The Art of Losing: One Year Later

This was originally written a year and a day after Prince died.

Last year I was sitting quiet in a library, trying to write this thing I have in me but struggles to get out, and my phone started buzzing. I can ignore it for a while but eventually I look: Prince is presumed dead, found in an elevator alone. My phone blows up and I stop writing. I stop everything because I still can’t imagine he’s gone a year from then, now, alone myself.

I walked in the neighborhood and heard him everywhere. Everywhere.

I went tonight to the VFW in Uptown, which has changed considerably from its 80s incarnation. I’m fairly sure I voted there once way back in the day, walking past full ashtrays right below no smoking signs, our veterans more than exempt from whatever clean air act. Now it’s a dance club and bar and whatever else. I’m stamped coming in, and banded in the area with a dj.

My adolescent sexuality was burned indelibly with Prince’s songs. You could probably map me by a collection of lines set behind music that originate in his fingers and throat.

Last year I went dancing on a Sunday, pushing my way into First Avenue, ten minutes after bar close. Clouds of reefer smoke hung in the air, purple-blue and turning slowly, while the dance floor moved and moved and moved. There were couples getting well more than handsy down in the dark and movement. I like to think there are a collection of Prince babies, three months old, conceived while we worked out our grief.

I haven’t been able to deal with this anniversary in the least. I listened to Mary Lucia spin his b-sides for an hour: Erotic City and How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore and Another Lonely Christmas. I dance to Erotic City and I can’t believe its candor, its rawness.

Erotic City can’t you see
Fuck so pretty you and me.

This shit is like 17th Century religious poetry, John Donne overcome and battered by his diety, and at the same time writing of lovers and biting fleas and the silken lines of bullshit artists everywhere.

For thee, thou need’st no such deceit, 
For thou thyself art thine own bait

Any biography is autobiography.

I had this idea I would run through my favorite songs and play their personal exegesis. But I don’t think I can, not now, not on this day. This now, these words, are the fuzzing carbon dioxide left as the drink flats. Dance was the way I grieved again, working it out through my pores like sweat and a pounding bass. Working it out in the smoked end of the night, two breaths before the ember burns down and ignites the filter.

Suck it in deep and breathe it out slow. Watch it roll in the night air. That is your breath, rising. Amen.

The Art of Losing: Prince

This was first written April 22, 2016, the day after Prince died.

I first heard Prince from my neighbor and older sister in spirit Alicia. I would have been 6, 8, something like that. I think I remember 1999 coming out. Her dad, the late David Starr, had more than a thousand records, maybe more like two.

We made a project once to count them all, but I can’t remember the count, just the hot, gabled third floor, the records flipping as we worked all around the room. I always thought it was cool that she had the same last name as one of Prince’s alter egos, Jamie Starr, who he used in production credits and in a song or two.

I remember sitting in front of the record player with the liner notes all opened up in front of us, listening. He did such great liner notes: the Prince spelling and numbers, the pull-out pin-up from Dirty Mind, the Nagel-esque face from Purple Rain. All thanks 2 U and God.

Purple Rain came out when I was 10. I made Dad take me. We went downtown, to the now defunct Skyway Theater, in a Minneapolis that was as seedy as the one in the film. There was a strip club next door, and the buses rarely ran on a Sunday.

I’m feeling defensive suddenly of my father, because although Purple Rain is maybe a bit much for 10, it was absolutely defining for me. I’ve told the story of his taking me a hundred times, because I loved every single moment. I was in the same Minneapolis as Prince, with my dad, and every single frame of Prince’s musical performances are a revelation. A Revolution.

At 14, up at my grandparents’ with friends and cousins, listening over and over to the Batman soundtrack.

Quoting lines from the insane Under the Cherry Moon because all that self-indulgent weirdness was perfect, right up to the tragic end.

All of us stumbling out of Graffiti Bridge wondering the fuck had happened.

Scrounging desperately when he released and then recalled The Black Album. Listening intently to the bootleg, and understanding why he did it: all that darkness and pain. He then transmuted that all into LoveSexy, which I think is one of his most deeply spiritual works. He always worked in dichotomy: white/black, man/woman, straight/gay. LoveSexy was his uplift after the darkness of The Black Album. It’s his word for the power of God’s love.

Going to a concert in high school, disappointing and nosebleed, still jazzed to be anywhere near him.

Going to Paisley Park in the vain attempt of seeing him. Dancing.

Listening to the bootleg The Chocolate Album (I think) which was mostly released as Crystal Ball and Sign O’ The Times. There’s a song on that album called Place in Heaven, which I can’t find, which surely exists on a tape somewhere, recorded painstakingly from the vinyl. She wants a place in Heaven/ Baby U’re already there. I can hear the piano, his high, clear voice, like he is alone and speaking to me.

