Friday, August 29, 2008

What I know/What I don't know

All week I've been considering how to do the topic (the title of this entry) I gave to my students. I've been thinking about grief, clearly, from my last entry, as I went to my hometown and tried to "settle" some feeling of haunting I've been having about it. In my own home, two hours from my original home town, I often feel echoes of the home I grew up in and wished I was there, instead, for instance. So I drove by, I went past the houses of old friends, some drifted away, some still friends, most lost in the forests of adolescence, either through force or accident. And yet, I felt the opposite of peace. I felt agony, confusion, and the rending of childhood from my arms, which, quite fantastically, had in some realm still been holding on, and holding on hard, to my parents, to childhood, to the past.

I was surprised that I was able to then go on to my nephew's birthday party and have a good time. Meet my brother's new girlfriend, with whom he is about to co-habitate and who just so happens to be a Medical Examiner (the person who medically determines whether someone's corpse died naturally or with incident), chat with Tyler's quite extroverted family and play Nerf football (of sorts) with him. It wasn't ignoring my pain - it was more what phenomenologists call "bracketing" - setting aside a whole set of perceptions in order to function in the now. As I drove out of town, across the bridges built only as I was an adolescent and only as I had need to use them - to leave town- I felt it all come back. I listened to Radiohead. I cried, not knowing why, and then, I called people, when the pain got too bad.

"The losses continue," birdfarm noted. Yes, yes they do. She was so helpful, really grounded me, not separating the loss or dismissing it, but not indulging it either, just helping me to see what *is*. I felt much better giving some name, though as of yet, and likely never, an end, to the pain.

Last night, after teaching my first Miksang class of the semester at Marquette, I met my brother Alex and his lovely girlfriend, Patty, out for dinner at Miss Katie's Diner near campus. I'd been there before once with a long complicated person of my past, and hadn't been back in over a decade. It was a great time - our waitress had real personality and the mashed potatoes had real potatoes. After we'd ordered (meatloaf for Patty and me, breakfast-for-dinner for Alex), and got our "first course" (diner style - bread and butter for Alex, cole slaw for me and iceberg lettuce salad for Patty) Alex looked at me for a moment, then said "So, you like cole slaw, huh?". I had just picked cabbage from our own garden a couple of days ago with full intention to make more at home - if I make it mayo-free, Dylan will even eat it! - and I nodded yes, though said that this certainly wasn't the best I had had.

"Dad always ordered cole slaw, you know." I stopped, spoon mid-air. No. No, I didn't know that. Or, as I was telling my students in class just an hour before, their faces skeptical to the idea, some PART of me saw that, again and again, dad ordering cole slaw at Schreiner's restaurant in Fond Du Lac, where we'd stop en route to the cabin, at Mr G's in Door County ("though I'm not sure they *had* cole slaw, I'm sure dad would have ordered it if they did" Alex admitted), anywhere he could get it. Some part of me saw it, though because he died when I was 12, I had no context for Cole Slaw (other than "adult ick", likely) so I forgot that I knew it.

I asked him if mom made it fresh at home (she was quite the gardener) or if he just ordered it in restaurants. "Just in restaurants, I think." I felt, though I am not proud of it, a slight vindication (that I make something fresh that my mother never made), alongside the pain of realizing I had forgotten something, some clue, some tiny but regular part about my dad in an never-ending series of losses, and some pleasure that somehow part of me had remembered and too, always orders Slaw.

Patty looked surprised, or curious. "There are lots of different takes we all have on our parents," I explained and she confirmed the age differences between me and Alex (5) then Alex and David (4) making almost 10 years span. "No wonder," she said and I responded "Yeah, I was 12 and David was 21 or 2 (there are a few months in there when he is 10 years older than me) when dad died."

"What are some other examples?" she asked, her face soft and curious.
"For one," Alex said, a slight smile on his face, "We remember the day of his death differently."
(We KNOW it differently, I might add here)
"Yep. The timeline, even certain facts, are lost in the melee. We experienced it differently, and trauma changes time."
"Death slows time." Alex said, bluntly, and I nodded. It's true. And also speeds it up.

Dinner came and we moved on to other topics - things Patty knew for instance, cleanly unrelated to death - the corrupt and messy lineage of Detroit mayors ("She grew up close to 8 mile," as Alex likes to put it), and, more generally, how hard it is to be "clean" in a context where everything has been corrupt for decades, not just in Detroit, but in all politics and business.

I am still haunted by the fact that my father loved cole slaw, and so do I. Part of me wants to hold a conference, and real quick like before we forget anything more, before time steals away all that we have already lost, write down EVERYTHING WE ALL KNOW or think we know about these two people, now dead for so long. Bring your memories bad and good, bring what you think are facts and fill the holes. But the holes will be empty no matter how much I know, and I feel a strange peace with that. I smile now thinking of the cole slaw. What a treat to learn something I already knew, as if it is for the first time.

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