For All the History of Grief
by Stan Werlin
Martin’s bookbag is loaded down with more books than he could possibly get through in a day. It’s Thursday, the day he always reads to Annika, and a sudden rush of wind creates a flutter of dull falling leaves that stirs him out of a momentary daydream. Sometimes, when he animates a particular passage, his hands gesturing, his arms flying, his face contorted into what he imagines is the proper combination of his features, he reaches out toward her as if he could turn back time.
“Annie, forgive me,” he murmurs. “Let’s get through one more chapter. If I dawdle any longer it’ll be next month before we finish.” She had always preferred the award-winning novels, books her strongest fourth and fifth graders had sought out and devoured. Today he has begun one of her favorites, a spellbinding story set during the Second World War.
After no more than ten minutes, the light seems suddenly to fail. The dry air no longer holds the earlier warmth, and the temperature plummets as the sun fades. Martin places Annika’s leather bookmark, a wedding gift from a thoughtful friend who understood her powerful love of literature, at his stopping point. He gathers up his things, his blanket, the folding chair, the water bottle he finished hours earlier. Settling a small flower on the gravestone, he traces his finger slowly across her name. Annika. His fiery, passionate, exasperating Annika, so suddenly gone and in the ground now almost an entire year.
The glioblastoma – the most lethal form of brain tumor, ferociously invasive - had been cruelly merciful in its assault. There had been little time for pain and suffering. They felt the surgeon’s metaphor – like trying to extract all of the chocolate from a swirl of pudding while leaving all of the vanilla – was off-putting and sophomoric even though they understood the futility he was trying to communicate. They were intelligent people; they felt they deserved a more medically exact and thorough explanation, even if in the end the clinical descriptions of cell types, blood vessels and margins might overwhelm them.
The surgery was followed by debilitating chemotherapy and radiation, powerful steroids, anti-nausea drugs. There was a temporary halt to the tumor’s rampant growth, a few weeks of hope, then one MRI and a second and a terrible third confirming the inevitable. Martin had a desperate thought or two about highly experimental clinical trials; Annika cut these off.
“No more time in hospital beds tangled up with IVs and bedpans and instrumentation while the drugs destroy my body. For what, a few extra days if luck is on my side? ” She knew that luck was not on her side. She had always been keenly opinionated, fearless in her willingness to express what she thought to anyone listening. Her self-assuredness inevitably commanded attention; she could draw a crowd, even on the oncology floor of a prestigious metropolitan hospital. She told her doctors and nurses she was going home, and they could help her walk out on her own two feet or get the hell out of the way.
The median survival rate was eight months. She barely made three. At least she had had her final days with Martin on her own terms.
At Annika’s service, Martin refused to let anyone speak other than himself. Several of their friends were upset, even visibly angry. They had things to say, important remembrances, lasting anecdotes they wanted to share publicly. Martin would not change his mind. He wanted her remembered with words of his own choosing and no one else’s.
When he rose to speak, there was a sharp, collective intake of breath, an uncertain stirring of anticipation mixed with concern. How could he summon the composure to speak at his own wife’s funeral without becoming incoherent and immobilized? His children leaned in to each other and whispered energetically. Surprisingly, Martin was clear and focused, upbeat, playfully describing their earliest days together and the night, long before they were married, when his parents came home from a movie and interrupted one of their first sexual experiences. He recalled proudly Annika’s intense dedication to her students. He would always be jealous that she couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning and often came home with a story of success with this student or a breakthrough with that one. He read an erotic poem that he had written to Annika years earlier. “No point in keeping that one private any longer”, he had said. “It’s the best poem I ever wrote for her and I’m not embarrassed to read it. So I hope you’re not embarrassed to hear it."
Before speaking, Martin had surprised everyone with a three foot square enlargement of his favorite photograph of Annika. Clearly he had gone out and had the enlargement made anticipating this day. It remained on a nearby easel as he spoke. Taken when they were not yet thirty, it was a close-up of her face, lit up by her stunning incandescent smile.
“Her smile was so special,” he said. “It was heart-stopping, the finest true thing about her. She never lost it, not even….” He paused, then offered a shy grin when he said “Don’t get any ideas and come up afterwards to sign this.” That comment, so unexpected, broke the tension and brought on a few seconds of quiet, respectful laughter. It was hard not to feel Martin’s joy at that moment, pure and palpable. The photograph became an unexpected center of gravity, lifting everyone’s spirits.
