The Post That Took The Longest

March 7, 2011

This is the first in a series of several (probably) posts about death.  I’m letting you know in case now isn’t a good time for you to read about it.

The night before my grandmother died at Christmastime, Der Mann and I came back late from the hospital.  I hadn’t been sleeping, so I burrowed through my bag for a book.  I’d stopped short–just–of packing Safe Area Gorzade, but I had not known my grandmother was dying when I’d shoveled a stack of books off the shelf for our sudden trip.  A random selection from my usual library check-outs: Japanese teenaged murders and suicides, a monstrous psychedelic incarnation of Dionysius in the early 1970’s, ghosts.  What kind of a freak am I? I couldn’t help asking, settling down with the least death-y book in the bag.

This was Kage Baker’s Bird of the River, a swashbuckling fantasy.  In the first pages I met teenaged Eliss, her little half-Yendri brother Alder, and their mother Falena, who is an out-of-work salvage diver and drug addict.  Eliss finds work for her mother and a temporary home for the three of them on a huge riverboat with a mysterious captain.  It was a reassuring beginning for a fantasy, and although I didn’t read much more than a few pages that night, I appreciated it.  I half-slept for an hour or so, stared into the dark for a lot longer, got up, and went back to the hospital.

The next night, after my grandmother had died, I was grateful not to have to figure out what to do with myself.  My only fear as I reopened The Bird of the River was that the story might be too light to hold my attention.  Lying on a cold lumpy couch, having flashbacks, with sore eyes and no sleep ahead, I really, really wanted something to take my mind off death.

I read on for a few pages, and Falena unexpectedly dies.

“The cruelest thing was that, however much Eliss tried to feel relief, however hard she tried to remember all the things Falena had done wrong in her life, the bad memories wouldn’t come just then.”

The Bird of the River was published posthumously.  I had put off reading it because I was afraid the writing would be bad, and then I would be sad not only for Kage Baker’s being gone, but sad for her stillborn work-in-progress.  This sort of thing bothers me more than it should.  What kind of a freak am I?  I can tell you, actually: I am the kind of freak who awards family positions to her favorite authors.  I have several honorary imaginary grandmothers, numerous aunts and uncles.  Kage Baker was my best imaginary aunt.  She was one of the very funniest writers of fantasy, and the kindest, and the wisest–and it turns out I did right to keep reading about Eliss and her dead mother that night.

Mama, I’m sorry your life was so hard.” thinks Eliss at Falena’s funeral, and, “Why mama?  You could have done anything else with your life?

Set in the same fantasy universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, The Bird of the River is a different sort of book.  It has plenty of the light fantasy elements I’d expected, and when these come forward the writing can be a bit rumpled in a way I’m sure Baker–consummate craftswoman that she was–would have wanted to smooth out.  But that’s okay.  Eliss’s slow-growing responses to the loss of her mother and her own coming of age are twined through the whole book.  The writing is sure in these parts, and when you read Bird of the River, they are the ones that will stick.

Soon after Falena’s death, Eliss is found to have an unusual talent for masthead spotting, or “reading the river.”

“What’s that?” Eliss pointed to a curious pattern she had noticed in the water.  It foamed and ran up the way the water did around the snag markers, but there was no buoy in sight.

“What?” said Salpin, and went pale when he noticed it too.  He leaned forward and, in the loudest Calling Voice Eliss had heard so far, shouted: “Snag!  Unmarked snag to larboard!” and in a normal voice to Eliss: “Excuse me.  Stay there.” . . .

. . . “And that’s why we’re not supposed to sit up here in pairs, usually,” he said.  “Because if you start chattering away and not noticing things, then we could have a disaster.  But you noticed.  Good for you.”

“I’m good at noticing,” said Eliss.  She had spent her whole life watching faces for the signs that meant a shift of mood, the signs of of anger or other things.  The river seemed easy by comparison.

It’s been hard to know what to say to people when I’m forced to mention my grandmother’s death.  The electric empathy-storms that blow in my direction are not only tiring but awkwardly misaligned.  From the way these good-hearted empathizers speak of their own grandmothers, I can tell their relationships were way less complicated; for most of them the biggest shake-up came in simply realizing that their grandma was no longer there, not in actually watching her die, and the whole experience was cushioned by the presence of other family members who shared memories of her in better times.  It’s rare for a grandchild to be the only “man on the ground” trying to negotiate the terrain of hospital horribleness, of unrelieved suffering-unto-death.  I suppose my experience has more in common with that of someone who watches over the deathbed of an elderly parent that way–only it wasn’t like that either.  I had two grandmothers.  The one who died was the one who, when I mentioned her to friends, I would distinguish with a careful euphemism: “my non-favorite grandmother,” while the other, just plain “Granny,” is still alive and is dearer to me than anyone in the world.

