Storyteller and psychologist Kim Bateman continues her series.
The Uninvited Mourner
For the last 26 years from May to October, Jack has been fishing the Truckee River in our backyard at least twice a week. He has been there in his waders in rushing spring run-off, and in sneakers up to his ankles in the slow pools of fall eddies. He has outlasted four of our dogs, who always bark at him. He smiles and says while holding the cigarette between his lips, “just doing their job.” He is happy in the river, a solid mass with water, wind, and sky swirling around him. Jack has witnessed the progression from us camping on the property in a yurt, to the building of our house, and eventually the slow settling into the routine of middle aged years. For us, Jack is like Mars, a distant regular orbiting on the periphery of our center, sometimes visible, sometimes not.
Twenty-six years ago, I also met Tanya. She was a reporter for the Tahoe World and wrote a story about the death of my brother in an avalanche in 1990. I have known her through the years as a steady, straightforward person and a gifted writer; someone who might be a friend. She is a loving mother and a journalism professor at the college where I used to work. Like Venus, sometimes visible, sometimes not.
My news feed informs that they are both dead. The posts say “passed on” but it is so obviously the non-negotiable end (death) of so many things—marriages, families, creative projects, retirement plans, realities, dreams, ways of being, meaning making, the physicality of them—hugs, the shape of their hands, that unique smell. Jack was 61 and Tanya, 55. And I have known them both for twenty-six years.
But did I really know them?
Yet, I find myself oddly touched and quite sad. Disbelieving. “Wait,” I want to implore the mystery. “Wait,” I am not ready for this unravelling. “No.”
How can I be so affected? They are people I barely know. I do a quick assessment of my willingness to engage, to feel. These figures are just on the edge of my periphery–fiery red, like Mars, cool blue/white, like Venus, orbiting somewhere out there. I do not have the agony of being kicked at my center, but I still feel. My solar system has been re-arranged.
In 2016, our news feeds buzzed with the deaths of Natalie Cole, Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Arnold Palmer and others central to our senses of self. We didn’t “know” these people, but they helped us know ourselves. They spoke to us and reflected our need for beauty, for being unique, for exploring our darkness, for competence, for play. By letting their own complexities and gifts shine, they gave us permission to do the same. And when we eulogized them, we authored not only their story, but our own in relation to them—Ziggy Stardust, my friend’s basement, and the exchange of sweaty kisses; opening chocolate bars to see if I had won Willy Wonka’s “golden ticket;” the family rooting for a birdie to win, my father content in his red, leather chair with a draft beer. Of course it feels like a personal loss. Some of the stardust of which we are all made has become less tangible and the universe feels off-kilter.
I sit in the back of the church at both Jack’s and Tanya’s services, an uninvited mourner. And I cry the sort of tears one would cry if one’s own sister, brother, or friend had died. I feel silly, out of place, self-indulgent. Through the stories, I am remembering– which literally means to re-member, or reconstruct something that was once whole but is now dispersed. In listening, I am hoping for answers. “What was the meaning of their lives? Who were they, really?” And at the same time I am thinking, “What is the meaning of my life?” “Who am I, really?” These deaths invite us to explore our identities, sit with our vulnerability, lack of control, confusion. We are required to enter into a relationship with the mystery. To not know. To be relegated to pure feeling. To be scared.
I imagine myself shredding years of Tanya’s newspaper articles and watching them float as pieces on the autumn breeze. I also see myself contemplatively sitting in the puddles of the Truckee River, arranging constellations of bits of bone and teeth, scattered ashes, gleaming on the rocky floor. I try to tell myself that death is not a disruption of what is natural. It is natural. Still, there are Tanya and Jack shaped holes in my universe, the secret swirling around the centers, the edges unraveling somewhere out into the cosmos.
Kim Bateman, Ph.D. is the author of Crossing the Owl’s Bridge: A Guide For Grieving People Who Still Love (Chiron, 2016) and “Symbolmaking and Bereavement: The Temples at Burning Man” in And Death Shall Have Dominion (Interdisciplinary, 2015). She presented a TEDx talk called Singing Over Bones (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3hibkFcld0) and serves as the Executive Dean of the Tahoe-Truckee Campus of Sierra College. Visit her website:http://www.kim-bateman.com for information on speaking/workshops, blog, and client services.