned from school one day in March to find his mother working in her bedroom, her hair a sweaty tangle about her head, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She'd already closed up the flaps on a tall stack of boxes and was folding a pair of his father's trousers and placing them in another box. Her gaze barely paused on Edgar when he walked in. Later, he searched to see what had been lost. The drawer that once held his father's belts and ties was filled with his mother's gloves and scarves. On top of the dresser, only her sparse jewelry collection remained, and the wind-up alarm clock. She'd even packed away the photograph of her and his father, newlyweds, sitting on the pier in Door County.
He woke one morning tantalized by an idea: if he could catch the orchard trees motionless for one second- for half of one second- if they stood wholly at rest for the briefest moment- then none of it would have happened. The kitchen door would bang open and in his father would walk, red-faced and slapping his hands and exclaiming about some newly whelped pup. Childish, Edgar knew, but he didn't care. The trick was to not focus on any single part of any tree, but to look through them all toward a point in the air. But how insidious a bargain he'd made. Even in the quietest moment some small thing quivered and the tableau was destoryed.
How many afternoons slipped away like that? How many midnights standing in the spare room, watching the trees shiver in the moonlight? Still he watched, transfixed. Then, blushing because it was futile and silly, he forced himself to walk away.
When he blinked, an afterimage of perfect stillness.
To think it might happen when he wasn't watching.
He turned back before he reached the door. Through the window glass, a dozen trees strummed by the winter wind, skeletons dancing pair-wise, fingers raised to heaven.
Stop it, he told himself. Just stop.
And watched some more. (p. 161-2)
"Edgar, do you actually think that how long a person grieves is a measure of how much they loved someone? There's no rule book that says how to do this." She laughed bitterly. "Wouldn't that be great? No decisions to make. Everything laid right out for us. But here's no such thing. You want facts, don't you? Rules. Proof. You're like your father that way. Just because a thing can't be logged, charted, and summarized doesn't mean it isn't real. Half the time we walk around in love with the idea of a thing instead of the reality of it. But sometimes things don't turn out that way. You have to pay attention to what's real, what's in the world. Not some imaginary alternative, as if it's a choice we could make."
But he's not gone.
His heart pounding as he signed it.
"I know. And all the same, you and I buried him. But he's here, too, isn't he? In this kennel, in the house, everywhere. But unless we walk away from this place and never come back we're going to live with that every day. Do you understand?"
No, he signed. Then: yes.
"And is that the same as saying he's alive? Do we treat that feeling as if he were really here?"
He found he couldn't answer her. What if he did think that the length of a person's grief was a measure of their love? He was as troubled by the simple fact of her asking that question as by his own inability to answer. (p. 257-8)
Yet he was gone. She knew it most keenly in the diminishment of her own self. In her life, she'd been nourished and sustained by certain things, him being one of them, Trudy another, and Edgar, the third and most important, but it was really the three of them together, intersecting in her, for each of them powered her heart in a different way. Each of them bore different responsibilities to her and with her and required different things from her, and her day was the fulfillment of those responsibilities. She could not imagine that portion of her would never return. With her it was not hope, or wistful thoughts- it was her sense of being alive that thinned by the proportion of her spirit decoted to him.
As spring came on, his scent about the place began to fade. She stopped looking for him. Whole days she slept beside his chair, as the sunlight drifted from eastern-slant to western-slant, moving only to ease the weight of her bones against the floor.
And Trudy and Edgar, encapsulated in mourning, somehow forgot to care for one another, let alone her. Or if they knew, their grief and heartache overwhelmed them. Anyway, there was so little they might have done, save to bring out a shirt of his to lie on, perhaps walk with her along the fence line, where fragments of time had snagged and hung. But if they noticed her grief, they hardly knew to do these things. And she without the language to ask. (p. 195)


Christian Sinclair, MD said...

Thanks for sharing that passage Leigh. I have heard some of those same questions in my career in hospice from families and staff.

I don't know if you read Pallimed: Arts & Humanities but you may find some good connections for other artistic connections to hospice work.

LeighSW said...

I am indeed a Pallimed: Arts and Humanities subscriber, Christian. It's amazing to bring all my "worlds" together. Thanks for the tip!