Purple Rain reminds me of my son Galileo’s birth, that long, exsanguinating ending playing over and over.

That one time.

That one time.

I sobbed on the street today walking through my neighborhood, listening to my neighbors out on back porches and front porches with Prince playing everywhere.

My son sang me Starfish and Coffee.

Prince was the soundtrack of my childhood and he’s gone.

He’s gone, you guys, and I am so, so sad.

Before the Funeral

It’s an oddity: When I stopped posting regularly, my reasons had much to do with the death of my grandmother. So I start to post again, just in time for another death in the family, one so sudden I’m having a hard time processing it. Two weeks ago, Joyce was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died today.

Mum and Joyce have a real bedrock friendship. I think they’ve talked every Sunday for the last 50 years, telling each other their lives as they happened. They have that cinematic difference: Joyce stayed in the dying steel town, married youngish, and raised up three kids largely by herself. Mum became an English professor and moved thousands of miles away from Homestead, from Munhall. She also ended up raising two kids largely by herself, but the family support was way, way different. Joyce’s mom, who is still alive at like 101, abandoned the family when Joyce was a kid. She never helped Joyce or her brother Kenny with anything. My grandparents had their foibles, but they always were there for Mum.

And Joyce was there for them, for us. When my Grandma Fran was dying — my mother’s mother — Joyce helped us manage the day to day that was difficult from several states’ distance. We wouldn’t have made it through without her. I’m friendly with Joyce’s kids, especially Nikki, her oldest. We have kiddos just months apart in age, and our dudes are both techies. She was so much cooler and older than me when I was kid, but a couple decades can level things a bit. We’re both oldest daughters who have daily, concrete relationships with our mothers. Who had. That tense change is such an unbelievable bitch.

The week before has been this tragicomedy of technological failures and unanswered phones. Joyce’s cell went unanswered for five days, and because of some fucking cloud bullshit, Mum didn’t have Nikki’s number. They hadn’t thought to contact Mum because everything was happening so horrifically fast: I still cannot believe that just a week ago Joyce was lucid enough, alive enough, to call my mother and give her the weekly rundown she’s done for nigh on half a century. Mum called me today, early. Joyce had a brain bleed. They didn’t expect her to live more than 24 hours.

She called me again, not three hours later.

She’s gone, she said.

I stood in the kitchen hugging my husband, sobbing. My child heard my weeping and came and wrapped their thin arms around me.

I don’t have anything. I am poured out. I walked through a day of errands and domestic chores while a pathetic fallacy rained down and blew fog all over everything. I’ve been letting the chickens out of the coop because the snow has heretofore kept them penned into our yard. But today, I looked out and found them in the neighbor’s fenced yard, the one who has a dog I call The Moose, and I had to go out there, jumping from ice flow to ice flow, and beckon them back. More like a bathetic fallacy, I thought: this is ridiculous.

Mum came over to drink wine and reminisce, after a day of near misses and almost gettings together. Grief must be scheduled like anything else. A version of “Girl from the North Country” came on the channel we were listening to, one by both Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. I’m not much of a musical person, but that song is me right now. Here, now, listen.

The Art of Losing: Hope is a thing

This is going to be a ramble. It’s my Grandma Dory’s 97th birthday. She died less than a half a year ago, and I’m still raw with loss on days like today. On other days, I don’t always remember, which makes the occasional rawness all that more difficult. For a smart, well-researched, and considered take on The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, please check out the review in the New York Times.

A friend of mine – actually more the mother of a childhood friend that I’ve known forever – recently posted a picture of birds in a glassed case. She titled it “Three little birds,” undoubtedly referencing the Bob Marley song because I know how she rolls. It came after a series of posts about her father – the grandfather of my childhood friend – and his experiences in his assisted living home. He is 102 years old. The image bolted me to the floor.

When I was visiting my Grandma Dory in the past years — after the fall, before the stroke, after the stroke, before the end, in the middles when it was just fall and I was there, or it was spring, and I was sprung — I would sit in the broad open visiting area with its hard couches and watch the birds. There was a glass case with a variety of finches, all hopping tropical finery, and a three-ring binder on a string with their names and attributes. I’d page through with my daughter to learn their names in the interstitial times: right before my cousin came and told us stories, right before we set up a dinner in the odd “meeting room” with its badly framed art, right after all that jazz and heartache while I waited for my husband to pull the car around, like one does, my son with his head in the Nintendo DS. The birds hopped.

