“Can you read,” I asked my friend. She recently lost her life partner of 34 years and I know how searingly painful acute grief can be, how the day can feel like an impossible bag of cement blocks you have to drag around, how hard it is to feel settled enough to read even though you’re exhausted.
“I can’t really focus,” my friend said and I knew exactly what she meant. One of the things I remember most vividly after Eric died was my inability to read.
One of Adrienne’s childhood friends, Leila, came to the shiva service for Eric the week after he died. Leila had also lost her father to cancer, about a year before, and her mother, who I knew from all of our daughters’ years of play dates and high school events and parties, sent along a book for Leila to give me. As another member of the widow club I’d just joined, she hoped it would be helpful to me.
But I was a reading snob in those days. I read literature, not self-helpy feel good books like Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. The book, by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., is a collection of very short, true stories about life written from Remen’s perespective as a a pioneer in the mind/body health field, and told with an invitation to the reader to “listen from the soul.”
Scanning the book I saw chapters with titles like “Life Force,” “Opening the Heart,” “Embracing Life,” and “Mystery and Awe.” I was grateful to Leila’s mother for thinking of me, but inwardly I scoffed. I would never read a book like this I thought, which was comical on one level because at the time I wasn’t reading anything except emails, sympathy cards and snippets from a grief book a friend gave me.
From the tiny bit of reading I’d done I knew that not being able to read is common in early grief and I mourned that loss also. There was no book to bury myself in, just moment after moment of the ever present absence of Eric. I craved being taken away by a good novel or memoir, a story besides the sad one I was living, but I had no capacity to read one.
A few weeks later, when the post-death visiting and attention were beginning to die down and I found myself with more quiet evenings, I thought I’d try reading again. I found Kitchen Table Wisdom on a book case and picked it up. The first story in the book was only three pages. Surely I could read that much. I did. The next story was five pages long. I read that story and the next and the next. Well into the first chapter I realized I was reading a book.
I began to take the book to bed with me, reading before I fell asleep, a life long pleasure I’d lost along with Eric. And here was that pleasure again and the book I was reading wasn’t literature. It was a book from the Self Help section of a book store, a book I would never buy and certainly wouldn’t read. Except I was reading it and enjoying it and it was actually making me feel a bit better. It was helping.
The memorial service for my friend’s life partner is this week and I’m going to bring the book with me. She may not like it and I don’t think it’s her kind of book, just like it isn’t my kind of book. Except it was and it is.