RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Grieving's jolting voices rise from the most unexpected things

They say write what you know. All I know these days is a pervasive pain that millions have known before, millions will know later, as common as clay, as individual as a fingerprint. My husband died.
The house is a minefield, where a sweet potato in the vegetable bin or the words “Full Moon” on a calendar trip you up and push you down. It’s never the object or photo or song that you’d expect to pose a hazard. Instead, it is the red plastic comb that says “Marvena’s Mini Mall,” and the unflattering mugshot on his driver’s license and the silly, awful song when you’re put on hold with the credit-card company. “You’re going to make it after all….”
Days are pocked with frightening moments, when amongst the sympathy cards a letter from his teacher’s retirement association offers, back to back, condolences and a robber baron rate to continue my health insurance. There are no posies or poetry. He is just one less retired teacher Alabama will have to pay.
A million years have passed, or two weeks. I vaguely remember reading “Dover Beach” at a memorial picnic while standing on a little bridge over the branch that he built for me with his own two hands. Graceful hands.
We saw Dover Beach once, together, in December, and somewhere in this jumbled house is a pebble from that legendary shore. I cannot find it. I lose things now, important things, and ricochet about trying to remember what I’m hunting for. I am much older than I was two weeks ago.
The yellow dog who rode beside him is the source of my greatest comfort and deepest pain. Her worried eyes look for him when a car pulls up the driveway, and every morning, when we wake, I know she is surprised, same as I, not to find him there.
I walk with her and the other dogs out of guilt, but we go the opposite direction than the way we all used to hike. It is easier to tackle a steep hill than the familiar route. The old road, too, is booby-trapped with a lightning-speared tree we meant to photograph, a cow with a bell named Baby and a neighbor friend Don took fishing though he didn’t really like to fish himself.
The only relief comes when I drive away from our home, but that entails returning, which is brutally hard. I was the busy, nervously efficient, traveling one; he was content to stay put with the dogs. The home fire he kept burning in a Jotul stove has been out for days; I somehow can’t face the barnyard, where he split and stored our wood.
The stack of books about grief that friends have sent is growing on the empty side of the bed. I read them desperately, but without much comprehension, the same way you’d read instructions to the new weed-eater translated from Chinese. The books all say that this acute pain will subside, to be followed by a dull ache, and that working through the grief is the way to go. They suggest that crying your insides out is normal but best done at home. You don’t want to make your family and friends uncomfortable.
The books conclude, in essence, that nothing about you and your particular grief is special, or unalterable, at least not in the wide view. Another sad face in the crowd. I am sure that is right. In the wide view.
But these days my focus is narrow, as selfish and deep as the yellow dog’s searching eyes. Life will go on; it must, they say. My unexceptional, inevitable search now is for meaning, which, this early and cold green morning, still eludes me.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.

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