I was taking El for her end of evening walk recently. El is my aged Labrador. As she gets on in years she doesn’t always like going out at night. It’s too cold, she’s too tired, the grass is too wet or too dry, or she pretends she doesn’t hear me when I call her (although she comes running from the far end of the backyard when she hears food drop in the kitchen). Anyway, this particular night she had to be cajoled to go outside. She was being a bit stubborn.
My son, Rory, died from an osteosarcoma when he was 19. I know a lot about stubbornness. I am well acquainted with its various guises. Sometimes I think of my grief as a stubborn toddler that wants to hang off my clothing or hold my hand or demand to be carried. A capricious creature that can’t be pleased. The moment you pay it attention it wants more. It doesn’t care where you are or what you’re doing, it just wants.
My grief is always a little girl. Not a boy. I suppose that’s because I recognise my grief as a part of myself. I own my grief, it’s mine alone. She is always a black and shadowy outline. Like a filled in stick figure. She’s not like the purity of a black night sky or like the mysterious inky darkness of black ocean depths, but a deepspace, voidish black that is more resonant and more powerful and more sinister than the other blacks. Her form is a living, pulsating thing. A black hole that sucks in and consumes strength.
She is heavy, my grief girl. Sometimes too heavy. I try to carry her around with me but it’s too much and I just have to stay in bed for a while longer. I am empty, but I am full of grief. I am as light as a feather, but I am weighed down by emotion. Too weak and too sick at heart to do anything about it. I am lost, mired in sorrow for what is now and what could have been. Those are the bad days.
“What are you still doing in bed?” My dog doesn’t like it when I lie crying. “Get up, the day is waiting for us.”
She looks beseechingly at me over the rim of the bed but I can’t summon up the energy to pat her let alone climb out from under the bedclothes. “I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I can’t do today.”
“Well you must,” she says. “I need to be fed.”
Really? I think to myself. Really? Can’t she hear me? Why doesn’t she understand? Then, why doesn’t the universe understand? Why is the sun still shining? Why can’t time stop for everyone else like it has for me? Am I to be forever stuck in that moment when I held my son’s hand as he took his last breath?
No, time won’t stop just for me. The dog needs to be fed and the groceries have to be bought and life must go on. My son has gone but life must go on. I drag myself out of bed even though that is the absolute last thing I want to do. My grief girl taunts me and holds on to me and tries to pull me back. She’s thrashing around and wants me to stay imprisoned in bed. El is waiting by the door wagging her tail in encouragement. I pick up my grief girl and drag her into my arms. She’s screaming and flailing around and wants the world to stop and attend to her.
I haul myself outside and I feed my dog. I think about groceries, but that is as far as I get. I have achieved one thing today. I have fed my dog and she is grateful. Her waggy tail is a testament to love and a full tummy.
“Any more food?” she asks hopefully. “No,” I reply.
I stroke her cold nose and silky soft body and smile at her gluttony. The physical contact rejuvenates a piece of my soul and gives me a modicum of strength to calm my grief. “Let’s just sit in the sun for a while.”