THE HEART OF THE HEART OF THINGS

JD, a/k/a the Juvenile Delinquent, a/k/a Aussie, tears everything apart in Aussie’s Junkyard, which used to be our dining room, especially shoes, boots, slippers, and yak trax.

After Bernie died I took a long, hard look at the heavy black shoes he had worn since his stroke. I remembered how in the hottest summer days he had to put them on, even in the middle of the night to walk to the bathroom. No sandals, no slippers, and certainly not barefoot.

“What happens if Bernie never regains the feeling in his right side?” I’d asked Edward Taub, founder of the Taub Clinic in Birmingham, and he’d answered: “He could still walk.” But not without those heavy black shoes.

So after he died I took them down to Aussie’s Junkyard and dropped them heavily on the rug. “Here you are,” I told her. “Get to it.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” says she.

First, she pulls out the tongue. Then she gets into the leather sides and the heavy heels. This is a long project, even for Aussie. I sit silently upstairs in the early hours when the sun isn’t yet up, listening to BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! as JD zealously bangs Bernie’s black shoes against the wooden floor, disassembling them piece by piece.

Why do I dislike those shoes? They gave him stability for almost three years. He never complained of them even as he tiredly bent down to affix them onto his feet, again and again, and take them off in the same way when he got back to bed. I’d watch him do this in the mornings, listen as he did this in the middle of the night, remembering how much he liked his sandals in the summer, how easily he went to the bathroom, his walk lighter, thoughtless, free.

The feelings he gave so little expression to I felt a hundred fold over these last three years, as though I took on all the emotional distress he would not express. Is that love? Is it dysfunction?

The thing about grief is that it doesn’t go through your mind, not even your heart. The whole system breaks down and it doesn’t ask for permission. You eat, you drink, answer emails, limit phone conversations to 2 a day because they’re so consuming. Occasionally someone says or writes something and you tear up, but most of the time you’re numb. Life as you knew it is breaking down, unspooling thread by thread.

A photo of Bernie with his two sisters comes down from the mantelpiece, to be given to his sole surviving sister when I see her. A Tibetan thanka of a Medicine Buddha comes down from the wall that overlooked the bed, to return to the house we lived in in Santa Barbara, which now has an entire wall of bricks dedicated to the homeless people who’ve died on the streets. Vague instructions mentally appear: this to go here, that there.

Don’t think of what’s left, don’t think of rebuilding. I’m either numb or deconstructing. The quilt of our life together is slowly coming apart, I can’t stop it. One patch after another tears away. I look at it, remember, let it go. But it doesn’t feel like I’m the one doing anything, it feels as though it’s happening all by itself.

And at the same time, I’m dimly aware of participating in a very human ritual called mourning. There’s celebration and excitement when we begin, and grief when we end. Millions of people around me are doing this. A few call and share this with me: I lost my husband to illness, to an accident, to violence. You’re but one of a large community of humans suffering loss. Welcome to the heart of the heart of things. We have joy once again, we rebuilt our lives, even new relationships, but this is at the heart of the heart of things. This is journey, this is sacred. Don’t go anywhere, stay. It will reveal things you never knew were there.

So I continue to sit with all this quietly in the early mornings, while downstairs JD goes BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!, eagerly destroying Bernie’s heavy black shoes.