A month after Annika’s funeral, Martin’s sense of self-worth suddenly plunged. He missed her, of course, her smile, her energy, the little jibes at his constant miscues in the kitchen. He discovered how much he had needed to hear about her triumphs at school, how little satisfaction he actually derived from his own work. He believed his contributions to critical projects were increasingly marginal, his value in the eyes of his colleagues plummeting every day. His enthusiasm for his exercise program seemed to erode. He found himself on the aerobics floor less and less; several new pounds made their way to his waistline. He avoided phone calls. Each week, he went to Annika’s grave, where he felt helpless and somehow awkward and misplaced. When he was there, he did not know what to do with his hands. He did not want to be inside his own body. He never stayed more than a few minutes. He did not understand his own behavior, and his lack of understanding shamed him. If things were reversed, he thought, Annie would know what to do.
He told his friends he had begun to feel claustrophobic in the house, surrounded by so many things that had been part of their life together. One after another suggested that maybe he should sell it. Each room seemed to him a clutter of pointed reminders, here the suite of photographs Annika had taken at a startling sunset in Florence, there the collection of copper plates they had bartered over endlessly with shopkeepers in the Old City of Jerusalem, drinking one Turkish coffee after another until they settled on a price they thought was fair and practically flew through the door and out into the throbbing afternoon heat of the bazaar.
Unwilling to sell the house, Martin decided instead to clean it.
He hated to be unproductive. It was one of the characteristics he and Annika had shared and at times even fought about with surprising ferocity. He would rage at her, “You can’t let yourself relax for even thirty minutes without feeling useless! No wonder you’re exhausted all the time!” She would fly back at him just as quickly. “Martin, for God’s sake, with your constant building projects and the volunteering at this and that and all those hours you throw at the job!” It was true. He was more compulsive about his personal productivity than he should be. And so was Annika about her own. It was part of what kept them together, not so much a contest between them but rather a bond that they both regretted and admired in each other simultaneously.
It was late fall, still a good time for housecleaning before the coming New England winter made it difficult to drag the trash curbside. He started in the basement: old furniture, abandoned toys, rusted bicycles, moldy athletic equipment. The attic was next, just a few ancient pieces of luggage and a gray, dried wasp’s nest from the time, a year or two earlier, when they had had to call an exterminator. A half day’s work and Martin was done. The bedrooms were more trouble. None of their three children had been thorough when they had left their rooms behind, and Martin was hard put not to linger over the items he found. Steven’s room was full of baseball cards, comic books and well-preserved miniature action figures, the characters out of the Star Wars movies. He thought they probably had collector value. Paul’s was the cleanest; a few high school sweaters and his college textbooks and old bluebook exams were all that remained.
Jessica was the youngest and the most recent to leave the house, a month after her college graduation the previous summer. She had been the messiest of the three, the least interested in what he and Annika had demanded as a minimum standard of cleanliness. What he found in her room shocked him. In the deepest corner of her closet lay a small pile of explicit photographs. Didn’t that butt tattoo look suspiciously like Jessie’s? The hamper was still filled with unwashed clothing, and when Martin turned it out on the floor the flimsy see-through brevity of her thongs and brassieres made him wonder why she wore them at all. Stuffed away in a narrow ridge that ran the length of the room between her bed and the wall were socks, tissues, notepaper, assorted items of forgotten jewelry, two anatomically correct vibrators and various related paraphernalia. Martin found himself wanting to flee. He left the rest of Jessie’s room for another time.
The housecleaning project reached into a second week. The afternoon he came across Annika’s forgotten cache of books, the ones that had been autographed by the authors and then carefully stored away from the heat and dust of the house, he knew instantly what he would do with them. He packed her old worn-out schoolbag with as many books as would fit, and even though the temperature was hovering below thirty with the threat of an early light snow, he headed to the cemetery. It was the first time he would read to Annika at her gravesite, and to Martin it was an afternoon of pure exhilaration, a moment of epiphany when he began to feel there was a chance he might reconnect not just to Annika but to the rest of the living world.
In April, during the unusually mild spring that followed the frigid, snowbound winter after Annika’s death, Martin saw a woman wearing a brown leather coat at the cemetery. The topography was typical for this area of New England: narrow curving roads, serpentine walking paths, modest hills throughout the grounds. Oaks, maples, pines and low shrubbery dotted the landscape. He saw her standing just beyond a small rise perhaps fifty yards or so to the left of Annika’s grave, her back to him. She was partly obscured by a small clump of trees. Hadn’t he observed some excavation in that area just a month ago? He was certain he had seen the equipment just where she was standing. He remembered a small hill of soil mounded up on those old grayish brown tarpaulins the gravediggers used when preparing a new site.