When she died, my closest cousin and I messaged a lot about what we were going to say. He is the oldest boy of the cousins; I am the oldest girl. (That we are both nigh on 40 years old does not factor; boy and girl were what we were to her in the best most difficult way.) We linked each other a lot of Cure songs and other tragedies. (Six months apart, we are the children of our time, and I’m not going to apologize for that.) Birds were a motif for us, for her, my grandma, all of her watchful years and feeders hung out in front of the picture window. I remember smearing peanut butter in a swinging wooden stand on her behest when I was six, licking the knife. For the birds. I remember the owl and his plastic neck turned nearly around in the woods outside of the Payne Farm house seen through the spyglass she left on the windowsill. Do you see? she would ask.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

He read this, in the end, at her end. God, how I miss her. I even miss him, my closest cousin, our relationship always in these hard, bright moments when he is here or I am there, suddenly, at an event. Nigh on 40, these events tend to take the tang of loss more often than they used to, funerals more than weddings, loss more than gain.

I was shocked as child when my dad made fun of Dickinson. “A bird came down the walk,” he said, puffing out his chest and making the universal sign for chicken arms that he flapped. How can you make fun of her weird observations? She was indeed an odd old bird, all of her slashed punctuation, all that hiddenness. She wrote poems on envelopes like I write grocery lists on the same, the economy of the domestic scribbled out on whatever is at hand. “Hold this”, I say, in the car as we go the grocery store. “Read it back.” My daughter cannot read my cursive and chides me, the reused envelope in her hand. She pretends at cursive in pages of fake script. I wonder at the things that might shock her about how I feel: how could you? I imagine my feelings are glassed, fluttering behind surfaces that she can see through but cannot touch.

In my more crystal moments I think about the long twisting process of grief, which makes me grab whatever is at hand to staunch the bleeding. I cut the tip of my thumb off by accident earlier this week, and it didn’t even hurt at first. After I’d run the water pink and wrapped leaking gauze over the digit, I looked closely at the bit of thumb and nail that sat on the edge of the blade. It was like there was another me pushing through the knife. I got tissue and pushed what I’d cut off away. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for my loss. I am not sorry for all the gorgeous nothings.

In this short life that only (merely) lasts an hour
How much — how little — is within our power

 

The Art of Losing: Roopy

Our beloved family dog, Roopy, died today at the age of 16. We got her on 4th of July weekend in 1998, just a couple of months after we moved into our house, less than a year after we were married. Richard and I were newlyweds, and getting a dog – more so than any other thing we did in our early marriage – cemented us as a family.

We contacted a border collie rescue organization that works in Minnesota and Wisconsin because I didn’t want to go through the bother of having a puppy in the house. Puppies are nice, but destructive. My mother went through the website (or possibly microfiche; this was a while ago) and found a dog that looked like she would be a good fit. Roopy had been rescued from an animal hoarder in rural Minnesota. A hundred animals were taken from the property, and seventy were put down immediately due to disease or ill health. Roopy was somewhere between one and three years old.

The original card from the rural humane society listed her name as Lassie, but the woman who was fostering her felt the name didn’t suit  – Roopy never responded to it – and renamed her Roopy after a hound in a James Harriot novel. Eventually she acquired the name Donkey because of reasons too arcane to divulge. When we picked her up, Roopy was skinny and nervous and only slightly house trained. She would howl painfully when we left, and bark at planes because she’d never seen them before. She was terrible with other dogs, but great with people. It didn’t take her long to accept that we loved her and that planes weren’t the harbinger of doom, and we settled into the longest animal friendship I’ve ever had.

Grendel, our cat, and Roopy used to wrestle, Grendel’s arms around Roopy as she tried to bite her neck. These matches used to end with Grendel grooming Roopy, because obviously Roopy was a big stupid cat who didn’t know better. Our son was born, and then our daughter. Our son learned to pull himself up on Roopy, who was so kind and gentle with this massive destructive force. Our daughter has given Roopy roughly one billion treats, once Roopy learned that she could work a Pavlovian positive feedback loop with her. I will dance for you, and you will give me a treat.

She’s been declining now for a while – fatty deposits on her neck, a grey muzzle, her eyes bluing with cataracts, deepening deafness, a slow, clenching arthritis – but she’s always been so cheerful, such a happy soul. She danced when she was happy, which was daily. She sang when she howled. It’s killing me that I keep having to change the tense on my sentences, because I still haven’t internalized that she’s gone. I took the collar off her neck after the end. I felt her heartbeat still and then stop.

She was such a good girl, the best girl. I’ve lost a connection with my past. I’ve known her longer than my children. My children have never known a world without her. I’m so sad, and I haven’t even begun to miss her, half-thinking that noise outside is her wanting to get in, that coat on the floor is her waiting for me to come back home. She defined my home in the beginning, and everything is a reminder of her in the end.

The Art of Losing

I’m in the middle of planning the last of my grandparents’ funerals, the one for my Grandma Dory who died three weeks ago. I’m a mess, and I’m not going to sugarcoat that. This is going to be messy.

