Friday, August 21, 2009

Loss and Grief

Peggy’s sister Sally is here, and while she mentioned in the blog note posted yesterday that she was a Hospice nurse for years, she didn’t mention what’s even more relevant at the moment, that she’s also a psychologist and a grief counselor. What a family! If you count just a tiny sample of relatives, there are doctors and PAs, computer experts, market researchers, water resource experts, former dessert chefs (the most important specialty?), medical-technology entrepreneurs, pointy-headed academics, and lots more—but sometimes what you really need is a grief counselor.
So it’s a good thing Sally is here. She understands the waves of utter sadness that wash over you, the ways in which that ebbs, then comes again, then ebbs, perhaps a little further along but not much, and she understands that that happens not just to Brooke or to Peggy or to other members of the immediate family, but to everyone who loved or has come to love Brooke.
But there are other losses too, and other griefs. Not long after Brooke’s accident last fall, Bill Spencer died, the owner and chief butcher at the 8th Avenue Meat & Grocery, a local store so rooted in time that it closed down with Bill, and sent all of us who loved shopping there precisely because it hadn’t changed since maybe 1960 off to buy our groceries in the glossy modern American supermarkets. And just a couple of weeks ago there was loss a more startling loss because less expected: Michael Adamson, our hairdresser for almost thirty years, died utterly suddenly of a heart attack: he was only in his 50s, unlike Bill, in his 80s. Michael also left behind a local establishment that was the expression of his irrepressible personality: the 9th Avenue Salon, located needless to say on 9th Avenue, not far from our house. Here too the loss is great not just because you lose a person you’ve loved for decades, but you’ve loved them not only because of the wonderfully idiosyncratic people they were but because their respective establishments magnified the traits of their personalities that you treasured. Bill’s store hadn’t been modernized since the 1960’s (cardboard cutouts of Snap! Crackle! and Pop! were still hanging from the ceiling), and Michael’s beauty parlor resisted all the temptations of commercial beauty-industry glitz. It was a place you could like being in, and a place that didn’t just make your hair look better but made you feel better, not just in a superficial commercial way but more deeply restored. This is the beauty parlor Brenda Cowley’s stage play Shear Luck celebrates—a place where glitz isn’t central, manufactured pseudo-beauty isn’t the goal, and even the old ladies sitting under dryers remain a real force. Michael came a number of times to cut Brooke’s hair while he’s been in the hospital, just out of friendship and love. (For those of you who knew Michael, there’s a memorial service for him tomorrow, Saturday August 22, from 1:00-3:00 at the Salt Lake Acting Company—he often did wigs for SLAC and of course everybody there knew him. Come, the invitation says, wearing what Michael would have wanted you to wear to his funeral: an outrageous wig, sequined pants, drag.) Fortunately the 9th Avenue Salon will remain open, even if Michael himself is gone.

The griefs we’re recognizing have something in common with these other losses. An institution, if you can think of Brooke’s wild outdoors self--hiking, biking, skiing, trekking, snowshoeing, always active and always out of doors—is gone, at least for now, and not likely to fully return. And the institution that he built, if you can think of the teaching he did and the classrooms that he filled with his engaging intellectual personality as a kind of institution too, is also gone for the moment, at least in that he can’t at the moment pace before a class, cover a chalkboard with writing, boom out in his lecturing voice so that a whole class hears. After all, Brooke’s losses are in a sense double: he had just retired and so given up teaching, at least for the most part, and has also lost the use of the body he so actively inhabited.

Part of what Sally brings in her sensitivity to grief is the acknowledgment that loss is real, and that at the same time this loss isn’t complete. Bill Spencer’s 8th Avenue Meat & Grocery is closed, standing empty; and Michael Adamson now only indirectly animates the 9th Avenue Salon. But Brooke is still here—indeed, even in his moments of most intense grief he sometimes says, “but I’m still alive.” And that means, of course, that there’s time to fashion a new person out of the ruins even when grieving for the old one.
Dale Hull, the physician with a C5 spinal cord injury some ten years back who is Brooke’s friend and mentor, says he gave himself a wake when he realized he wouldn’t have his old body fully back again. A wake makes perfect sense, as the expression of grief, but given what Dale has managed to do in the meantime, among other things co-founding the outpatient spinal-cord rehab clinic Neuroworx, it might seem that a christening for his new self is also in order. It think it will be the same with Brooke: we’re coming to that stage of grieving where we can perhaps imagine a wake, but also beginning to see the earliest hints of the emergence of a new person as well. And yet, paradoxically it might seem, everybody also knows it’s the same old Brooke there in the bed, there in the wheelchair, there with the vent sighing lightly in the background, the one we’ve always loved.

