By Brad Buchanan,
Sacramento State University
August 22, 2022
The Power Of Writing Through Grief
Grief and trauma are such difficult things to work through, and there is no one easy clear path to do so. Different people need different tools, and each person’s journey through processing difficult experiences and emotions is unique. That being said, there is a lot of power to be had in writing out our feelings, experiences, and using tools like journaling and storytelling to both vent and clarify our thoughts, and to find connections with others when we share them.
Guest blogger, academic, and full-time writer, Brad Buchanan, shares here just such a piece, that touches on many complex feelings that for him came from dealing with serious illness, the loss of a friend, and difficulties between himself and his father. Despite dealing with such heavy topics of death, loss, and pain, this piece is inspiring and uplifting. In the end it serves as a message of hope, continuing on in the face of pain and difficulty, and of connection. We hope that it can serve as a piece others can find that solace and strength in.
A Garland Briefer Than a Girl’s
I’m walking with my dad yet again.
He and I have walked together more times over the past three years than the rest of our lives put together. He was the one who usually came to see me in the evening when I was in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, and he would always want me to get up for one last blind stagger around the room when I was too tired to motivate myself.
This time I’m the one who suggests a walk. A little fresh air will do us good, even though it’s been cold and rainy all morning.
Our first walks in the BMTU covered a distance of ten yards at the most: from my room’s inner door to the window and back, once, twice, maybe three or even four times. Later, when I had enough strength to leave my room and walk outside my room, he would wait patiently while I performed my “due diligence” on the commode. I wore Depends, but wanted to avoid embarrassing accidents, so I would wait for any sudden bursts of incontinence before committing to leaving the room.
Today he’s the slow, recalcitrant one. He fusses with the winter coats, disappears upstairs, and leaves me waiting, fully garbed, at the front door.
In my isolation room, he’d help me put on my mask and gown, and would find a hairnet for my head and disposable covers to put over my socks, then lead me out into the unknown brightness of the hallway.
Today he’s worried that it’s too cold outside. The most optimistic man I’ve ever known has become a worry wart, a nervous Nellie.
Once beyond the double doors of my room in the BMTU, we’d go at a shambling, halting pace, since I was weak and nervous about tripping on the many lines by which I was attached to my IV tower. I couldn’t see anything except some slivers of color at the very edge of my peripheral vision, and as we walked I felt like we were always going around in circles, somehow. I clung to the round bar in the middle of the IV tower with both hands, my lines draped over my forearm to keep them out of the way. I would often need to stop and rid myself of the dizziness creeping over me. When we came to a door, he would hold it open for me and squeeze around to make sure it didn’t slam on me.
The truth is that he is severely depressed. No medications are helping, and he is clearly suffering badly.
He would lead me down those halls patiently and cheerfully, keeping up a pleasant banter with passing doctors and nurses, and with me, though I could rarely manage more than curt, grim replies.
He isn’t sleeping at night, blames himself, thinks he has taken the wrong medication and now has something called “serotonin toxicity.” I haven’t bothered to look this up yet, but it sounds unlikely.
He has always been a believer in the health benefits of walking: “functional exercise,” he called it, and would often walk to work in even the most horrendous weather. When I got out of the BMTU and came home, the only exercise I could stand was to walk around our neighborhood, first on Kate’s arm, or a caregiver’s, then on my own with a white cane.
We set out on a “misery walk” (my mother’s phrase), but as we make our way across town the weather improves.
I fell twice while walking with him, both times when crossing a street illegally: our shared habit of jaywalking coming back to bite me. We never told anyone about these distressing accidents, however.
Today that complicity has turned to silence. We are waiting for an “intake coordinator” at a local geriatric care facility to return my call, and don’t want our anxiety levels to get higher. I am not satisfied that he is being treated appropriately, or by the most qualified doctor. I am ready to yell and scream if necessary; my mother disagrees with my approach.
During the three weeks of my treatment at Sloan-Kettering, he and I would walk together along the snowy Manhattan streets, chattering about hockey, soccer, baseball, and the ever-fascinating question of the weather. We went up and down the East River, often with my mother, and even all the way uphill to Central Park and back.
