never learned to grieve. When my father died in my presence I remained calm. When my mother died in my arms I wept briefly but stopped in the presence of others. When my aunt died in a bed beside me I remember only signing paperwork and then boarding a local subway home.
“You’re a strong young man,” said a surgeon after my father’s death. “You’re very composed,” said a nurse on the occasion of my mother. “You’re even-keeled,” said an attendant at my aunt’s hospital.
I am an only child. Maybe only children resist grief, adopting “show-must-go-on” stoicism. Maybe the only-ness is a line of defense that resists sentimental intrusion. Maybe there’s an inner voice that seals off any potential leakage so the ship stays afloat.
I recall my father explaining the Hemingway title (from the John Donne phrase) “Ask not for whom the bell tolls.” I was 11. The tolling was for “thee,” for all of us, he said. I understood little. Later I did. In the end no escaped the chiming of the bell.
But understanding is an intellectual concept. It creates walls against the full force of deprivation and devises protective strategies as if hoarding food to survive an ever-impending winter. The stricken learn put on a cheerful face, or a stiff upper lip. They’ll eat wood if necessary. Some call this coping, which the only child wouldn’t consider a particularly imaginative word.
Many of my friends have therapists. Some have had them for years. Even 20-year-olds are veterans. Many grieve when year of sessions wind down, fearing the loss of the calming external voice they know and still lacking an inner one to replace it. Perhaps therapy can help open otherwise cluttered channels to grief. Perhaps there’s a secret drawer in the garment trunk of the psyche that needs a key that once turned permits all manner of hurting memorabilia to tumble out.
Earlier this year I became infatuated. I began a correspondence in which I played Henry Miller and she Anaïs Nin. We were diligently devoted amateurs. She was young and sweet and kind. She was also sick and in chronic pain, a reality that amplified my feelings. I thought I might cure her through constancy, a Rilke-styled vision of romantic melancholy, since all true romantics suffer from an autoimmune disorder they convince themselves exalts their every feeling.
When she wasn’t sick we walked and talked and sat on a balcony. I bought her peaches and cherries. I prepared and poured her coffee. We played Scrabble and she won. We visited a cat sanctuary, the one place she felt at home. I felt for once like a caregiver and a keeper of someone’s secrets.
Long buried feelings saw daylight, and for the first time in decades I thought of my dead relatives, and how they might have viewed my relationship with this ailing young woman who slept through most of our days together.
Defying logic I concocted a plan to reverse my longstanding only-ness. I whimsically decided to exchange aloneness for life in the presence of a young woman in pain. My purpose was reimagined as a rescue mission.
But the plan lost traction after her visit ended. I was in one place, she in another, and suddenly she fell completely from sight. Frantic, I tried to find her. She’d been in a hospital, she told me briefly, and then went silent again. I implored her for more information, as if asking permission to make coffee from afar. She resurfaced a month later with a mere two words: “I’m alive,” but nothing more followed. She never spoke again. She never wrote again. She never answered my calls. I tried for months and months, tuning out the sound of the tolling bells. Instead, I continued to forage for information about her whereabouts, finally finding it on social media where I’d dared not look. She’d been in plain sight the whole time, as available to me as Donald Trump is to friends and enemies. And at that moment of discovery I was stricken, her public presence confirming her private absence, opening the door to grief and loss. Decades of composure peeled away, all strength undone by a sick girl and her vanishing act. Everyone in my family finally died, and for the first time I felt it.
It was and remains an undoing destined to stay with me until the “thee” in Donne’s lyric becomes me.