The Grief Manual: A Single Year

Making ourselves brave

I have always said you changed who I am, Hannahbelle, immeasurably and for the better. But, it still feels like a heartlessly cruel punishment that I have to reflect on this, your one-year “anniversary” (what are we supposed to call it?), and not with you.

I like to think I am almost never wrong about peoples natures and so nearly never surprised by what happens. But, you didn’t live to situate yourself in some big house, managing a menagerie of half-trained but full-loved small dogs and finally focusing on makeup for “older women” (for which you had some elegant, flattering euphemism I don’t remember) while saying, “Everyone has the right to be beautiful and feel their best”, without that sounding like a cheap aphorism. That this has not happened — and now never can — is beyond me.

My daughter did something the other day that she was afraid to do. She said she thought of you and then determined you would have persevered through. She made herself brave and did it. She often talks about how much like you she is. You empower her. You give us so much strength, even when we are on our knees with your loss.

She was having trouble falling asleep last weekend, so I kissed her forehead, petted back her loose bangs and told her, “I am right here. I was standing right outside your door. I will not leave you. I am here, and Hannah and Drukpa Kunley are right here with you, too.” And, then, as though she just needed that final reminder, she fell asleep and slept straight through the night.

You remember the story of Drukpa Kunley: that wild, irreverent, divine lama, who spread his love and teachings by reveling in an excess of wine and women in order to break people from their narrow molds and jiggle them onto the path to true divinity. As loving of people but as dismissive of social artifice as you were, you and he met at your respective break-out-of-the-box methods when dealing with this world. I learned about him after I took a solo trip to Southeast Asia that was scheduled before (but occurred after) I found out I was pregnant. My daughter’s father was asking, “Are you sure you want to travel now?” Of course!

Pregnancy is a strange thing. How will the child’s face look? Who is this living inside of me? The both fraught and exciting ideas of new responsibility and untapped wonders of what kind of conflation two gene pools, two lines of ancestors drawing back through time and two separate and intermingled histories will take. The tying up of a life — of your life, Han — was the folded inverse of that, like re-wrapping crinkled, iridescent cellophane sheets back onto their original rolls and packing them into a small, tight box, to be shipped back to the place they came from.

When I picked up your ashes from the funeral home, it felt like a circular caretaking of your life here on earth, gently bringing you home but also reverberating somewhere in time against my ten-year-old self who had wrapped my arms around your glass hospital bassinet on the morning after you were born, as though I had a (now failed) mission to protect you. Can we protect anyone? Maybe we just serve as guides to each other, pressing our hands together in the dark night. We hope to make it through on the warm feeling of someone else’s fingers braided into ours, to fall asleep gently and wake again to the little rays of sunlight that stream in through the side of the curtain onto our cheeks.

The Divine Madman

In Bhutan, I walked up the stairs to Drukpa’s temple, outside of which a heavy tree extended her great, thick branches like spread fingers and gave nice shade from the bright sun at the top of the hill. After I spun the prayer wheel, I walked through the open alley of the temple. A few young monks, maybe 15-years-old, took our small group and packed us into a cramped, dimly lit room. They arranged us shoulder to shoulder in a narrow circle and blessed us by holding phalluses — two wooden and one silver — at our foreheads for a few seconds, pressing lightly into our skin while we drew in and exhaled breath. The two 80-year-old men in our group were a little bemused, though they bore the brief moments of their public discomfort well.

After we were blessed, my guide told me that women come to this temple from Bhutan and all over the world for those same blessings when they’re trying to conceive. He listed anecdotes of women who struck out by conventional or medical methods but who later bore children after being blessed at this temple. It serves as both first and last chance for fertility. He said when you come to the temple, you give your child — or future child — over to Drukpa Kunley. Unbeknownst to anyone around me, my daughter was sitting six-weeks in my womb. Before knowing the terms of my offering, I had entrusted her to another father. I walked alone after that funny ceremony, down the notched steps of the hill leading now away from the temple and to the road below, thinking about what my guide had said. I felt the first sense of peace and familiarity with my pregnancy and with the peculiar wonderment of life.

Days later in my trip, I took prayer flags up the steep walk to Tiger’s Nest, and a reincarnated monk seated on a platform in a short, tapered room of the temple blessed those flags. Afterwards, I tied them into another section of flags that laced through the trees lining the path back from the temple, spreading my prayers and wishes, along with so many others’, through the mountain winds.

When I had I untied and unfolded my flag set, a single blue thread separated from one of my flags. Presuming that, too, received the monk’s blessing, I tied the string loosely around my wrist, hardly even in a double knot, hoping sort of absently that someone would watch over me and my child. I wished for this string to detach once I no longer needed such benevolent supervision. A year-and-a-half later, when my daughter was nine months old, while sitting in her room putting away toys, I looked at my wrist and saw the thread had untied. There was nothing otherwise memorable about that moment or time. I gently took the frayed and faded string, labeled it for my daughter and put it in a plastic bag in her memory box with a note how this had come to be.

I must have relayed the story of Drukpa Kunley’s temple to my young daughter, because she began talking about her “other father.” A lucky child, I thought, to have been blessed by the impish spirit of a monk who moves heretically to shake us out of perfunctory observance — that will never shift us out of this plane, anyway — and into real, lived motion and emotion. It is a natural marriage that you — Hannah, my love — and Drukpa Kunley have become my daughter’s perceived spiritual parents: creative, compassionate dancers who sought enlightenment not through asceticism or stoicism but by bathing in the verdant fecundity of this sacred, abundant, overlooked, neglected ground we stand on.

Letting go

We held a self-described party in your honor after your funeral. Many people flew in or drove up from far away. We were so worried no one would come, but hundreds of people sat with us, mourned with us, stayed with us and celebrated with us. Lisa brought paper sky lanterns, and everyone drew pictures on them and wrote words to you. We stood on crunchy snow in the February dusk, fighting the wind for the lighters to catch flame and for the flame to billow out the lanterns, then coaxing the lanterns from our outstretched hands into the sky. We yelled at them to “Go, go, go”, like the terminus of Dean Moriarty to Sal Paradise: “Yes, yes, yes, I gotta go now, Fever Sal. Goodbye”, as those paper spirits got distracted in the silvery, naked branches of the trees, far beyond the reach of even the tallest ladder. So, instead, we hooted and whooped at them to be free.

Almost all those lanterns made it out of the clearing on the hill between Mom’s garden, with its wooden trellis doorway our brother built for his wedding, and Dad’s red New England barn and up into the great sky. They drifted so high and far, they disappeared from our sight like the bright crescent horn of the sun as it breaks one last eye-watering time before it enfolds and tucks itself under the horizon, and we are left with a rapidly fading orange vault and the accession of darkness.

“Go, baby, go!”, “How do I know it’s going to go?”, “It will go!”, our crowd shouted, as my daughter, your niece, and our nephew ran and stumbled through the dry, swaying ornamental grasses and snow, as we hollered and awwed, laughed and cried and wanted that moment to stay. Or then it would be just one more memory we had to loosen, one more minute we were forced to emancipate from our touch. I could have taken the rest of my lifetime with you, Hannah. I thought we had it.

I live with the cloak and shield of your protective spirit every day now, but like straining to see the last paper lantern even after it melted into the clouded winter sky, I don’t want to let the you-here-on-earth go. I don’t want to turn away from the place behind the hills that received your lighted spirit — the constellation of our love and gratitude for you — back to the empty spot in the clearing between trees where we are standing in the warm afterglow of our collective joy at our send-off to you and the hungry void of life without you.

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