Mourning

All posts tagged Mourning

On talking to the dead.

Published April 14, 2015 by mandileighbean

Friday, April 10, 2015 marked 90 years since the publication of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the novel that essentially changed my life by confirming the kind of woman – the kind of human being – I wanted to be.

I couldn’t let such an occasion, such an anniversary; pass without some kind of commemoration.

So I drove three hours and 40 minutes to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland.  I drove down I-95, which I have become so accustomed to that traversing that interstate is painfully boring.  I had my iPod blaring, but my mind was essentially blank, other than lingering upon the object of my affection and then Gatsby and then back again.  The object of my affection tried countless times to convince me of similarities between him and Jay Gatsby, of which there are admittedly a few.  We sent each other text messages late into the night while watching the film adaptation of the novel, discussing themes and characterization and life.  I only knew the novel was published on April 10th because of this man.  Gatsby was (is?) our thing.  So now, perhaps unfortunately, the fictional world of Jay Gatsby and my first heartbreak are inextricably linked forever and ever, amen.

Maybe that realization, that my favorite book is forever tainted by the inevitable disappointment of romance, made me somber and weird inside, but I was certainly reserved as I pulled into the church’s parking lot.  I parked in the further possible spot, closer to the adjacent school than the actual cemetery, but did so for no discernible reason.  In hindsight, I supposed I wanted to be ignored and inconspicuous, didn’t want to be a nuisance of any kind.  That notion seems laughable though, especially when I consider how absurd I must have looked, emerging from a piece of shit car – part of my front bumper is missing – in a fancy black dress too elegant and too formal for the impromptu graveside visit, with a fancy black coat that made me sweat but offered respite from the persistent mist.  I was alone, as always, and walking around aimlessly.  I’m sure I looked out of place and had anyone been around, I’m sure they would have chalked me up to some kind of weirdo.  To be fair, I guess that’s exactly what I am.

The entrance to the cemetery is across from a sign that reads, “BEAN BLVD.”  That cannot be coincidence; I don’t care what kind of logic is thrown at me.

I saw a gate, but it was small and unremarkable, so I assumed there must be a main gate somewhere, adorned with ironwork and a plaque or a sign – something.  Looking around furtively, worried I might just be trespassing, I followed the low, wrought iron fence around the perimeter of the cemetery but found no other entrance.  I traced my way back, which maybe took all of two minutes as the cemetery is rather small, to that first gate.  The latch, with its peeling paint, was worn enough to almost be rendered ineffective.  I considered it a particularly cruel kind of irony that this humble, rather shabby cemetery serves as the final resting place of the man who imagined Gatsby and the extravagant, opulent world in which that character existed.  I sighed and opened the gate, gingerly lifting the decrepit latch and gently shutting the gate behind me.

The grave was incredibly easy to find, partly because the cemetery is so small and partly because his marker is so large.  It’s off to the right of the short, winding path that just ends through the tiny, enclosed area.  I followed it, careful not to tread on the hallowed ground of those resting eternally, but had to leave the path eventually.  My heels sank into the soggy ground and I berated myself for my inconvenient melodramatics.  But then I faced Fitzgerald’s grave.

It’s a simple headstone.  It has his name, the years in which he lived and breathed and made the literary world a far better place.  His wife’s name is below, as are her years of existence.  Perpendicular and impressive is a stone slab that bears the last lines of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, the work that is often considered the great American novel.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I was the only one mourning and paying homage to a brilliant and destructive man, but I hadn’t been the only one.  There was evidence of other grievers.  There was a bloated, yellowed with the age, rain-soaked paperback copy of The Great Gatsby.  I leaned close and found it was open to pages 116 and 117, where Nick warns Jay that the past cannot be repeated, but Jay is deaf and insistent.  “Can’t repeat the past?  Why, of course you can.  Of course you can.”

There was a sodden bouquet of roses, decimated by the rain, soaked and scattered, looking especially tragic and mournful.  Perhaps the passage and gray skies and the cemetery added to that impression.

