The Grief Manual: Magical Realism

The Gift of the Magi

My 92-year-old grandmother called to tell me she wants to give me the ring she has always worn. Now, before she loses it, she said, but what I heard was: “Now, because I am dying soon.” The ring was her favorite aunt’s, and I’ve never seen her left hand without its dark blue sapphires and diamonds laced in bright filigree. She always told me it would be mine after she died, and as a child, sitting next to her in a booth at lunch or a clothed table at dinner, I would ask to put it on and watch its fat middle diamond slip over my small child’s finger.

But the twist or curse of the thing was always that she would be gone when the ring came to me. Though I loved the ring — even coveted its sparkle at times — the burden of the exchange was her life for a thing. I always told her that more than anything, I wanted her to stay here with me. Forget the ring. Heirlooms carry beauty, value and memory, and their succession is baked in destiny — but also loss.

The message of the ring’s allure was like that interminably long campfire ghost story about the woman with a yellow ribbon around her neck. She wouldn’t answer her beloved’s continual questions about why she never removed that ribbon. Finally, on her deathbed, she allowed him to take off her ribbon, and her head fell off. There is something inevitably macabre and maybe ghoulish about the things that pass between the dead and the living. There’s something scary, too, about the most fraught questions we ask again and again over our lifetimes — about life, death, love, about ourselves and others — finally being answered.

I tell my mother I worry about what my grandmother’s call means, and my mother says it’s a nice gesture to be given an inheritance while your loved one is still alive. It’s soldering the chains of legacy together, warm hand in warm hand. But I receive it like the clarion’s piercing call to further emotional battle. I’m not really off the sharp spurs of my sister, Hannah’s, death in February. I know of many others who have died since, but none so close to me, and now I’m thinking about my grandmother’s impending death — and whoever is before or after that.

My tenuous sense of place wobbles. It feels like whatever is cuffing me hard by the back of my neck allows me just enough air to breathe before I’m submerged again, as though Tantalus’s punishment is not for stealing ambrosia from the gods but for simply thinking we humans could ever nurse from that provision of immortality. Even our legacy stuffs that pass from generation to generation get lost, stolen, wrecked or burned. The gods say, “Nothing that breathes or can be touched or seen is imperishable, not the people you love or the hallowed family goods they bequeath you.”

Hidden magic

So, the ideas of omniscient gods and immortality are of a kind of magic. That same magic runs in circles with supernatural or mythical tales of vampires — with their near endless lifespans, but only so long as they avoid stakes through the heart or daylight — and mermaids, unicorns and dragons. The host of other fantastical creatures and worlds seems so much more reachable when we are younger — sitting plump and cozy just near us, like the shank of my grandmother’s heavy ring that then felt like it only slightly outpaced my child-sized finger. It seemed so much would be accessible when I got older, but now those same fantasies drift enigmatically at the edges of my thoughts, their tarrying mystery baffling to those of us who know these things are unreal. But are they really so implausible or preposterous?

When my daughter asks if unicorns are real, I tell her I don’t know, exactly, but it seems to me that a world in which platypuses and narwhals exist — and one in which dinosaurs used to amble and rule — a unicorn wouldn’t be that out of the question. I can’t answer her with certainty, in the same way I may fumble when we talk about where my dead sister — her aunt — is now: is she the dust of her compacted bones that sits in my mother’s sitting room, or is she diffused in every streaming cylinder of light, in every insect and in the air above and around us? I don’t know that there is magic or an afterlife, but I don’t know there’s not, and it doesn’t seem right or fair to preclude the possibility.

When I was a child, I used to run my hands over the walls of our old farmhouse, knocking at the corner of the stairway or in closets, searching for secret rooms and passageways I’d perhaps imagined after reading Nancy Drew or about Narnia. I was searching for mystery. I was searching for a way out or through to some world that was like this world, but dewier and more vivid. It was the technicolor fantasy of the Wizard of Oz. I remember so distinctly being embarrassed about getting that story wrong after my two friends and I watched it for the first time when we were 8. I had strongly argued against them, saying the Oz Dorothy visited was a reality, not a dream. My friends stacked up all the evidence that the place was a concoction of Dorothy’s bruised mind that had reshaped those around her into different characters. I finally gave in and agreed the place was indeed Dorothy’s dream, but inside, I concealed a tiny spark of belief that there really was this alternative existent world for her: her imagination incarnate.

