Bonnie-Kate Walker

Holding Weight


ISSUE 14 | INNOCENCE | MAR 2012

Let’s imagine you’re walking in the woods, and suddenly the ground gives way beneath one of your steps, and you fall. You fall down a cave, a sinkhole, a crevasse, something—something deep and dark. When you fall, it’s completely sudden. You don’t even really understand that you’re falling, not until after you hit the bottom. The wind is completely knocked out of you. You can’t breathe or move. You’re convinced every bone in your body is broken. It’s dark, you’re alone, and you know there’s no way you’ll survive. Then you realize, as the feeling creeps back into your limbs and you begin to breathe again, that you are going to get out. You’ll survive. And at that moment, it’s a hideous thought. It’s going to be so painful and hard to climb up. It’s going to take so long, you’ll have to do it all alone. It would be so much easier to just lie there in peace, but instead you know with such certainty that you will, out of sheer human will to live, climb out. You didn’t ask for that will, it doesn’t mean you’re exceptionally strong or exceptionally capable, it just means you’re human and you can’t get out of it. You will force yourself, against your own desire, to get up.

Tragedy is the falling, grief is the climbing out.

On Tragedy and Innocence

By making you the victim, tragedy grants you innocence. By robbing you of your ability to change the situation, tragedy frees you from guilt. It allows you to feel entitled, entitled to your bubble of pain.

The day my father’s plane crashed, a year ago on March 26th, I was nine years old again. Sitting on the stairs, forehead resting on the railing, watching grown-ups come and go. I sat there so long, I was so still.

There are a lot of clichés about tragedy. Some are true and some are false, most are grossly insufficient for whatever emotion they attempt to describe. One such cliché is the idea that tragedy robs its victim of her innocence. That by experiencing something tragic, you’ve learned something about the world and its ways which renders you jaded and calloused. This may be one of the effects of the slow process of grieving, but tragedy when it strikes is something entirely different. It enables innocence and purity. In order for an event to be interpreted as tragic, there must be victims and they must believe in their innocence. I was useless and thoughtless, my comprehension of the people and the things they said to me plummeted. I was incapable of decision-making, I was a child.

But if tragedy engenders innocence, grief demands agency.

On Grief and Agency

Grief’s story is that of the cruel irony of empowerment. Whatever tragedy takes from its victim, grief gives back. They function in opposite ways, have opposite effects on the mind and body—but both have an equally significant impact on an individual. Tragedy is sudden, jarring. It has the effect of whiplash. Your muscles are suddenly sore and weak, your head hurts, your mind is fuzzy and there’s a constant pain in your chest. All at once, you are launched unceremoniously into a circumstance you didn’t create, and your behavior is suddenly out of your control. It’s all fast, and it’s all bad.

Grief, on the other hand, is slow and careful. And though it moves you in the opposite direction towards health and normalcy, it’s just as painful as the rapid plummet of tragedy for the slow speed at which it moves. Your regular day-to-day begins to return, but you’re much worse at carrying it out. Responsibilities lingering from your pre-tragedy past life remain. You start to feel healthier, and laugh and talk again, but you hate yourself for it. In fact, you hate the distance that’s being put between you and what happened, you hate that time just keeps passing and you keep getting better.

Grief forces you to act on your pain, and move in a direction. It’s cruel, the way it makes you move when you don’t want to, when you can’t. But it forces you to realize that you can, and you hate it. It’s like when your leg falls asleep, and you try so hard to keep it totally still as the tingling feeling sets in, then before it’s ready something forces you to shake it back to normal. Grief makes you miss being the victim. Because when you were the victim, you didn’t have to get a job or make yourself tea or get in arguments about dishes. Grief makes all of those things incredibly difficult, but it doesn’t excuse you from them.

Father’s Day always fell around my dad’s birthday. This year, it was a weekend 1-2 punch. I started drinking on Friday. I packed my weekend with activity; I refused to leave a moment unplanned. When I woke up Monday morning I burst into tears. I’d thrown it away, the one weekend of the year when I would have license to be the victim again. I had a tiny space in which I could return to the tragedy bubble, where I could lie in bed and no one would ask me for anything and I was responsible for nothing, and I ignored it. I failed to use the license I desperately wanted to have every day of every week.

