November, 1999 (Oh, What A Night)

More personal stuff / grief stuff / Lisa stuff below the fold. Don’t click through unless you like that sort of thing.

Tonight is the twentieth anniversary of the night that Lisa and I met. November 10, 1999. We used to talk about marking the occasion with a trip to Boston, maybe sucking up a Scorpion Bowl at the Hong Kong for auld lang syne. (Big sigh.) This post will have to do.

I know, I’ve told our Origin Story more times than Sony’s told Spider-man’s: when we got married, weaving truth with fiction in our fake New York Times “Vows” column; on LiveJournal, with the complete “flying car” story in all its strangeness; in my eulogy at her funeral; and a hundred times in between. Well, I’m not going to apologize for that. It’s the best single thing that ever happened to me, and surely I can dwell on it, tonight of all nights.

I can picture 1999 Lisa perfectly. Well, maybe not perfectly (see below: memory is slippery), but vividly. She had short, punky hair then, and cool 90s-girl cat-eye glasses, and that night she was wearing a flattering (read: tight) sweater that I later learned she called her “boob sweater.” When I claimed to be scandalized by this revelation, she said, “Well, it worked, didn’t it? You noticed me.” I said, with all the indignation I could feign, “I noticed your cool glasses!”

We talked about bananas and exactly how ripe we liked them, and an assignment she’d given her students to design a theme park about some aspect of U.S. history. Then “December, 1963” came on, and she asked me if I wanted to dance. You know the song, though you probably know it as “Oh, What A Night”:

oh what a night
you know I didn’t even know her name
but I was never gonna be the same
what a lady, what a night

When I told our friend Dilys that was the song, she mocked Lisa and I for being “so wholesome.” Why wouldn’t our Origin Story be wholesome?

*  *

I’ve been reading books and memoirs on grief, as you do, and here’s the thing: a lot of them are NOT SAD ENOUGH. I guess what happens is, someone suffers some terrible loss, and they start writing about it to gain some perspective, and over time they heal a bit, and eventually they write a book, and in the process, maybe they find some measure of peace and optimism and try to share it with others who might be going through the same thing. (Brené Brown says we live in a “Gilded Age of failure,” where we fetishize recovery stories for their reassuring endings and wave away their terrible middles.) And then someone like me picks up that book, with its tempered optimism and its hard-won wisdom and and its soft-focus photo of a sunset on the cover. And I read it and think: You POSER. You fucking TOURIST. Obviously you never loved your person, if you feel this much better already.

(I’m looking at you, Liz Gilbert, and your coming-to-terms-with-grief book that isn’t even out yet.)

Which is why I so appreciated C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, the short, at times brutal, memoir he published under a pseudonym after his wife’s death from cancer. In the first few chapters at least, Lewis is blown apart. He doesn’t care about anything. He shuts out his friends. He scorns his church, curses his God. (Now, if he’s having a crisis of faith anyway, you might think he’d let Susan return to Narnia—but I digress.) True, by the end of the memoir, Lewis has come to a kind of equilibrium, a suspended solution of faith and despair. But those first few chapters? Yeah, they’re the stuff.

It’s not just me that judges grief stories in this way. Madeleine L’Engle wrote the foreword to one edition of A Grief Observed, and she still can’t stop herself from interjecting: just so you know, Lewis and Joy Davidman were only married for three years before she died; I lost my husband after forty years of marriage. In other words: you poser, Clive, you tourist. Even in the foreword to his memoir, she’s pulling rank on whose grief was harder. Hee.

Anyway, Lewis has a great discussion—and by great I mean awful, and by awful I mean absolutely dead-on, 100% accurate—of trying to remember his wife as she was, and the horror of knowing that memory shifts and lies and can never be frozen, and that every single time he remembers her, his memories become more fiction and less fact:

Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. … The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me. …


Slowly, quietly, like snowflakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again.


What pitiable cant to say, ‘She will live forever in my memory!’ Live? That is exactly what she won’t do.

There are moments when I cannot believe Lisa is gone. Please don’t worry about how I’m coping, how the kids and I are getting on: we’re eating, we’re showering, we’re getting to school. But at times, I literally cannot comprehend, cannot make myself believe, that she is dead. Or, I can’t comprehend that I am alive, and not her. Surely—surely!—it ought to be the other way around. Again, don’t freak out: I don’t mean that one of us “deserved” to live more than the other, or anything like that. In cancer, there are no “deserves.” I just mean, between her and me: who was more alive? Be honest, now. Who was more part of this world? Who loved more and cried more and felt more? Who gathered people around her and made things happen? Who felt the breeze in her hair and squished the earth between her toes, while I, I don’t know, answered a few emails? You see? There has been a grave mistake.

Lewis writes about wondering, “What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember.” I don’t know if I should post this or not. I want to share, I want to let people in, but I don’t want you all to read this and feel bad. We are OK. We are getting by. I am completing the tasks that need to be completed. I just feel… washed out, transparent, pixellated, concussed. Like I’m not really here. Like a ghost. Like everything from here on out is just epilogue. Certainly, I know I today am not half as real as that girl in the tight sweater and the cool glasses, that night in 1999. And Lewis laments the years his wife never got to live: “Nothing would have been wasted on her. She liked more things and liked them more than anyone I have known.” Yes. Exactly. And exactly like Lisa. Chapter Two Clive gets it.

* *

I wrote most of the above on Thursday night, then left it to cool on the windowsill as I decided whether it was too personal to post. On Friday morning, we’re all running around getting ready for school, after the first real snowfall of the season (“like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night”), and the kids make it to the bus and I’m putting on boots to shovel the driveway and I see that Yuki’s forgotten her clarinet, which she needs for a test that morning. So I grab the clarinet, run out and start the car to defrost the windshield and poison the atmosphere a bit while I finish digging it out, and guess what song starts on the radio, the instant the power comes on?

I’ll give you a hint: it was a bouncy little nu-wop throwback from 1975, a surprise hit for the Four Seasons a decade after their heyday.

So I sat there in the driver’s seat, in the dark little igloo of the still snow-covered car, thinking as the song played: “Oh, so that’s how we’re going to play it, Lisa? Eerie coincidences? Apophenia and pareidolia? Are you really so determined this blog post must have an uplifting ending?” And trying not to tap my toes.

In one of the later chapters of A Grief Observed—the ones Madeleine L’Engle and I remain suspicious of—Lewis says, “Looking back, I see that only a very little time ago I was greatly concerned about my memory of H. and how false it might become. For some reason … I have stopped bothering about that. And the remarkable thing is that, since I have stopped bothering about it, she seems to meet me everywhere.”

We’ll see, Clive.