In endings are beginnings


The Call of the Siren was silent in the past several weeks as my mom's health turned and we lost her -- just as 2013 locked its doors and turned out the lights.

When a loss is coming, we prepare for the worst -- for the pain and sorrow. We rarely think about silver linings. That's why, aside from grief and shock, I was surprised to find myself living the circularity of myth in her last days and in the days after.

I'm talking about the kind of circularity represented by the Phoenix, or that Lisa Ohlen Harris describes at the end of her book The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law's Memoir of Caregiving (Texas Tech University Press). Of her mother-in-law Jeanne, Harris writes:

I miss Jeanne. I do. We've started a new life in a beautiful place because Jeanne died and released me from caregiving. Now instead of learning side effects to medications, I am memorizing the names of the trees and mountain ranges and the April flowers springing up in my garden.

I've just pulled off my gloves and am brushing damp soil from the knees of my jeans when I hear geese. I tilt my head up and raise a hand to shield myself from the rain as I peer into the sky and see the flock overhead, winging and honking and flying free to their summer home.

Her ending pulled me like a magnet, and I wanted to share the last grafs about renewal with you, my friends, even though I have nothing else to say.

It just feels good to feel the keypads under my fingers.

For more of Ohlen Harris' ruminations, visit her blog here.

Books of death: new in bookstores

balloonist When Julian Barnes writes about losing his wife to a brain tumor, he writes instead about the adventures of 18th and 19th century balloonists. It makes for the most unusual kind of memoir -- and it highlights how truly difficult it is to express what we're feeling when one of our loved ones dies.

The loss goes deeper than any words can reach, and that may be why Barnes turns to the early history of ballooning in his forthcoming book "Levels of Life" (Alfred A. Knopf). He's able to speak of the harrowing experience of losing his wife, Pat Kavanagh, only in terms of something else.

Joyce Carol Oates recently weighed in on the U.K. edition of the book in the TLS. She called its approach and perspective "unorthodox" -- but she means it as a compliment. I can't help but agree. Most memoirs of death and dying sound the same. I think we've all lost loved ones, right? If it's a loss from illness, there's an existential formula you just can't escape: symptoms, diagnosis, terror and treatment, slight improvement and hope, sudden decline, death. Grief. Every book about such a loss can't help but sound the same. The Illness Industry is mercilessly efficient.

I think that's why Barnes has recorded his own sorrow in such an "unorthodox" vehicle. He avoids the formula. His love for his wife, and the meaning of her loss, deserve more than the typical formula. His pain is still there, between the lines, hovering at the margins. He doesn't directly confront it for many pages. Still, as we read about the excitement and perils of hot-air ballooning in the pages that precede, we can feel his grief indirectly in passages like this one:

In August 1786 -- ballooning's infancy -- a young man dropped to his death in Newcastle from a height of several hundred feet. He was one of those who held the balloon's restraining ropes; when a gust of wind suddenly shifted the airbag, his companions let go, while he held on and was borne upwards. Then he fell back to earth. As one modern historian puts it: 'The impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out on to the ground.'

I'll risk saying it -- isn't that how you feel when someone you love dies? Like you've been ripped off your feet and driven into the ground? If it were just a book about ballooning's history, I'd call this a colorful anecdote. In a book about losing his wife, it means so much more. This is also Barnes at his best. Something to pre-order at your neighborhood bookstore for your fall reading.

Also this season...

endings happierYou can tell from the title that Erica Brown's "Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death" (Simon and Schuster) isn't coming from the same personal sense of loss as Barnes' book. Instead, what Brown gives us is an excellent overview, a little in the Mary Roach vein, of death and dying in the contemporary world. Bucket lists, ethical wills, cremation or kafn, last words, final forgiveness, suicide and survivors -- it's all here. A scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Brown capably navigates a myriad number of topics and issues connected with the Great Beyond. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Brown marshals a compelling amount of information to illuminate an often gloomy subject. Hence her book's title. The fact is, she reports, "the grim reaper is not always grim."

bright abyss coverChristian Wiman's "My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is about what Wiman, a published poet, thought about after being diagnosed with cancer. His book assembles several essay meditations, full of poetic allusions and excerpts from world literature, on his struggle to understand his faith in the face of his mortality. What he realizes is that faith, true religious faith, is something different from what's taught in church on Sundays. It's "tenuous, precarious," he says. "The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility."