How to Not Mourn

Everyone who’s heard about the fire at our house has had the same reaction: “That’s terrible! You must be so sad! I’m so sorry! That’s awful!”

I tell them “I’m fine, really. It’s okay.” Everyone thinks I’m putting a brave face on things, but I promise you, I’m not.

Here’s a typical day at our house.

My husband wakes up before me and lets the dogs out into the yard. He makes himself a coffee with his obnoxiously expensive coffee maker that can be programmed to make anything he wants, and knows that he wants a double espresso in the morning and a decaf Americano in the afternoon.

I wake up, step into my slippers, put on my bathrobe, and wander out of my room. I kiss my husband and tell him how wonderful he is, and he hugs me and says “We have a really great life.”

I go into my office, but about twenty times a day, I come back to where he is, sometimes to talk, sometimes just to peek at him. When I’m in my office, I look out the windows at the birds mobbing the feeders. Sometimes, I go out on the deck and lay in the hammock and think “This is the best life.”

After dinner, my husband and I might snuggle up on the couch in the living room and watch something. Or we might go into the library and watch something in there, or maybe put on some music and drape ourselves over the furniture in the library and read. And every once in a while, we’ll look at each other and say “Our life is amazing.”

I sit in the library and look around myself and think about how much I love the room itself, and how all the books in it have meaning to me. I look at the art on the walls and think about how much I like it.

And before we fall asleep folded up in each other, my husband and I say “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

From the outside, I’m sure it sounds just disgustingly saccharine and fake, but let me be crystal clear: I appreciated the life I had. Truly. Deeply.

I grew up with a lot of siblings and not a lot of money. The things I had were often hand-me downs, things I didn’t pick for myself. There were so many things I wanted that were out of reach, and so many experiences I wanted to have that seemed like they were for other people, not people like me.

The upshot is that when I had things, I loved them. I saw them. Every day. They were a reminder of all the good things in my life, and expressing that delight never got old. Expressing my happiness and love and joy never gets old.

When we lost our house, I was certainly sad that everything was gone. But I didn’t have the regret that comes from not recognizing or appreciating things until after they’re gone. On the other hand, the person who appreciated all that with me, the person who created that lovely life with me, the person who stands next to me and looks out at all we had built and agrees that this is the best life – that person is still here. He was the most important part of that life, and he’ll still be the most important part of whatever we build going forward.

With that on my side, how could I be sad?

I Want My Cigarettes

There’s a scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where the men are sitting in their group circle talking, and Cheswick tells Nurse Rached he wants his cigarettes. Murphy tries to get one of the other men to give him a cigarette, and Cheswick gets angry, shouting that he doesn’t want anyone else’s cigarettes, he wants his cigarettes.

I’ve had a hard time going shopping. There are tons of things I need. New bras. New socks. New toothbrush. But every time I go into a store and see all the things I used to have, my mind just stops, and I stand looking at things like I’m hypnotized, which, in a way, I guess I am.

In addition, everyone has been beyond kind in offering things to us, especially our mothers, with whom we’re staying. It’s hard not to seem rude by refusing these very kind offers. I have two perfectly valid excuses: we don’t have the space to store anything, and there are plenty of things we won’t need until we have our own place anyway.

My husband and I went and visited the house, partly out of curiosity to see what might be left, and partly out of the need for pictures to prove to our insurance company the house is not salvageable. What we saw was like every apocalypse movie you’ve ever seen. Random bits of metal sticking out of drifts of ash, with occasional nonsensical, whole, undamaged things amid the carnage.

a pot, a pie server, a mug

Our 6-gallon stockpot, a 3-tiered pie stand, and an antique shaving mug belonging to the Pirate’s great-grandfather.

The stockpot was seldom used for food, and we got the pie stand out perhaps once a year. The shaving mug wasn’t technically whole, but it had been in the Pirate’s family forever and had an interesting history. I had no emotional attachment to these things, and am, at best, indifferent to their survival.

two and a half foot celtic cross made of metal

The Celtic cross from the front gate of our garden – the thing I saw as I came down the driveway, and as I went inside the house from the garage.

This Celtic cross was a newer addition to our house, but one that gave me a lot of joy. We’d gotten it at the Highland Games four or five years ago, and affixed it to our front gate, where the wisteria slowly surrounded and framed it. Every time I looked at it, its beauty struck me. This is the one and only thing whose survival touches me.

I went today to replace my Doc Martens. I wanted the exact pair of sandals I’d had, because I loved them and thought they looked great, but the store didn’t have them in my size. And then I realized that I didn’t want a replacement for the things I had.

I didn’t expect shopping to be this hard. I tried to go by myself once, and ended up having to call the Pirate for emotional support from the middle of Costco. I can be upbeat and optimistic about constructing a new house, but now I know that replacing the things in it will be a very different story.

Because I don’t want your things, or their things, or new things. I want my things.

Material Ghosts

Sometimes, the logical links along a chain of thought aren’t clear, and one needs to be walked from one thought to the next to make sense of it.

Like why being cold made me cry last night.

It was hot when we evacuated* our house. I took tank tops, low-top sneakers, no-show socks. I took one sweater, but it’s more like a cloak that hangs down past my knees and has huge, floppy sleeves. Great for going around town, less great for trying to get work done at my desk.

Now that we’re in San Francisco, my warm-weather gear has been useful for only two of the 19 days we’ve been here. Last night, even though I was wearing sweatpants, a t-shirt, and a sweater, I couldn’t stop shivering. I got online to check on the delivery status of a coat I had ordered, and while I was online, I checked to see if the red shrug I had from Universal Standard  was still available.

The red shrug sweater, and some other clothes I no longer own.

Of course it wasn’t. It was perfect – a high neckline, long sleeves, the perfect weight. Comfortable and striking looking. And no longer for sale. I went to other sites where I’ve bought clothes and looked at their current offerings. None of them were as attractive, practical, or cool as what I’ve lost. I’ll never get back my 25 year old butter yellow silk frock coat. I’ll never get back the long, single-breasted glen plaid wool coat with a rose pattern that had been made to my design. My beautifully warm, yet light, oversize gray sweater. My overalls with the zipper sides instead of buttons. My favorite socks. My warm beanie that said “sláinte” on it.

When one is sad and tired and raw and bereft, being surrounded with the familiar can be comforting and soothing. But the familiar is gone, and I’ll never have it back.


* I keep typing “left,” but I don’t like how it makes it sound like we walked out of our own accord because we felt like it. Leaving at least has the strength of choice behind it. Being evacuated is a circumstance imposed upon us.

The Popularity of Tragedy

We’ve all seen it. A beloved celebrity dies, and people who have never once mentioned that celebrity’s name, let alone their work, is utterly distraught and demands comfort. Someone at school dies and people who had never known the kid’s name, let alone said as much as “hello,” are front and center with their disconsolate weeping. Disaster strikes, and people who were not only not affected, but who didn’t even know anyone who might have been affected need to insert themselves into the event. People are fascinated by tragedy, and there is something about being close enough to touch it that seems irresistible to people.

When we were evacuated, close friends and family called and texted. It was lovely to know that people were thinking of us, but this was in the first couple of days after we’d left our house, and before we knew whether we still had a house (spoiler: we didn’t), I didn’t know what to say. I was overwhelmed by the need to give them clarity I didn’t have. I stopped answering the phone.

Next came people at a bit of a remove from me. People I knew, but with whom I’m not especially close. They expressed support, they said very kind things, they made offers of staggering generosity. Nearly everyone wanted to know if we needed anything, but with our very most basic needs (shelter for us and our four dogs, food, money to purchase necessities) already met, I didn’t have the least idea what else I needed. People came forward with fabulously helpful resources – the name of a public adjustor firm, a recommendation for a builder. These things were solidly helpful, and not resources that everyone would necessarily know about (I’d never heard of a public adjustor prior to needing one, so why would anyone else?), so I was utterly grateful for the information, but still warmed by the other offers.

Next came people I didn’t really know. This was the weird bit. We’ve heard from the daughter of our real estate agent (a woman I’ve only met a couple of times) who now lives in New Mexico. We got a very surprising and incredibly sweet call from a woman whose father had built the house we lost. She grew up in it, so the loss felt very personal to her. She offered to come and help us clean up, and I suspect that her offer was motivated by a desire to walk the property and see what was left of her childhood home, but that didn’t make it any less touching to me.

But now we’re coming to the last group, which makes an interesting coda to those first days after we evacuated. Now I’m starting to see Facebook posts by people who used to know people who used to live in the area, people who vacationed here once and remembered it fondly, people who used to live in another town that caught fire but not when they lived there. These folks are expressing trauma and grief of their own, not even on behalf of people who’ve actually been affected.

As in the first days after our evacuation, I don’t know how to process the feelings of someone who is claiming the same trauma I have. Honestly, I don’t really think I have to do anything, but there is a part of me that’s a little angry that there are people demanding comfort and sympathy that I’m uncomfortable receiving.

