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This Old Grief

‘Al di la’ is an old Italian song that won the Eurovision singing contest in 1961 and it’s going through my head now, 2018, USA, Boulder, Mapleton Hill, purple storm coming in over the mountains, and me as grown up as I have ever been and currently, at this moment, un-bereaved in any way.

It is a mournful song about love and loss made famous by Connie Francis and my head is going ‘round and ‘round singing this and my chest is heavy like iron and my heart feels dead with the despair of my distant abandoned self.

It’s ridiculous, I say, to the bewildered clamor inside my head. I close the windows against the threatening afternoon sky, moving toward the watery, grey murk of the kitchen to brew tea. Tea and sympathy. I feel heartbroken, so heartbroken I can barely think straight.

Outside it looks like the world is ending, has ended. I am in parallel worlds,one this lonely little girl, the other this old-enough-to-be-a-grandmother, safe inside while the storm rages. The grown up looks so small and distant from where I am, adrift among the fragments of my heart. This storm inside is so much wilder and darker than the one rumbling outside.

It’s ridiculous because it’s over and done with. Things happen, my adult self knows this, I am recovered. Where does it come from, this two year old self, to snatch at me like this? I am irritated by her. She is pathetic and needy. And I am past this.

‘Al di la means you are far above me, very far Al di la, as distant as the lovely evening star Where you walk flowers bloom When you smile all the gloom turns to sunshine And my heart opens wide When you’re gone it fades inside and seems to have died Al di la.’

Now I am crying, my chest aches, heaving sobs swallowed into silence.

I have to leave the kettle. I have to hide somewhere upstairs. Why is this happening? Where does this old melody sneak up from? Poor thing, you seem so very sad.

You think they are dead, don’t you?

You don’t know they will come back. And you think it is something that you did that made them go.

My mom said she was afraid that if she didn’t go she would lose my dad. I completely understand that. Now. And how could my dad turn down the journalism award, so prized, the opportunity to write from London for a year? I would never want him to. They loved me, but I was in the way.

My gran looked after me, but I didn’t know my gran and she wasn’t you, mom. The air in her place felt like a wall and everything was chilled, drained of color.

One day, years later, you forgot to collect me from school and it was the same, the way the gray cold moved in like fog and the teacher bustled around me saying she would call you. She touched me on the shoulder but I couldn’t feel anything because you were gone, and I had done that thing again that made you go.

So you went with dad and you both had life changing experiences and I thought you had died and gone to heaven. I thought you had left me because I was a bad child that you couldn’t love.

I don’t remember anything except being alone in my room, floating off and getting caught at the ceiling, looking down on myself, like leaving. And mixed in with that is this teddy bear that I still have nestled between the pillows on the bed I share with my husband, forty years now, nearly, and I never can believe he will not leave me, that I will not do that thing I do that would make him unlove me, and leave.

This teddy bear made me furious.

Me and the teddy on the floor in the empty bedroom, the grey, cold, empty bedroom and my red hot fury. I had a piece of plastic like a knife or a broken window from a doll’s house that I used to saw away at the teddy’s neck. I wanted to cut his head off. I’m surprised it still lies there today, alive on my bed.

Otherwise, for that year, I remember nothing and in these decades intervening so many hours in so many therapy rooms, telling the same theoretical story over and over, feeling the grey fog swallow me, feeling the color gone, feeling the cold like death but more than that the shame, this living in this thing that could not be loved, this bad thing that caused gone, that caused alone, that repeated alone and grey and the madness of misplaced grief. The way I cannot resist bereaving myself, the way I leave, turn on my heel. I will go before you do.

It’s a wonder how the code remains unbroken. No amount of tears, recounting, reliving, forgiveness, of myself, of others, makes me feel less vulnerable to being abandoned.

Now I have myself on a tight behavioral rein so that maybe one day my ‘looks like’ can change to ‘feels like’. Try, always try, try to remember this concept called safety even when my cells scream and my mind is erased. Try to remember that what is here now is not gone, wants to stay. Try to tell the difference even when my eyes cannot see. No I am not that little girl loved, but lost, for fear of another love lost.

This is who I am — what other people see — moving carefully, pouring tea, storm clearing, grown children sitting comfortably on the sofa, sun shining on the liquid spring green. Husband who won’t leave me despite my habit of reenacting abandonment in some misguided attempt to trick the dry old desperation into disappearing.

Replay the bereavement in order to feel it completely this time before I let it go forever, before the fog lifts one last time and lets the sun shine on my lucky life that is not immune, but does not need to practice loss, over and over, like some magical incantation to prepare, rehearse, to somehow keep me safe.


If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. 

George Eliot



I live in hazard and infinity. The cosmos stretches around me, meadow on meadow of galaxies, reach on reach of dark space, steppes of stars, oceanic darkness and light. There is no amenable god in it, no particular concern or particular mercy. Yet everywhere I see a living balance, a rippling of tension, an enormous yet mysterious simplicity, an endless breathing of light. And I comprehend that being is understanding that I must exist in hazard but that the whole is not in hazard. Seeing and knowing this is being conscious; accepting it is being human.

John Fowles, Aristos


“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

Arundhati Roy

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