There are two things people say to me in this first week. In addition to the chorus line of I’m so sorrys and god is mysterious that I receive, people either put their hand on my shoulder and say you’re so strong, Anna. Or they squeeze my own hand and stress – you must remember the good times. Many of our friends and family try for both at once.
You’re so strong. Like there is a way for them to measure my strength as I stand before them. As if they can see through my skin to the muscle beneath, see it coiled and ready for battle under shoulders I’ve squared. How do you know I want to ask. What makes you think I’m not falling apart? Can you measure my sadness too? My anger? And the fact that it hurts to breathe in, and more to breathe out?
What do they want to see when they say I am strong? They mistake my impassive look for some kind of resilience, my washed hair and made-up face for some kind of control. I don’t even know how I got up this morning, it was there, and I am in it, but it is a stranger who looks in the mirror and applies her foundation, who pulls her hair back in a bun. You’re so strong is what they say to her. My frozen smile is hers, not mine. Behind that smile I answer them with a scream.
No one goes looking for the sadness. For where I’ve had to hide it since the day that you died. I keep thinking of that machine the naturopath used on me, just before I fell pregnant. Remember? When we were trying different ways to load the dice in our favour. She said it would reveal my cellular composition, an important consideration for a 37 year old trying for a baby. You are made up of this much fat and this much muscle, Anna. You are carrying this much water, here and here she pointed out. Would that machine read my sadness now? Could it see that here is the ache that comes when I wake? Here is the panic that my fingers try to pull from my chest. Here is the deepest sorrow I have ever known, and here is the anger too that flares, sudden and strong. You are made up of this much sadness and this much anger now, Anna. You are carrying too much of both, here and here. This machine would not say I am strong. Not when it could see inside me.
And you must remember the good times. The urging of it, the suggestion that we can clean and polish our memory at will. Remember your wedding day, Anna. The third-dimension pain and joy of Ollie’s birth. Remember the way Ben kissed your nose, and his heavy hand on your hip. Remember the collection of days and moments when he was fully and truly yours. Clear out the rest, or push it away. Don’t think of the day you found those emails. Don’t think of how once he lied you never again knew a single truth. Don’t think of that, and what you lost. In death he has been given a pass, and so have you. This is how we would like you to deal.
Do you remember that story I loved on our honeymoon, Ben? On that white-knuckled bus ride to Hanoi. The story that made me cry just a little, and you said I was getting sentimental in my old age, but you went a little misty just the same. The story of the lost souls of Vietnam, and how the monk we had just passed on the road was dedicating his life to walking these paths, to collecting the dead that were lost. The monk’s work was to gather up all those who had died far from home, to carry their spirits back to where they came from. In a country torn apart by war there were literally thousands of these souls wandering the countryside, wounded and lost. So many people who never made it home. The Vietnamese considered it bad luck to die away from family, and this monk was committed to returning their dead. People stood on either side of the road and prayed as he past, on a journey that our guide said would take seven years. (There it is, that number again. The time it takes for cells to renew).
He told us of another custom too, our guide, the storyteller. It was tradition for people of this region to dig up the bones of the dead. After three years of mourning, they would extract and re-bury the bones of their loved ones on family land, erecting tombstones in fields all over the countryside. These tombstones would become temples for a family to visit and honour, after they brought their dead home.
Would I dig up your bones, Ben? In three years, when your flesh has fallen away, and the matter of your brain has dissolved. Would I clean and polish each composite part and put you back together again? I wondered then, and I wonder now – what would they feel like between my hands, these bones of the dead. Would they be heavy and hard, or do the dead crumble to the touch? What would I do if I held you this way? Would I lay myself down amongst the bones of our marriage, would I honour the first seven years of our love? Or would I scoop up the bones of your affair and use them to smash out of this nightmare we’re in? Cracking you into smaller and smaller pieces until I made you disappear. What would three more years of this mourning bring?
You must remember the good times they say, and how could they ever understand that even the best of these are broken. I miss you so much, Ben. They will bury your bones and I already want to dig you up, to scrape off the dirt until what is left looks shiny and new again. I want to clean your bones, and bring you home.
I am beginning to understand the facts of your death, the detail. But grief – grief, cannot be learned in this way.