I Know Why We Try to Keep the Dead Alive.

I have been advised to consume 8-10 glasses of water every day. I believe it is a professional way of saying pull your shit together, girl. It is quite common, how unrelated events in life come together quietly and lay the foundation for determining the future of the person. I speak only for myself when I write this piece, and any rather quaint resemblance with anyone should simply be taken as a belief that we are all impeccably One.

When I first learned of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, I knew instantly that I would have to read this book. Apart from the fact that the jacket illustration is that of a stunning, magnificent goshawk staring right at you, your soul, the book’s content – on loss, on grief, on death, on anger, on trying to find control, and on love – was simply written for a person like me. Instead, I bought a copy from an online bookstore and gifted it to a stranger. I only know that the book made its way to her, I never found out whether this person liked the book or whether she even read it. I know I did a good thing, but in my own online account, the book sat in the Wishlist section for more months than I care to remember now.

Between this selfless demonstration of how much I believe in encouraging reading and ten other books that I read after it, I believe that the universe works in ways that only the naïve can understand. Because when I found this book again, sitting precariously on the topmost shelf of a book store, I tiptoed to reach my maximum height and lifted the book without a contradicting thought. There, the same jacket, a goshawk with its yellow beak and piercing eyes, perched on a single unclaimed branch, that book was mine. I believe now that at that time when I found this book, I would have known that grief would come my way soon, and I would need a totem to bring me back to the present again and again more than ever before.

In the year 2010, a disambiguated image of a sad Keanu erupted on the internet, causing not just speculations that the actor was sad and depressed but also in ruthless, interesting memes. The meme ran its length leading to counter memes which showed how different a person Keanu really is. Of course, Keanu, the gentleman that he is, spoke about the incident as one random snippet taken out of context and aligned with the viewer’s interpretation of a troubled celebrity needing help and good jolly. I am not a big fan of Keanu Reeves but I am a big fan of Keanu Reeves. In my mind where I have chance encounters with Keanu, I imagine our conversations to be on death, grief, sadness, and moving on.

I know that losing a loved one is hard, perhaps the worst. Even though I have not lost a loved one, I play this scenario a thousand times over, when I am reeling under the sad effects of depression, and the grief I feel then is real. It is as real as the shock that you receive when you learn that the child you were expecting is a stillborn, or when you learn over a phone call that your father is dead. I remember reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and her precise remembrance of the events leading to the death of her husband, numbing me into a desperate prayer that in the event that I have to witness a death of a loved one, I be prepared.

Because that is the fear you carry for most of your life, one that you are unprepared for, always avoiding it in the positive cheer of the moment, that life will not be that unfair to you. When I received the news of my grandmother’s death, it was a warm January afternoon. The television was on, and I think, I was working on something. Unimportant, now I know, because I cannot seem to remember it. What I remember is the tone of the call, not a meringue-sweet call from a friend, but a turbulent, disturbing, anxious tone, and I knew it in that instant, that my old cancer-stricken grandmother was at last, gone. Forever.

Last week, I was texting a friend late in the evening, when he texted that he had received a call from home. A few minutes later, he texts back – his uncle had passed away. Another friend told me she woke up to the news of her uncle’s death. All of this in a week’s time. None of it was personal, not even close, but the relay of the information, the scarred texts that translate one’s state of mind as they are processing this news and trying to convey it to a person not related to them- that makes it personal, somehow. At least that is what I was thinking when I moved from one page to another in H is for Hawk.

Grief is as common a human experience as joy and happiness are. Researchers attest to the fact that animals and even plants grieve the loss of their nearest kin. It makes sense, to grieve, to allow the entirety of the human spectrum of emotions to rise and rebel against the very structure of the world, which expects us to come to terms with reality at once. It is perhaps, this dance, this terrible affected dance that Macdonald writes about. The loss of her father has pushed her into a state of numbness and she is trying her best to crawl back from the mellowed remains of the past and the only way she believes she can do it, is by training her goshawk Mabel. I believe so too.

There are a couple of deaths that I have never found the courage to write about. One reason being that they were not deaths, mere existence lost, like a memory that once was so rich and vivid, and then the throes of time battering against them, dulling them into nothingness. But, when they happened, I tried to cling onto something that I could easily find. After the first, it was a statistic. After the second, it was the shame. That was the time I read, Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking for the second time, and this time it made more sense. This time, I was as numb as she was when she was writing the book. And, I agreed with her in person and in spirit, when she said that we need more etiquette in the world, especially around people dealing with death and the subsequent grief.

For many years now, as I continue to find my way through depression, on and off, I see that I have lost hope. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, as they say. I do wish I could say with conviction this time next year I would be free of depression, but it may take a year longer, perhaps. The thing is it would be great to know of the timeline, grief’s timeline, because then you can feel hopeful that after this, this brutal cohesive onslaught of pain and suffering, the timeline will shift towards something positive. But, that is where I am wrong. Grief does not come with a timeline, I know now. It is malleable just as much as I am as a person and it responds to us in different ways. Like the eight glasses of water that I am supposed to take every day, the next day does not promise to be as aquatic as the previous day. It is a mere action on a to-do, if done, good, if not done, then so much for it.

Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking,

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

So, when I learned about the sad Keanu meme in 2016, I felt a kinship with him, knowing well that I have sat like him, hands resting on my knees, my face looking down on the earth, and my mind not focused on anything in particular. And, that is what I learned from Joan Didion, you will never be ready for death or its aftermath and that you will be numb through all the formalities and peculiarities of the requirements that follow. Sometimes you would want to soar high in the skies like a goshawk, to look past the approaching frost, and see the sun set, a glowing ball of fire and warmth, dying and taking birth, only in the relative. Just like everything else. And, then sometimes, like in my case, you will swear on the inevitability of the requirement that you will drink eight glasses of water, tomorrow.


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