I found out how useful stock phrases are around death.  I still wish I could fall back on “we weren’t close.”  That would at least calm the storms of empathy, but I can’t make myself say it.  There can be all kinds of distances between two people, some so crowded and dense with meaning that they press on those who share it–especially when they are related–and connect them so awe-fully, the word “love” simply doesn’t come near.

My grandmother was a sad woman.  I made her sadder than anyone.  When my grandmother saw me she saw her dead son–the only child of her only child.  Making her sad made me sad, but I knew I was supposed to pretend I didn’t know this and to act happy around her.  Lively.  Alive.  Thanks to my precocious river-reading skills, honed on my mother as Eliss’ were on hers, there was never a time I didn’t know all this.  My grandmother and I each made the other sad, and we both pretended otherwise.  The difference?  I knew I made her sad, but she didn’t know I knew, because I was better at pretending than she was.  The other difference: while I couldn’t help living a life without my father in it–it was the only one I had–my grandmother more or less refused to live a life that didn’t contain her son.  She died more than 30 years after he did.  That made for more than 30 years–all the years I knew her–of ongoing refusal, a hollowed-out existence where there could have been . . . who knows?

The most striking thread in the Eliss/Falena storyline is introduced a little less than halfway through the book.  There’s an evening of dancing and music on board the Bird, and one of the ship’s musician’s performs the tragic story of a beautiful diver he’s been preparing for the occasion: The Ballad of Falena. Although the crew had only known Eliss’ drug-ruined mother for a few days before she died–

People were weeping when the music droned to its close.  Eliss sat there, uncertain what she ought to feel.  She looked over at Alder and saw him watching her, blank-faced.  It was the most beautiful song she had ever heard and it was all in honor of her mother, but . . . it wasn’t true.  It left out all the bitter ugly parts of Falena’s life.  It was all about a brave and strong Falena, who had loved one man so deeply she had been faithful beyond death.  Eliss’s real mother had loved a dozen men.

But people were weeping.  People were applauding.  The other musicians were crowding around Salpin, asking him to write down the words, asking him to show them the chords.  Even the Yendri were asking him.   A strange excitement hung in the air, and Eliss somehow couldn’t share it.  All she felt was embarrassment.

The Ballad of Falena becomes ubiquitous.  Its popularity precedes the Bird upriver, it’s sung everywhere Eliss goes ashore, it hounds her.

Eliss sighed and stared stared into the fire as the musicians played.  Her mother had become a beautiful melody, a sentimental story, and Falena would have been pleased by that.  Alder had been right.  It was just the sort of thing she would have enjoyed listening to herself.

So why does it still make me angry? Eliss wondered. It’s not just because it isn’t true.  It’s because it feels as though she got away with living her life the way she did.  All the stupid mistakes she made.  All the lies and broken promises, and she gets to become a pretty legend in the end.

Mrs. Crucible, noticing her expression, nudged her gently.  “I hope the song doesn’t make you sad,” she said.

“No.  It’s all right.”

“It’s just that it’s so beautiful.  And it’s our song, after all.  Nobody ever wrote a song about divers before.”

“Really?”

“He’s got it right.  We do run the risk of leaving our souls down there, every time we go into the water,” said Mrs. Firedrake.  The other divers nodded.  Eliss looked uncertainly from face to face.  It hadn’t occurred to her that the song was about more than her mother.

And the adult Eliss voice in her mind murmured, Maybe Mama’s life was about more than Mama too.

Eliss’ talents as a spotter assure her place on the Bird.  Its slow yearly progress up the river and back down, passing through the cities and holy places of the bustling, gadget-minded Children of the Sun who also form its crew, make it not only a boat, but a metaphor for the cycling of history and human lives: together in their apartness.  The Bird’s rhythms of port calls and travel, commerce and encounters with the mystical Yendri, are also the rhythms of individual existence.  Eliss’ own particular upriver journey runs parallel to the one that takes her into adulthood.  The Bird is always traveling both to a source and an ending.

I only read half of The Bird of the River the night my grandmother died.   I could have read the rest in a single sitting.  Instead I read it over the next week, in short bursts, in-between-times devouring whole novels I hardly knew I was reading and couldn’t tell you much about.  I finished it the day after we got home from the funeral.  This wasn’t intentional, but now I think I was relying on its companionship through the final ordeal, wanting to give it the power of the last word.