I have gone shopping for necessities nearly every day since we got here, and not once have I told a store clerk “I’m buying new sneakers because my house burned down.” “I’m buying dog dishes, toys, and food because my house burned down.” “I’m buying storage boxes and a new hairbrush because my house burned down.” It seems manipulative to me to put that information out there, not because it’s at all relevant to our interaction, not because it’s a way of making small talk, but because I’m expecting to receive something for it – comfort, sympathy, a fat discount.

It makes me wonder what the people who need to feel a part of trauma they haven’t experienced are looking for, and whether maybe I should start looking for that thing, too.

Staying Still Before Moving Forward

I’ve replaced another couple of things – my microphone and my external keyboard.

There are tons of other things we’re nowhere near to replacing, but I keep looking at them and having the same reaction. I have an absolute need for this stuff, but none of it looks like anything I want. Dresses, dining room tables, rugs – none of them are what I want.

Consciously, I’m not even thinking “it’s not like the old one!” Which just tells me that the hurt is still subconscious, and that I’ll need to do a little more mourning for the life I had before I can move forward on rebuilding.

When I think of my house, I feel numb. It’s not all the time. I am still laughing with my friends and taking joy in walking in the park with the dog, etc. I’m excited about planning what the new house will look like, but when I think about the old house and everything in it, there’s just…nothing. No sadness, no sense of loss, no nostalgia. There’s a part of my mind that’s standing at a remove from the whole thing and just observing.

The last time I talked to my psychiatrist, she asked me if I felt guilty about anything, and I told her I wouldn’t know what to feel guilty about. I didn’t start the fire. I don’t think I was particularly reckless, selfish, or stupid when gathering things on short notice to take with us as we evacuated. I don’t even feel guilty about invading my mother’s house and staying here while we get our next steps together.

What I feel guilty about is not feeling sad. Not bemoaning the boxes of family photos in the garage that I never looked at. Not shedding a tear over the new dishes we’d had for about a week. Not even allowing myself to have much curiosity about what might have survived. What does it say about me that the only emotion I have so far is a sense of exhaustion at the enormity of rebuilding? Whatever it says about me, I don’t feel guilty about that either.

The Loss of a Close Friend

On Thursday when I left the house to pick my daughter up from school, I couldn’t find my iPod. I’d had it in the car the night before, but now I couldn’t lay hands to it. I couldn’t find it again when she and I left to go to karate. I came home and looked in my briefcase, my purse, my other purse, my backpack. I looked in the foot wells of the car, in the trunk, under the seats. I looked in that place in the kitchen where all the junk seems to accumulate, on the nightstand next to my bed, in the mess of books on the floor in front of the nightstand. I cleaned the desk in my office. I cleaned the stuff off the couch. I cleaned the stuff off the other couch.

Don’t get me wrong – my house is neither so big nor so messy that a thing as big as an iPod goes missing often. Yeah, I know that an iPod is only about the size of a deck of cards, but do you think that if you left a deck of cards somewhere in your house, you might never find it?

I looked in the onion bin, the potato drawer, the fridge, the silverware drawer, and the drawer in the pantry where we keep screws, tape, hooks, hinges and bits of string. I’ve looked under things, behind things, in things, between things.

In the meantime, I’ve got two audiobooks that I have to hear to prepare for an interview. There are a few podcasts I follow that I now miss. I’ve got a half-dozen audiobooks that I’m reading for non-school purposes. And then there’s the music. If I were stranded on a desert island, I could listen to music continuously for 20.4 days without hearing a duplicate. I’ve got 4.5 days of television shows (nearly all animation), and a whopping 138 days of books. Just over FIVE MONTHS of content.

I didn’t realize how much I depended on my iPod. Because I’m always reading a paper book while reading an ebook while listening to an audio book. Because I’m hooked on Lexicon Valley and SuperEgo and Judge John Hodgman. Because I am like the rest of the world in that I like to clean while listening to music. Because when I’m on a plane and I can’t write anymore, I can always watch more Clone Wars. Or re-watch.

I know from the painful and tragic experience of a family friend that you have to wait 7 years after someone’s disappearance to have them declared dead. How long should one wait before declaring a beloved life partner lost? Would I betray my old friend if I went out and picked up someone new and shiny? How stupid will I feel if I buy a new iPod and come home and the next time I sit on the couch, there it is, under my left butt cheek? In the meantime, I’m dragging my entire laptop around with me so that I can keep up with my schoolwork.

Lord knows what I’ll do when I mislay that.

UPDATE: Not 30 minutes after posting this, I found my iPod. It’s a 160Gb iPod classic in a thick silicone skin (I drop it a lot). The silicone means that not only does it not break when I drop it, but it sticks to things (like the time it stayed on the roof of my car during 48 hours and 100+ miles of driving). It had fallen between the mattress and footboard of my bed (it’s a big sleigh bed) and stuck there. Until I pulled all the linens off the bed and jiggled the mattress around. I knew that if I just bitched loudly enough about it being lost, it would hear me and get itself found again. This iPod and I, we’re like Sauron and the One Ring.

