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The last time I wrote, my uncle was dying. He died nearly a week to the day after I’d finished writing that column, early in the hours of a Tuesday morning. If I were in America, there would be some structure to what followed, determined by practicality: a visit to see my aunt and cousins again, arrangements for a memorial service. As it is, my parents are taking care of that, and family members are gathering to sorrow and to ensure that things go on. I can’t participate meaningfully in that. I’m over here.
Dealing with death and grief from afar isn’t new to me. I am actually rather good at it. I’ve been doing it since I was sixteen, when a family friend’s son (and my friend, too) killed himself in Nebraska. We couldn’t all go to the memorial; from Virginia, it was too far, too expensive, for four of us to fly. My parents went, to represent us and to help their friends; my brother and I stayed behind. It was the first grieving I ever did and I hadn’t yet learned that you can read consciously, around your emotions, that you can self-medicate with things other than wine and insomnia and daytime naps. To keep busy, I did all of the assigned summer reading for my junior year English and American history classes, and all of the five assigned chapters for next year’s AP Biology course. In between the school work, I read what was in front of me.
These were the books that I leaned on for the first few weeks, back when I was sixteen: Sons and Lovers, by DH Lawrence. Pontoon, by Garrison Keillor. The Puritan Dilemma, by Edward Morgan. The first three books in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. The 39 Steps, by John Buchan. A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie. Death In Holy Orders, by PD James. Black Boy, by Richard Wright. Moral Disorder, by Margaret Atwood. The Dogs of Babel, by Carolyn Parkhurst.
You’ll see from that list that after about a week, I found myself drawn, without quite realizing it, to cosy(-ish) crime, to thrillers. Buchan and Christie write from within an inter-war period often painted as a golden age. Their plots, despite featuring murder most foul and international espionage, felt entirely safe to me; you never forget, while reading Buchan, that it’s not real. PD James is less cuddly, but she wrote well, and the crimes still have the touch of humanity about them: no gory dismemberments or torture porn to be had in her books. James’s criminals are motivated by very simple, neighbourly passions: jealousy, greed, embarrassment. They’re not psychopathic masterminds; they’re ordinary, angry people. I don’t doubt that I was drawn to these books because they gave me a safe peephole onto death. They did not require the engagement of my emotions, but they normalized the thing that had happened.
If I could go back in time and give my teenaged self a reading list to absorb the blunt-force trauma of that first death, what would be on it? What would I choose to give a frightened, grieving, defensive, whip-smart kid with one foot over the border into adulthood?
I would start with Elizabeth Goudge: The Little White Horse, for its safety and gentleness and unobtrusive mysteriousness. Then Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, for the quiet understanding with which it encompasses suicide, that feeling of being lost. Something really difficult and really beautiful, either Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queene, with plenty of annotations (she would have loved that, my sixteen-year-old self; she would have bitten off more than she could chew and been content.) Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with its uncompromising love, the way it makes death a dignified choice. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, which teaches you that fearing death’s dark, dry country will only cripple you in the end. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which sees glory and flame in every blade of grass. And I would give her Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, the literary version of hearty soup and a blanket and the repeated sentence “It will get better. It will get better.”
And what should I prescribe myself now? It’s still sorrow and hurt that I feel, but my uncle was an adult and he knew his time was up. It was too soon, but his family had the chance to make their farewells, and to think about life without him before they had to experience it. It is horrible and grossly unfair, but it is not really a shock.
He loved jazz; it’s one of the most esoteric musical genres, and he knew everything about it. When I was thirteen, I bought a Miles Davis CD and it filled him with delight. He wanted to talk about Freddie Freeloader, to rhapsodise about Kind of Blue. He was a professor of Russian and Slavic studies. When I was little I was told that he worked in particular on the phenomenon of Russian circuses. This seemed an impossibly exotic thing to do at work: to read and write about constant itinerance, folk ways of entertaining yourself with bears and bearded ladies before the winter set in. He loved comic books and superheroes with the fierce elitism of the true pop-culture devotee. He had a wicked wit: once he mocked my dad for full minutes, for pronouncing “Sinead O’Connor” just as it’s spelled. He was a passionate supporter of the Chicago Cubs, a baseball team famed for their incompetence. These things go on without him. The world still contains saxophones, and trapeze artists, and hot summer nights at Wrigley Field.
I would not say that there are circumstances under which reading will be no good to you–especially not in relation to my uncle–but I would say that there are circumstances under which you could do something else, and it would be just as good.
At present, sort of by accident, I’m reading Katie Roiphe’s new book, The Violet Hour. Its subtitle is Great Writers at the End. It examines the pre-deaths, and the attitudes towards their own deaths, of Susan Sontag, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, and other giants. An already-oft-quoted line from The Violet Hour is this one: “All the deaths were the same.” That is the thing it’s hardest to get your head around, really: details aside, all deaths are the same. It’s the greatest leveller in the world.
My mum sent me a text last week that said, “I am listening to the CD you gave me for Christmas while making oatmeal cranberry chocolate chip cookies. Have lit the beautiful candle you gave me. Grey afternoon following lots of rain. Thinking of Uncle Tom.” That was what she did. Me, I will continue to love music, and to be bored by baseball, and to listen to jazz when it rains; to watch superhero movies and not understand comic books and mispronounce names and be a snob. I will read murder mysteries and personal essays and stories about the circus. I will remember the Russian swear words he taught me.
What we do with the deaths will differ, though all the deaths are the same.