In the autumn after Rosemary’s death, a friend and his wife drove from New York with seven cartons which contained the contents of Rosemary’s office at the college in Queens where she had worked for 21 years. In preparation for her retirement, Rosemary had packed these boxes with the intent of bringing them home. The pandemic intervened, the college closed, and these boxes became inaccessible. Henry, Rosemary’s friend and the Vice President of the college where she worked, rescued them and, after her death, had kept them for over a year while I was moving between temporary homes. Finally, he brought her cartons to me in Connecticut. After a lovely lunch at a favorite outside restaurant beside the harbor with Henry and his wife, I put the boxes in storage and eventually moved them, unopened, to the basement of my new condo.
Shortly before the second anniversary of Rosemary’s death, engaged in my frequent occupation of searching for some missing object, I slid my finger under the tape on the top one of the seven boxes. Peeking in, I recognized some items which had been residents on the desk in Rosemary’s office and extricated a handful of them before hurriedly reclosing the lid. A pencil holder from Evergreen College, Talmadge’s alma mater; a small mug from the Byodo-In Temple in Kaneohe, a Japanese Zen temple and a favorite spot of ours; a small Human Rights Campaign flag from the June day in 2015 when the Gay Marriage Bill passed; and a framed photograph of Ballston Beach on Cape Cod.
Rosemary had this photo on her desk in our early days together, and it had remained a valued office artifact. I had seen it when I visited her various offices at the college. I took the photo upstairs and, after wandering around for a while in search of an appropriate home, I cleared off the nightstand on the side of the bed that I still thought of as hers and placed it in the corner. Then, inspired, I gathered a few more favorite items from around the house and placed them on the nightstand.
After I arranged and rearranged the bedside treasures, I sat on the edge of the bed and studied my work. Ballston Beach had been a favorite in our early years together. It was there, at a tenth-year reunion of our Book Group, that we had walked the morning after discovering a connection between us that was deeper than we had previously acknowledged. We had spent the night before together in a double bed, with her sleeping bag under us and mine covering us, and a friend, another member of the Book Group, sleeping in a cot across the room. That night, Rosemary and I shared stories, we giggled, we cried, we found out things about each other that we hadn’t known in the more than ten years that we had been friends. I arose the next morning and met her downstairs; I was somewhat dazed, aware that our relationship had entered a new phase. We went for a walk together on Ballston Beach before the other members of our Book Group could miss us.
We came back to that beach together many times in the following years, and one of those years, on a summer vacation, we made love on that beach, in the late afternoon, near the edge of a dune, our soft moans and murmurs lost in the lapping of the waves on the sand.
Some days after I had discovered the abundance of heart stones on Sherwood Island beach, near where I lived after Rosemary’s death (see previous post), I was sitting in my recliner in my den and I looked toward the end of the couch where Rosemary used to sit in our apartment in Brooklyn. It was just a sensation, a hint of something different, but I felt a shift in my awareness. For some days after that, I found myself introducing Rosemary to my new life: her favorite books together on a shelf in the living room, the glass and ceramic turtles and giraffes scattered on surfaces, the altar I had made for her — as if she were here with me in a new way, perhaps called back by her nightstand, and I had to catch her up on all she had missed.
In The Grieving Brain, Mary-Frances O’Connor writes, “The brain devotes lots of effort to mapping [in our head] where our loved ones are while they are alive…” (p. xiv) and, when they die, the neurons keep following the trails they know, the ones they have been taking for many years. The virtual map that we carry, deep in our brain in the hippocampus, and an awareness of where a loved is when not in our presence, continue to operate for a time after their death. “If someone close to us dies…our neurons still fire every time we expect out loved one to be in the room. And this neural trace persists until we can learn that our loved one is never going to be in our physical world again.” (p.7) To keep us safe, she explains, our brains have an area devoted to error detection, and continuously update our maps. The grieving process involves developing new pathways.
Even though I knew logically that Rosemary was no longer in our Brooklyn apartment, my subconscious “explained” her absence by supposing she must be there. When I got to Brooklyn and didn’t find her, my virtual map supposed she would be in Boston, with her daughter, and, when that proved false, went on to imagine other places.