There were many pens, an obvious but touching nonetheless tribute to an insanely talented author.

There were many pennies, what I mistakenly assumed was an Irish tradition until I took to Google.  Coins are left on graves for many reasons, but there are three reasons that appear to be the most common.  One reason dates back to Greek mythology, and coins are left as payment for the ferryman that transported souls across the river Styx.  The second is related to the military and dictates that leaving certain coins is evidence of a particular relationship.  For example, pennies are left by any living soldier visiting a veteran’s grave while nickels are left only by those who attended boot camp with the deceased.  The third reason is to simply leave evidence that one visited and was there.  How narcissistic is that, having to leave proof of our existence at the proof of another’s existence?

My favorite token was a small bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey with an accompanying shot glass.  Next year when I make the trip, I plan on bringing daisies – though I despise the fictional Daisy Buchanan I completely understand what it is she represents, as despicable as it is – and a bottle of gin or some other antiquated kind of alcohol.  I plan on having some shots and hanging out for a decent amount of time, telling Fitzgerald how much I admire him, how much many admire him, and that I hope heaven allows for him to see how important he has become.

Much like the title character of his greatest literary achievement, Fitzgerald died alone and in obscurity.  Apparently the priest who presided over his funeral services did not even know who Fitzgerald was.  Fitzgerald considered himself a failure, and drank himself to death, falling dead in the apartment of his girlfriend, some tabloid reporter that he may have shacked up with to aid his dwindling screenwriting career in cruel, unforgiving Hollywood.

I devoured Gatsby when I was fourteen years old.  I have read it at least once a year since, and have convinced myself that I am Gatsby.  And as I stood at Fitzgerald’s grave, pondering the possible autobiographical content of his greatest novel, I realized that therein lies the magic of the novel; we are all Gatsby.  We all want too much and at times, we can want to reclaim some version of our former selves, tirelessly and obsessively chasing after some enchanted object that we think will fix everything.  We are continuously disappointed, but we keep right on chasing, reaching in everlasting desperation.

I thought Philip Roth had it right, that the real human tragedy is that we are all woefully unprepared for tragedy.  Now I think Fitzgerald was right, that the real human tragedy is that we are never satisfied.  We want too much.

I said a few prayers, thanked him, and empathized with the dead author.  I explained that I was a writer and that I feared my talent – if I may be so arrogant in insisting that I have some – would go undiscovered.  I told him I was afraid of dying alone, of having absolutely no one to mourn at my graveside, let alone any fans.  I delicately turned the pages of the soaked novel, carefully turning pages made nearly transparent by the rain and other elements.  I turned to the part where Nick pays Gatsby the sole compliment of their friendship, when he tells Gatsby that Daisy and Tom and Jordan are a rotten crowd, and that Gatsby is worth the whole damn bunch put together.  Nick is glad he said that, even though he disapproved of Gatsby from the beginning to the end.  It is a beautiful sort of sentiment, and I wondered if Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, had a friend in the end who got someone for him.  I softly kissed my fingertips and let them trail along the cold stone as I began the brief walk out of the cemetery, back to my piece of shit car, parked suspiciously outside the adjacent Catholic school like some kind of inappropriate joke made in poor taste.

I drove back home, traveling for four hours, stopping to eat at McDonald’s and then almost immediately wanting to die as the food upset my stomach terribly.

Despite the bizarre and spontaneous nature of the trip, the irritating traffic and uncomfortable way the greasy, cheap food sank in my stomach, the trip was inspiring.  I began to develop an idea for a third novel.

And it’s all thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  So I will return again and again to give thanks and pay homage because he communicated universal truths without restraint.  He was unashamedly who he was, embracing his genius and his insecurities and his worth and his faults all simultaneously.  Fitzgerald was wonderfully and beautifully human and wrote to be inclusive, to help everyone understand that we are all guilty, that we are all beautiful and deserving of love, that we can all be great.  We all reach out, trembling, for the green light.

And it’s okay.

fitzgrave

On remembering and being thankful.

