by Jeff Oaks
My method for writing these blogs after last month’s abecedarium is to keep writing blogs in an alphabetical method. Every so often I may take on a month, and try to write a short essay a day, but in general what I decided was that each essay has to move forward alphabetically from the last. Thus, because the last entry was Hair Dryer, the next entry has to start with I or higher in the alphabet. It’s just a method I made for myself to keep under control the sheer number of subjects I could write about. I like methods at certain points of my writing life. It helped me to have a strict structure last month; my mother was dying and I couldn’t really fall apart or stop teaching or just sleep all day the way I wanted.
Now that it’s nearly May and the bulk of my responsibilities are gone, I might do those things. People keep coming up to me and asking how I’m doing, and I’m quick to say fine, although I keep getting the feeling that people expect or want me to break down in front of them so their expectations for how I should be (based perhaps on how they expect themselves to be) will be satisfied. It’s an odd game. They are good friends and empathetic colleagues and I don’t at all doubt their real concern for me, but I find it weird how, once they’ve asked how I am and I say fine, we hover in a kind of “now what?” space. I think they’re waiting for me to burst into tears or at least confess that I am not fine, I’ve lost my mother, and I want to sleep all day. I don’t worry exactly about it but I do feel myself inspecting my posture, voice, facial muscles to make sure I’m transmitting the right signs: I’m sad but not about to fall apart. Today a neighbor of mine, having just found out that my mother died, said how sorry she was, and then said,
Losing your mother is the worst thing in the world. Your whole life falls apart.
Thanks, I said. Then the weird silence. I half expected to see my house crumble to dust behind me. Luckily it’s allergy season here in Pittsburgh, so my eyes are always watering. Otherwise I would’ve felt a little foolish standing there in my new coat, with my black bag on my shoulder, jauntily going off to the café to work. Without the tears, I might have looked a little heartless, I’m thinking.
Sometimes I assure people that I know it’ll hit me when I least expect it. I’ve gotten particularly irritated by people telling me that. Yes, yes, it will. Just like love, luck, good politics, and an audit, I think. I know they mean well, but really nothing is more disheartening to someone in mourning than being told that he’ll fall apart at a random moment in the future. But I get it, they mean well.
I wish there were a better method of consolation. Maybe there could be a series of pins or banners or armbands, colored-coded like those old gay bandanas that telegraphed what the cruiser wanted. If it was a red bandanna in the right back pocket, that was one signal; if it was a yellow one in left back that was another. I never, frankly, mastered that semaphore, but I always admired it.
I need an armband beyond the old black one, maybe one that signals how much I am consoled by food. So far my favorite consolation has been a small chocolate cake made by a former student, with a card that read “For your mother, who let you eat chocolate cake for breakfast.” I ate that fantastic cake for breakfast for the next three days, and after dinner too for a few nights. Thank you Nour. The cards of course have been lovely, kind. The hugs from friends who have gone through the death of a parent and know how weird it is, how odd it is, how outside all expectation it is, are invitations to a solemn group.
How am I has always been a question for me. It’s the whole reason I’m a writer: I’ve never had a stable sense of who I am, what I am, or how I am. I write in order to have that “momentary stay against confusion,” Frost says in “The Figure A Poem Makes.” I need a method in order to slow down the inordinate possibilities of how I’m doing. I invent myself letter by letter every day.