The afternoon was warm and slightly humid. Martin had worn a light cotton sweater but removed it quickly when he sat down. The woman in the brown leather coat was standing, rocking back and forth on her heels from time to time. He could not see what she was holding in her hands, but her head was bowed slightly and she seemed to keep it that way, lifting it briefly every few minutes. Martin thought she might be praying. He studied her for several moments, then turned his attention to the day’s reading. The next time he glanced in her direction she was gone.
Once, as Martin was about to leave Annika’s gravesite, he looked up and thought he saw the woman in the brown leather coat staring in his direction, perhaps even trying to catch his eye. The distance was just far enough that it made him uncertain of what he had seen. Was her face turned in his direction? Why would she be looking his way?
On an impulse, he waved, not in an anxious or stiff-armed and hurried way; he just raised his hand slightly and kept it facing in her direction, no fingers moving, hesitating several seconds before bringing it back to his side. Immediately he thought it rude, an intrusion into the privacy of her own unsettled grief. He hoped she hadn’t seen him. He turned away from her hurriedly, gathered his things and left without looking back. Had he not turned away as quickly as he did, he would surely have seen her raise her hand to him, not in a shy or tentative way, and wave back.
Occasionally Martin would take his grandchildren for a weekend stay. Daniel, the precocious, athletic seven year old, showed signs of a fearsome independent streak that would surely be the undoing of his parents. His sister Alexandra, still only four, had gone through alternating streaks of behavior, seeming to evolve from argumentative and whiny to cute and inquisitive and back again in a maddening repetitive cycle of contrariness mixed with unbounded love. They would play games with Martin, read books together – of course! – and eat ridiculous junk foods that the children never saw at home.
One Friday evening, Martin confided in them. “I visited Grandma Annie’s grave yesterday”, he began. “When I go there, I usually read to her. Sometimes I read her favorite books, other times I bring new ones she’s never heard before. I like to think she’s listening, that it makes her happy to hear the kind of books she loved to read to her students when she was alive.” He took a deep breath, busied himself folding the day’s newspaper back together, the sections ordered in the way they arrived each morning.
Alexandra was smiling. “Papa, is she really listening? If she’s dead, how can she hear you?” She could barely remember Annika, and had never been to the cemetery. “Can I go with you someday?”
Daniel was more thoughtful. He had always wanted more books whenever Annika read to him. “Papa, are you sure they allow you to do that? I mean, that’s a pretty weird thing to do. You know she can’t hear you where she is, underground in her…”
Martin supplied the missing word. “Coffin?” Daniel just nodded.
“Well…” Martin went on. “There’s a lot we don’t know about what happens after people pass away. Maybe…” He decided not to finish the thought. Bedtime was nearing. Both children seemed restless, and Martin couldn’t explain himself anyway, couldn’t help them understand how what he did was more for his benefit than Annika’s.
Two nights later, Steven phoned. “Dad? Are you all right? Danny and Alex told us that you read to Mom when you go to the cemetery?” There was a brief uncomfortable silence. “Don’t you think that what you’re doing is a little, I don’t know, morbid? Off-kilter? Maybe you should think about seeing a therapist.”
Martin’s response was quick and pointed. “Steven, I do what I do because it helps me get through each week, and I told your kids because I know they’re too young to judge me, and they didn’t. I hope you won’t either.” Before Steven thought to reply, he was listening to the dial tone.
The day Martin lost control of himself in the cemetery he had arrived later than he liked and in an unhappy, foul mood. A major client had bolted to a competitor, he had been arguing with his children about petty, inconsequential things, and he found himself angry at having to navigate life on his own. Annika had been his beacon, always intuiting the best pathway for him. Now he was solo, rudderless and lost.
He had been reading books for the younger grades to her, Eric Carle, Tomie de Paola, Shel Silverstein, the wonderfully repetitive story of Drummer Hoff that she had read endlessly to Daniel. But when Martin started in on Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, he was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness. Hopelessness about what, he wondered? Thefutility of his routine at the cemetery? The sunken purpose of his life now that Annika was gone? Had reading at the gravesite become an unwelcome duty that chafed him, a form of self-punishment for having failed her in their marriage in ways he did not know? He felt unworthy, ashamed, exposed. When the wild things in Sendak’s story gnashed their terrible teeth and roared their terrible roars he found himself literally shouting out the words again and again as if he too had become a wild thing that needed to be muzzled and caged. What was the source of this enormous anger? He hoped no one had heard him or seen him. Had he noticed the woman in the brown leather coat at the rise nearby? He threw the books into the bookbag and hurried away, embarrassed and shaking.
