I heard a story last night while at dinner with P. and E. about a young woman who died suddenly and seemingly without cause. While running this morning I listened to Radiolab’s podcast on “Things” that explored (among other things) how it is that we, human beings, are able to devote ourselves to objects – but more importantly, to other people – when we know, and are constantly reminded, of the impermanence of both.
The two stories helped me make more sense of (or maybe complicated?) Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, a memoir that follows Franscico – Frank – as he grieves the death of his wife, Aura, after she dies in a “freak” or “random” accident. While these two threads in the book – grief and the apparent senselessness of her death – weave together (his grief is magnified, he thinks, by the accidental nature of her death; the senselessness of death is magnified by its material influence on those who continue to live), their separation is important – I think – in allowing all readers (and certainly this reader) to put loss into, and out of, scale and perspective.
What do I mean? I mean that because the book thinks about death as both loss *and* impermanence, it lets the reader see the ways we must continuously convince ourselves of the permanence of those we love (and the ways we love them), even while we are confronted, also continuously (and often violently) with the awareness and experience of their (imminent or inevitable) loss.
The book looks at this experience in the grand displays of grief, the bureaucratic consequences of death (lawyers, estates), but also in the mundane and material experience of trying to live in the space formerly occupied by the loved, now dead. It explores the capacity of others to recognize – at the most basic scale of seeing and the more complex of empathy – grief; the urge of others to “fix” and “finish” grief for the grieved; the incapacity of others and society to make space and time for the continuation of loss and the fundamental change to the grieved.
But more than a book about how Frank grieves – much more, really – it is a book about and of Aura. Her life – her liveliness, humour, potential and warmth – “live” on the page (in one of my more cliche descriptions) as character: a superbly drawn, wrenchingly humanized and believable character. The book presents no photos of Aura directly – though it does offer a few traces (shadows) in a way that shows the extent to which the book is not interested in “fixing” Aura in place, not of making her – here in the book – permanent in a way she – and none of us – can ever be, but instead lets her fill the pages and the reader’s imagination with the full force of description, action, belief and dialogue. We know her through the fragments of her writing contained in the book, but what we really know is the Aura Frank experienced. We know her through him and through text and the rendering he offers is simply beautiful.
It is a book worth reading not only for its beautiful writing, its expression of love and its exploration of character, but for its explicit evocation of “relative” scales of grief. Frank knows his loss is not empirically greater, nor his reaction or feelings. What he describes is the absurdity of trying to make such comparisons. Instead the book gives a portrait – a briefly permanent representation – given to each reader, of love, loss, Aura and Franke. It gives to each reader a sort of assurance that here – in words and in the reading of them – we find for the duration of reading a groping towards sense and permanence.