Un-haunting the house

5879240245_362379e396_o-1With Eli, your oldest offspring, you are texting about weekend activities.

Eli sends a photo of a new, craigslisted desk in the bedroom in the apartment in Queens.  Their comment, “definitely using redoing/reorganizing my apt as a coping mechanism now.”

You text back, “I’m cleaning out my closet as coping mechanism.”

A long time ago Eli said this, “Mom, you keep your clothes too long. When they get old and tattered, throw them out.” (And this from the child who introduced you to thrift-store shopping.) You tried to explain your sentimental attachment to things your body has worn, yet over time you realized that Eli speaks the truth. So now you find yourself throwing out these old and tattered clothes easily, or at least deliberately.

Eli, in a later text message, types a phrase, “making the house less haunted.” You don’t need a complete sentence to understand what is meant.

The conversation makes you think about what you, and the kids too, have been doing to un-haunt the house and the lives lived in it. Jimmy Guterman — husband, and father of Eli, Lydia, and Grace — died unexpectedly and traumatically on July 25.

What do you do when this happens? You shatter; you grieve; you proceed.

In the first weeks, surrounded by family, every night before bed you all watch re-runs of The Office, which you’ve seen through once entirely when it was broadcast. Now you watch it again, making friends with the characters. You ask Lydia, “If Michael Scott has so many boundary issues, and can be inappropriate so often, why do we come to like him as a character?”  Lydia replied: “Because he is so earnest.”  Lydia’s insight and that word become favorites for a while, and as you go about the business of grief and getting back to okay, your mind can’t help working on what interests it, and you study that word, “earnest,” and you look for that quality in others.

You forget about eating, until one day you realize it’s 4PM and you’re eating lunch. You decide you have to start eating lunch at lunch time, and the next day you do.

After two weeks you tell the kids, “This is the week we start eating vegetables and fruits again. We will also exercise every day.” Even walking the dog counts as exercise.

You listen when different people — visitors from the Samaritans, your child’s therapist, your wonderful friends, your own doctor — tell you that “you are alive, and you have to live.” It is an encouraging message, not at all one that promotes a grin-and-bear-it approach. You start to recognize this: “I am alive.” This, really, is good.

Eli returns home to Queens, work, and friends. Lydia goes back to college, and Grace to high school. You go back to work. You love your job and these people at your job; they have all been so good and right at the worst time in your life.

You say on the telephone to Owen, one of Jimmy’s best friends, “Paradoxically, at this awful time in my life, I’ve never felt so connected to people, or open to it.”

At first it’s hard to cook, so you eat food that people give you, or stuff you can buy at the grocery store in the prepared-foods or freezer section and heat up. You do this for a while, and you say out loud you haven’t felt like cooking, and your mother says, “Jane, you always liked to cook.” So you try cooking, and you don’t hate doing it. Every day you make lunch for Grace to bring to school. On the weekends you make fried egg sandwiches. You roast chicken. You take out the crockpot and make pot roast. At the office, in the photocopier tray, someone has left a recipe for Chicken Apricot Tagine and you take the recipe, your appetite for both cooking and eating aroused. You think ahead to making it for an occasion.

With your sisters, your nieces, and Lydia and Grace, you go several times to the lake in Newton, swim out to the rope that marks the end of the swimming area, and float looking up at the sky. You feel the water surround your body, and remember that you have one.

With Grace, on the verge of getting her driver’s license, you talk at length about (a) dream cars and (b) point-A-to-point-B cars, and how she will get around after she gets her license. One car in the driveway will probably not be enough.

Also at work: the students! Their minds, their energy, the way they fill the corridors and the classrooms and the labs and zip around on their scooters and long boards. You remember your belief that education can change the world. You look ahead to what you’ll learn from them this semester.

You discover new qualities in people you’ve known for a long time. You meet new people — this is unavoidable in life if you’re out there and your eyes are open. You ask for help, or you accept help.

Your friend Marilee, over a lunch she has treated you to during which you have wept and so has she, says, “This is a new life.”

It has to be.

Later, after lunch, you walk into the sunshine and feel better, as though weeping made you stronger and did not drain you.

Of course you think of Jimmy at unexpected times, today in fact, as though he were alive and you could tell him something, and then your brain reminds you that he is not.

And you realize that hope is not a quality or a substance. It is not the outcome. It is not even hard won. You realize that hope is action. People ask all the time, “How are you and the kids?” And you answer, “We are proceeding.” You weed the garden, go to the glorious ocean, clean the refrigerator, wash and fold the towels, sort the mail, take out the trash, vacuum the car, buy groceries and forget the paper towels again, eat at a restaurant, walk the dog, walk the dog, walk the dog, put dates on the calendar, connect with old friends and cultivate new, buy sweaters and skirts, and text Eli, “Two things I’ve been thinking about a LOT: running, and writing.” Eli texts back, “You should.”

Photo: Seeing the Light, by Lauren Chagaris, 2011, on Flickr via a creative commons license.





13 thoughts on “Un-haunting the house

  1. Oh, Jane. There aren’t words. But it’s good to read your writing. And hear that you all are proceeding. I think of you often, and send a prayer and good thoughts your way each time. Take care of you.

  2. ‘ Eli, in a later text message, types a phrase, “making the house less haunted.” You don’t need a complete sentence to understand what is meant. ‘
    You’ve raised your kids to be wonderfully insightful, Jane! Their throwaway lines hold surprising meaning!

  3. Learning of your husband’s sudden, traumatic death breaks my heart, and “un-haunting” a house is such an appropriate way to describe a house full of emptiness. I wish for you and your children strength in each other and joy in the memories you share.

  4. I love your last paragraph, about how hope is an action, and the list of the mundane, everyday actions that you become immersed in (at least for certain moments) which are, in fact, also the action of hope. I especially love “and forget the paper towels again.” A world in which you forget the paper towels again, and notice that you did, is a world in which you are, in fact, alive and having a life. It is so small, so not a big thing. The big thing is there, of course; it’s like a new layer on experience that never goes away. But it isn’t the whole thing. You do have a life.

    ever yours,

    • What a beautiful reply from Lowry! I agree about “forgetting the paper towels again” as a powerful moment. I also love the steady refrain of “walk the dog, walk the dog, walk the dog.”

  5. Jane, this put me in mind of a line from Art Spiegelman’s _Maus_ that I then had to go look uo to make sure I got it right: “Life always takes the side of life.” Whether we want it to or not, whether we’re ready for it to or not. You demonstrate so beautifully here the quotidian duties that urge us on: Lunch. Laundry. Work. I’m glad to know there have been small pleasures, too: swimming, running, the warmth of the sun. I hope for more and more of those for all of you. xo

  6. Geoff and I are deeply saddened by your loss. Your beautifully written post is an inspiration, and I thank you for reminding your readers that everything we do, no matter how ordinary, embraces life.

  7. Pingback: First grief, then work | leaf – stitch – word

  8. Pingback: Winston goes to the library | leaf – stitch – word

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