The Last Thing You Do

My last memory of my mother is of a tiny white dot, high in the sky above me, and a thin wailing sound as the wind carried her hot air balloon out over the sea.

I hung on as long as I could, the rough surface of the wicker basket creaking and cutting my palms as I struggled to pull myself into the gondola of the balloon, giving it a bit more ballast. Alas, I have never been athletic, and in this moment of desperation, not even my fervent wish and urgent need were enough to achieve the impossible and lift my leg over the edge of the gondola. Instead, fate, fear and lacquer conspired to make my sweaty hands slip, sending me tumbling sideways the forty feet to the ground where I crashed, and, as I found out later, broke both my humerus and my clavicle. Mother would never have survived the fall.

As I watched the balloon lift and mother went from a doll to something even tinier and therefore more unreal, I could still hear voice high above me.

“Tell your father I never loved him!” she shouted, wiping at her face. “I always despised him and I’m glad to be leaving!”

The pain in my body caused the world to ripple and shimmer, and the pain of seeing my mother drifting uncontrolled out to sea was a crushing weight that kept me from floating up into the sky after her, but this bomb that she dropped from sixty feet up hit me and drove me into the ground.

“What?” I yelled, not because I hadn’t heard, but because I hadn’t believed. We’ve all done that.

“I hate your father. Just tell him!”

I clasped my hands to my heart, worried that the pain I was feeling might be a heart attack, although I dismissed that notion because to have a heart attack at a time like this would be self-indulgent and attention-seeking. She must have thought I was sad. It was true, but to say I was sad is like saying that the universe is big. It’s a word so out of scale as to be wrong.

“I love you. Never forge…”

But I may have made up the last bit of that. The “I love you” was almost audible, but it may have been a seagull somewhere near as well. She was too far away for me to hear anything properly, and all I was left with was her saying she hated my father. I stood there, my toes hanging off the edge of the cliff, and toyed with the notion of stepping off and flapping my arms.

While everyone in the world who wasn’t us looked for her, a tiny old woman in a hot air balloon with inadequate ballast, a non-intuitive steering mechanism and a picture of Buster Keaton as a young and handsome man painted on the side, my father and I sat at the kitchen table and stared at each other and two cups of stone cold tea. I thought about telling him what she’d said, but the more I thought about it, the more angry I became.

How dare she. How dare she burden me with breaking the news to my father that their 42-year marriage had been a sham. How dare she intimate to me, in what may well have been her final moments, the notion that her life had been unhappy. I love my father. He’s a kind, gentle, unambitious man whose dahlias win prizes that he donates to charity and who writes letters to the editor in which he says that So-and-So is really a much nicer person than anyone gives them credit for. How could she have saddled me with the task of breaking his heart? I joined them late in life, a miracle baby when my mother was on the cusp of menopause, and I had always thought that she and my father had always wanted children and that I had dispelled their disappointment. It would never have occurred to me that I had caused it. Why did she feel it necessary to ensure that she took from us not just herself, but any happy memories that we might have of the time she had spent with us?

“What is it, sweet pea?” my father asked, patting my hand with his own. The blank, blasted shock on his face had been replaced with concern for me. As though I had witnessed her being drawn and quartered, rather than being swept away in a balloon.

“It’s the last thing she said. I just don’t understand.”

“What was it?”

I drank off the last of my cold tea, gagging a little but preferring to gag down cold tea that had been coddled in the first place to telling him what she had said.

“She said that she never loved you. That she hated you.”

I broke down crying, putting my arms out for my father to comfort me, but he didn’t. He couldn’t.

On the anniversary of her disappearance, with no body to bury, no ashes to scatter, no reason to even observe because she hadn’t been officially classified as dead yet, Dad and his new girlfriend and I all went to the cliff. The ruts in the ground that the gondola had made as it scraped its way toward the cliff edge had long since eroded away and filled in with grass, but I imagined I saw them. On the day she disappeared, the sky had been mercilessly blue, allowing me to imagine I saw her for an impossibly long time. Today, a frosting of cirrus clouds obscured the furthest reaches of the heavens, and protected the three of us from having to say anything. I didn’t tell Mom that Daddy and his girlfriend were talking about marriage, that I had been accepted to college and was packing my things to leave in three weeks. I didn’t tell her that only a year after her leaving, first by blowing away, and then by rejecting us, we were fine.

I have always held the suspicion that she lied.