Returning to tragedy provides a relief from grief’s active state. Once you’re in the grief grind, you remember what it was like to sit and watch the chaos passively, knowing that no action was required of you. Tragedy sucks your strength and renders you incapable of carrying anything at all. Then grief has a way slowly loading life back on you. Choices, relationships, and life changes get stuffed into your pockets and balanced on your shoulders. With each addition you unwittingly prove to yourself that you can carry more weight.

I’ve been holding that weight for almost a year. It is with exhaustion and acquiescence that I realize I’ll be able to carry much more of it, forever.

Tragedy is indulgently painful, and grief is insufferably empowering.

Grief is what makes the themes in your life suddenly revolve around the tragedy. Every interaction or situation—every party, every road trip, every dream, etc.—is enveloped in a very personal and private experience of grief. Themes emerge: guilt, loneliness, selfishness, pain, damage, baggage, and loss, to name a few. No event is isolated and they all build on each other—an architecture of time passing, of individual healing.

On Silence

I got a dog. There were a lot of reasons and none of them were logical but I got him and he is perfect. And he doesn’t ask me questions and I don’t want him to ask me questions and I don’t get mad that he’s not asking me questions. I like the way he looks at me and I like the way he needs me. I like the way he shields me from attention and gives me a focal point for my interactions with the outside world, which is hard to find when you’re so deep in your own head. At first, I liked how people would use him to channel their sympathy for me. They would gush and I would absorb, silently, knowing that “he’s so perfect, this is a wonderful decision” meant “I’m so sorry about your dad, and I want to be supportive of you.” I liked that silent dialogue.

Other people will never know what to say and they will always think it’s better to say nothing at all. Even if they are family or friends, they will look you in the eye and be afraid of you, of your pain, and they will leave you to fend for yourself in your grief space, because they don’t belong there. I know they don’t belong there. I don’t invite them in. I watched my best friend cry, I watched her hurt for me, for him, for herself and her own situation. I wanted to talk to her, to be present for her, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t be. I was alone and I forced that on her. It alienated her, it alienated me—it made me feel worthless and selfish. I will long for a meaningful touch or a genuine question from a visiting cousin, I will sob when no one brings it up on holidays. But other people do not belong here and I will not invite them in, because “grief is what tells you who you are alone.”1

We had a silent dialogue too, Captain and I. We would chew on toys and we would lie on the floor and we would lick each other’s faces and know that the world wasn’t right or wrong or predestined or anyone’s fault, the world was just the two of us at the park, the two of us in the bed, the two of us on the beach or at a party. We were just present, and that was all the world required of us. Now, I like him for being the one that forces me to keep climbing, so I don’t have the responsibility of forcing myself. Instead of hating myself for getting better, I can tell myself another story through him. A story that says I have to be better because I have to be someone’s everything, and that’s not my fault or my burden. He has to grow up. I have to enable that. I have to be well to do that. It’s okay, Bonnie Kate, to feel better because you have to. It’s always easier to do something you don’t want to do if someone else needs you to do it.

On Being Alone

The food sat untouched, except for a dollop of baked spinach gratin on each plate that I had placed there so no one would see that I had burned it, and I could leave the buttery cheesy brown mess in some soap and hot water for an easier clean. My brother and I sat there, urging mom not to eat until my other brother emerged from his room. She was sure we shouldn’t make it such a big deal. It was a dinner fight. We have these. But it was different because when my brother’s new fiancée came down the stairs teary-eyed to confront the issue head-on, she had no idea that she was twisting off the cap of a very, very shaken-up bottle. She had a right to be upset, but she was talking to a group of people who, in their very private, personal ways, had been struggling day after day to keep their pain to themselves. She decided to confront us about the ways we made her feel uncomfortable. I wonder if she knew that by opening these floodgates of emotional discomfort, our pain and loneliness and sorrow and fear and anger would come pouring out.

