Grief is as personal as a fingerprint. Witness the different books that come out of that experience--The Year of Magical Thinking, Wild, Men We Reaped, and Wave. Each writer suddenly was forced into another way of looking at the world that came without warning. Even if a death is expected, nobody knows where the removal of someone they love is going to take them.
When my brother died, he was twenty-four and I was thirty-two. His absence was so immense for me that I couldn't look at it. I had no tears, I couldn't look at the sky. I wouldn't talk about him after his funeral. I don't think I've ever admitted to myself that he is really dead. His death was random; it made no sense. It was also horribly normal in the Alaskan town where I grew up. The small graveyard in Anchor Point is filled with markers for men who died young, boys who played with my brother when they were all small. Even thinking about that place makes my hands go numb and my jaw clench.
A little over a year ago, my mother died. She wanted to; she was eighty-six and tired. It was a death I had time to prepare for. I didn't expect what followed it, even though I had once told her, "I won't know how I'm going to feel about your death until after you've died.".
I had began writing about my mother before she died. something she had always wanted me to do. Long after her cremation, I kept putting stories about her into words. They became a book, one that is difficult for me to reread, but when I do, I discover again and again the woman who shaped me.
For a year after she died, I ate ice cream. That was something Mother rarely allowed herself, and as I made my way through a pint of ginger or pistachio, I felt as I was eating for two. I also had almost a year of excruciating back pain, so persistent that I thought I would always live with it. It went away almost a full year from the time that my mother began to die.
Each of my mother's daughters faced her absence without the usual ceremony that would have brought them together. The one who had chosen the responsibility of Mother's care by taking possession of her long before she became infirm threw herself back into an unencumbered life. When we spoke on the phone, she talked about trips, losing a hundred pounds, a new house--rarely about our mother.
Her mourning was deeply private, the way her mother would want it to be. Mine has taken on the form of a book, which was also what my mother wanted. The greatest gift I ever received was reading her some of the stories, the last time I saw her, and watching her eyes glow as the memories were floating between us.
There have been other deaths, but this one is the absence that pervades my life every damned day. My mother and I shared a sensibility that I have with nobody else except my sons. Because I was her child, I could bring her almost everything. Because she was human, she didn't always respond in the way I wished--but in the end, that didn't matter. I know that, now that I live without my touchstone.