This is a piece of a story I wrote in 1999. I never went back and finished it, but as I was reading it tonight (looking through old writing, thinking about how to talk with my Bible class about prayer tomorrow), I was surprised. This summarizes how I describe it still.
“Does it get better?”
“Fuck you! You know what I’m talking about! Does it get better?”
His black eyes narrowed to slits. He looked ready to jump over the table and assault me if I tried to stall again. Does it get better? Of course it gets better; it has to get better. But I could not lie to him that directly. Sure, I could two-step around the truth and leave things unsaid, but…
“It doesn’t get better. You get different.”
“What?” The fire dimmed in his eyes. He would not punch me for being confusing. Progress.
“You’re asking me if the pain goes away, if, after x number of weeks or months–”
“–Or years, whether the ache stops aching. That’s your question, isn’t it?”
“Well, the answer is not ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’ This pain just doesn’t work like that. Break your arm, the pain goes away, the bone mends, the cast comes off. Get pneumonia, your lungs heal, but they’re never as strong again. Sever a limb, and you can wear a prosthesis, but that new arm can’t be explained with, ‘yes, the pain went away.’ Oh, the pain’s gone, but only after they removed everything from the shoulder joint down.”
The anger had gone, replaced by fear.
“You still feel like a cripple? After eight years.”
I smiled, but not really. My face failed me.
“And six months. And thirteen days.”
“Shit,” he breathed. “You still count.”
“No. One day, in the first year, I spent a day that I felt like dying counting from every day of the calendar. It’s not tough math, and once you’ve run through it in your head, you never forget. Two-four-ninety-one. Simple subtraction in three columns.”
Damn! Why did I tell him that one? Helping. Focus on helping.
He nodded. I decided to take the lead before he asked another question for which he would not want the answer.
“Do you find it helps you more to talk about her or not talk about her?”
“’Helps?'” he repeated, “What does ‘helps’ mean in that sentence?”
“I guess ‘let you deal with your grief.’”
“No.” His eyes had gone lifeless, a salmon on display in
“I know, nothing helps in the sense of ‘makes better.’ I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about…well, when Rae died, I wanted to pin her picture to the front of my shirt, and set it on the table every time I sat down to talk with someone. That way, they would understand that she was part of every conscious moment, that my mind never left her. People thought they were being polite, asking ‘do you want to talk about it,’ but that question pissed me off the most, as if I can’t handle having it brought up, as if I’m not thinking about her every waking moment of every pointless day.”
“So talking about her with others did not help much. I found that trips to the cemetery helped the most. Sitting in the grass, or walking aimlessly, reading the dates of birth and death. Being in cemeteries was the only time that my internal and external realities matched. Everywhere else, I felt dissonance.”
Pete nodded again. His eyes flooded, but he tried a wry smile. I think it was supposed to be a smile.
“That’s why I like talking with you,” he said.