Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose? – Walt Whitman, from “A child asks, what is the grass?”
I am kneeling in the garage, sorting through a black garbage bag stuffed with Ronan’s outgrown baby clothes. I have promised to give them away to a friend of a friend who knows a friend who is raising a little boy on her own. I want to do this good deed; it makes me feel good to think about trotting off to the post office with a taped up box full of clothes for this woman I’ll never meet, a boy I’ll never know. But as I sort through the onesies printed with dogs and dinosaurs and stars, a green onesie with “Organic Baby” printed over the outline of a leaf; a cream-colored onesie with “I Am a Magical Child” printed in cursive over a picture of a unicorn and a dragon; a shirt that reads “Mr. Happy” and that I remember Ronan wearing on a day when he screamed for 24 hours straight; tie-dyed onesies with matching hats and missing socks and hand-me-down onesies and bear and lion and jungle animals onesies; blue and yellow t-shirts covered in stripes and stars and balloons; a fox sleeper in the orange, white and black colors of my junior high cheerleading outfit (foxes are an underused animal on little boy baby clothes); tiny striped shorts and long pants with more puppies and pandas; jean jackets and Osh Kosh overalls and corduroy jeans and cargo pants (what does a baby do with pockets?); the Pooh t-shirt with matching Pooh pants (yes, there was a poop joke); shirts that say “Doggone Fun” and “Surfer Baby” and “Handsome Like Daddy” and “There’s a Nap in my Future” and button-up shirts and polo shirts in different shades and textures and patterns and prints; a pale yellow cotton one-piece with a collar and a fire engine stitched on with a door that actually opens and closes, real snaps at the neck, even a little fabric flap for the firehouse dog who is wearing a red hat (this last outfit belonged to my brother), I shut the plastic bag and weep. I feel as though I have just peered into the deep pit of a grave. I can picture Ronan in every little outgrown outfit: the skinny-legged, newly born red-faced alien Ronan; the round bowling ball face five- and then six-month Ronan; the one-year-old Ronan with the light already fading, just a bit, from his eyes. The floppy toddler Ronan who is now double the size of these clothes and dying fast from Tay-Sachs, this ridiculous disease with no treatment and no cure. I could not give them away. Not yet. I’m not ready to let those clothes loose to live another life on another baby’s body. I’m not ready to even let them out of the bag, as if they are dangerous and if released might wing away and wound someone. I want them for myself. I want to get in the bag and eat the clothes like some starving animal, some desperate creature. I scold myself: these are just things, nothing more. Just objects, and, even more importantly, items other people need. I still can’t do it.
This is a sentimental moment, I guess. On a sympathy card there might be a bunny, a lovely, red-and-gold painted sunset, the dark silhouette of a bird flying over a beach, a shiny horse running free, a dreamcatcher and a hawk doing something symbolic. I don’t like this moment with the clothes any more than I like sympathy cards or funerals, which so easily and lustily dip into sentimentality. I feel dangerous, churning. This sentimentality masks a deep and terrible rage. Bunnies=Rage. The murderous kind, the bite-your-lip-until-it-bleeds kind, the kind of anger that makes you exhausted and yet howling for more, like a belly that can never be filled. The only appropriate card for this moment, on my knees in the garage, is an empty one, maybe one that screams when you open it – one great, long keen. Some deep-noted dirge; some furious, melancholic song full of discord and drums. The responses I found most satisfying – like a bell ringing out the hour — after Ronan’s diagnosis were these: I am so angry; I am thinking of you with grief and rage; I don’t even know what to say I am so angry; it is so unfair; I am sick to my stomach with sadness and anger; BLOODY UNFAIR!; I LOVE YOU and also, WHAT THE FUCK? RAGE! Sympathy cards are about as useless as candy cigarettes – just give me the real thing. I’d so much rather have an email that says something brutal and terrible and true than a sympathy card made of special-grade parchment and that’s soft to the touch, even the edges gently serrated and decorated with loathsome, uniform birds (there is a standard sympathy card bird; it’s like clip art) flying peacefully into the distance and a super shitty rhyming poem inside. (I do not even dare type them here for fear of expanding their odious reach.) I’d rather have this poem, “Matins,” by Louise Gluck, which is the one that comes to mind while I’m bawling into a plastic bag full of Ronan’s old clothes. I look it up later:
You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves are turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?
Why can’t that poem, that little missile of grief, come printed in a card? I’d happily weep over it or frame it or burn it up in some meaningful ritual fire. When I open the pastel envelopes and see the birds and the sunsets and the birds scrolling into the gentle sunset, I chuck them straight away. I don’t even wait to see who sent them and I don’t care if this is cruel.