My brothers and I don’t talk about my dad’s death. It’s not how we deal with it (or don’t). We all need each other to heal, and we all blame each other at the same time. We blame one another for the outlets we each chose for our grief, and that they weren’t compatible. I blame one brother for enveloping himself in his relationship, I blame the other for obsessing over the business we inherited. They both blame me for abandoning the family and moving to California. I blame them for not understanding why I had to. They blame me for not looking for support. I blame them for not being my father. It hurts me that I’m alone, and it hurts them that I chose to be so.

With each confession, our opinions about what was happening erupted. The conversation became a venue for all of our anger, building over a year since we were all the victims together. I was crazed. When the conversation started I got up and walked to the kitchen. One beer. Two. I didn’t know I could drink Coors this fast without shotgunning. Three. My brother rolled his eyes, got up from the table, stated his brief opinion on the shallowness of my problems, and began to leave. It was the last straw. I lunged at him, fists flailing, he grabbed me and held me until I stopped. Sobbing, I wriggled out and ran upstairs. Gasping for breath, I realized I hadn’t felt this way since tragedy. I thought of hugs and pats on the back, of arms around the shoulder and a supportive hand on my hand. I cringed in revulsion at them all. With swollen eyes, I took a valium and prayed that no one would ever touch me again.

Grief requires you to experience it uniquely, alone. I sat at a table with three other people, searched in their eyes for shared pain, and realized there was nothing in the way they were feeling that I could share with them. I knew them intimately, from day one. We all lost the same person, the same role. I want desperately to experience their pain. It will not happen. Though we have each other for the rest of our lives, in grief we are all alone.

On Fear

I was driving back from dinner in Berkeley with two friends. I smelled burning all of a sudden. It was suffocating, like the smell of burning rubber or chemicals. I’d smelled it before, when I crunched my brother’s car into a telephone pole in high school. It was the smell of a crash, so distinctly. The wave of emotion that ran through me was wholly irrational. I was filled with the certainty that the car was going to explode. It’s like my body remembered that smell and everything about a crash surged up inside me. My body remembered the plane crash and I wasn’t even there. My body just knew how it smelled. So I swerved to the side and made everyone get out and step away. It was an overreaction. I was so surprised when it didn’t explode. I was shocked. I called my brothers, I called Triple A. Finally we just got back in and I drove home and I was trying so hard to stay calm. They say that your sense of smell is most connected to the part of your brain where memories are stored. The smell that reminded me of my car crash made suddenly cognizant of the physical reality of what my dad’s plane crash must have looked like, felt like, sounded like, smelled like. When I got in bed and I was alone in the dark, my body began to convulse with fear and sadness and memory.

I was never afraid before and now I’m afraid of everything. I can’t climb trees or walk to the edge of tall things. I don’t like driving fast in cars or really driving at all. I’m afraid for myself and I’m afraid for everyone else. When I receive a phone call, I always think someone at the other end is going to tell me something happened. I wake up panicked and sweating from nightmares of tornadoes or floods or freak accidents. I was never this way before. I was never a lot of things before. But that’s part of what grief does, it creates a new person out of you. It defines who you’ll be from here out. And whether you liked your pre-tragedy self or not, that person is gone now and you can’t be them anymore.

On Irreparable Damage

I was what you would call a remarkably lucky person. I remember when I was little my dad used to ask me “how are you so cute?” or “how are you so smart?” or “how are you so perfect?”, and I would respond, “just lucky I guess,” every time. It was as if that play dialogue set the stage for my life’s role. I always believed it. So it was always this way. I was the kind of person who got things like a tank of gas or breakfast bought by strangers, or for whom the timing of things always worked out perfectly. I got every job I applied for, every award that I wanted. I was always elected to the positions I ran for, and cast in the parts I auditioned for. I rolled through life with ease, and I was even aware of it. I noticed it all the time. I noticed how remarkably easy things usually were for me, and chalked it up to luck combined with the social capital of being a white, upper-middle class, American female. But I always knew it and I was always grateful.

