Full circle, and there’s a song about that

My Grandpa Bethancourt died when I was twelve years old.  At the funeral, I spotted a tall, bearded fellow dressed in a distinctive (peculiar, to me) manner.  He looked familiar, but I was also certain I’d know it if I’d ever seen such an odd character before.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“That’s Cousin Joe,” I was told.  “We don’t speak to him.”  The tone implied that the reasons were of an unsavory nature best not explained to a child, that he was one of those weirdies.

Four years later, I was at a collegium learning about the history and the modern practice of rapier fencing.  “Hey, look,” my companion said to me.  “It’s your cousin, Joe.  Aren’t you going to say hi?”

“I’ve never met him,” I shrugged and replied, and was met with an incredulous stare.

Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was made to stand in front of the tall, bearded fellow who dressed in a distinctive manner.  He peered down his nose at me, over his spectacles in that way of his, and said, “Who is this gorgeous redhead?”

“This is your cousin,” my companion informed him smugly.

Joe’s scandalized oh was several seconds in forming.

I was sixteen years old and the subversiveness of a relationship with an older relative not on the parents’ Approved list — especially if he was a weirdie — had all the appeal necessary to ensure we’d get on splendidly.  We did.  Joe was a good friend to me in those rocky teen years when I felt like I had a lack of adult support in my life.  He even went to bat for me against my father, a rather intimidating figure.  I’m told there were raised voices.  I don’t know if I ever told Joe how much it meant to me that an adult had enough faith in me to stand up for my choices, right or wrong.  I don’t know if he ever knew how badly I needed that.  I do know that he meant his standing offer of help sincerely; I don’t suppose he knew that there were moments when it felt like the only lifeline I had.

Some time after that confrontation, Joe and my dad started spending more time talking to each other.  In the nearly twenty years since, they became quite close.  Earlier this year, Joe played a concert put on by my dad.

Joe Bethancourt was a local celebrity.  That no-good banjo player was how he liked to describe himself.  If an instrument had strings, he could play it.  If there was a joke to be made, he’d put it into song.  If a song was beloved, he could filk it to bits.

Every time I saw Joe, he greeted me as his “second favorite redhead” (first honors to his wonderful wife) and asked me the same two questions: “Is he still treating you right?  Do I get to have to kill him for you?” meaning the man I married.  Because that was part of what he’d fought with my dad about, for me, and he had an endorsement to stand behind.  But also he was the kind of man who would really have relished the excuse to take any one of his many cherished weapons out for a spin.  I think Joe had two – no, thr—make that four true loves: music, weapons, greyhounds, and redheads.  Five true loves: also bad jokes.

I last saw Joe when he played that concert for my dad, in January.  He offered the usual greeting, and asked me those same two questions.  I laughed and thanked him for playing.

And that was the last time I saw Joe.

Today I have another family funeral to attend.  There will be no tall, bearded fellow to spot across the room.

One Month On

It’s been a little more than a month now since I lost my best friend, my Jiro, quite suddenly without warning one evening shortly before Christmas.  I wasn’t able to talk about it then, and I’m still not entirely certain I can, but I have observed some things about grief and bereavement in the last month that I have found interesting.  Being a writer, I feel compelled to get them down so I’ll still be able to reference them when the freshness has faded.

When your grief is public, everyone feels like they have the right (maybe even an obligation) to tell you how you should be doing it, as if we all need the same things.  As if there’s actually any way to control how it plays out.  The strangest things bring the tears, and it’s even stranger which moments you’re able to find the levity in.  Things you should easily be capable of are impossible, while more difficult tasks provide the only available relief.  Helpful suggestions hurt.  Sympathy hurts.  Apathy hurts.  Everything hurts.

But grief-pain has a unique flavor that is different from other kinds of psychic pain.  The pain of depression is one I know well.  It is (for me) a numb-aching tiredness, a heaviness, a weakness.  Sudden bereavement has caused a unique set of physiological symptoms.  Authors and poets have always described the experience of being bent double with grief, of a feeling of literal hollowness.  It was a bit of a shock to find myself actually experiencing those things.  I imagine it’s sort of like the shock of meeting a celebrity whose face you’ve been familiar with for years on the big screen as various fictional characters, and finding that they somehow, impossibly, look exactly like that in person.  It’s surreal.  Or too real.  To feel an emptiness in my middle that is not hunger, to be trying to walk along and feel myself physically incapable of standing up straight under the weight of all the sad – that’s a stereotype, a hyperbole, not a thing that could possibly happen.  Except it did.

On most days, I consider myself a highly rational person, but there is nothing rational about grief.  The more I start to feel okay, the more I want to not feel okay.  The more I want the first hard torrent back.  Because I was closer to him having been alive then?  Because it’s some kind of betrayal to be okay?  Because being okay means accepting that he is gone, moving on to a stage of my life that doesn’t have him in it?  The more moments of okayness I start having, the more I need to be anything but okay.  The part of me that is still rational would like the rest of me to stop being such a mess.  The two parts are at war.  Despite what some people who know me may think, I am a peaceful person; war doesn’t suit me.

It is also a surprise to find that, as the okay moments multiply, this doesn’t actually make any more sense of the other moments.  They still happen just as randomly and knock me down just as hard.  That doesn’t seem right.  It seems like the process of healing should include the buildup of some kind of tolerance.  I suppose it will, eventually.  I guess it’s just misleading – when you start being able to return to the regular pattern of your days, you assume that means other things are returning too.  But this process happens on its own time.

I expect I’ll be learning new things about bereavement for a while yet.