Today we find ourselves at Geoff Wightman Park. It is deserted, of course, given the time of year. It’s too early for the outdoor rink, and too late for any other kind of play.
Geoff, the son of one of my father’s colleagues, had been my best friend in elementary school. He had been my Vice-President when I was elected Student Body President in Grade 8, a triumph I owed as much to his popularity as to my own.
Geoff’s father is, like my dad, having health issues that tend to isolate him and make him reliant on his wife. He lives in the house closest to the park. No lights are visible.
I remember a sleepover at Geoff’s house when we were twelve or so; he played Gary Numan’s weird song “Cars” for me on his turntable, and together we withstood the mockery of his two older brothers.
Some lines from A.E. Housman come back to me, as I knew they would:
That time you won your town the race,
We chaired you in the marketplace.
Geoff was a terrific athlete, a star soccer player and excellent skater who also managed to be charming and bashful enough to be popular with the prettiest girls. He spoke with an endearing slur in his speech, and was handsome beyond his years.
I can’t resist the temptation to find Housman’s poem on my iPhone. It is pretty much as I remembered it, and seems appropriate for my friend:
Man and boy stood cheering by
As home they brought you, shoulder-high.
I tell my father about the poem, choking on its title, “It fits Geoff so perfectly. It’s called, “To an Athlete Dying Young.’”
Geoff died very suddenly of Leukemia when we were in high school. By that time, he and I had grown apart; he made fun of my ill-advised new hairstyle (a center part I soon abandoned) and made friends with the members of the soccer team, a squad I was cut from after a few months of acting as third-string goalkeeper.
Today the road all runners come
Shoulder-high we bring you home
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.`
My father spoke at Geoff’s funeral; I was more proud of him that day that I’d ever been before. I was already a pot-smoking introverted mess, and was mainly concerned with whether the girl I liked (who had also attended the funeral) would think better of me because of my dad’s dignified eloquence.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows,
It withers quicker than the rose.
It’s as if Housman had already known about Geoff more than 50 years before his birth, and had even anticipated my own envy of Geoff’s heroic exit.
Eyes the shady night has cut
Cannot see the record cut,
and silence sounds no worse than cheers
after earth has stopped the ears.
I had always felt that Geoff’s brief life had, in a strange way, made him eternally young, a belief that Housman’s elegy confirms.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
Housman’s elegy is as much for the living, who mourn their own lost youth and abandoned potential achievements, as for the dead athlete.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot in the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge cup.
I am glad that this park, where we used to play hockey until our toes were numb and our backs were aching, bears my friend’s name, but I know that this is of little consolation to his family. I remember his father’s broken expression as he waved all sympathy wordlessly away.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
A garland briefer than a girl’s.
I wonder if my father would have suffered less had I died quickly from my own blood cancer. I hand the phone to my dad. “It’s that last line that kills me,” I say.
He recites it, dutifully, with the sober, respectful voice I remember from the funeral:
“A garland briefer than a girl’s.”
By now I am weeping my usual quotient of silent tears. I don’t want to think too much about the role my own long medical trauma must have played in precipitating my father’s seemingly unshakeable gloom. I certainly don’t want to let him know how guilty I feel for surviving while Geoff died.
We get up and walk slowly homeward.
“You spoke very well at Geoff’s funeral, dad,” I finally confess. “I was really proud of you.”
Now we are both in tears. I don’t think my father and I have ever cried in each other’s presence before, and neither of us knows what to say. It’s as if some ancient taboo has been broken and the tribe is uncertain what vengeful gods will descend.
Instead of death raining down from above, my phone rings. It’s the intake coordinator. I thank her for returning my call. My voice, to my surprise, is clear, warm and calm.
“Yes,” I hear myself saying.
Yes, I can deal with this.
Brad Buchanan is Professor Emeritus of English at Sacramento State University. His poetry, fiction, and scholarly articles have appeared in nearly 200 journals, and he has also published two book-length collections of poetry: The Miracle Shirker (2005) and Swimming the Mirror: Poems for My Daughter (2008), as well as two academic books. His third book of poetry, The Scars, Aligned (A Cancer Narrative), is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in February 2015, and underwent a stem cell transplant in 2016. He is currently in remission.
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