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How To Live, What To Do

How To Live, What To Do

My first life ended with a phone call. Hours before anyone said the word, I knew what that phone call meant. My husband had died; suddenly, shockingly, just hours after the surgeon had rung to say he was fine. Stranger still, I knew he would die, even though everyone assured me that it was more or less a routine operation. But even when I knew he would die, I did not believe myself. Nor did I believe, after that phone call, he had actually died. Despite standing beside his body, bringing in the children to say good-bye, arranging the funeral and seeing us all through the burial, almost twenty years later there is still part of me that stubbornly refuses to think of him as dead.

Not because he is alive in the old sense, either. But because his presence is never quite past. Nor is it ever quite the same. At first, when I grieved wildly, I would try to remember him, how he talked, how he moved, the shape of his ears or face. When these began to fade, I would panic; even while feeling that he was, in some other sense, still around. So I began to ask him for things – mostly things I desperately needed. So secure did I feel that he was somehow attending, I was not even surprised when those things came about – although not always in the form I anticipated. As his physical self faded, my sense of him became dispersed, like a different kind of light: one that gave a new weight and intensity to everything around. Something like the last radiance of a long summer’s evening; heavy with knowing it would last no more than minutes.

Light describes it best. After almost twenty years, I think of him now as at peace, radiant with light. It shifts though my life, making that life itself seem shifting, as if without substance. Nothing lasts. It teaches me to attend to this day, this moment. It will never come again. But it also makes this present living seem ineluctably provisional: slight, weightless, and something that one makes up day to day. One has to improvise, relentlessly, because in this new world I can no longer believe in secure plans or safe futures. One simply makes it up as one goes along. And there is a freedom in this.

If only because the first terrible pain has bled out of it, so his death is more like the memory of a wound than the wound itself. A scar, which can suddenly and unexpectedly make itself felt. But I am grateful to be among the walking wounded. Because that death brought me another life, wider and truer than the one I had before. I would not have ever chosen it. It chose me. I had other plans. But in the midst of the wreckage, barely able to eat or sleep or talk, I made one decision. Along with my husband, part of me had died: the hopeful, trusting part. The part that was young. Part of me wished to join him. So I had to choose: to die with him, symbolically completing this death by taking on, as his widow, the life he did not finish. Or choose to live as a self that had not yet been created: a new, untried, newly unmarried self.

It is easy not to choose. A widow’s life is laid out for her. She is supposed to dedicate herself to the dead. Pale, pious, she will assume a kind of secular sainthood as the “relict” – the one left behind. And at the time, I felt I had neither the will nor the energy to begin again. But one sentence kept following me – a saying of Kafka’s: “Even on the scaffold, one has a choice.” Feeling the noose around my neck, I decided I must live. not only because we had children still young. They needed me to see them through this, to launch them into their own lives. But still more because the only true answer to death is not to deaden oneself as well – but to live more truly than before. That new life would never be the same, could never be the same, after such a happening.

How to live, what to do? To live meant, I decided, opening up to the pain, the mess, the consequences for myself and our sons. In other words, not deadening myself. In practical terms, this meant no medication, unless absolutely necessary. No alcohol, or as little as possible. To stay open to the pain so it would allow me to find out what it could teach me. What I learned was that I did not need to eat or sleep as much as I thought I did. I could cope. I could get through all this. But not alone. I had to learn to lean on others. In this newly isolated life, independence could be a trap. So I forced myself to reach out. When I did so, it eased the loneliness. Even when the house was too quiet, the nights too long, and fear gnawing at my small store of security, grieving opened me to another world in which others, too, lived in pain. I began to understand that no one is exempt, although many are very good at hiding. Somehow, grieving gave me a sixth sense of where the wounds lay. I did not need to ask questions or talk about my own experience. There is a bond of suffering so deep that it draws us together in silent company, even if we chatter with apparent abandon or flit from one topic to another. It wells up, it makes itself felt. It is not to be put by.

Nor should it be. It is what binds us together. It is what makes us human. Once when I went to parties, I would look for my friends – or at least someone I knew. Now when I walk into a room, I try to look around for those on the margins, in the corner; they are the ones to seek out. Not out of pity, but fellowship. I know now what it means, to be on the margins. Suspended between belief and unbelief, I even went back to the church of my youth. Sitting among the old, the sick, the marginalized, I felt at home. At times, I would simply sit and cry. Once, when I apologized, I was told: “This is a good place to cry. Cry all you want.” Since then, going there has little to do with doctrine or creed, but with people and a certain community who made me a part of their lives. From this grounding, I feel free to explore other spiritual traditions, Buddhism and also Daoism. For to live means to live more abundantly, to open myself not merely to pain but to that wider human experience which places pain at its centre.

That path has led to a life I could never have imagined twenty years ago. Eventually leaving my job and, for a time, my home, I went to teach in China. This new world, so alien to the one in which I had once lived and moved and had my being, has taught me almost as much about humanity, both its folly and its wisdom, as did raising my children. These have been my best education. Each has made my world bigger, more vivid, more urgent. Each in their own way make me feel that, even as death comes inevitably nearer, opening myself up to that terrible moment almost twenty years ago began a voyage which has transformed my life: into something larger, richer – and more strange.

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About the Author

Born in America and living in Ireland, after thirty years working in the English Department of University College, Dublin, Jerusha McCormack now teaches as Professor of Cultural Studies in China. Grieving: a beginner’s guide, was written shortly after the death of her Irish husband to serve as a map for those finding their way through recent bereavement. Her most recent book, Thinking through China (co-authored with John Blair), drawing on more than a decade of living and teaching in China, is due to appear this August, 2015.