Listen to this text
I guard against its proximity. I can turn any direction and it’s there. But I am turning so continuously, I am so disciplined, that the loss can’t get close to me. All those faces in their small squares. Messages in the inbox. The shudder of my phone when a text arrives. I have three communities: unhoused people, poets, and elderly Christians. They are all dying. They are dying so rapidly, I can barely account for who is dead and who is not.
I always thought that death was less a departure than the responsibility of saying goodbye. But when it’s not possible to say goodbye? When Facebook offers a vivid photograph and a flat statement: dead. An email says: dead. The text says, “Call me as soon as you can.” I hesitate to respond knowing what it means.
I do an email search to find photos of a dead friend and a dead mentor. I discover messages from both in my Drafts folder. I’d forgotten to actually click send. Their ready gestures of conversation and my inattention. The failed message is the message: what I retrieve is what I can no longer send.
When no one, anymore, responds to the text, to the phone call, to the social media message because no one is left to respond.
Obama phones. This is what my unhoused friends called their cell phones. Every couple of months, some company would arrive at the soup kitchen to sign people up and give them a phone. Unhoused people are notoriously hard to find. Against explicit instructions from my employer, I offered my number to everyone and started typing their numbers into my contacts.
Still, a phone is an unreliable conduit — you can’t use it when you are in jail, or your camp’s been ransacked, or the police came with a dumpster and threw everything away while you were off getting food, having sex, or seeing a doctor. I scroll through my contact list: four, sometimes five, entries for single individuals whose numbers change each time they get a new Obama phone. And now, the double bewilderment — I look at a name and ask, “Are you dead, or do I just lack the correct number?”
When Jenny, the police officer with whom I worked when I served as the homeless navigator at Boulder Municipal Court, calls me, she begins by saying, “It’s okay, no one has died” — on the rare occasion when she isn’t contacting me to report a death. Today she is letting me know that J.A. died. He died of exposure on a cold winter night. Somehow it is important to me to know where. “I thought he was housed,” I say.
“No, he was evicted.” She does a quick search of his police record, just to check where he was most often ticketed and arrested. “Probably by the Unity Church.”
I am grieved by J.A.’s death, angry that a human should freeze to death for want of a safe place to stay. Googling his name, seeking any trace of his existence, I come upon the mortuary’s electronic posting: a blank obituary. Loved ones are invited to leave messages of condolence for the family. I write, “I will miss you, J.A. I will miss your crankiness and your insistence that you were a bodhisattva and a poet.” There are no other postings under his name.
Shortly after, I get a Facebook message from my husband’s former housemate. D. has started a green funeral business. The Boulder County Coroner contracted with him to cremate the remains of any indigent people whose bodies were not claimed by family. D. asks me if maybe I could take the remains off his hands and spread the ashes? He has limited storage space.
I am new to being a pastor. Ten months after I am hired in an affluent Bay Area suburb, the pandemic hits. The congregation is made up of mostly elderly people, and suddenly I am trying to teach them how to use Zoom. Just as suddenly, they begin dying — not of Covid, but of old age. A woman who lost her son rapidly to cancer, and then died herself six months later. An affectionate father who had dementia. A witty, perfectionist architect. A longtime Boy Scout leader. A woman who built a library for a Jamaican grade school. A man who chooses physician-assisted death. An immensely kind family lawyer who swore like a sailor. A woman who clasped her husband’s hand from the hospital bed while I played “Unchained Melody” on my cell phone for them.
The mind, by nature, wanders. And wandering, it assumes its own fluidity, its own continuation. Death interrupts continuity. I begin to arrange Zoom family conferences, less for memorial logistics than to let people grapple with that most abrupt interruption.
“Do we continue?” Yes. There are many versions of the afterlife, but I see them in the continuities of story. Out of every miniature Zoom frame, story gushes forth, recreating a human out of absence. If we can all agree that he was a flirt and she was fierce, does that mean that they continue to be so? I type frantically as they speak, trying to make the dead come back to life in anecdote and memory, even if I can’t keep the names of the speakers straight. A daughter is hostile to me until I tell a story that helps her recognize her mother again. And then the sounds of her sobbing as she blacks out her screen. A granddaughter is irate that I cannot make my congregation respond to her Evites. She has mistaken story for system; she thinks the pain will go away if people will just click the right button so she can tabulate their attendance.