Looking for other dimensions in my childhood house was a belief in my ability to manifest enchantment in my world. It’s why I loved reading so much, embodying the spirit of the character so intensely that I remember yelling at my brother when he interrupted me while I was reading when we were kids, not because I was mad at him for being bothered but because the character in the book I was reading was irate. The line between the word and my real world bled together uncleanly. I had such a hard time letting the magic go. I believed in Santa Claus far beyond my reasonable doubt, but I held fast because I portended that once it slipped, I would enter a colder, less magnetic or miraculous world than the one in which fantasy-is-real. The year I finally acceded to Christmas’s reality was like an ice bath.

The magic now is the idea that Hannah is — and all my dead relatives and friends are — still floating around us, watching over us and protecting us. I don’t know if my new Santa Claus is the idea that clairvoyants can see Hannah, see why she died or tell us her spirit is at rest and peaceful. Does it matter anyway? Maybe the form or mode of the messenger is inconsequential. It didn’t matter at Christmas when I was a child: I got the presents regardless to whether I believed it was Santa who slid down the chimney or my parents who walked in the room to place them under the glowing tree. And, it doesn’t matter now: whether she’s a spirit or a memory, Hannah is dead. Like the lady with the ribbon around her neck, once the question of how and why we’re buttressed here is answered, it will be too late. But I still want to believe I can put knuckles to drywall and conjure access to something magical on the other side — some passageway that takes me from here to there.

The trauma of the known and the unknown

There are so many worlds that don’t exist anymore or that exist now in modified or doctored ways. In order to spend the holiday with my daughter, I went to Thanksgiving with my ex-partner and his childhood best friend’s family. I looked out the window of his friend’s family’s floor-through artist loft from the 1960’s at all the lit up apartments across the street and their new and renovated duplex lofts with banister-less conceptual staircases seemingly only made up of the thin rising slats on which you step as you ascend. The worlds in which people used to work in or inhabit are always tumbling down and reemerging as similar but altered, like how Dorothy must have felt when she first awoke from her concussion: a fuzzy fracture in the channels between what was, what we dream and what is.

New York — ever moving in her inexorable drive to change — is so different. Sometimes I can’t orient myself when I get out of the subway because a building that had stood there for a century or more — or at least as long in my memory — has been torn down or newly built. Correspondingly, the relationship I was in is gone, and yet I sat this Thanksgiving at the same table where we once had dinners and celebrated Christmas together as intact families. Experiencing yourself in those moments is like watching an old movie that once held nostalgic value and now feels both strangely familiar and incomparably foreign.

I don’t know, though. Did things ever exist the way I thought they did? How I’m processing Hannah, her life, our relationship and her death today has me at the beginnings of doubt or distance. Time carves itself sharply into memories and leaves a confusing sludge, the way rivers grove and gut out rocks, creating a byproduct of sloppy, muddy sediment over time.

At Thanksgiving dinner, my daughter’s father said he was going to sell his father’s Triumph motorcycle — the largest remaining relic he has of his father, who has been dead now 42 years. All around the table, we argued with him to keep it. For him, it was an emotionally denatured thing, no longer able to be absorbed as a sentimental object and instead now a hassle of risky responsibility. For us around the table, it was a beautiful bike that carried a culturally romantic legacy and a tie to his long-dead father, my daughter’s never-known paternal grandfather.

The perceived joy — and magic — of our early relationship was contained in my idea of that bike, which was housed many states away, and in the spinning spokes of his personal stories and family lore. It was the secret worlds of someone else and someplace else. Those particular worlds never fully opened to me, and if and when they did, they could be dangerous. I remember pushing and pushing against those walls, hoping to find the lever to spin the bookcase around and funnel me into a secret corridor that lead to the light on the other side, just as today I hope I can find a way to justify and vindicate Hannah’s death and also realistically feel or access her numinous presence in a provable way.

