Deanna Ogle reflects on grief, David Rakoff, and fireworks.
On the Saturday after the 4th of July I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to see Ira Glass’ show, “One Radio Host, Two Dancers”. It was an odd, endearing, sincere, and hilarious show that somehow managed to combine radio and dance. Definitely worth the money if it ends up near you.
That said, I’m glad I went alone.
The show covered some really poignant topics, like how love is really weird no matter what age you are, how performance arts can sometimes suck the life out of what people love, and the dynamics between people who work closely together daily in the workplace. But it was the last quarter that really got to me. It was about death, specifically, about how it feels to know you are dying and seeing someone you love fade slowly and die.
Ira Glass played an interview with Donald Hall, a former poet-laureate whose books I have sitting on my night stand, about a book of poems he wrote about the last eleven days he had with his wife who died of leukemia.
In one of the poems he spoke about how even the most mundane tasks had to be planned out and executed with strategy, like walking across the house. I witnessed this myself last Christmas, when walking from the living room to the bathroom in his bedroom down the hall took almost all the waking strength my father-in-law, Tommy, had left. It made me think of my mother-in-law, his sister, brother-in-law, and mother, who had to watch all of it this take place while they took care of him during his last weeks.
Ira Glass then called for “radio lighting” (complete darkness) and played something else from a different voice.
Thanks to my rapidly dividing cells, I no longer have that feeling. Although, I remember it very well: that if I just buckled down to the great work at hand – lived more authentically, stopped procrastinating, cut out sugar – then my best self was just there right around the corner.
It was David Rakoff’s voice.
“Yeah, no,” he continued:
I’m done with all that. I’m done with so many things. Like dancing. I have no idea if I can do it anymore; I’ve been frankly too frightened and too embarrassed to try it, even alone in my apartment. There was a time however, as recently as about a couple of years ago when I was one course of radiation, two surgeries into all of this nonsense when doing the simple bar exercises while holding onto a kitchen chair achieved what they always used to do – what they’re supposed to do.
He goes on to say this and something magical happens:
David Rakoff passed away last August. He had a rare case where the cure for his original cancer gave him another cancer. I feel a little bit dishonest – like I can’t actually mourn someone I never really knew, but his writing inspired me to find where I wanted to go with my own. His work was there for me during some of the more difficult moments in my life, like when I heard the wedding toast story on the Frenemies episode (#389) of This American Life that bright September afternoon I went wedding dress shopping that descended into disaster.
His newest – and posthumous – book just came out. Ira Glass played a clip of David reading a few lines from it, and what was touching and poignant and teary from David’s dancing talk just before it, pushed me to the point of trying to resist quiet sobs in my seat. The lines are from the point of view from a character in the novel who is dying:
A new, fierce attachment to all of this world
Now pierced him, it stabbed like a deity-hurled
Lightning bolt lancing him, sent from above.
Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love.
He’d thought of himself as uniquely proficient
At seeing, but now that sense felt insufficient.
He wanted to grab, to possess, to devour
To eat with his eyes, how he needed that power.
It was hard to listen to. Not only because the voice reading the verses about how it feels to know you are dying has since died, but because of the words themselves.
He wanted to devour with his eyes.
All I could think about were the last two visits with my father-in-law. The sicker he got, the more his gaze and his eyes changed. Did he have a sudden desire to possess and eat things through his eyes? To taste the world through his vision with a new vigor and burning, sweet affection? Was that the rest why, the last time I saw him, he looked as though he was seeing right through the walls of the house to something far away?
And if he could, what would he devour? I do a lot of note-taking as a writer and I’ve left an immense paper trail for myself, and in a weird way that’s how I eat with my eyes. But my father-in-law didn’t write. He used carving tools. Hand-built string instruments. Cooked incredible meals with deep-fryers and built homes with lumber.
Would he have devoured our faces? Some of that jambalaya that his sister made but he was too sick to eat? Just a few more songs by Jimi? One more deep-fried turkey? Created one more dagger or one last banjo, carved and created with his hands, the neck green and inlayed with stone? Did he drink in the sight of the whole family being together telling ridiculous sibling stories in the kitchen?
I wonder all of this not because my father-in-law was particularly surreptitious; he just wasn’t a man of many words towards the end and he never complained an ounce. So, to hear David Rakoff, someone who was ferociously articulate even up to the end, talk about the specifics of his body deteriorating underneath him chokes me up.
Since I was alone at “One Radio Host, Two Dancers”, the university students sitting beside me can just chalk it up as the weird girl in with the bird tattoo they’ll never see again, instead of having to explain to someone with me why my eyes glittered and were on the edge of tears for the last section of the show. (I mean, you can only pretend you’re brushing fragments of crust off your eyes and adjusting your glasses before its clear what’s really going on with your face.)
The sadness followed me home. On my way I stopped for coffee, for what else do longstanding tears and grief demand other than coffee? Being the weekend after the 4th, cities were still hosting their firework shows and there were loud booms from one that sounded like they were exploding right over my car while I was sitting in the drive-thru.
I got on the highway and drove toward home, gliding in the dark. Over top of the inky silhouettes of the trees I saw at least fifteen sets of fireworks on the way back. Tiny gold ones exploding in the distance that were the size of a quarter to my left, colossal purple ones spitting and bursting into the sky directly to my right. Color and shape shifting ones, ones that looked like they dissolved into glitter, and the twenty simultaneous ones going off in another city at the end of the set.
Would my father-in-law have devoured these too? I wish I could give them to him.
The truth is that I haven’t bought David Rakoff’s new book because I’m not sure I can read it right now. I want the audio version along with the book, as I’ve had for all of his previous books. But I just don’t think I can this time – at least not right now. It’s just too much – it makes me too sad and makes me think of Tommy and that’s okay.
As I explained to everyone who asked how I and my husband were after the memorial, I explained that the hard thing is that grief is not a solid thing: you don’t endure it in full for a certain amount of time and then it’s over. No. It comes and goes.
You might feel okay for a while, and then all of a sudden something reminds you of it and it comes flooding in. It waxes, wanes. It comes back, barreling at you like those glorious, raging purple fireworks.
Photo credit: Flickr / nigelhowe