PS Come to the service 8/22 for Michael Adamson, if you knew him, and keep that institution alive.


Kim Griesemer said...

Hello, Dr. Hopkins. I was shocked when I discovered last November quite accidentally while checking out the local news on the internet that you had been seriously injured. Since then, I have been following your blog, feeling somewhat like a voyeur.

I am Kim Griesemer, one of your recent past students (2007). During our last visit together, you asked me what I was going to do following graduation. I told you I was going to serve an LDS mission. I have been serving in Ecuador since March of 2008.

Although I know something about grief, having lost my husband in an automobile accident in India five years ago, I do not know the kind of grief you are experiencing. Every loss is different and is experienced and responded to differently by each person. I admire your courage--which I suspect doesn't feel all that courageous from time to time.

I would also like to say thank you. I still treasure the time I spent in your classrooms. Despite having high expectations, you also respected all supported perspectives. You challenged us to write more capably and think more deeply. You sacrificed your own time and personal priorities as you read and commented on countless papers. I recall thanking you for really working as a professor--meaning assigning papers and taking the time to evaluate them. You seemed surprised, and said, "That's my job." Indeed. Nonetheless, in my experience, many English literature professors choose a lesser commitment.

Though your body has changed and may never be the same as it was, those same qualities that I so treasured in you as a teacher still remain largely intact, if now applied to a different endeavor.

Grieving is a way of processing loss and is necessary and part of emotional and spiritual healing. I still count the losses associated with my husband's death--we will not enjoy together the birth of our next grandchild. He was not there at my long-dreamed-of graduation from college. I will grow old(er) without him. But on my good days, I can recognize and focus on what I did not lose--what I still have and am and am becoming. You created an atmosphere in your classroom that pointed me toward what I had retained instead of what I had lost, and thereby fostered healing.

My hope for you is that someone, including and especially Peggy, or maybe many someones will do for you what you did for me.

Like so many others, I rejoice with every advance you make and hold my breath when progress is harder to see. All the while, I feel privileged to have been your student, and to be your student.

Thank you.

Nik said...

Dear Brooke and Peggy,
I just wanted to check in and let you know that I'm still reading, and still learning, from your posts. The most magical realization I've come to in reading through these many months is what kind of patience it takes to make love last long. I admire you both for your strength through this.
Thank you too for letting me know about Bill. When I lived on G
Street, I shopped at the 8th Ave often. I even wrote about it in an essay coming out in New Ohio Review. If I have even a scintilla of the intelligence and thoughtfulness of you two, I'll remember to send you a copy.
All my love,
Nicole Walker
(Grad student, 2006)

Lorraine Seal said...

Brooke and Peggy

Your recent post about Brooke’s deep sadness at not being pictured with Polly and Peggy seated among the rocks and the pain of acknowledging that he most likely will never again be able to hike the hills he loves struck me, perhaps perversely, as hopeful. I didn’t know how to express it at the time. But you raise the issue again in this post.

Brooke’s loss of his old body and his relationship to its functioning is real loss, a source of grief. The hopefulness comes from the willingness to embrace reality and grieve loss. Not that hope is necessarily felt along with grief; it is hope as potential, what may be possible on the other side of the bleakness and pain of grief. Maybe it has something in common with the pain and spasms and the hope that enduring them may be the price of new neural connections.

At times of profound loss I’ve felt something like attachment to grief. As the pain recedes, the person I mourn is even more profoundly lost: Not only is the death a fact, but acceptance means the loved one is receding day-to-day life. It’s part of grieving I resent enormously, as though I’m giving up what I held dear. The letting go necessary for progress seems a betrayal and additional loss. Perhaps this is where courage comes in, the courage to embrace reality and re-build one’s life with what remains, doing whatever it takes.

My own courage has been faltering significantly lately. This move has been harder than I had expected. Grief arising from many sources, some apparently long past, some having to do with the changes the move has brought, forces me to confront my own failures of courage. And I’m frustrated at having to share your experiences from afar, unable to see you and speak with you in person. At the end of the day though, all I can do is what we all must do: keep on keeping on.

I too shopped at the 8th Avenue Market when I lived on G Street 30 years ago. I remember buying calves liver from the butchers over the meat counter at a time when supermarkets had abandoned them. I couldn’t have told you the name of the market if pressed, but I remember it and am sorry to hear it is now gone.

We leave for Spain on Friday, going first to a wedding in the village of Valderrobes, then making our way to Tarragona and on to Barcelona. Between the weird family dynamics that will inevitably surface during the wedding and the journey into unfamiliar territory, it will be an adventure.