|Photo courtesy of an interview for the VIUPoints feature in a recent issue of Vancouver Island University's online magazine|
I want to say a few words about a very special book I've just finished, and I've decided that rather than attempt to review it, I'll try to explain why it means so much to me -- and also suggest why you might find it meaningful as well. The book is called Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage, and you'll find more information about it by clicking that link to the publisher's website, but perhaps you'll hold off for a few minutes and let me tell you why it matters to me.
Last week, I made the ferry trip over to my old stomping grounds, and I was lucky enough to squeeze in visits with four good friends. One of those visits was with my neighbour of twenty-plus years, an inspiring woman with whom I shared many treading-water chats over the years as we'd wade into the chilly Salish Sea from our beachfront homes. Carol and her husband Mike (whose colleague I eventually became when I joined the local university's English Department) were still in the quaint little hexagonal cabin they'd bought as a getaway from their home in town when we began visiting the cedar cabin we'd bought next door.
Their daughter was already finished university by the time we settled in on the island, but Mike and Carol got to know our older two as they moved through university: Carol helped our oldest craft her application for grad school; both of them taught our second oldest in one of their classes. They watched our younger two move from childhood through adolescence and were wonderful friends and mentors to them through those years and beyond into their adulthood. I'm not sure the "Open-Door Policy" was official nor entirely Mike and Carol's idea, but my kids (and our Golden Retriever at the time) seemed to think so. (And who else would have thought to give an eleven-year-old boy a book of Shakespeare's insults and then encouraged the lively exchange of same, modeled with dramatic flair)?
In fact, when my son and daughter-in-law announced their engagement six winters ago, with plans to marry on our beach that August, I wondered if Mike might consider picking up a marriage commissioner's license; he would have been such a perfect Officiant. Instead, and with shocking speed, Mike fell ill, was diagnosed with cancer, and two months after my son shared his happy news, he sat beside me at our little island's memorial service for Mike, wiping away tears.
And Carol. Carol got through that day remarkably well, considering. She managed a few words, but the "celebration of Mike" was her concession, I think, to an island community that needed to let her know how much her husband had meant to us, that needed a place to mourn his loss. Really, it was too early for Carol, whose grief was still very raw. She and Mike had been married for 47 years, and their relationship was an inspiring one in the interest they still brought to conversations with each other, their collaborative (and regularly--and entertainingly--quibbling) erudition a delight to see and to be included in. Their beachfront home (renovated by now, as had ours been) smelled wonderfully of good food and the faintest hint of Carol's perfume and then the books. Books collected over half a century, but never left to collect dust. One or the other of them would regularly pause, mid-conversation, to hunt for this or that volume, then begin paging urgently in search of a particular corroborating quote, a poem that needed to be read aloud.
So. Carol, alone. . . that was tough for all of us to see, a friend deep in sorrow, a marker of Mike's absence. She watched my son and daughter-in-law's wedding from her own front deck, and I never told her that I'd dreamed of having Mike say the words that would join them together. But sometimes over tea or a glass of wine on her deck or at my dining table, or travelling on the small passenger ferry that took us into town or back, we talked about her loss, her adjustment, about my memory of Mike saying this or that (he loved to grumble about students who "didn't know how to spell their own names," his mock-rants at newfangled spellings of classic monikers), about her latest dream of him being with her, disappearing as she opened her eyes.
And I'd ask her if she was thinking about writing her way through this loss, as she'd written, years earlier, on being diagnosed with, and treated for, breast cancer, in a book that marvellously and inspiringly, folded in the material, physical spirituality of the labyrinth (She returned to write again about labyrinths in Questions for Ariadne: The Labyrinth and the End of Times.)
For the first year, understandably, she wasn't ready, nor the second. At first, the practical tasks. Emptying closets. Sorting accounts. Writing painful letters. Responding to comforting ones. Then the decision to sell, and with it, the huge and hugely emotional task of winnowing. Boxes of books and of correspondence and memorabilia. Finding a home for Mike's papers in an institutional archive that would know their value and keep them available. So many lists, so much work. . .
But Carol is a writer, as was Mike, and gradually, it seems, words began to form on pages, on a computer screen. Guided by C.S. Lewis' claim in A Grief Observed that "Bereavement is not the truncation of married love but one of its regular phases--like the honeymoon," she's written of love and of grief in a manner both intensely personal, concrete, and particular, but also relevant and illuminating to all who have faced the loss of a loved one or to those of us who wonder how we might weather such a loss to come. Even for those of you who didn't know Mike, didn't see how he and Carol were as a couple, this slim volume might invoke tears. But it's also surprisingly funny, heart-warming, and it's infused with Carol's wisdom, her fascination with etymology, her wide reading.
She meditates, for example, on the dual meaning of "cleave." That a husband may cleave to his wife (and vice versa) in marriage, but that death can cleave the couple as an axe cleaves a log. She marvels, with some wistfulness but also some awe, that she can see Mike again the way she did in their honeymoon years, that the distance and the longing she experiences in bereavement mean that she appreciates him from a fresh, if often painful, perspective.
And all of this meditating and marvelling is done in a sort of epistolary form: she addresses Mike directly throughout. What becomes very clear through this intimacy is that while we, the eavesdropping reader, note that Carol recovers herself, that she "carries on" with life, Mike is still and always with her. We watch her find strength in herself to take on tasks that Mike had always looked after, see her picking up her social life, becoming involved again with community volunteer work, even travelling solo to Montreal, making the trip they'd done so often together.
Carol writes this so much more eloquently than I do, but here's the nub of the book for me and for anyone who worries about how they might cope after the death of a partner: She carries on solo as well as she does because Mike is still with her. Bereaved, she is still his wife; he is still her husband. She cleaves to him even after they have been cleft apart. She draws her strength for moving in the world without him from knowing how he loved her, seeing herself through his eyes, remembering his advice and his wisdom and his humour.
I sense myself on the verge of maudlin here, so I'll stop and transcribe these few words from a card I sent Carol last week: The book is wonderful -- I'm
Let me close, now, with a few words from Carol, her answer to a question posed during this interview
Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of a Marriage is published by Oolichan Press, a small (well-respected) literary press here in BC. Their website does not have an online shop yet, although they suggest that if you're unable to find the book elsewhere, you can email and arrange to have them send you a copy. I've ordered a copy through Chapters/Indigo and I see it's available through Amazon as well. My preference is always for an independent bookseller, who, if they haven't a title in stock, will often order it for you. . .
(This early post of mine features a number of Carol's earlier books.)