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21 Responses to “The Post That Took The Longest”

  1. Jenny said

    *very big hug* I’m sorry you have been going through difficult times, Trapunto. Death is not just hard because of the loss, but hard because of all the motions you have to go through before and after, and all the things that have to get taken care of. And hospitals are wretched, unrelenting misery — half my family was in and out of the hospital in 2005, so I got used to the whole thing of sitting, and waiting, and going out for refreshments and coming back, and everybody else’s cell phones ringing, and sitting, and waiting.

    (People are always moved to tell you their own sad story, when you have just told them something sad. I used to think it was a selfish thing, like the way people will say, You think you have hurt your finger by scraping it, well, one time, I SEVERED MY FINGER OFF — but now I think it is just a way of saying, these are the experiences of mine that color in the outlines of the rote sympathy words I’m saying.)

    • trapunto said

      I think you’re right about the sad stories, Jenny. It’s hard to know what to do with stories, how they’re meant, what’s in them, when to tell them; and yet they’re told in a spirit of wisdom and love, and understood in a spirit of wisdom and love, they’re the most direct way humans have of communicating. A bit of that comes into my next post (if I finish it; may end up being called “The Post that Took Even Longer”, since death has a totally surprising way of making stories well up where you don’t expect them.

      Thanks for knowing how horrible hospitals can be. It felt good to hear that.

  2. zibilee said

    Trapunto, I have had to deal with a very similar situation when my grandmother died, so I can sympathize with what you have been going through. Actually, I think it will happen again for me because I seemed to be a real disappointment to both of my grandmothers. The condolences that poured in after her death left me feeling a little unsettled, because how was anyone to know that we were further apart than anyone had realized. I am with you in spirit and thought and hope that things begin to become easier all around for you.

    • trapunto said

      Thank you. You’ve got it exactly. How would anyone know, and how–*if* there were any point, now that the person is gone, and you want to be respectful of everyone who is busy telling themselves whatever they need to tell themselves to get through their own grief–would you ever explain? Expectations are really the pits, in families.

  3. bookgazing said

    Mmm there are always truths you can’t quite get out to many others after a death because they didn’t know that person the way you did and when death isn’t affecting us the impulse is to talk about it in a very soothing sort of way. Don’t speak ill of the dead has maybe ended up enveloping anything we might want to say that doesn’t fit in those stock phrases, but when someone around you dies it becomes so important that you put out your truth as the begining of the third part you quoted seems to say. I’m not sure why that is, but people don’t want legends created out of relatives, they want to be the ones in control of the story, maybe and why shouldn’t they (and you) when it’s part of heir story too?

    Big, supportive thoughts to you. It must be a hard time whatever your relationship was like, especially if you spent so much time with her right at the end. The end of relationships are hard to deal with and it’s a good thing that you had Der Mann and this book around to help you through.

    • trapunto said

      I don’t know how fully this pertains to what you’re saying (it feels like it does, but I don’t want to presume), and I’m not sure how psychologically healthy it is, but in the weeks after my grandmother’s death, when I was dealing with her few living extended family members (nieces and nephews of my grandmother whom I’ve barely met) I’d have these whooshing home truths roll over me at odd moments. One of them was a phrase that came into my head: “Everyone has a right to their self-deceptions.” Genuine self-deceptions aren’t mistakes someone has made, such as you would be doing them a favor to correct; they’re beliefs a person has latched onto because they’ve actually *decided* they need them to survive. A lot of the time the person is even aware of the deception on some level. I now think that’s why people get so emotionally caught up in wanting to control the story of someone who has died, either making everyone agree on the sanctioned legend, or bound and determined to squash it–they’re terrified of having something they need taken away from them just when they need it most. It was the first time I’d looked at the whole concept with anything like compassion.

      • bookgazing said

        That is an amazingly kind attitude of you to have. I recognise that people have seriously embedded self-deceptions, but I’ve never looked at them as something they might need to survive, more as things they need to tell themselves to avoid feeling like they’re making unhealthy choices or to bluff out the rest of the world (I believe in this, so it’s the right thing to do, you know nothing etc). Thanks for sharing that thought, it will help me approach people a little more compassionately I think.

  4. Daphne said

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful, honest post. It’s hard when the person you are caring for, the person who is dying, is someone for whom you have complicated feelings. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I do know that death and grieving are complicated no matter what. I hope writing about this helps you process — this was a beautiful post and I’ll look forward to your next posts.

    • trapunto said

      Thank you Daphne. Your posts about your kitty have moved me as well. I came home to our cat after all this and his animal-y hyper-aliveness struck me as so miraculous, and the straighforwardness of my attachment to him was really comforting. That is a kind of loss I haven’t experienced.