Writing Grandpa Ed’s was easy, though the writing was the only easy thing about it. I was about to be married, and my mother, his daughter, was out of the country, and my sister was sicker than I’ve ever seen her. I ended up blinking, dazed, in this foreign country of grief, digging through the papers on his desk in the basement room of his house, the one he called office. There was a stack of photos on the desk, this chronology of his life. He knew he was dying. I moused open his computer, which was a cast-off from my college days, which I’d set to the largest system font I could find to accommodate his blindness. He was writing to the end.

The easy thing about his funeral was that he was a man for poetry: maudlin, Celtic, one of those large, performing personalities that acts as subterfuge for a moody, feeling introvert. Dylan Thomas, we said, almost at once. Fern Hill.We made my dad read the poem, which was almost a cruelty I can see now. At the time all I knew was that I couldn’t read it. I can barely read it now.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
       In the moon that is always rising,
               Nor that riding to sleep
       I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
               Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Dad was the only one who fit my grandfather’s suits, and there was a fashion party as we stood in my grandfather’s narrow room and shrugged them onto his shoulders. The red one, with the big 70s lapels. The dappled grey and black one in a winter wool. The ties on a tie rack. Grandpa’s car, which took us to the funeral and then refused to work again, like a dog pining at an empty bedside.
Grandpa Chris was the next. He was not a man for poetry – reed-thin and active, Scandinavian and full of puns. He had a doctor’s sensibility, all bedside manner and efficiency and easy charm. In a book called Medical Mentors: Practicing the Art of Medicine in Duluth 1927-1996 by Kathleen Hannan, my grandfather said:

“Do what you like to do. Live in the area that you would like to live. Enjoy your time off. I like the more simple life, down to earth. In a smaller town you have so many friends, real genuine friends.”

Also in the book, he talked about his mother’s death, when he was six, of child-bed fever. It was the defining moment of his life, in some ways, this woman lost a century ago. I wish I’d met her. I wish she’d lived long enough to raise him up so he didn’t keep looking for her all those years later in the throes of his senior dementia. I wonder about her funeral. It would have been horrible, like all funerals for young women and new mothers. I went and bought my son a suit today and worried about his hair grown long. I can just see Chris at six with an ill-fitting new suit and a haircut. I can see his infant sister. The prairie of Iowa would have been hard and flat.

At his service I read “How One Winter Came in the Lake Region” by Wilfred Campbell, a Canadian Anglican priest. I’m not sure anyone understood why, including me, but then I’m not sure I care. It was right, this slow freezing and the joy in that, the shift of seasons.

When one strange night the sun like blood went down,
Flooding the heavens in a ruddy hue;
Red grew the lake, the sere fields parched and brown,
Red grew the marshes where the creeks stole down,
But never a wind-breath blew.
That night I felt the winter in my veins,
A joyous tremor of the icy glow;
And woke to hear the north’s wild vibrant strains,
While far and wide, by withered woods and plains,
Fast fell the driving snow.

My Grandma Fran, I can’t even work out the timeline for her death. She died so long and sudden. I have these memories of driving over the hills and bridges of Allegheny county, past the grim and vibrant steel towns laid down by the rivers of Pennsylvania. I remember my daughter in a fountain playing until the hospital security guard told us to get out. I remember flying home and waiting for the call from my mother, who stayed there until the end, or one of them. I remember cleaning out the house.

Fran was not a woman for poetry either. When I named my daughter after her, she was so perplexed: why would you do that? It wasn’t false modesty either, but something weirder, something hard and unsentimental. I never saw either of my grandmothers cry in the decades I knew them. I read Dylan Thomas’s “After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones)” at her funeral. It was a counterpoint to Ed’s Fern Hill. I don’t know that there is anything written that could sum Fran in either poetry or prose.

I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm
Storm me forever over her grave until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.

And now Dory. I have to account for you in words now too, and I’m not sure I’m at the task of it. Dad and I trade phone calls, working out logistics; my children, who have been muddy with odd grief, calls from the teacher in the last month; what has happened? The Art of Losing at my knee last night, paging, paged. There’s so much here that gets the heart of it, but cannot be spoken aloud in a Cremation Society building in downtown Duluth. It would not be fair.

 

Translation

by Franz Wright

 

Death is nature’s way

of telling you to be quiet.

 

Of saying it’s time

to be weaned, your conflagration

starved to diamond.

 

I’ll give you something to cry about.

 

And what those treetops swaying

dimly in the wind spelled.

 

Dory was so domestic, so practiced in the arts of familiar deception. She was the most accomplished liar of my acquaintance, who rolled mythology as simple as truth. She read me maudlin Scandinavian folk tales as a kid, which I cried about with the pleasure of sorrowful fiction. She knitted like she breathed. She was the last, most important member of that generation to leave me here. I’m still surprised that it was possible for her to die.

Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.

Edna St Vincent Millay