There’s a section in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse called “Time Passes.” It’s somewhat jarring compared to what comes before, because the people who filled up the novel’s pages are suddenly mere echoes; their deaths—a mother, a daughter, a son—are relegated to brief parenthetical commentary. Things, once beloved, lose their luster and light. Dust accumulates on surfaces. And, indeed, time passes. Emptied out of human form and filled to the brim with inanimate objects, these pages capture so profoundly the quiet vacancy of death. Take this passage, for instance:
What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coasts in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.
The absence of these individuals is magnified in relation to the spaces they filled, the clothes they wore, and the objects they used. In this second year of grief, as disbelief has been replaced by the new realities which have taken root, I keep finding myself face to face with the various things that have been emptied out, both literally and metaphorically, things once “filled and animated” by my mother’s presence: a salt container, a sweater, my kitchen. I feel her absence most, however, with my son. While he talks about my mother now more than ever before—he’s always questioning, narrating and elaborating on “Halmi”—I suspect that he does so increasingly as he remembers less and less. She is an absence around which he walks. He understands that she is, somehow, important, but to him she’s little more than myriad things that she has shed and left behind: this picture, this table, this uncle, this aunt, this mommy. And though, perhaps, his coming-to-be was initially a difficult thing for her to grasp (because it fell so far outside her comfort zone and understanding), watching the two of them love one another became one of my greatest joys and deepest sources of healing. Appropriately, I suppose, watching him reach for memories that are little more than "Halmi" shaped objects has been a source of profound sorrow.
As we find in To the Lighthouse, however, the dead don’t disappear easily. Yes, different rhythms spring up, the house is aired out and new characters move into the foreground while others recede. But those who are absent continue to haunt the pages of the novel; they fill in the gaps; they lie at the center of various visions, motivations and excursions that the remaining characters experience and undertake. And so it is that even in death my mother continues to compel and constrain me. The work of disentangling ourselves from the ties that bind us to one another apparently doesn’t end with death as I naively thought it might. Those cords are still drawn taut across time and within me. And though I am in some ways a little freer to undertake the knotty work of undoing those ties, the loosening and unbinding is still a painful and laborious endeavor. Because, after all, we can’t be chained to the dead forever (Unless, of course, you’re Michonne. Sorry, folks, a little nod to The Walking Dead). Even as we’re loving them, missing them and grieving them, we also move beyond them, like the characters in Woolf’s novel who finally make the trip to the lighthouse sans mother, brother and sister.
Here, at the end of year two, I understand how people who figure so enormously in our lives slowly become parenthetical; we fill up the hollowed out space ( ) of our lives with these reminders of their human shape. They are too vast to be contained so, paradoxically, we shrink them down to make them manageable and deliverable: “This,” we attempt to say, “is my mother. This is your grandmother. This was a woman—flawed, difficult, beloved and alive.” As life tumbles by relentlessly, they become the narrative asides, the how-to-explain-this-thing-about-me-or-you, the anecdotal evidence of the ways that we were lashed together and how, inevitably, we find ourselves lapping at the shores of life again—present and past, ebb and flow, together and alone, moored and adrift, “rising and falling with the sea."