Grief Keeps Odd Hours

The kids slept in a bit today, and so did I. My husband awake, already working, and making breakfast.

“I decided to make blueberry muffins this morning!”

He’s the cook in our home. I like to cook, but it doesn’t seem to come naturally, or even with lots of practice, for me. But we’re lucky because he’s a flawless cook. I used to crave eating out, but his meals are so good, I tend to crave certain dishes he makes as much or more than favorite restaurant meals these days.  

When we were cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast, he asked, “What did you think of the muffins? I think the One Girl recipe is the best.”

“Me too.” I replied.  “Blueberry muffins are my favorite muffins.”

“Really?” he said. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, they’ve always been my favorite muffin. Mom used to bake blueberry muffins probably once a week when I was a kid. She hated them, but she made them for me because I loved them so much.”

And there it was. Blueberry muffins on a Sunday morning open a cavern-like space beneath my breast bone. My heart beats faster. My breath gets short. Suddenly my head feels too heavy for my body, like watching a young baby try to hold its head up for the first time: she really wants to hold it up, but the weight and the concept feel like such a barrier that its easier to flop down on the shoulder of the person who holds you everyday.

I expected it today. A year ago I was waking up to a new world order. Not a political or social one, but a personal one. My Mom died in the earliest hour of June 5th, 2015. It had been a long and harrowing bout with emphysema. The final weeks were so hard. It was all hard,but that last week was heavy in a way the others were not. Regarding her final days, Dad always says, “It was bad. So, so bad.” As if those last days and life itself were acting out against us, a petulant child who was ruining everything .

Around Mother’s Day this year there was a piece circulating on Facebook from a 2014 New Yorker article by Ruth Margalit. I have read a lot in this grieving process, like C.S. Lewis, Joan Didion, and Helen Lawrence as well as psychological and self-help books, but no monograph spoke to me as much as this one article. She references her tour of grief literature and how it helped her through.  She quotes Roland Barthes, “…it comes over me when our love for each other is torn apart once again. The most painful moment at the most abstract moment.” She goes on to summarize that “grief keeps odd hours.”

The older I get, the more I realize written words soothe me in a way that conversation does not. People kept telling me to talk about it. I tried. Conversation is enlightening and connective, but written words wriggle their way into new and deeper tributaries to my consciousness, my soul. They reside and then do their work of revelatory clarity immediately followed by more questions about the next foggy bog down the path.  The words of others who have been through grief helped create a vocabulary and language for me in this new, unwieldy space. I’m learning the language.

But it is also words—symbols of meaning—that hold a rhetorical power over my grief and bring me to tears or to my knees at the oddest times. Blueberry muffins for breakfast. Overhearing someone at the playground talking to her mom while playing with her kids. My daughter asking me where Mimi is and what does she do all day. Psychologist and author Therese Rando, author of How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, says that grief is work. It is not a job to which I applied, but one in which the work done is necessary for emotional and psychological survival.

I probably will think of Mom every time I eat blueberry muffins. And the work eventually will be to mold that ache into a bittersweet memory and move through it carefully and thoughtfully. I think that’s the hope of this work. A year later, that’s what I want to do: only taste the pain of these surprise moments, but savor the beauty of the memories.