Who knows if I would feel so unaccountably devastated about giving away outgrown baby clothes if Ronan were not dying. I know plenty of moms who’ve blubbered as they’ve sorted through baby clothes; even if their child is a teenager, sulking grumpily in his man cave and playing video games and trying to watch porn or smoke pot when his parents aren’t looking. In any case, the baby stage is lost, gone for good.
And yes, they are just clothes, but just as the body carries physical and psychic weight, so do things: a favorite shirt of the beloved, obvious objects like wedding rings, but also random things given and received: a map my best friend made for me ten years ago that shows me the way from the train station to her house; the lyrics of a song written on a napkin that I sang at her wedding outside London, the paper growing damp and gooey in my sweaty palm; my DUKE sweatshirt that I stole from someone’s brother in high school and wore superstitiously for four years during finals week; a creamy flowered blouse that reminds me of France and a steamy night spent necking in a Strasbourg car park with that blouse in a pretty ball on the floor. Mouse-sized menorahs and engraved cigarette holders found in the corners of tenements and on display now under glass at the Tenement Museum in New York City, precious items that were tucked into underwear or satchels or shoes and that crossed continents and made it through the gauntlet line of checkers at Ellis Island (early, less technologically advanced versions of today’s snarky TSA agents) to be found, decades later, abandoned, in a corner. And things mattered more then, too, because people had fewer of them. Things are charged, they act as gateways, and we want to believe they give us access to the person who once inhabited them. We want to believe that they are doors to other worlds, portals to unknown stories that we intuit even if we don’t know them for certain or for sure. I have a cheap dress – blue polyester with red and white piping on the bottom and the sleeves – that puts me chain smoking in my office in Geneva on a blazing hot spring morning, the view across the garden thick with pink blossoms. My Doc Marten boots were my Ireland boots, trekking boots; I literally wore them out, the back soles were finished. When my mom was given her mother’s old cameo necklace from her cousin when we visited her farmhouse in Kansas on one of our summer cross country trips, she said “Oh,” almost mutely, amazed, her eyes filling as she turned the necklace over in her hands like a piece of delicate lace. I saw her seeing it on her mother’s throat, her mother who had been dead for 40 years and had been given this piece of jewelry, now falling apart, by an old boyfriend that was not my mother’s father, who was also dead. I restrung the necklace and wore it at my wedding to Rick. Things matter, things endure when people and relationships do not. Things: simply lasting, then/failing to last: water, a blue heron’s/eye, and the light passing/between them: into light all things/must fall, glad at last to have fallen. (from “Things,” by Jane Kenyon).
In Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman’s stunning, playful, and at times devastating book, he imagines all sorts of after-death scenarios: comical, heart-wrenching, unfair, unbelievable, wonderful. Here’s a snippet from Graveyard of the Gods, one of my favorites:
You begin to realize that the gift of immortality applies to things we created, as well. The afterlife is full of cell phones, mugs, porcelain knickknacks, business cards, candlesticks, dartboards. Things that were destroyed – cannibalized naval ships, retired computers, demolished cabinetry – all return in full form to enjoy and furnish the hereafter. Contrary to the admonition that we cannot take it with us, anything we create becomes part of our afterlife. If it was created, it survives.
Just after I turned fourteen, when we were moving from Wyoming to Nebraska, before my parents found a house to buy we stayed in rented rooms at the top of an old museum attached to Bethphage Mission, a residential home for mentally retarded adults, although I believe they were in the process of changing retarded to delayed. The museum had clearly not been visited in years, maybe decades, because although it was of historical interest, I can’t imagine anyone pulling first off the interstate and then off the dirt road to learn about the history of nursing care when this facility had been a straight-up mental asylum and not an assisted living home. And if they did, they’d be out of luck, because the museum was apparently open for exactly one hour each week, when the door was simply propped open with an old book. There was no entrance fee and anyone could have taken off with what was inside: mannequins with 1960s beehives modeling nurse’s outfits from the 1940s that glittered with dust when the hazy fall light fell through the dirty windows; cobwebs stretched across pointy chests as if they were part of the fabric pattern or bras worn on the outside of blouses. Old shoes – once-white clodhopper nursing shoes, one pair of fancy lace-up boots, a pair of square-toed, ratty heels – were piled in a corner. Carefully I roamed through those empty rooms, walking slowly through the bones of those other stories, scaling some falling-apart ladder of time. I felt I should hush my footsteps although I was alone, as if I were disturbing the things, which might have a life of their own. The rooms felt populated. A few windows were open and the air was typical of autumn in the Midwest – crisp and expectant, things turning and falling and changing – but no season was going to penetrate these unvisited and neglected rooms. You had to stick your nose out the window like a dog riding in a car to get a whiff. My breath practically echoed. I walked in the museum to scare myself, as a distraction from other concerns. “What are you DOING?” I’d hear my mom call from the top of the stairs leading up to our “residence.” I was fourteen; I ignored her. “We’re having beef stroganoff for dinner,” she called into the silence. “You’ve got ten minutes,” she said, and I heard the door click shut.
