Grief and Amadeus
“We’re so convinced we’re moving forwards, when all I seem to do is go round and round with the seasons, certainly no wiser, and often only more sure of how much I cannot know.”
—Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, Pico Iyer
Last week my spouse and I were driving somewhere and Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus came on the radio. I haven’t heard it in years and those cheesy beats brought on a flood of feelings. Cheesy or not, it’s always associated in my mind with a friend from long ago, an actor who was known for his dramatic, many-times-winning rendition of scenes from the 1984 movie Amadeus (about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from the perspective of his envious contemporary composer, Antonio Salieri) in speech & debate tournaments. He overflowed with talent and intelligence; we used to rib each other about our opposing politics. He died so long ago it’s like another lifetime, and yet I carry him, and memories of him, with me decades later.
Grief has been written about more times than I can even begin to count, and yet it remains a private burden that can change our gravitational pull. I wonder if others can sense it, subconsciously respond to the shifts in psychic weight?
The year my friend died (of illness contracted through blood transfusions for his hemophilia), I was living in a different town. I remember handing the absence slip to my history teacher and him making a quip before he opened it—I don’t remember about what—and then looking up at me in surprise after reading funeral. And because I’d moved so many times by then, I didn’t think all that much about the fact that he’d never known my friend, didn’t know of his passing, had never seen him perform Amadeus, that nobody in this new-to-me town had or would know anything of my sadness or the incalculable grief of his siblings and parents. Nobody in this town knew anything, as far as I knew, of his incredible presence, his gifts like supernovae, his capacity for friendship, nothing of who he had been and who he still was to all who knew him, and we were barely a thirty-minute drive away.
His loss was like a little earthquake fracturing the ground of the community, spreading unknown aftershocks to wider regions that knew nothing of what had happened. Even though I was only a friend, not even family, I still feel the damage left by his passing. I still light a candle for him, along with my grandparents and others who’ve gone, when I’m in Russia and wander into Orthodox churches.
The town I moved to has its own earthquake aftershocks, its own losses. Everywhere I’ve ever lived has. Now I think of all our communities, all of us interconnected, lonely people, stepping on the damaged foundations of our world and the whispers of grief from ourselves and our ancestors, walking around with the filled-in cracks and rubble left by loss.
So many people have told me stories of grief when discussing walking. Its weight, its shape. Of walking weeks-long pilgrimages and finally coming to face the enormity of the boulders inside, the weight within caused by the absence without. Hearing these stories changed the way I think about grief and I wonder now, every day, what our lives would look like if we had permission to mourn the losses we bear. I wonder what that does to us, being forced to carry our griefs with no space or time to become acquainted with their shape and heft. How much longer we can walk with the losses we barely have a chance to acknowledge.
“What would grief be like,” asked Laurie Brown in a recent episode of Pondercast on the loss of her father, “if I would just let it blow through me like this wind?”
“It’s almost impossible for those who have never lost anyone close to comprehend the impact, anguish and exhaustion of grieving,” wrote Mark Liebenow in one of his many beautiful essays about grief. “It feels like a fire has burned down our home, blackened our bones and left us standing in smoldering ruins. No one understands grief until Death comes and lights the match.”
“There was nothing subtle about my reading,” wrote Sarah Buttenweiser in last week’s essay on Motherwell about open adoption and reading grief books through the fear of loss. “I wanted to learn how people managed to survive the unthinkable. . . . Anyone who has immersed themselves in grief, an experience that isn’t exactly ever of one’s choosing, knows we don’t get over a loss, we carry it forward.”
My friend passed away in 1993. It’s been nearly thirty years. I still miss him, still think of him nearly every day, but more than me missing him, I wish the world knew him. Probing the loss, the grief, isn’t so much about me but about knowing what the world lacks without him. He was amazing.
Sometimes that music comes on and it feels as if I saw him perform Amadeus yesterday.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
On Marginalia (thanks, Tait!), Robert Burton’s centuries-old answers to melancholy: “Burton was only a teenager when he was plunged into his first episode of debilitating depression — a term that did not yet exist in the modern sense, because mental health did not yet exist as a clinical concept. This “melancholy,” which often left him with “a heavy heart and an ugly head,” was so disabling that it took him more than a decade to complete his studies at Oxford.” (Until Tait sent me that lovely essay, I hadn’t known that Brain Pickings had changed its name—now Marginalia.)
I was away this last week, and as usual brought magazines to catch up on. Got completely swept up in John Freeman’s tribute (if that’s the right word) to Barry Lopez, not just the writer but the human, in the Summer issue of Orion: “I felt myself change under the protection of his fond regard and discretion: permitted a seriousness I did not feel I had earned. Do I need to say how hard it is to find unguarded friendships with men as a man? How frequently what begins safely can become a kind of replication pattern—a mirror to the past? What if you get lost in that maze?”
Quinn Smith Jr. writing in The Wellian Magazine on learning the history of land theft from the Blackfeet Nation that formed Glacier National Park, through conversations with Ernie Heavy Runner, and what justice and honor require of us: “Our government blamed the Blackfeet for not asserting their own claims, while at the same time upholding a system that made any form of asserting claims impossible. After winning a court case in 1973, the Blackfeet finally were granted free admission to Glacier Park. But to this day, that’s it.”
I loved this episode of Reframing Rural, with rural sociologist Ben Winchester, on the narratives we tell and believe about our rural communities—and how we can envision a future of possibility rather than loss: “I kind of comically told my boss like Roger, like, boy, if all our small towns are dying, then am I just going to help our small towns die, like is that my job is to like really be a critical care assistant, and be like, we’re just going to help you die in a respectful way. Clontarf, Minnesota. You know, like, it’s ridiculous to think of it that way. But it was really reaffirming to me that all of these voices I heard, tended to go against that very persuasive, negative narrative that rural is dying.”
I don't know how I missed this beautiful elegy -- and eulogy, of sorts. Loss and grief and all its permutations.
Thanks for the link to the story about Barry Lopez in Orien. Lopez was a gift to the planet.