an essay by Jess Smith
“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no
true storyteller who would keep that from you.”
– Ernest Hemingway
A TRADITIONAL ELEGY has four or five distinguishing characteristics, depending which scholar you ask. There is an arc similar to the psychological arc of grieving: an expression of lament followed by praise of the dead and eventually moving into consolation that is, historically, religious. Other common characteristics include argument and rage, pastoral contextualization (as when the speaker is walking along a hill or through a field, mourning), and images or hallucinations of resurrection. Almost all elegies, though, even the non-traditional, even the subversive or rupturing, involve a refrain. The act of repetition seems elemental to the mode.
Take Tennyson: “Forgive what seem’d my sin in me…Forgive my grief for one removed…Forgive these wild and wandering cries.”
Or Dylan Thomas, repeating the same imperatives at the end of every stanza in his elegiac villanelle: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, Rage against the dying of the light.”
Even Aracelis Girmay’s modern elegy quietly turns over and into itself with repetition: “All above us is the touching / of strangers & parrots, / some of them human, / some of them not human. // This is the only kingdom. / The kingdom of touching; / the touches of the disappearing, things.”
There is a repetition compulsion threaded through the hard work of grieving. We try to tighten the cyclone, to arrest the ceaseless misery of wanting to speak to someone with whom we can never speak again. Putting one’s grief into form is a way of placing the deceased in a long lineage of beloved. It seems that if the form of what we loved changed, then we immediately start seeking new forms with which to address that love. As Freud said of grieving, “No matter what fills the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else.”
Three years before he actually died but after he had started the long, messy process of dying, my grandfather asked me to give the eulogy at his funeral. This was Christmastime 2013, and he was in the hospital after surgery to remove cancer in his kidney. His body, already weakened by the lung disease COPD, years of bourbon, and suffering over my grandmother, was not recovering correctly or quickly. His salt-and-pepper hair went white, as they say, overnight.
My boisterous, needy extended family gathered in his hospital room daily. There are sixteen cousins in my generation of which I am the eldest. We call our grandfather Papaw. My mother and her brothers fought and cried over who would take care of what, but never in front of their father. They kept letting him order them around as if everything had not forever shifted.
It wasn’t so cold in Georgia that December. It’s never so very cold in Georgia. We strung Christmas lights around Papaw’s mechanical bed and wore cheap Santa hats and pretended we were all leaving the room at once because we wanted to and not because he was having post-surgical trouble controlling his bowels and had to be regularly cleaned and turned, turned and cleaned. He’d been at the VA facility for the beginning, but the facilities were so shoddy and so obviously defunded and neglected that we had him moved to a regular hospital. Even the new place, though, was staffed by humans: humans working and trying to do their best but sometimes forgetting my grandfather’s dosage so that he couldn’t sleep but was still too out of it to explain why he was in pain, humans angry after the second or third time he messed himself on Christmas Eve, humans stringing their own Christmas lights around their own longing in the lobby. The staff was distracted to the point that my mother and uncles and adult cousins and I took turns sitting and sleeping in the room with him. Should something happen, as kept happening, he could reach his hand out and find one of our wrists there, waking us with his grip, saying help, help, I need help.
It took about six days for him to get stronger, to be able to turn over in bed on his own and even start shuffling to the bathroom. His eyes cleared, and he started making jokes again. Six days doesn’t sound like much in the span of a life, especially a full life like his, but think about the way time balloons in the midst of uncertainty. Every day was a crisis. Anyone who slept there didn’t really sleep, anyone who went home barely slept. We put up a small Christmas tree in the corner on the second day when we realized we’d be there through the holiday, lights flickering ominously whenever the hospital power surged.
At the time, I was in the middle of moving to Oakland, CA, where my new love lived. My grandfather had met him only once and didn’t want me to go. My grandfather had never asked me not to do something, and I was struggling to reconcile what I knew of the world (that my grandfather was good and just and saw things clearly) with what I wanted (to be with this man forever in his small, sunlit California apartment with a lemon tree in the yard). Papaw said my love had “hounded” eyes. He said he wouldn’t take care of me. Papaw was not the only one uncomfortable with my new relationship, but his concern was the one that truly concerned me.
I remember when I would call my California man and need to blubber about the way it looked to see Papaw thin, confused, shivering in his hospital gown, and my love would say “Well, you don’t have to be there every day.” I had already made the decision to move though, and I thought the gut worry I felt was because I was grieving and anxious that Papaw was going to die when I left, not because that gut worry was right.
