He loved balconies. Before glaucoma struck, he would solve equations on napkins in his favorite chair overlooking the city. Outdoor lunches still taste like factoredquadratics to me. One can, apparently, inherit a love of patios. My International Baccalaureate exams smelled like sunscreen and sounded like pinecones crackling in the heat. So did the SATs and the GREs and every subsequent acronym tied to rites of passage. I associate balconies and porches and patios with squinting and deep learning, with note-taking and striving, and with grief for a fatherly presence that is long gone. It is hardly surprising, then, that when an Uncommon email landed in my inbox from Lisa, extolling the “magical, unexplainable power of the front porch,” it felt like the universe winking at me — and with it, all my past selves, all the grief pulling me in.
There is no badge of honor to mastering grief, nor is there a committee of admissions that will verify that everything you learned on porches and patios about it suffices to welcome you into the community of those who have lost. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” claims Elizabeth Bishop poetically in “One Art.” The body learns to accommodate the hollowness that lives somewhere between the knot in the throat and the churning stomach. It no longer fights it like an anti-body. It knows some emptiness will always reside there; that recognition is the first cure to the nausea. The lips learn not to tighten with tension when someone asks about “your dad” and what “he thinks about your career in war zones.” The voice learns to come out, in some combination of fumbling and grace, to explain ‘what happened’ and to assure: I am no longer falling apart. There is beauty in the breakdown [and other Frou Frou lyrics]. The story learns to grow larger: I am not loss, not a combination of parts strung together by grief. Grief will always be a lens — sometimes the dominant lens, the only lens — but it will learn to play well with others. It will learn to lurk quietly when elation wants the spotlight. It is the synthesis of those parts that will, one day, render you into a daughter who knows grief, just as she knows her equations.
And yet, grief would have no hold over us if it could not surprise us. If it could not turn the world upside down by stepping out of the shadows and claiming its place in the sunlit porch, flooding all compartments in the process. Maybe it was global warming that triggered it this time and the hours I have spent studying on a Boston porch in November. Maybe it was an imminent anniversary, calling for remembrance and quiet. Or maybe it was my least favorite outfit of loss: surprise grief — the kind that visits unannounced and will stubbornly linger if you try, with all the deliberation in your heart, to chase it away.
For all I know about unclenching the jaw, dropping the shoulders, and soothing the churning stomach, I know not how to scare the blankness away. When I am struck by surprise grief, I revert to numbness. I turn into the girl I was then, with all the lack of preparedness she carried to deal with ‘something like this.’ I shelter myself, I build the compartments, I guard the words. I feel nothing: not love, not nostalgia, not missing, not longing, not injustice, not sadness, not despair. Nothing. I become a body on the patio, with my nonviolent resistance reading, and my wartime sexual violence reading, and not a single soulful emotion. The absence of feeling is, perhaps, the most potent feeling of them all.
What I learned then from years of studying ancient Greek tragedies on another balcony across the world was the need for catharsis: the need to offer the audience, the reader, the viewer a way out. Some semblance of closure or reassurance that I am fine (because I am). The need for a disclaimer that no, I do not want you to descend on my Boston porch bearing tissues and hugs or — worst of all — pity. Pity is a patronizing emotion; it looks up from above, rather than holding a hand from the same level of togetherness. Closing stories with a shrug and pressed lips and “I don’t know” is more uncomfortable than grief itself for me. The beauty of numbness is that it cauterizes discomfort. It sets a new standard of ‘enoughness’, of knowing this is all I have. For now, this, in Susannah Conway’s words, is all I know.