Time and space. This little world of time and space. Beyond this world of time and space.
I’ve been rereading one of the journals I kept after my daughter died, and I wrote over and over again about the limitations of time and space and my hope that my daughter lives beyond time and space as I know them.
A coworker at my school brought me the journal a few days after Elizabeth died. It has a marbled blue cover about the size of a trade paperback with the word “Journal” stamped in silver on the spine. Its blank pages looked stark and frightening to me then. If I dared to write a single word in it, then my daughter’s death would become truth. Just as if there was some magical realism to recording the words, I dared not put pen to paper in that book.
It was six months before I wrote in it, and then over the next few months, I wrote pages and pages of letters to my daughter, observations, laments, prayers, hopes, memories. I began writing because I hoped I could remember every small detail about her. I did not want to forget anything. If I kept all the details, maybe the presence of her absence would not be so horrible. And I made myself write every detail I could remember about what happened on that October Friday afternoon 18 years ago. Someday, I thought, I might even want to remember this.
Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Look Homeward Angel, was born October 3, 1900 in Asheville, NC and died before his 38th birthday in September 1938. He was a tall man. He lived large. He lived a short life too. He wrote Of Time and the River. As I read the words I wrote after Elizabeth’s death, I am thinking of time and something even more vaporous than a river–space, some vast uncharted airy thing around us like a cloud we can’t see the edges of that keeps us contained on this planet. And, Thomas Wolfe, I am thinking of angels too. My husband called our daughter an angel. And she looked like one sometimes as the sun made a halo of her blonde curls that framed her face. If angels giggle, then certainly she fit that part too.
Incredible as it seems to me now, a few months after Elizabeth’s death, I applied for a week-long seminar on Island People/Island Culture in Ocracoke, NC. Although I often avoided going places where I might be ambushed with memories of times with Elizabeth, I was going to this conference held at the beach where my family spent vacations as our children grew up. Usually we drove the eight hours that included an hour or two ferry ride to get to the island.
This time, I had traveled most of the distance by airplane, and I wrote to my daughter: “You would have loved flying. And being in the clouds and above them, I thought of where you might be in the cosmos now. While in Ocracoke, we took a small boat across to Portsmouth (the now deserted village on another island nearby). You wanted to go there, but we let the giant mosquitoes that fed ravenously on every mammal on the island deter us. Why did we not go, mosquitoes or no? When you walked outside in the dusk of a summer’s evening, you were a magnet for those insects, but I so wish we had gone to Portsmouth. In the little Methodist church with white beadboard placed at angles to make a design on the plain wall, the air musty as if unbreathed for a long time, one of the other teachers in the group sat down at the pump organ and played “Amazing Grace” and “I’ll Fly Away.” My heart burst for missing you, and I slipped outside to stand under one of the windows and listen to those old hymns: ‘I’ll fly away; /To a home on God’s celestial shore. . .When the shadows of this life have gone,/ I’ll fly away.’ And now, as I write this, we are again above those fluffy clouds, those wisps of space where Maddy, the three-year-old you used to babysit, thinks you live.”
Almost six years after my daughter’s death, on another October day, I took an elevator to a frosty board room on the third floor of a college library and met the other mothers that became our Farther Along writing group. It’s been a dozen years since then. We really are sometimes farther along in our grief. (And I am measuring some concrete distance, fellow teachers of English. I do know that “farther” is usually used for measuring physical distance and “further” for figurative distance, but the writer of the old hymn “Farther Along” didn’t bother with that distinction. The song inspired our book title. But that’s another post.) And we still measure time. And we still examine space. And we hope. The old hymn “Farther Along” tells it: “Cheer up my brother (and sister), walk in the sunshine.” I do most of the time, and I will on this blue-skied October day.