I stayed part of the night before I left for California in Papaw’s hospital room. Around 9pm, I got onto his bed with him. I didn’t expect to do this but I could not have done anything else. I put my hand on his cheek, touched his newly white hair. Groggily, he said, Jessica, I’m okay. Jessica, you’re my prettiest granddaughter. Jessica, we’re going to the Waffle House as soon as you get back from California. And I said, you’re okay but not okay enough. And I said, you say that to all of your granddaughters but I know you mean it with me. And I said, we’ll get what we always get. Waffle House was essentially the only restaurant he ever went to anymore, and we always got fried eggs, buttered toast, and four slices of tomato each. “how they all went / on,” as Whitman wrote, “each with its meals and minutia of daily usages.” Those meals and daily usages entombed in elegy, the comfort of familiar repetition made regal by repeating it on the page.
On his bed with him, I kept repeating, don’t die. And he said, I’ve got some time. And I said, don’t die. And he said, I will stay alive as long as you’re with that man. And I said, oh, Papaw. And he said, I mean it. And he fell asleep for a while, and I remember the damp, soft feel of his ruptured body and how he had, like all men do, suddenly become an old man.
Only 51 when I was born, he drank and trucked and polkaed my entire life. He seemed younger than anyone to me. Only 78 in that hospital bed that Christmas, I said not yet, and he said I know. And then, before the nurse came in for the morning rounds, when I was climbing off of his bed and smoothing my clothes with shaky, unslept hands and patting my dry hair and going to check my phone to see if the California man had called, Papaw said, but one more thing. And I said anything. And he said, you have to do my eulogy. And I said, ha, ha, stop. And he said, with a seriousness that he rarely betrayed, no, please, because you’ll get it right. And his hand, already a little cold, was around my wrist, and his eyes were in my throat, and I said stop because I suddenly understood that he was afraid of being forgotten, and the nurse was coming in, and he winked at her even though she was never that kind to him and said, nurse, isn’t she my prettiest granddaughter.
I’d love to tell you what his voice was like. Low and country, rung out a little with drink and years of smoke. He always pronounced my sister’s name, Claire, as Clar-a, because in the mountains that’s how you’d say it. He grew luscious tomatoes and said would you loo-ook at that. When I went to college, he called me two or three times a week just to say, I know you’re working as hard as your Papaw, but hard came out ha-ahrd. Always adding syllables. He knew what wasn’t enough.
My California love and I did not last. We imploded in drastic fashion within the span of two devastating years, and I ended up moving to Texas to start a PhD. I had been accepted to a program in Georgia, close to home, but chose not to go. I was ashamed of my heartbreak, of our colossal failure to love each other, and wanted a new landscape. I wanted strangers. And the vibrancy of my childhood flickered, it seemed, with Papaw’s decline. I convinced myself I would go home to Atlanta more frequently for visits than I had from California. And Papaw and I could still talk on the phone a bit, then. Because the COPD gave him horrible (which he would pronounce ha-aribbull) coughing fits if he spoke for too long, he called more frequently but could talk for less time. His own kind of love math. And I told myself he would get better even as he just kept getting worse.
In the actual end, he spent a little over a month with in-home hospice. Mostly he wouldn’t speak and mostly he was afraid, unsure where he was or what was happening. My mother slept in a chair by his bed most nights, her brothers in the next room. I stopped calling. I knew he could hear my voice, but I couldn’t sustain the idea that he wouldn’t be able to respond.
I try to ask myself often if I am a cold person. If I disengage. Most elegies also contain a self-interrogation like this, a moment where the speaker asks what he or she could have done to save the beloved, or if there was something that could have ennobled the beloved while he was still living.
I think these are impossible questions to parse for one’s self, especially in the midst of active disengagement. I knew at the time that grief was coming for me, anyway, so why meet it at the gate? Why call if he can’t speak back?
Now, after, I realize that I was slowly removing him from the fabric of my life. So that the seam might not be so obvious once it split. This has been a good strategy. Even at this moment, because I have the luxury of living elsewhere, I assume he is in my mother’s kitchen in Georgia, whipping heavy cream and brewing coffee that’s too strong and telling me to put myself to good use. It’s 6am, after all. The day is waiting.
The morning he died, I was in bed in Texas with a new lover, a man I didn’t know very well but who was kind to me. I kept checking his eyes to see if they looked hounded, kept wondering if Papaw would live long enough to meet him and help me figure it out.