I will see them later, for the first time, in person. They will be wearing black, and their hair will be smoothed, and their manners will be very fine. Where technology made access possible, it also effaced the immediacy of a human body — and the bluntness of embodied absence. It’s the thread of dog hair on the pant leg, the two daughters holding hands, a wet Kleenex in the pew that suddenly unnerves.
After, some of them will go home and go to the church YouTube channel to watch the service again and again and again. They are making another story now.
I’m beginning to think of Facebook as the great morgue, the place you go to be smacked by news of an unforeseen death. I find out that my friend Craig has died in a post from a poet who acknowledges that she never knew him. Matt, with whom I’d agreed to do a panel, is announced as gone. His picture saying, “Here only because I have disappeared.” A GoFundMe is set up to help his family. Lacking the email address of a mutual friend, I track her down on LinkedIn, and we agree to stay in touch. Matt’s co-editor says he will publish one more issue of the magazine they edited together, so I get on Submittable and send him some poems. I’m too abashed to tell him that one of these was specifically written for Matt. I hope he will recognize this. But no, he declines that one and accepts another, a harsh poem, “On the Afterlife”:
Heaven is personal, a score to be settled.
You would recline on the divine and fluffy bed
if only to relish the bitter post-nasal
drip that burns down your throat.
Say it. Everything you spat out in the one life,
say again here. Cloud borne.
Heaven is a perfect parallel, no, a continuity
with all the antique rage, and if only
more eloquent. But no. You wake mute
and therefore perfected. God is your mattress.
You wake without a word more of it, your hair
tangled, a brittle stain burned through the counterpane
by the acrid stuff that had dripped from
your throat. And your eyes
still unfocussed with sleep.
Planning a memorial for Craig, I have my son make a flier that I can post on Facebook. There, the poet, depicted in a field, is at a remove — removed from us — a photo within a photo within a screen, gone. At the Zoom memorial, I primly announce the full name of each speaker as we read the dead poet’s poems aloud and his wife quietly weeps in her isolated square. I feel my throat catch only when another poet, herself ill with cancer, describes with relish how our friend danced a perfect tango with his wife at their wedding. They were once real bodies who held each other. We are now so decorous. We read when we are asked to read, not our own words, just the poet’s. We record ourselves. We do not exceed our allotted time.
Grief is a reclamation: I claim back what I lost, and though it is no longer there, my claim somehow, eventually, offers me some restoration. Grief’s healing paradox. Grief’s love and devotion to what is absent.
I am not grieving. I am charting. I am scheduling meetings. I am proofreading obituaries. I am livestreaming funerals. I am emailing proofs to the foundry so that we make sure the names and dates are correct on the memorial plaque. I am on Facebook Messenger checking to see if it is true. I am seeing the caller’s name on my cell phone and deciding not to answer. I know it means death. I don’t want to know whose.
Over the past two years, I’ve functioned as custodian to grief without acknowledging it in myself. It exists out there, in a distant electronic reality. Caught in the Google calendar, the Facebook announcement, the Zoom meeting, there is no real place, and therefore no place for loss. My body now steps back from what is gone. Lately, I experience numbness in my left hand, my right foot, my lower lip.
I google “neuropathy.” And the screen assures me that something is indeed wrong. At least this, finally: that the absence of feeling is caused by damage.
Elizabeth Robinson is the author of several collections of poetry, including the National Poetry Series winner, Pure Descent, and the Fence Modern Poets prizewinner, Apprehend. Robinson’s book, On Ghosts, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry, and her creative nonfiction has received editor's choice awards from New Letters and Scoundrel Time. She has been recognized with grants from the Fund for Poetry and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. With Jennifer Phelps, Robinson co-edited Quo Anima: Innovation and Spirituality in Contemporary Women's Poetry.
Photo by Randy Prunty