Published December 29, 2014 by mandileighbean

“Death ends life, not a relationship.”

– Robert Benchley

A beautiful and brilliant man once asked me if I knew what the poet Robert Frost said about life.  Embarrassed, I had to admit that no, I did not.  He told me that Robert Frost said that it goes on; life goes on.  I could only agree because it is a fact and who am I to argue with Robert Frost?  The conversation continued as both he and I commiserated about those minor tragedies and somewhat larger frustrations that so often plague humans as time passes and as life goes on.  I did not give his words much thought.

Until today.

A year ago today, I wrote a blog post which was viewed over 1,000 times, which seems impressive when one considers my average views rarely top 20.  However, that statistic becomes decidedly less impressive when one realizes the views came from mourners and I did nothing creative or noble or bold or entertaining.  I lamented the loss of a wonderful woman and inspiring colleague.  I am glad, and I supposed I could even say proud, that those words offered comfort and empathy to those who were suffering the pangs of such a shocking and brutal kind of grief.  But time steadily marched on, as it always has and always will, and the post, those words were forgotten as acceptance and healing and coping began.  I thought about the absence of my colleague nearly every day since then, rubbing the charm on the Alex & Ani bracelets we purchased in memory of her, but the post and what I had written never really crossed my mind.

And that realization particularly strikes me because since her passing, I have been able to understand her in ways I never thought I would, or even could.  I now teach in her classroom, two sections of the Honors program she built and perfected.  The task is daunting and I constantly worry that I’ll disappoint.  There’s always a special kind of pressure for an alumna who returns to her alma mater to teach, and that is excruciatingly increased when that same teacher is asked to fill the shoes of a beloved, intelligent teacher who passed suddenly.  On the bad days, when the lesson plan goes awry and I feel stupid and small and incompetent, I sometimes silently curse her because I childishly wish she were still here for the selfish, awful reason of relieving me of a burden.  Luckily, those selfish, bad days that I am greatly ashamed of are few and far between.

More often than not, I raise my eyes to the sky and send her a prayer of thanks.  This woman, who is no longer with us, is continuing to make her presence felt – is continuing to teach and inspire.  This year, I am taxed with teaching works I have not read nor studied, the first of which was Hard Times by Charles Dickens.  I should tell you that Charles Dickens was never a favorite of mine.  I considered him overrated, tediously verbose and a generally uninspired writer.  I shared in my students’ misery as we began to read and analyze the prose together, but then something wonderful happened.  We all grew to love the work; our seminars were intellectual and passionate.  The students became more cultured with such a staggering work under their belts, and I became a better teacher – I discovered that I could be an example for my students and that I could not groan nor complain when faced with an unfamiliar work, but had to persevere and connect with it to entice myself to analyze and interpret all it had to offer.  And I only learned this because my dearly departed colleague added the novel to the curriculum.  In true teacher fashion, she challenged a student to rise to the occasion.

Being in her room and sharing some of her experiences, I am seeing life in a new way and for the most part, doing so has made me extremely happy, has made me extremely appreciative and grateful for the opportunity to work in a field which I treasure, and to do so with people who are kind and generous and patient and enjoyable.  I am finally beginning to feel more like a woman instead of an insecure teenager who would much rather run into her bedroom and cry into her pillow while blasting melodramatic music when things get rough and the road gets rocky.  All of this I owe to Tara Gardner, and so this is not a weepy, “in memorial” piece.  This is a thank you letter to a woman who passed a year ago, but whose life was so full and vibrant and inspiring that her legacy is very much alive and those who care to will absolutely benefit from it.

I think back to the beautiful, brilliant man and what he told me.  And I suppose that yes, life does go on.  But I don’t think it does so thoughtlessly, marching like a cold solider across a barren burning field of battle.  Life goes on because it has to, because there are things to be learned, experiences to be valued, love to be lost and won and shared and forgotten, people to hold and scold and remember fondly.  And, I think, because those we have loved and lost wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you, Tara Gardner.  You are loved and missed, but please know that you are still teaching and that you are still doing so with amazing skill.

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