At first I was like for real, man. Really? But then I immediately thought of my coworker Wayne, whose wife died a few years ago near Christmas, and what dismal days the holidays are for him, each colored light blinking on every house a stop light for this life, a demarcation, a calling back to a kind of grief that with each passing year keeps going on. This week he was a bitter mess, slamming the phone down repeatedly when it wouldn’t let him punch in, the automated system overloaded for some minutes, cursing to himself over the smallest detail of the day—a missed signature, a food item used a day too early. I caught him staring off many times, remembering, or recalling perhaps her face, a smell, perhaps an exchange of tender words. Such a strange hell memory can be, and the irony is that the people we take care of cannot sometimes remember their age or where they live. There is something to be said for not remembering. I used to think of memory as something to define us, to tell us who we are, but often it too can be something to keep us from living in the present tense. We live back there in a place that does not exist. Eurydice in the far distance fading back
to the underworld. The world that disappears with each passing instant. She lived and now she doesn’t. It really is that simple. I thought this so many years of my own wife, the long nights in the hospital, wondering if this hour would be the last, the slow morphine drip of time passing when one is in pain. Memory is like this:
but Wayne gets the details right when he needs, remembers one of our patients doesn’t like ham, buys him turkey for Christmas dinner out of his own pocket and brings him a plate, one of our long term difficult patients who I know Wayne doesn’t even like, but “like” has little to do with us in this job—to care for those for no other reason than care is what is called for.
And this Dear Editor, reminds me that grief can bring one towards the untold deepness of compassion,
like the failing promise of this Christmas day. Jesus born only to be crucified on the cross. In the end we are all failures, we are all grieving someone or something gone. And perhaps dear editor you need to walk away from the screen. Stop sending out rejections. Go outside, and look up into the sky
at all that quiet tenderness bandaging the earth. Each day we go on we leave something far
flapping like laundry on a cord strung line
in the backyard of a stranger.
Perhaps this is not about those we love
but about those we do not know
but show compassion
which is perhaps what love is
anyways at its finest: hollow and calm
as the inside of a bell,
we get to work, we feel only the echo
of the other—
And when they are gone? What do we have left?
Not the place of saints, who exist outside themselves. No, compassion and love are the traits of ordinary women and men.
Soon enough the new year will arrive. Wayne will rise each morning, brush his teeth, shower, dress, arrive to pass out medications. He will flip through the pages of the photos of his wife when he is alone in the office, the hand collaged journal I found in a desk drawer when I was looking for a bottle of Advil we keep for staff. What does all of this mean you ask?
Wayne wears his grief like the hair shirts
of saints, but what he is wants to reassemble
are the shattered pieces of a life
he cannot glue back together,
though he tries each day to reframe the window
he finds himself sieved
with mourning light
like stained glass figures
Those hands that touched our foreheads and made us soup.
Between compassion and failure there is a bridge.
Grief is a river that runs between our worlds.
Between forgetting and remembrance there is a bridge
that leads to a house by the embankment.
Ghosts crossing many rooms
like stained glass figures missing hands.
Wayne dives into his grief like a river
running between two worlds
there is a glass bell
sieved with mourning light.
It has been four years
since his wife died on a hospital bed
the toll it has taken on him
is a life he cannot abandon
is a bridge between failure
and the compassion of ordinary
women and men. What do we have to mend?
Soon enough the new year will arrive
flapping like laundry on a cord strung line
in the backyard of a tenement
fenced with colored Christmas lights.
A blow-up Santa strung up like Jesus.
Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of sixteen books including The Second O of Sorrow published in 2018 by BOA Editions. He works as a caregiver and Med Tech for various disabled populations and lives with the poet Lisa M. Dougherty and their two daughters along Lake Erie. More info on Sean can be found at seanthomasdoughertypoet.com.