Martin’s friends began a quiet lobbying campaign encouraging him to think about companionship. They wanted him to meet new and interesting women who might enjoy a relationship with a successful and eligible widower. They spoke of well-organized dating services with carefully screened clientele, discrete matchmakers, opportunities to circulate at social events. They even suggested trying the popular and increasingly explicit personal ads.
Martin scoffed at these suggestions – “Too soon” he said predictably, “I’m not ready yet” – but his friends were persistent and well-meaning, and Martin knew in truth that it was not too soon. He needed to shed the reluctance that held him back, cocoon-like and confining. Perversely, he told his friends he would eschew the more sophisticated approaches in favor of the personal ads. These ads were risky and experimental, he said; he had rarely taken risks in his life, and there was a wild, carefree appeal to this approach that attracted him.
In a taunting display of – what? His sense of humor? - he drafted several ads and offered them up for comment. Widower, late 50s, accounting executive, balding and gaining weight, lonely, possibly depressed, angry or in tears more often than he admits, given to reading to deceased wife for several hours on Thursday afternoons seeks w/d/s/f of any persuasion for… Pointlessly honest, they said, no woman would respond. WWM/50+ physically fit, enjoys eating well/running/long workouts/symphony/fantasy novels/Denzel Washington movies, seeks WWF/40+ to explore life/Paris/nooks/crannies/the virtues of foie gras. Mountain climbers and blondes need not apply. Friends say I need to get back on the bike and pedal. Enjoy biking? Reply at… Pure fiction, they said, though they admired his creativity and imagination. He told them he ought to just go ahead and see what this sort of trolling might reel in, but no, he was only making a point.
Three months later Martin went to a dating service that specialized in helping divorced and widowed professionals meet the kinds of men and women with whom they might find harmony. He paid a small fortune for the services provided, and over the course of the next few months was rewarded with several match-ups that brought him together with women he would never have found on his own. There were dates, dinners, concerts, the theatre. None of these liaisons ever approached what Martin would consider even a halting start to an actual relationship. They seemed to him more like casual excursions, daytrips with little purpose. What came to mind were words like inconsequential, self-defeating, false.
Following an enjoyable dinner with the woman who would be the last of these match-ups, his date asked Martin to her condo for a glass of wine, and instead of demurring as he had with several others, this time Martin agreed. After a bottle of California chardonnay gave way to meaningless banter about the political intrigue surrounding a bill working its way through the Senate – she was a political junkie and could seemingly have gone on about the R’s and the D’s for hours – she enticed him to her bedroom. He found himself strangely listless there, his responses muted and dull. He didn’t know which emotion was the more powerful, his disappointment or his relief. As he drove home, he knew he should have followed his instincts and not allowed himself to be cajoled into doing something he had not believed himself ready to do.
It’s the second summer after Annika’s death when Martin decides to give in to his curiosity about the woman in the brown leather coat. Early evening has already settled in, balmy and humid, and he’s tired of reading. Confident she would not appear at the cemetery unexpectedly this late in the day, he walks over to the area she visits.
He is certain he has seen her kneeling at one particular gravestone, perhaps placing down flowers or a personal item of remembrance. A parent? A sister or brother, a husband? When he reaches the gravestone, his curiosity turns to shock. It is the grave of a child, an eleven year-old girl, her name and dates of birth and death etched in the polished stone. The woman’s daughter? Martin is incapable of imagining the death of a child, the kind of impenetrable grief it would bring. He stumbles to his car. For the first time since Annika’s death, he feels pain for another human being, emotions that do not center on himself and his own loss.
At summer’s end, Martin suffers a severe ankle sprain while running in his neighborhood after dark. His stride lands him hard on a large stone near the side of the road - Damn! He knows better! – and he goes down immediately, his foot turned in under him. Hobbling home, he is barely able to get the ankle iced and elevated. His orthopedist finds a hairline fracture; walking is difficult and he heals slowly. He doesn’t visit Annika for nearly two months.