  5. I’ve had all my grandparents die, but was never close, at all, to any of them, much to the sadness of my parents. The only grandparent I even really have much memory of dying at all was my grandfather, and that’s only because I tell funny stories about what happened afterwards, a fact which I feel like I ought to be ashamed of at times. It’s frustrating, in a sense it feels unfair. There’s two people, and we default to the feelings of the one who’s already dead, and expect everyone else to do the same – not just at the funeral so as not to upset someone who has less murky or indistinct feelings, but afterwards, and even inside our own heads, there’s that unwritten expectation that we must ‘respect the dead’. I’m not chafing or angry about this, I don’t mean to sound bitter. Honestly, I’ve never had anyone I really knew well die, so I have no idea how I would even feel. But I’ve watched people grieve, and it always feels frustrating – there’s only one ‘right’ way to grieve. Death, if nothing else, feels like it should be a summing up, a time to form all the half formed relationships we have with people. I don’t know, maybe that doesn’t make sense. I suppose I’m speaking from ignorance.

    • trapunto said

      Closeness just happens, or it doesn’t…

      What kind of funny stories? There are only a few kinds I think anyone would ever need to feel guilty about. One of the most disorienting things about my grandmother’s nieces and nephews was their lack of a sense of humor. When they’d tell a story prefacing it–already laughing at the memory–by “oh, it was the funniest thing,” and then the thing wasn’t funny at all (noticeable lack of narrative climaxes and recognizable punch lines), it gave you the feeling that not much that was really funny happened to them, or if it did they weren’t noticing.

      No! You’re not speaking from ignorance, you’re clearly speaking from a highly developed sense of intuition.

  6. nymeth said

    *hugs* I want to say something that is sympathetic but acknowledges the complexity of your experience. Only there isn’t a phrase for that, I don’t think. You’re right, stock phrases ARE useful around death, if only because they’re tried and tested and we get so terrified of saying something wrong or awkward or insensitive. The hugs will have to do, I’m afraid. Hopefully I manage to get across what they mean.

    And this made me smile: “I can tell you, actually: I am the kind of freak who awards family positions to her favorite authors. I have several honorary imaginary grandmothers, numerous aunts and uncles.” I’m the very same kind of freak myself.

    Also, what Daphne sad: this was a beautiful post, and I hope writing it did you at least a little bit of good.

    • trapunto said

      Thank you. It may have done. The virtual hugs certainly did.

      I guess the usefulness of stock phrases is why they last. Proverbs too.

  7. Kate said

    I’m Kathleen Bartholomew, Kage Baker’s sister. I was also her caretaker during her final illness. I am glad to know The Bird of the River eased you a little during your loss – and Kage would have been very pleased indeed. It sounds to me like you understood the things she was trying to say in the story.

    It helps me to know people appreciated Kage. She was my best friend. Her loss has torn the heart out of my world. I blog about the loss of her at kbco.wordpress.com, but it helps so much more to discover that someone took joy from something she wrote. Thank you.

    • trapunto said

      I’m so glad of all you did for Kage, if it isn’t presumptuous to say so. I visited your blog and have been too shy to comment so far–I have to work myself up to these things–but you write beautifully, it’s a joy to hear your thoughts.

      I could tell from the company novels and stories that family was important to your sister in a very particular way. The Day of the Dead episode with Porfirio and his family is one of my favorites all her books, and one of the most moving.

  8. Jeanne said

    I don’t know anything to say except that I hear you. And I’m glad to know there’s more good Kage Baker out there.

    • trapunto said

      And more still. I haven’t yet read all her short stories, and I’m really looking forward to her children’s novel!

  9. Vishy said

    I am new to your blog Trapunto – I discovered it through Nymeth’s blog (through one of your fascinating comments). I found your post very beautiful and touching. I liked very much your comment – “I am the kind of freak who awards family positions to her favorite authors. I have several honorary imaginary grandmothers, numerous aunts and uncles. Kage Baker was my best imaginary aunt.”

    I also liked very much this observation of yours – “There can be all kinds of distances between two people, some so crowded and dense with meaning that they press on those who share it–especially when they are related–and connect them so awe-fully, the word “love” simply doesn’t come near” – so beautifully put.

    Can’t wait to read your next post :)

    • trapunto said

      Hello Vishy, I have noticed your comments on Things Mean a Lot too, actually! I like the way you think about things. Thank you for coming to read, and for the encouragement.

  10. Celine said

    I want very much to respond to this wonderful post articulately and with the type of sensitivity it deserves – but I don’t have the words this week, having just lost my much beloved Dad. Suffice it to say, it’s a terrific post. I’ve read it three times now. I don’t know why it affects me so much that I’d return to it like that, but it does. I just thought I should let you know that. Thanks for it.

  11. Richelle said

    Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your content seem to be running off the screen in Opera.
    I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I thought
    I’d post to let you know. The layout look great though!
    Hope you get the issue fixed soon. Cheers

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