I had an alarm set for 6:30am so that I could get up and do work before I went to campus. At 6:20am, I woke abruptly, uncertain where I was. I looked at my phone, which had a missed call from 6:19am, one minute earlier, but it had not rung. The call was from my Uncle David, and I knew it was time. I pulled on the Texan lover’s plush, enormous robe and went into the morning-dark kitchen and sat at his wooden table. I looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings, this place that was noplace, and thought of the gold curtains in my grandfather’s bedroom, of the quilt on his bed that his mother Minnie had made. I could picture exactly the single broken tile in his downstairs bathroom, the order of his work shoes in his small closet, the Blueridge China in his cupboards, the winter hats on their hooks, the vintage poster of Marilyn Monroe he kept on his wall like a teenage boy with a crush.
I called my Uncle David back and he said darlin, you have to say goodbye. He said I’m going to hold the phone to his ear. He can hear you but he can’t say anything back. I could faintly hear my mother’s voice, a shipwreck in the background, saying It’s okay sweetie. It’s okay. Take the time you need. Sweetie, it’s okay.
As if there was any time or need. As if I could be anything but hysterical. Having kept myself from calling him and whimpering for over a month, having abandoned this decrepit Papaw in favor of trying to preserve the vibrant Papaw he was, I ended up saying too much and nothing. I blubbered and howled into the phone, snot in my mouth, spit on my hands, my lover waking and rushing from the bedroom to say baby, baby?
Grief is not unique. My family is not unique. The things people say when they are grieving are not unique. It’s all okay we’ll be okay these things are natural it’s all okay. And now I see the comfort in the banal repetition, self-soothing, that saying he was a good man he had a good life he was a good man he had a good life is the verbal equivalent of rocking back and forth with your own arms wrapped around you. It’s no wonder we recreate it in elegy, in lament.
When my grandmother first left my grandfather, my mother was 11. She says he would stay up all night, drinking bourbon and listening to Charlie Rich’s “Did You Happen to See the Most Beautiful Girl in the World” on loop. Until dawn. Sweaty ice clinking in the same sweaty glass. Lifting the stylus and dropping it. My grandmother, in her own act of self-soothing, would come back to him and go again. Come back and go.
My grandmother and grandfather had known each other since she was 4 and he was 7. Her father managed the Kentucky coal mine where Papaw’s father died in a freak accident when he was nine (that, he always told me, was the day he stopped believing in God). He married my grandmother a few weeks after her 19th birthday, and they had four children. Their second son, Stephen, died when he was ten minutes old. My grandfather left my grandmother, whom he thought was still anesthetized, in the hospital to go home and build a small coffin. His act of grieving became a moment of abandonment she never forgave.
I remember reading Frost’s “Home Burial” in college, my mind starting to drift as the grieving mother tries to leave her husband when he abruptly buries their child, crying “If you had any feelings, you that dug / With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave; / I saw you from that very window there.”
My grandparents spent the rest of their lives breaking up and reuniting, ruining other relationships, exciting and disappointing their children. She was too beautiful and too angry. He was too in love with her. Many Christmases, even when they weren’t speaking, he bought her the same bottle of bourbon with the same note: For the prettiest girl in Harlan, Kentucky.
During the end of his life though, she was with him. She lived in the house, too, during that humid month of hospice. A strange retelling of their original life–a home full of the children they had, the family they started.
My grandmother was the one who often bathed Papaw, who brought him nips of bourbon though she wasn’t supposed to, who read him the Psalms at night. Despite his rejection of organized religion, he loved music and the rhythms of prayer and gospel. And my grandparents grew up Baptist in a rural mountain church with those Psalms. They grew up saying Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Come into his presence with singing. Elegies often recall religious texts. Incantation as relief. Nostalgia as secular fervor.
My mother said she knew Papaw was close when he didn’t want music, or television, or even conversation, and he only wanted my grandmother. Her beauty not quite gone. Her silent blue eyes and blonde hair. She climbed into bed with him one night just before the end and held him and kept repeating I’m not ready I’m sorry I’m not ready I’m sorry.
I wrote the eulogy in one gasp because I’d already, unwittingly, been writing it for three years. I wrote it at that same kitchen table I called him from, in the same predawn hours–scribbling, repeating scenes over in my mind, recalling things I could have done or said better, creating impossible ways I could have saved him. He’d been so ill for so long. The phone call conversations getting sputtery, forgetful. Sometimes he was angry, which was rarely an emotion he indulged in his regular life. He was dying for years and then, all at once, he died.
