John W. Evans is a Jones Lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University. He is the author of Should I Still Wish: A Memoir (February 2017), Young Widower: A Memoir (Nebraska, 2014), winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize; The Consolations, winner of the 2015 Peace Corps Writers Best Poetry Book; and two poetry chapbooks.
Like many, I was moved by Patton Oswalt’s appearance on Conan Monday night to talk about his recent Emmy win, and living with grief as a husband and a father. I share in the widespread admiration for that appearance. Oswalt is indeed candid, tragic and hilarious, very real, and relatable. We might never know the depth or scale of Oswalt’s grief—indeed, he might not want us to know it—but we can take comfort at Oswalt’s grace as he begins to negotiate a world without his wife. We can relate to that world, which is made funny and vivid by his candor. My favorite moment follows a forced encounter with an elderly ticket agent at a Chicago airport, an “O’Hare agent of doom,” who corners Oswalt and his daughter only to relate her own unending grief from childhood (starts at 2:34):
Oswalt has spent the week before Mother’s Day making a thoughtful time for his six-year-old daughter, one that allows her to sidestep with extended family, more or less, the holiday. And yet, for reasons beyond his control, the plan falls short. The ticket agent laments. What a beautiful figure she makes for the unpredictable nature of grief and the many masks it wears, how it speaks with understanding while impolitely forcing its way into too many conversations and experiences, hiding both everywhere and in plain sight. In Oswalt’s telling, like a witch in a fairy tale, grief offers unpalatable truths. Even her candy is “made from pine bark and ink.” We may guard vigilantly against grief, Oswalt seems to suggest, but grief is clever and unrelenting. It is closer than we think.
Nine and a half years ago, I was widowed. My first wife Katie died during a bear attack in a foreign country, while we were hiking together, and I wrote about the following year of grief and guilt in a memoir, Young Widower. For me, the violent and dangerous circumstances of Katie’s death resonated with far less meaning and interest than her absence in my life, and the hard truths about myself that I needed to face as I lived with her family, and tried to understand a world that I no longer trusted. There was no public aspect to my grief, and so no well-intentioned ticket agents to fend off. But I did find myself often speaking in reassuring generalities to strangers, especially about my own wellness and my memories of Katie. Privately, I grieved with no interest to venerate some idealized memory, Saint Katie, as my sister-in-law and I sometimes joked to each other. Publicly, though, I tended the shrine of Saint Katie with great vigilance. I may not have collected tickets but I stayed on message and talked to anyone who would listen.
Perhaps we turn a deaf ear to the O’Hare agents of doom in this world because we know that they are telling us the truth. It just sounds like a truth that does not really apply to us. After all, who among us really expects a spouse to die in his or her sleep? To be killed by a bear in a forest? What use do we have for exotic prophecies in such an ordinary age as ours? I’m sure we are not the first humans to think this way. But perhaps we are the most interconnected. To mix my metaphors, perhaps we turn too easily to snake-oil salesmen—and barring that, self-help books—who assure us that we are all survivors, there is connection in everything and little reason to suffer alone or for too long. In this view, grief is less a ritual than a rite. It should happen once, powerfully. It should devastate us. And then, we should move on.
During the year that I lived in Indiana, on Katie’s birthday, I went with her family to a park near her mother’s house. We spent the day flying kites. The activity wasn’t particularly “Katie” but it gave us all something to do together. We felt connected. It made a lovely memory. A year later, I woke early on the morning of Katie’s birthday and walked to a nearby public garden, where I read a poem for Katie and sipped her favorite orange juice. I was living in a new city, with a woman who would soon become my second wife, but I spent the day walking alone around San Francisco, thinking about Katie and trying to do some of her favorite things. What had only a year earlier been an act of communion and celebration had become a private ritual. For the day, I remembered Katie as my friend, my partner, my wife. That memory felt very real and personal to me. I did not want to share it.
Like a piece of a puzzle found years later behind the sofa, I cannot always fit grief neatly where I think it should go. I’ve written about this experience in a new memoir, Should I Still Wish. Katie’s birthday is still a melancholy and lonely day for me. The month of her death is absolutely miserable: migraines, panic attacks, nightmares. But so, too, was a recent trip with old friends, in which I found myself sobbing hysterically at an airport gate. And also, an afternoon I spent hiking with my oldest son in woods I know very well. I’ve long since stopped trying to solve the puzzle, but I can’t quite leave it alone either. Perhaps I see the general shape well enough to think it’s solved. The shape of my life now certainly seems to hold many things together pretty well: happiness, comfort, love, the feeling of falling in love again and feeling loved again, fatherhood, a new home, with new places that mix geography and emotion in beautiful and unexpected ways, feelings that are distinct and real and perhaps even more deeply felt for their inherent fragility. Even the title of the book, Should I Still Wish, expresses an uncomfortable truth that I can never quite reconcile. Should I still wish for anything, knowing what the world can take away? For all the happiness that followed, shouldn’t I still wish that Katie hadn’t died?
I listen with wonder to those designated mourners, like Patton Oswalt, who bravely share their grief with us, especially those who are willing to work out such grief in public, warts and all. I admire their willingness to connect with others, and also, that far trickier twinning of tragedy and humor. I am grateful and filled with admiration to hear such honest voices. Amidst so much noise we are lucky to listen.
But I try to listen to the perpetually grief-stricken, too, if only that they sometimes remind us how the world really is, and what that world might one day take away, and even, how things continue after the worst of a grief has passed. In this way, I think, we might do well to take the addled ticket takers by the arm and ask them to sit with us in those shitty airport cafes with the overpriced coffee and stale danishes. Perhaps they only need to be listened to, again, for a little while. Maybe the thing that terrifies us most—that loss is everywhere, and grief comes and goes like a fever that can only burn across and through, again and again, in times more and less prosperous than ours, whatever our own good or bad fortune—is only terrifying because we avoid it. As in most fairy tales, a thing only grows more scary because we isolate and ignore it, and insist it leave us be. Perhaps we should open our arms and let those who terrify us in their grief comfort us back.