Grief is a funny thing. Not ha ha funny, at least, not usually, but funny as in hmmm. It doesn’t age, and as much as it feels it will actually kill you, it doesn’t, at least, not usually.
I was driving today, and a faint whiff of wood smoke, the acrid kind not the roundness of apple wood, filtered into my car and in one instant I was in Jeff’s house, that always smelled like sharp old wood smoke every one of the days of those few seasons I spent time there.
The smell that takes me back through time and space, and leaves me hanging in the never never land of long ago and far away and not now, and not even recently. And with that comes the flood.
If you’ve grieved, you know the flood. It’s a wild rush of memories that fall out of order like a box of old memories plunging from the top of the closet, lid off, tumbling down in a mess that then needs tending. There are choices then, to pick each up and hold it, turn it over for a message, a glimpse of handwriting, or a date, or just hold the edges, and marvel that that lifetime and this one were ever anything other than separate.
One whiff of smoke and I am back to bee boxes and dodge power wagons and the smells of grease and raw honey. I am back to mown grass, and dry gravel. And the smell of rain on pavement. I am back under big sky in farm country. I am back in the upstairs bathroom, one foot hovering over the edge to the shower stall only to find a good sized snake already there, apparently one that had climbed a split flight of carpeted stairs to sit in the yellow box with the yellow curtain, and look more at home than I ever felt.
I was just a visitor, after all.
There was not one comfortable thing in that house, from the darkness, to the horse hair mattress from his grandmother, to the seats at the table, to the too hot wood stove, to the beyond ugly shiny wall paper, discovered to be unpaintable, that we covered with ¼” sheet rock before he moved east.
There was not one comfortable thing for him in this world after his love for me waned from the first chemical rush that made him feel like living for a while.
Not even the dog we got to save him, a beautiful blue merle collie who shared his side of the bed, always, for that short while, the little spoon to his big spoon. I would stare at his back. Sometimes put my hand there, between his shoulder blades, just to feel him breathing.
But now, all these years later, I remember the smells of that sliver of time. The musk of the soybean harvest and the diesel of the bean trucks that ran day and night too fast down straight roads. I remember the sounds too– the sounds of the corn leaves, rustling, dry against dry. Nothing to stop the wind out there. Wind and storms and dry heat.
It is these body memories, sensory memories of place that feel like mine but not mine. Borrowed memories from someone else’s life.
I hear a voice from the other room and I arrive, weighty with lingering sadness and dislocation, to this time and space. I am suddenly aware of the furnace kicking on against the cold. The fact I can hear it means the dryer stopped, and it is time to put in another load.
And stuffing things back into the unreliable container in my head, I remember that it is this life, this life, that I am living now.