Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Empty Journals


Book: When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams

The mother of writer Terry Tempest Williams left Terry her journals, but said that she could not read them until after she died. When it was time, Terry opened them up and discovered they were blank. Why would her mother take such care to nicely bind her journals yet leave the pages empty?

Thus began Williams’ search to reconstruct her mother from the pieces of the story she could find, and her reflections on a unique daughter-mother dialogue.

This is what we face when a loved one dies — how to tell someone’s story for them.

Because my wife died in her forties, we hadn’t taken any time to summarize our lives because we were busy with our careers. The time for summary, we thought, would come when we retired. Death threw that idea out the window. Evelyn’s life story has a lot of blank pages and, like Terry, I’m going around to friends and family trying to fill in the gaps.

When I find turtle incense burners and a bird ocarina in her closet, I have no clue where they came from or why they were important enough for her to keep. What stories do they hold?

Yesterday I remembered that Evelyn often baked sticky buns during the Christmas season. Why just at Christmas? Was it her mother’s recipe and did she make them at Christmas so that she could take some to her? In addition to this, the image of the buns restores my physical memories of being with her in the kitchen as she baked, listening to her sing with joy and excitement, smelling the aroma of the rising buns, and our pleasure in breaking them apart and eating them together, all warm and gooey.

I happened to remember this, for some reason. A simple entry of five words in her nonexistent journey would also have brought it back. But what if I hadn’t remembered? Would it have been lost?

Let’s get practical. How do I reconstruct her life?

First, buy a journal. Second, enter what I remember about her life, as well as what her friends remember, on the left page. Just the details. On the right page, write in my commentary about those events, like a midrash on the main text. I would add in context and how this event connect to other events, either in the past or yet to come.

And then? Then her life would live on those pages and I could refer to them over the years and remember the wonder she was. I could use those words to rekindle her presence when her fire inside me had burned down into coals.

Even if Evelyn did keep a journal, and even if I reconstruct all the events of her life, they would still not add up to her. I could not hug her or tease her. I could not tell her how much I loved her. And she would not be here to surprise me with something she said or did. The journals would be like a winter fog drifting across the meadow. Lovely to see, but not something I can hold.


What we write in our journals is not as important as what we write in the hearts of those we love.

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