Being lucky was the story I chose to tell myself. We all have one. Mine was the lucky story. But I can’t tell that story anymore. Someone once asked me if it would be better to be born blind or to go blind later in life. I said I would rather be born blind, because then I would develop a totally different consciousness that interprets the world; whereas if I lose my sight later in life, I would just feel bereft. Now I’m the perfect example of that. I know what I was like before. I know people loved me. I know that I was charismatic and carefree and fun. I know that I was ambitious, that I had dreams I would’ve achieved, that I was inspired. I was supremely gifted by God or society or the imperialism of the Western world or what have you. I had the world. Now it’s different. Though it’s getting to the point where I can remember what it’s like to be that and go through the motions, I’m not that person. A note I wrote a few months after the crash captures a grim dichotomy between the two images of myself:

i don’t spread any joy because i don’t have any. i don’t draw other people to me because there’s nothing for them to be drawn to. i’m insecure, debilitatingly insecure—i didn’t even know what that was like. before, i had something that allowed me to always be satisfied, to constantly love where i am and what i’m doing, and get whatever i need to be where i want to be. it’s not like that anymore. i don’t feel strong or proud. i don’t feel beautiful, or smart. i don’t feel successful. i get nervous around other people. i sense what they see in me, because i know what it was like to sense something totally different. when i hear how i try to communicate now, with no clarity or confidence, i’m so disappointed, because i know what it was like to glide through my sentences, espousing beliefs and professing my convictions. i hate the way other people look at me now, with such indifference, because i remember seeing such engagement, such interest before.

What is most telling about this snapshot from my mind is not my unhappiness, but the inability to reconcile the person I was with the person I will be from now on. Grief is not a process of getting over it or getting back to normal. It’s a process of figuring out a new story to tell yourself. The confusion and disappointment expressed in that excerpt stem most from not knowing what my new story will be. My personality, habits, and spirit have been a result of the myriad of people and events in my life which lent to my development. I’m someone else now that my father’s influence is gone, and in its place is the grief which my new self must manage. Just as his presence influenced the person I was, his absence and memory influence the person I am now. I need a new story, because I can’t just be lucky.

On Loss

Tragedy, mercifully, is temporally determined. It’s defined by its proximity to the event. So it doesn’t really let it sink, it doesn’t force you to notice the change in your long-term, real-time life. Grief, on the other hand, shoves it in your face—hourly, daily, weekly. Major life changes bring on secondary effects, effects on your personality and your happiness and behavior, the effect they have on others, changes to your environment. But there’s a primary significance to the change as well—the way the change plays out in practice. When someone dies, he disappears. That person will no longer complete his obligations, be present when he would have been, see or hear or interact with you. I used to dread falling asleep because I hated dreaming about my dad. I hated waking up and feeling like I had invented a little piece of him, I had put words in his mouth that he never said. I worried that with every dream version of him, my memory of my real dad got murkier—muddled with my subconscious creations.

A person’s absence permeates every activity. Even when you’re not thinking about it, it seeps through your insecurities and the changes in your personality. It cradles your fear and unhappiness. It’s always there at different levels of the surface. It hurts but in the way that something is just wrong with the world, like global warming or fundamentalism. The kind of wrong that just exists.

Grief, not tragedy, taught me that my dad will never call me on the phone, tell me his opinion, kiss me on the head, laugh at the quirks I developed, be impressed with me, be judgmental of me, scold me for not taking care of my car, buy me things I need, come to my graduation, teach me how to play guitar, watch a movie with me, dance with me at my wedding, be a grandfather to my children, tell me what good business looks like, tell me what to do with my life, tell me anything at all, find me the perfect Christmas present, find me a terrible Christmas present, come visit me in California, make fun of the fact that I’m living in California, help me with my taxes, disapprove of my living situations, meet anyone I ever date, watch any performance I ever do, ask me to come home for Easter, pay for my school, grow old, tell me I’m too skinny, tell me I look like a hippy, hear me sing him a song, feel physical pain when I’m injured, or take me flying and tell me to stare at the sunset while he spins the plane and we go whirling around and I scream with joy and surprise.

1Gail Caldwell, Let’s Take The Long Way Home, pg. 8.