There is no good place or time to write about loss, but it is one of those necessary things to write about. Inevitably, the emotional heft of it grows unbearable, and so words become a (temporary) repository for that heaviness.
I feel guilty writing about my grandfather. What is it to mourn someone you did not know very well? To want to grieve? When I think of him, I think of a few blurred memories, a bicycle, and sheets of drawings. Mostly, it is a blank wall with spots of paint peeling. I spent summers at my grandparent’s apartment in Beijing, most of which I cannot remember. There are videos and pictures from those days; if I close my eyes and breathe slow enough, I can catch strains of movement, all marked with impressions of a buoyant childhood.
What I remember of his death, years ago, is when after he died, my parents flew to China for the funeral and left my sister and I at home, because school was in session. We were only vaguely aware of what it meant to lose someone. I remember when my parents returned, my mother showed me pictures of the ceremony on her phone. She spoke of it in a very calm and dignified manner. I don’t recall my father speaking much of the whole ordeal, if at all. And I remember—I remember a part of me pressing painfully inside, as if struggling to burst out. Where were the tears? Where was the mourning, the anger, the sorrow?
“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”
(Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)
Perhaps it was too gradual of a death to feel any type of shock. Perhaps we were waiting for it. All the signs were there. Was I more attuned to this Western notion of lament, hearkening back to funeral rites and wailing laments and faces crumpled into hands? Of youth lost to time, of life too grand to equal death?
(Hands, hands. Thinking about them lately, especially after watching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. The wringing of hands, the creases and the corners, the fingers tugging at edges of shirts and fixing collars, wiping noses. A hand reaching to clasp the back of one’s neck. To grasp a shoulder and hold it gently. To pull a human body close to you and to feel beautifully vulnerable. I don’t remember my grandfather’s hands but I think they were the hands of a painter).
“We don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us.”
Grief works its effects in different ways for different people, and I suppose that it is a slower process for me, and that I have only been able to cope with it gradually, laboriously. But in a perverse and perhaps ugly way, grief is also a solace. How upsetting it must be to live a life not worth grieving over once it’s gone. Even more heartbreaking is that millions, billions of people die in this exact way, because it is too painful to care. Unremembered and forgotten—like in that one book of The Iliad, the one everyone usually skips over, the one with all the family names and places people are from—the fact that we forget the sheer scale of that war. No matter if it was real or not. The fact that Homer only had space to tell a handful of stories of this select group of heroes, and the fact that thousands of histories are swept away in the whirlwind of the epic. (Alice Oswald has an answer to this called Memorial. It is poem that retells the Iliad from the perspective of its two-hundred-some minor characters, briefly mentioned or otherwise).
Death is an obsession in a lot of “canonical” Western literature. An attempt to prepare for the unfathomable. I read poem after poem on the subject of loss, and I read these Greek tragedies that shouldn’t feel cathartic but they do. It is like partaking in this tradition of learning how to cope. Much in the sense of a tradition, it is both individual and communal.
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)
I wasn’t close enough to my grandfather to have his death break me. For that, I am both devastated and grateful.
Back home, in my room, there is a watercolor painting of a forest. It is by my grandfather. Someday, when I move into a place of my own, that painting will be the first piece of art that I hang up on my walls. I imagine it being across from a window, so that light will catch the glass behind its frame, and only by shadowing it will I be able to see the painting without reflection. Someday, I will look at that painting on a fine autumn evening, and I will think, all these years, this has been in my life. It always was and will be.