What I didn’t know at that time was that writing his eulogy was a way of being in conversation with him. With the eulogy as a project, I could still do something for him, could still be part of his life. What else could I do but keep writing these things? How else could I, or anyone, offer any dignity to a life so easily and rapidly thrust into indignity? I’m sorry I’m not ready I’m sorry. I wanted to give him his place among the eulogized, the venerated, the beloved. I wanted to repeat his name forever.
The poet Edward Hirsch, who wrote a book-length elegy for his son Gabriel after he died at twenty-two, said writing the book was the only time he could feel his son’s presence, could feel like he was talking to him. The elegy is heavily threaded with anaphora, with Hirsch parsing his grief by repeating and repeating to himself: “Something about an autopsy…Something about finding a funeral home…” or “He wanted he needed to buy something…He wanted he needed to go right away.” He is searching for his son by searching everywhere, and then returning to search the same spots again, just in case.
Of her own father, my mother keeps saying I can’t find him, and I keep telling her to write it down. Over and over. Write it until his name looks like something else. I don’t think she has yet. She just calls and says I can’t find him I thought I’d be able to find him.
I envy those in our family who can leave it up to Jesus, leave it up to being able to see Papaw again when God decides. I know it’s not so easy as this, and these people I love still have conflict in their hearts, and sometimes we say things over and over like he’s with God now as we say anything over and over without believing it, but still I envy the ease with which they can even say anything definitive about this loss because I don’t believe in anything but the heaven we already had. As the poet Tony Harrison said in his elegy for his parents, believing in the afterlife “is cheating.”
The day of the funeral, though, I felt calm. The entire family seemed exhausted from grief, from the hours and hours of visitation the day prior, and I wanted to revive them with his memory. When I was on the altar, which is really just a falsely sacred term for stage, giving the eulogy, I knew I was talking to him. Honoring him. I even imitated the way he liked to polka (which wasn’t quite the polka) to much tearful delight from the congregated. I looked at his little brother, my Great-Uncle John, when I talked about the four room house in Harlan where they grew up alongside their five other siblings. I thought, oh, god, you’re his little brother.
So when I finally said all the things I wish I’d said on that phone call that morning, all the things I wish I’d said on phone calls for weeks, it felt right and clear and religious. It felt like song, which is also what an elegy is. Dirge, lament, keen, requiem, threnody, eulogy. The shapes and fables we use to bracket our grief. The wailing woman. The monkey’s paw. And the crowd goes wild.
But when I sat down, the cymbal crash immediately quieted. There was no more conversation. He was dead. He was sick and he died. I gave the eulogy at my grandfather’s funeral, and then I was 31, living in Texas, drinking a little too much, walking to school some days, driving others. Another common trait of elegy: disbelief that normal life keeps going. As the poet Friedrich Rückert wrote after losing two daughters to scarlet fever within sixteen days of each other, “Now the sun wants to rise so brightly / as if nothing terrible had happened overnight.”
Life, especially family life, is made up of a series of repetitions. We cook dinner at night. We tuck our children into bed. We say I love you goodnight. We say good morning how did you sleep. We say drive safely. We go to schools and jobs. We eat at the Waffle House (fried eggs, buttered toast, and four slices of tomato each). We call when we are apart. We say you are my prettiest granddaughter.
Elegy not only simulates grief then, but life. As Auden, master of agony, famously wrote of his lost lover: “He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest.” We record the ways we spoke to each other, the rituals of our everyday love, to resist oblivion. We continue our end of the conversation even when the beloved can’t say anything back.
But unlike when I spoke to him that morning, I don’t think Papaw hears me now. I’d like to believe that he can, that I didn’t give up my chance (I can’t find him I thought I’d be able to find him), but all I can do is gentle my mind with the ritual of elegy, to try and create provisional meaning until the heat of this loss, and my failure to love him the best way I could, is cool enough to touch.
Jess Smith‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Waxwing, Winter Tangerine, cream city review, Sixth Finch, Lumina, and other journals. Currently she is pursuing a PhD in English at Texas Tech University, where she is a Helen DeVitt Jones Fellow and won the 2017 Horn Professors Graduate Award. She founded and curates the LHUCA Literary Series in Lubbock, TX.