What We Have

Reading, Writing, and Loss

September brought twin pains. First: a call that my cousin died. The next day: our family cabin went on the market. In the months before, my family grew contentious. Conversations devolved into unwinnable contests about who loved who and what more. Then Kali was gone, and in the same week, so was the place I loved. The sudden permanence wrecks me.

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Of course, I read a lot in 2019. For my jobs, and for distraction. I consumed so many stories. More than a book a week, which makes this one of my more productive reading years. I spent many cold nights in the bathtub with an audiobook, cranking the faucet to almost a scald, as if I could bank the excess heat. I reread J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potters. I listened to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. My bathtub reads trend toward YA. I’m a distracted listener.

In January, Kali turned 40. In May, I turned 40. In September, Kali died. In September, our parents sold the cabin that’s been in our family for generations. It was a crumbling shack on a big slab of granite, but it was everything. I loved it. I loved her. It’s foolish luxury to think anything will be in most of your life. Trust is capricious. Trusts can be revoked. I was sure I’d dip my grandkids’ toes in that river. As sure as I was that my cousin would see 41.

We are a family in search of the right words.

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In February I read a novel about the inscrutability of death: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, which is an imagined conversation between a character with the author’s name and the author’s dead son. I think about it often. It was a painful read; months later, that pain seems like a prelude. So many books this year centered around family, or loss: Abby Geni’s tale of two feral siblings, The Wildlands; Susan Straight’s memoir of generational memory, In the Country of Women; and Kristen Arnett’s excavation grief, Mostly Dead Things. I read texts of beauty and contradiction, like Kimi Eisele’s The Lightest Object in the Universe and Matthew Zapruder’s Father’s Day.

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I’ve been a mess. Scattered and obsessive. I can’t stop thinking about how selling a private property means we can never go back there. How there’s no going back to Kali, alive.

During the harsh rains of the mid-nineties, the American River swelled, washed out the bridge to the cabin, and threatened the structure itself. We watched the news anxiously, celebrating when the cabin survived. We said thank God. Now I wonder why.

We used to reference each natural disaster, those demarcations of time: the slide, the fire, and the flood. We didn’t see that the looming disaster was us. Was a fight about money to pay for Grandma’s care. My generation tried and failed to help. Nobody could compromise, so everyone lost. Emails were sent about what had to be done. No more discussion. It was over. I tamped down my despair; I sat on my hands, didn’t write this thing that was hurting. I was afraid to hurt others by committing words to paper. Two months later, my body expelled the pain in a gruesome, shaking episode: I had a seizure in front of my kids.

I kept reading.

Some books this year were hard, but I’ve come to appreciate the friction of a difficult read because it makes me feel alive. David Means’ Instructions for a Funeral was one of those books. I enjoy Means’ narrators who reject standard patterns of storytelling. If narrative structure is a myth that we superimpose over our lives to give them false order, then stories like Means’ speak directly to the truth of our chaos. Kali’s life ended before its denouement. There is no sensible framework. No meaning. Only people left behind, grasping absurdly at words.

As usual, I read many books this year by my friends. It pleases me to know so many good writers. Maggie Downs’ forthcoming memoir, Braver Than You Think, shined a light on hope after loss. In Gray is the New Black, Dorothy Rice wrote about resisting the temptation of self-rejection. JoAnn Chaney’s As Long as We Both Shall Live and Liska Jacobs’ The Worst Kind of Want were two tales of delightfully reckless women.

Kiese Laymon’s Heavy was heartbreaking and excellent, as was Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone. Parkland by David Cullen filled me with hope. Nicole Dennis-Benn’s long and bittersweet novel of separation, Patsy, was a perfect, complicated summer read. Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister opened my eyes to how people use women’s anger against them. I ended the year with luscious stories like Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine and Rishi Reddi’s Passage West. I loved these books because I could lose myself in them, but the anguish I wanted to forget was still there when I was done.

My favorite read this year wasn’t traditionally published. My best friend, Kitty, wrote a narrative about how her grandparents met and lived: a book-length manuscript comprised of years of genealogical research. It was written with the joy of discovery and a careful eye for detail. It made me feel a deep affection for people I will never know, another family’s ancestors. It also reminded me of why I write — why any of us do. The urgency, the necessity, to try to impart the fleeting and ineffable. To say this happened, or I felt this so it matters.

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Our river is still there, gently curving around the granite beneath some other family’s cabin. I used to sit on the warm rocks and pray, brushing away the husks of water bugs with my toes. I used to picture the river when my anxiety got too big. Conjuring it now raises my heart rate. This summer, someone else will read on the porch. Someone else will hike down the hill to the water. Will they know about the weird bugs? Or how to hop rocks? Will they love it enough? They won’t know where the island used to be. Or the old channel. Or what Grandpa looked like, reaching into the current for a drink.

The air still carries the scent of minerals and green moss. The river moves west, indifferent. Kali is gone. I’ve lost my place. All we have are stories.

Written by

Book critic, teacher.

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