Our brain continuously logs the information received through all of our senses, building up a vast store of probabilities and likelihoods, noting associations and parallels between events… Your brain continues to note the fact that your loved one is no longer present day after day and uses that information to update its predictions about whether they will be there tomorrow. (O’Connor, p. 21)
Perhaps, for those who believe in the existence of a place called heaven, the brain adapts more quickly. “If we feel that we know where they are, even in an abstract place like heaven, we may feel comforted that our virtual map just needs to be updated to include a place and time that we have never been.” (O’Connor, p. 22)
I think, too, that graveyards and cemeteries may help us to make that new map. I loved the idea that some of Rosemary’s ashes were scattered on the Hawaiian ocean, but with neither a heavenly concept nor a cemetery plot, my neural pathways had to find some other destination when it went to look for her. A year and a half after her death, we held a service and left some of Rosemary’s ashes in a little box that our young grandchildren had decorated and family and friends had buried in the Memorial Garden behind the Unitarian-Universalist building where we had been married. My brain sometimes found its way there, but for the most part, my neurons still seemed stuck in the old familiar paths, looking for Rosemary and not understanding where she could possibly be.
In any event, that night when I felt Rosemary’s presence at the other end of the couch, I reckoned that my brain had made that adjustment. Up until now, my mind had been waiting for Rosemary’s reappearance, believing that I would find her around the next corner, that she would resurface when I went to the next place. If I looked hard enough and long enough, my brain insisted, she would be there. After all, people don’t just vanish. I had been in what Joan Didion called The Year of Magical Thinking, only my time there had lasted far longer than a year.
Now, however, my brain seemed to have accepted that Rosemary was not going to be there waiting for me, happy to see me, relieved to be together again, no matter how diligent my search, and in spite of my belief in the impossibility of her disappearance. In whatever way I wanted to explain it – as a spirit, as a memory, or as a new neural pathway, “She’s really gone,” I finally said.
I still had “meltdowns,” as Rosemary used to call them, times of falling apart, of intense sorrow, and often tears, triggered by any number of sensory experiences, especially unexpected ones – seeing her handwriting on a book I opened; spying on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator the last bottle of grape juice that she always drank; hearing the Johnny Cash song “Rose of My Heart” that we danced our last dance to – I just never knew what would send me, figuratively, to my knees.
O’Connor helped me to understand this phenomenon too. She distinguished between grief and grieving. Grief is “the intense emotion that crashes over you as a wave, completely overwhelming, unable to be ignored.” Grief never ends.
She uses grieving to refer to “the process, not the moment of grief.” Grieving has a trajectory.” Grieving changes over time as one learns how to deal with grief. (O’Conner, p. xvi). I was learning that the meltdowns, however debilitating, would pass and I would go on with my life.
I try to walk at least a mile or 3000 steps a day. On the days when the weather keeps me inside, I follow a path around my house that I had measured – from my office where the photo of Rosemary, the one I talk to, is on the bookshelf, through the laundry room where a collage of photos of our days together is on the wall, through the kitchen to the little altar in her memory, three times around the dining room table, once around the living room sofa, past the photo of the two of us, young and laughing, and into the bedroom, where the photo of Ballston Beach was now on the nightstand.
Her memory was with me now in a new way. My brain seemed to have adapted to the idea that she was no longer physically present. Maybe she was with me in some other way, leaving me heart stones and producing loons in unexpected places, but most of the time I hoped, to the extent that she had any consciousness, that she had better things to do than pay attention to what was going on here. I would remember Ballston Beach for us and make it part of the story I would tell.
Hard -very touching especially as we age! Love, C
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Brynna – I read your post several times as i usually do – had some tears and was grateful for the mention of the O’Connor book for a friend who recently lost her husband. ( And I think of the relevance of the word “lost” in connection with your finding Rosemary on the couch where she usually sat.). Thanks Brynna for the rich description of your life – now and then.
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Your writing of your grief and grieving for Rosemary is so deeply touching. Thank you.
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Brynna – I have Grandma Kaulback’s photo of you as a very young child, you will always be dear little Brenda Gayle to me – sending love and hugs. Among other things, you are a writer – to be able to express your deep personal feelings so beautifullly. Being the one left behind is not the easiest role.
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Such love, such story telling of the love. Beautiful!
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I just read your Nightstand blog. What an experience. I can see why that book has been really helpful to verify all you’ve been going through all this time. I feel sad and miss Rosemary yet again and my heart goes out to you as you process and process and process, Hopefully you’ve reached a small patch of peace which will expand for sure in its own time. I send you love and light. I honor your courage in sharing your process. Love and hugs Chris