Driving to the cemetery for the first time after the injury, Martin feels eager and buoyant. The newest award-winning children’s books are tucked away on the seat beside him. For the next several Thursdays he and Annika will explore these books together, and he is overcome with an inexplicable sense of renewal. As he enters the grounds and drives the winding roadway, he thinks he sees someone near her gravesite. A maintenance worker? Landscaping? Most visitors come on weekends, and he values his solitude. But there is someone there, sitting at Annika’s grave. The woman in the brown leather coat.
Martin grabs the bookbag and hurries forward. He is stunned, confused, his emotions hurtling away from him. What is she doing there? The woman hears the car door slam, hears him calling out. She quickly stands, smooths her slacks, and turns to face him.
“Oh, Oh, I’m so sorry…”
“What are you, why…?” Martin sputters. He feels unsteady on his feet, disabled, inarticulate. “This is my wife’s grave. Why are you here?” He immediately hates the gruffness he hears in his voice. He stands there fighting back a rush of adrenaline, his heart pounding. He notices her gloved hands, a book lying on her blanket. When he looks at her face, though, he sees in her eyes neither embarrassment nor guilt, but an unexpected kindness.
“I’ve seen you here a few times since I began coming when my daughter died”, she begins. So Martin had been right about that. He follows her glance up to the rise where her daughter lay. “You waved at me once.” She pauses. “My daughter was only eleven, an automobile accident. I’m still not coping very well. My ex-husband’s in Europe. He sends flowers once in a while for the grave. I’m the only one who comes to see her.”
Martin has difficulty finding words. He is light-headed, floating. “I’m sorry about your daughter,” he finally manages. “I can’t imagine that kind of loss.” He feels his anger dissipating, his sense of violation waning. His hands go to his sides. He just wants to sit down and regain his bearings.
She takes a deep breath and it all comes out in a rush. “I found out about you from the gravediggers, you know. They seem to know a lot about the people who come here often. So I asked about you. We’ve got something in common – loss, grief. They told me youcome every Thursday. Each time I saw you, you were sitting and reading. They told me that’s what you always do, read to your wife. I thought, I don’t know, maybe I should try to meet you. So I began coming more often on Thursdays, and you were always here. Then a couple of months ago there was a day I didn’t see you, and you didn’t come again the next week and the week after that, and I began to think your wife would miss your visits. That sounds so ridiculous, doesn’t it! I think I just wanted some way to deflect my own sadness. Two weeks ago I brought a book and read to your wife for awhile. It took my mind off Sharon for a time. Maybe, in whatever way it helps her, your wife didn’t mind a substitute.” She stops to wipe moisture from her eyes. “God, I’m so presumptuous, you probably want to hit me.” Martin looked closely at her face, her skin faintly lined in several places, her mouth open in a small, hopeful smile.
“Anyway”, she says. “My name is Debra. I didn’t mean to be intrusive. I’m glad you’re back. I’m sure your wife is too.” She began to pick up her things.
“No, wait,” Martin says. “Please stay. I’m Martin. I think Annika would want you to stay. I’m sure she’d want you to keep reading.” He looks away, thinking of Annika the last time he’d seen her alive. “I want you to stay.”
His mind is filled with thoughts of an empty doorway in late autumn, a single maple leaf, dull orange turning to brown, buffeted by a swirling wind, slowly but inexorably falling into the approaching walkway. It is not the first time he has envisioned this scene, conjured from a deeply embedded memory of a poem he studied in high school but can no longer name. He recalls a single stanza – “For all the history of grief, an empty doorway and a maple leaf...” He sees in this image his aching isolation and loneliness, the essence of his being since Annika’s death. He knows he needs to release himself from its insistent, steady hold.
Martin feels something within him give way, his clenched, shuttered heart opening with the speed and beauty of a perfectly formed rose blooming in a time-lapse movie that takes it from a tightened bud to a vibrant, graceful flower in a few short seconds. It is as if a portal to another universe has suddenly risen up unbidden and irised open, beckoning him forward into a bright and blinding light. All he has to do is trust himself to step through.
Slowly, he lets his senses refocus on the woman in the brown leather coat. Debra. She is sitting comfortably on her blanket and has begun reading again to Annika. It is not a children’s book, but that does not seem to matter. He sits down next to her. She reaches out for Martin’s hand, and he feels himself give it willingly, watches his fingers entwine in hers. Somehow her touch is soft and weightless. Her voice is clear, flute-like, filling all the space around them until for Martin there is nothing else, no other sound, no other sensation, nothing but the rhythm of her words as she calls each one out, caring, soaring, genuine.