One of the most beautiful books on grief I have read. Mark Doty is a poet who wrote this book chronicling the death of his partner after years of living with AIDS.
Rather than a review, I will share with you some thoughts from my journal after I read it:
I think about the one hundred Chinese silences and I've certainly been in the cemetery enough to know a few of them. I know when Michael is there he will introduce me to many more.
But it's the 10,000 shades of death that living men pass through that torture me. How many years can I say, "Michael is dying" and think that anyone truly understands? That anyone even believes me anymore?
But if the poets had talked about the 10,000 shades of death, each almost imperceptible from the others in their varied hue and nuance, it would have helped me.
I used to believe that dying was a single fact, a clearly discernible process, with some sense of timely progression that made the word "dying" a valid description of the course. Too long, or too subtle, and you start to question whether you had it right at all. You start to wonder whether you just called it dying because you needed the drama or have become prone to exaggeration.
But there is Mark Doty, telling me some of us take years to die and that the confusion for the living comes from how undisciplined they are about it.
Decent people would remember to stop thinking about sex when they can no longer feed and bathe themselves. Anyone with common sense would tell you that the more dependent you get the less you can claim any sense of power and certainly any sense of self-determination. But the dying aren't necessarily decent. In fact, the thought of that would probably get a good laugh out of a few of them. And they don't necessarily subscribe to the notion of common sense either because, let's face it, conscious dying isn't all that common.
And neither are those of us who have found our lenses growing adept at distinguishing the 10,000 shades of dying.
It's a paradox when you make the shift to living with the dying and learning how to love and endure the love of those who no longer love life. You can stop caring about so much--so many things simply become irrelevant that you can almost wonder if you, yourself, have ceased loving life--if you're simply beginning to fade away into worldly irrelevance with all the rest of it and simply have not realized it yet.
But then you hear a song, or find the snowfall to be so exceptionally beautiful, or you find yourself taken aback by the smell of wet earth in a winter thaw and you know without question that you are still here and deeply, passionately in love with life. You hear a line from a song, or a poem that catches you up short and your realize that you have simply entered into another plane of existence, one populated by those who have gone before, those entering alongside you, and a few newly scarred faces coming up behind who remind you of how bloody painful it was before you let yourself be broken open.
The pain of watching them suffer becomes so familiar and causes so much anguish that you can start to believe it is only their death that will end it for you. But sometimes they outlast even your pain. You stop struggling and find they are still here. Still passing through the layers of death, though maybe more rapidly.
And blessedly you find your worst fear was wrong...that the end of pain didn't signify the end of love. The pain is not the concern. The pain is not the caring. The pain is not the love. And the gut-wrenching pain certainly never was. Tears shed because one has been touched are not the same as the tears shed because one is in terror of being abandoned.
Perhaps there are 10,000 kinds of tears as well.
So often I have asked myself, "Why write?"
It helps to ask instead, "Why read?"
Kay Ryan shared the quote about fiction being what we read when we want to kill time while poetry is what we read when time is killing us...
I think about Mark Doty and how I know him...know so many of the places, though certainly not all, that he visited.
I know his coyote.
And that is the recognition that sometimes helps us stay sane. That instinct to turn to the person next to you and say, "Did you see that?" Just a touchstone so we can feel a little more oriented in this kaleidoscope, broken bits of glass that we are.