There were books and made-up beds, and a “model” of a room where “treatments” had been administered. An old wooden cabinet marked with a sign that read “surgical tools,” had apparently been plundered. The creepiness of the museum almost made it impossible for me to sleep above it; I was certain that all those things down there were alive. Those mannequins moved I told my dad. At night they walk around and do stuff! The feet of one of them moved an entire inch! I measured! The other story was that someone was outside in the prairie, a stolen scalpel in one hand, preparing to run up the stairs and plunge it into our unsuspecting hearts, one by one. Who would ever find us in the middle of nowhere Nebraska at the top of a museum that was NEVER OPEN? We never saw a single resident, as the museum faced the street and the “campus” was on the other side of the building. This was the end; I just knew it. We were toast. My middle-of-the night histrionics were draining my parents’ energy and robbing them of sleep. “You’re not a child!” my dad said, exasperated, all other logic having failed to convince me that we weren’t about to meet some inevitable and gruesome end. “Don’t let your imagination run away with you!” But run off it did, and I went with it. The need to find a house gained greater urgency.
I also got my period for the first time in the cold, institutional-feeling bathroom attached to our “rooms” (two twin beds in three plain, identical-looking rooms); and so I’d walk around, fingering the outfits on the mannequins, smelling the cold dust, slowly eating peanut M and Ms from a one pound bag, feeling the inside of my body buck and kick in a way that was painful but not wholly unfamiliar. I was a woman now, apparently, for whatever that was worth. In one dim corner of the museum, on a slightly raised stage stood an old-school crib with rockers on the bottom and a faded, ruffled top. Displayed on nearby tables were yellowed baptismal gowns, tissue-paper-thin, with matching hats, puffy like the tops of muffins, that were worn by some baby long ago, a baby who had lived and died probably hundreds of years before I walked by munching chocolate and bleeding. I sat in the empty, claw-footed bathtub and wrote mournful letters to my friends in Wyoming and yelled at my parents through the door. Then I got mono and slept in the car while my parents shuffled in and out of potential houses. Much to everyone’s relief, I no longer wanted to move or haunt what I was sure were those haunted rooms full of haunted things. Things with life, things with stories, things that breathed in their own lifeless yet very real way.
Things, things, things. I am a collector of things. I have a storage room full of books, a box full of artificial legs, old cotton cloth Esprit bags full of scattered photos from junior high, me sitting in clumps of girls at pizza parties and sleepovers, sticking out my chest in an effort to look busty and gregarious. (I was flat-chested and miserable). At least ten jewelry boxes stuffed with cheap and ruined jewelry, rhinestones and crystals and rusty charms shaped like tigers and elephants. Boxes of letters and three boxes of all the cards I got as a kid when I was in the hospital. A box of prom dresses and bridesmaids dresses, more boxes full of journals and math workbooks and yearbooks and notes that I passed and that were passed to me in junior high and high school. Someday, when my parents move out of their house and clean out their basement for good, I’ll have to reckon with my pack-rattish self. But not yet.
Since Ronan’s diagnosis six months ago I have begun adorning myself: a ring for every finger, an engagement ring that was my husband’s grandmother’s; a wedding ring from the same year – 1932 – that Rick and I found in a pawn shop in Los Angeles and that fit me perfectly – “a princess fit!” the saleslady cried gleefully, and the Cinderella sound of that pleased me; the claddagh ring I bought the day I arrived in Dublin in 1994 for five Irish pounds, pre-Euro; the ring my mother gave me for college graduation, interlocking loops of Celtic knots; a ring that says joy love hope recently purchased at an airport shop in Phoenix, hoping the words would rub off the silver and into my skin; a ring that’s a long sheath of silver with slits where the skin shows through; a dragon ring for my thumb. Around my neck a locket with Ronan’s hair and a picture of his face tucked inside, his birth date 3/24/10 engraved on the back below his cursive name, a gift from my mother for Mother’s Day. A silk chord swinging with my box of holy dirt, my Buddha, my Santa Nino charm from Chimayo, New Mexico, my power animal gorilla charm that a friend retrieved with a bobby pin when it fell off its chain and down a drain in Palm Springs. I want to close things around my wrists, shackle my hands. I need to feel weighted, close to earth, anchored. I don’t want to want to leave it.