Soft and fossilized truths

It’s so hard to disentangle truth from place, existence and what we know. It’s the Gordian knot, standing in between what and where we were and the fate of what we could be and conquer. My daughter asked me how many more animals are extinct now than in 1880. I told her I don’t know. What exists in the world today, or what existed that we didn’t know or can’t recover?

In our own lives, there are effects, ways of being and truths that we can and cannot see. There are the petrified bones of relationships and worlds that no longer exist — or never existed the way we believed they did. It’s like the century-long controversy of the Brontosaurus — Greek for “thunder lizard” — and Apatosaurus — unironically here, “deceptive lizard” — with the former getting placed with the wrong head, then getting subsumed fully into the latter group and finally, 4 years ago, getting substantiated by a study as perhaps its own species all along.

Time and truth perform a long, sordid dance, like the coursing blood and soft, organic materials that drained from bones and then filled with minerals to create fossils. Or, maybe time left us a fossilized mold instead: not the thing itself, but a hard impression of the space in which something existed. When we find them, time and nature’s process has mostly deformed fossils or those leftover imprints where something once was. We inspect chipped, broken fragments of what used to be, and with only some of the structure and the place it stood, we must fill in the parts of the story. We reshape and classify them again when little pieces of new information inform us in a different way.

Life as I knew it

On Thanksgiving morning, as I cleaned my daughter’s room, I began to cry for Hannah. The tears came hard and without warning. As much as I had wanted to be with my parents and family on Thanksgiving, part of me was relieved not to be there, though I didn’t really want to be where I was, either. I must have thought I could pretend Hannah was still alive if I was not where she was or would have been — or should be. But, as my daughter and I later spoke with my family on the phone, I realized I was homesick for there, too. I had thought I could run through Thanksgiving and pretend like it was any other day and not the first inauspicious Thanksgiving without Hannah.

At times— like on Thanksgiving — I feel trapped with my sadness for Hannah, as though stuck on a ship with a locked bridge I can’t access. I feel like I can’t be here, there or anywhere. Nowhere would be good. The life I had hoped for my sister is gone, and the life I had imagined for us together is permanently distorted. Without her to contribute her piece and perspective to this story, I also worry about the deformation of our memories and about the continued dis-integration of our lives together. There is a great, hardening cavity where there once was a real thing.

Though we look back and to the side to orient, frame and reframe ourselves — or sometimes to distract or trick ourselves into believing we are not seeing what is facing us — the great momentum of our lives still moves forward. Just as I knocked walls as a child searching for mystery and now find so many mysteries in my adulthood that I couldn’t have anticipated then, so, too, inversely, does turning around and changing our own direction not make any difference to the bearing or the inevitable route of the enormous ship on which we’re standing. It’s hard, for when we are in the middle of the ocean, there is no land, just endless sky and sea mashed together on the long horizon without a breaking shore.

But — if you’ll excuse the hackneyed metaphor here — at other times, life feels less a mostly deserted but unstoppable ship and more a merry go round, like the one my daughter and I revisited the day after Thanksgiving. We sat next to each other on our horses, laughing or looking thoughtful or pensive and then laughing again, and we watched the other horses — both fixed and moving in tandem on their cranking rods — around us. We watched the people get on and off and the small children scream when they didn’t want to be placed away from their parents’ arms atop a large, toothy, painted wooden horse. We watched the creases in adults’ faces become unlined as they reimagined themselves as children when they climbed onto horses that were fixed in gallop or looking back to the imaginary fly nipping at their neck. We watched the line of people build just outside the lip of the platform, waiting for their turn. The city stood beyond the glass walls surrounding the merry go round, like a backdrop on a fixed rod itself, except for the cold, wild water, white-capping on that late November day.

When the music stopped, we would dismount and step down. The carousel ticket taker and chaperone had warned us before we got on that we couldn’t move around on or leave the platform while the merry go round was moving. We all inevitably get passed our turn. It’s just that Hannah was pushed off in the middle of our ride, and we are still turning around without her.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store