I’m back. I’ll have more to say about the trip’s conclusion (Tab and Brianna joining us in Sorrento, the four of us going on to Venezia, Tab and I in Giovinazzo, and the awful trip home with both of us weak and very, very sick), but something just jumped out at me and I have to write about it now.
Months ago, on my other blog, I wrote about buying a leather bag my first weekend in Sorrento, the day after my mother died. It’s a good bag and I carried it across Europe for the last few months. In fact, I can’t say for sure that I ever left the
apartment without it. After four-plus months of hard use, the bag has faded a bit and lost it’s shape a little. I could see taking it with me on a flight to the Midwest, or maybe a day-trip to Boston, but it will never be used on a daily basis again.
So I cleaned it out today and after I had found better places for the NINE ink pens and multiple little notebooks, and Neapolitan playing cards, and charging cables, and European USB plugs, used train tickets, and the hundred or so scraps of paper…I went to hang it on a hook in the mudroom. But there was already a bag on the hook.
It was the bag I took to Oxford as a student in 1993. I went there for a study-abroad program with a group of fellow English majors (mostly) from my college in Missouri. It was an army-surplus (and army-green) bag that looked sufficiently manly to ward off my American-male fear of the “man-purse” label. For that whole trip, it was always full–lots of pens, little notebooks, used train tickets, calling cards, travelers’ checks, and hundreds of scraps of paper. And it was full of so much more because it was my dead brother’s bag and it helped me carry my grief everywhere we went.
I can’t tell you how Brian died in this blog post. That story’s too complex. But he had died less than three weeks before. I loved him very much. I was run-through with
guilt over his death. I smothered myself with remorse for my (unwitting) last words to him. I woke up with all of it every morning. I lay down with it at night. Everyone who
went on that trip experienced that grief with me…whether they wanted to or not. On the bus to Stonehenge, I would begin weeping in my seat. On the croquet lawn of Oxford’s Manchester College, I would have to lay my mallet in the grass and lean against the wall to cover my face. Once, I remember hanging up the payphone in the ground floor of the building where the guys’ rooms were. I had been talking to Tab, or maybe my Mom and Dad, and I was sobbing. Around the corner from the phone, I started up the narrow steps only to find Tony standing there. He held onto me while I wailed.
Tony was my best friend. The Best Man at my wedding, one-time house-mate, and now room-mate on this trip. We went everywhere together. He heard it all. And he wasn’t merely sympathetic (as if being sympathetic weren’t enough), he was grieving too. Part of the too-long-to-tell story is that my brother drowned with one of our
very-best-friends, Wendy…wife of one our other very-best-friends. Our whole little community had been rent. Tony looked into the same hole-in-the-world that I looked in every day. He hadn’t known Brian much, but he loved me and we shared a fierce grief for Wendy who had died with Brian. Our room in Oxford was awash with wine-bottles and photographs of the dead. I never needed to explain any of it to him.
Twenty-three years later, I grieved Mom very differently. I had been grieving my mother’s death from the moment (a year-and-a-half before) she was given her terminal diagnosis. I had grieved with her. This time the guilt was for not being there, not being with my family when they needed me. But, once more, I didn’t have to grieve on my own. My daughter had lost her grandmother. All the friends who Maya would have leaned on were on the other side of the world. So we leaned on each other. Mostly. We also reinforced what we knew was Mom’s wish: don’t let grief block out this experience. I think we honored that wish. The night of her service, Maya and I
went to Marina Grande and sat on a bench in front of one of the many still-closed-for-the-season restaurants, and watched the waves come into the harbor. We talked about Mom. We held each other. We threw coins into the water. We recorded the surf and the bells that rang and rang and rang.
After that, if we were sitting on the couch and noticed the other gazing into the hole-in-the-world, a brush of the hand and a murmur would pass between us. We made room for the grief between us. It was enough.
Anyway, today there were the two bags together. Empty now, having carried the things I needed on the other side of the world. When I sat down to write this, I thought I was writing about the bags. But it turns out this is a love letter to two fellow-travelers…to the one who let me wail, and also to the one who let me be silent.