Things matter, things count. I took the last/dusty piece of china/out of the barrel./It was your gravy boat/with a hard, brown/drop of gravy still/on the porcelain lip./I grieved for you then/as I never had before. “What Came to Me,” Jane Kenyon
In Spain, at a two-week writing residency in June, my leg develops an annoying squeak. I take off the piece that covers the knee, clean it of dust and dirt, put it back again, it still squeaks. I leave it off although it rips up the covering hose and any long pants I might wear. It looks like a cat has been at me, perhaps the two that fight horribly every night outside my window after dinner, their battle meows like human screams. I let the hose and pants rip; I’m tired of making noise when I walk through the silent farmhouse rooms with their black and white checkered floors that smell of lemons and foreign bleach. When I look down at my knees there’s a big sticker on the end of the metal knee that warns DO NOT TAMPER WITH. The knee cover seems to weigh ¼ of an empty coffee mug if my hands are accurate scales. Franz Kafka, skinny insomniac, on August 31, 1920, a Tuesday, went to a doctor in Prague and wrote “neither he nor the scales find me improved.” We weigh and tweak and size up. Decision-making language.
The Swiss sweep the homes of their citizens each year and count bullets to be sure the weapons haven’t been fired by any members of the peaceful, civilian army; the neutral moderators of the neutral army take out the neutral bullets and hold the neutral bits of steel in their hands. In 1994 a piece of a Viking ship was found near my apartment building in Dublin, which meant one less crane would be obscuring the skyline as the archeologists arrived with their books and enthusiasm, their special shovels and precision tools. There’s a pool of dark and tepid water in a wet well in Dublin castle that has been sitting there since A.D. was in the single digits. In one legendary story, Mary Shelley was given Byron’s dehydrated heart – by then a handful of powdery dust – in an envelope. In Victorian times you didn’t send a letter to your beloved through the post, you sent a lock of your snipped hair, like a pressed flower or a leaf plucked from a tree. The world of things seems to make people accessible; it’s what hierophany is all about, stones and other natural objects as portals to another world, another life. For a full year after my divorce I drove around with my engagement ring freed from my finger and rattling around in the glove compartment of my car before I felt ready to pawn it with a friend at my side at a seedy, sprawling shop in South Austin that I’d driven by three times in the previous six months. Once I actually managed to enter the parking lot and park for a minute before driving away. The ring was small and light and made me enough money to get my first small tattoo, a tiny, colorful flower carved in a place I hoped my mother would never see it.
Things. We adorn, we bedeck, we festoon. We search and select gifts for our beloved. I saw this and thought of you. A ring from Paris, a scarf from Wisconsin, a hand-knit sweater with your name on a tag stitched inside, a tattoo sleeve stretching from shoulder to wrist. A clutch of coins from countries you’ve visited, currency that’s useless in your own country that you can chuck into a big plastic bin for charity in airports in Madrid, London, Berlin. Marks, shekels, pounds, euros, francs, pence, lire, Canadian dollars.
When I see a mother walking on the arroyo path near my home in Santa Fe with her baby in the front pack I think she’s what, maybe eleven pounds? The premature nine-month-old twin girl in Ronan’s swimming class weighs seven pounds. The woman who sat next to me during a turbulent plane ride in the 90s, back when flying absolutely terrified me, said, “It’s virtually impossible for these planes to fall out of the sky. They weigh too much to fall.” (Too big to fail!) An artificial leg weighs between ten and fifteen pounds; an artificial foot weights about four or five; the “model” legs (like model homes) that are lined up along the walls of a prosthetist’s office are often lighter, the ones that hang from straps and pulleys in the back rooms, the ones for real people, are the weight they should be and of course these weights range – they are as individual as the people who wear them. When I was 18 I weighed 95 pounds; when I was breastfeeding Ronan I weighed 110 pounds; in Geneva I weighed 132 pounds; when I was married the first time (and the second time) I weighed 118 pounds. Now I weigh 120 pounds. Ronan weighed 6.5 pounds when he was born, and doubled his weight within the first three weeks of life. Now he weighs almost 24 pounds. An earthquake kit has water bottles, a transistor radio, a bright orange vest, energy bars, and weighs about 6 or 7 pounds. A baby tooth is practically weightless. When bald 6.5 pound Ronan was weighed next to a 12 (!) pound baby with a full head of hair at Cedars-Sinai in his first 24 hours of life he looked miniscule, a little terrified worm unearthed from the ground. When my St. Bernard hit 85 pounds the vet put him on a diet. A bag of outgrown baby clothes weighs 5.4 pounds. Grief weighs nothing but you still have to drag it around.