Until very recently, David and I were lucky in that we had such a limited experience with grief. When our grandmother died, just in the last decade, we were emotional novices. I remember sitting next to David at Gramma’s memorial service. Whoever spoke first had uttered maybe five words before we both became loudly unglued – wailing, sobbing and clinging to each other. If we hadn’t been in the presence of actual relatives, I think the assembled would have surely thought we were shills, that Gramma Betty had not left to chance the level of distress that would be registered at her funeral. We absolutely marveled – clutching our stiff balls of Kleenex – that our grandfather could find it in himself to stand and to speak of the honour that it had been to be our grandmother’s husband for sixty years. How could he so calmly speak of his heart’s joy in the past tense? This seemed utterly superhuman to David and me. And I stand here today not at all calm but knowing that David would have found it in himself to do this for me.
David was not always an easy brother – forget winning an argument or having the last word, ever. But he was loyal and good and protective. It took him some years to get over the disappointment of being stuck with a female sibling, but he did. Although as children we spent a great deal of time simply avoiding each other, it was understood that he was there if I really needed him. When I was ten, I decided to try out for Little League, which was not much done by girls in those days. I know that David was probably horrified in his heart of hearts, but he took it upon himself to teach me to catch a fly ball, to run down a grounder, and – most important of all – not to throw like a girl. To this day I have a decent arm, although I imagine I throw like a boy who would rather be reading Kafka or watching The Waltons than playing baseball.
In the days following David’s death, my mother and I realized that we could sit in front of the computer and conjure David on YouTube. There he was on the Isle of Capri, struggling to explain to the Italian-speaking audience that this was his first experience ever of being in a place where he didn’t speak a single word of the language. There were David’s mannerisms and loveable self-mocking digressions, and for a moment I actually forgot that he was dead – there he WAS, for heaven’s sake – explaining to the chuckling crowd that he felt like a baby, he could not understand, and he could not make himself understood.
The language of grief is hideous and guttural, comprised of lung-tearing sobs and strangled screams.
Although I have been in the company of fellow native speakers since that awful Saturday morning when my husband thrust the phone into my hands, I have felt my ability to communicate and to comprehend slide away. I simply cannot find the words to express what David’s absence feels like, and I cannot begin to understand that this is forever. The language of grief is hideous and guttural, comprised of lung-tearing sobs and strangled screams. And although I am sure that many of you have found yourselves in this empty, wordless place, I simply feel that no one will ever truly understand, least of all me, how words will have any function any more.
If David could have been a little bit gentler with himself, perhaps he could have simply shut up shop for a while and tried to heal. But unlike almost any other profession, writers cannot ‘retire’ – if they stop writing, they cease to be writers, at least in their own minds. David loved being a writer, not so that he could dazzle us with the glorious arias of his intellect, but so that he could take us with him as he questioned what most of us don’t bother to question. David was not a know-it-all. If he was a genius it’s because he was smart enough to be curious about everything. So many of our conversations began with David’s saying ‘Why do you think . . .?’ or ‘Do you ever wonder . . .?’. David always thought, and he always wondered. As his depression essentially metastasized, although he was panicky and sleepless and dropping huge amounts of weight, I think it was the fear that he would never be well enough to write again that finally consumed him. It was the writing that made it so much less lonely to be in his head.
He fought very hard. This was not his first battle with clinical depression, and the fact that he had survived that earlier time made us hope that he could do it again. Depression is not well understood, but in David, although chemicals were running amok in his brain, this seemed like a cancer of the soul. The fact that he was loved so fiercely by his friends, his family, his wife, could not penetrate the fear and loneliness. David simply ran out of the strength to hope that tomorrow might be a little bit better.
Shortly before David’s death, I re-read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and the notion that each person made his own quirky sort of heaven resounded as I tried to believe that David – not his oeuvre but David – was separated from us merely by a sort of membrane. In David’s heaven, he can eat chocolate Pop-Tarts again, and people never say, ‘I’m nauseous,’ when what they really mean is that they think they’re going to throw up. In David’s heaven the horizon stretches an uncluttered Midwestern forever and the scent of bayberry candles is everywhere. But most importantly, he can put his fingers in his mouth and whistle to summon his beloved, departed dogs – Roger, Drone and Jeeves. David and his dogs go for endless runs, and his enormous high-tops make no sound in the clouds.
Thank you so much for being here. My family and I are proud beyond measure that our boy meant so much to so many. He meant everything to us.