Follow Harriet on Twitter
Dale Edwin Sherrard, 1961-2015
I am still mourning and still grieving.
Known for most of his life as Eddie and then as Dale for the last twenty-six years.
So he’s both Eddie and Dale.
He used to joke to me that “Dale was trying to kill Eddie.” Those were his witty, abstract, astute jokes. He loved joking and he loved psychoanalysis and introduced me to the work of psychoanalyst and poet Adam Phillips. Particularly to the book Terror and Experts, with erudite ideas that now help me: “mourning is immensely reassuring because it convinces us of something we might otherwise doubt; our attachment to others.” I am exploring my attachment during this grieving process.
So I am now out a full year and am still very much in a complicated but life-changing grieving process, exploring the notions of narrative and attachment.
These are the facts: I lost my husband, composer and artist, Dale Edwin Sherrard on January 14, 2015 after his fight with esophageal cancer.
This is the fact and narrative, his obituary.
He was brave and stoic during his short fight (two months from diagnosis to his passing) and lost his battle when a brain tumor was found—on January 8th—in his cerebellum.
Everyone said that he started to look younger and younger as he was dying because his cheekbones, smooth and swarthy, were more pronounced and gave him his wild-eyed youth back.
He was devastatingly beautiful (as he was throughout his life, and particularly in his twenties) in his muteness and in-between-conscious state: a starry-world quality his eyes possessed—what they might be seeing inside and their outwardness combined with the restlessness of death impending. His breathing heavy-wind, gusts of heaving. I couldn’t take it.
When the oncologist said we had to say goodbye, Dale had, at that moment (while having that tumor lodged and obstructing much of his capacity to speak and to seemingly comprehend what was happening) pulled out his own feeding tube, as if to say he knew he had to leave us. I couldn’t process this gesture. I didn’t know how to ascribe the significance. The oncologist said, here it is, he knows what’s happening and I still wasn’t sure if it was a gesture of discomfort (and a reaction to the steroids keeping him alive while we prepared to say goodbye) or if it was a symbolic gesture of greeting the end or of letting go. I was skeptical of quick assessments and of narrative truths.
At that moment I wished I wasn’t a poet because I felt that I had developed a too-sophisticated sense of what the symbolic could hold. I didn’t believe it was represented in these gestures. It felt too literal to be symbolic. I believed the body’s discomfort somehow overruled the mind’s freedom to find and use symbolism. This is something I want to think more about: death, narrative, symbolism, and the end-of-life work we do.
And so we had to say goodbye—unexpectedly—and it was unbearable to let him go. We were hoping we had six months to a year left. I spent those two months fussing and freaking out over his care and advocating for his life and trying to find the right palliative care doctor, and so I was not prepared to lose him so quickly and unexpectedly and I didn’t even feel like the palliative care doctor knew what was happening—she didn’t prepare me correctly for anything that was happening. She seemed unable to somehow. I remember speaking to his oncologist (finally, who had been away for the holiday break) who said I was right: he was either over-medicated (from the palliative care doctor I thought and believed and consequently did not want to care for him anymore) or he had a brain tumor. When the tumor was confirmed I felt so angry at myself for diagnosing the possibilities: Did it matter what I had assessed? I didn’t want any of it to be true. Did it matter that I thought he had cancer in October when he started to choke on his food? No. What did it teach me? Nothing about reality. Nothing so far had taught me about death. Poetry hadn’t either. That is, until I found it during the grieving process.
But I will not yet discuss the present.
As a poet at that time I felt hospice had inadequate narratives for me. It made me feel internally and externally hostile towards particular clergy or the social workers because they were trying to reach me with aphorisms, accessible poetry, and faulty narratives (to me they felt this way). These aphorisms and their poems felt watered down and basic, not the ones I knew or leaned on. Say, the poems I taught or read bedside. But then I didn’t want any of the bedside poems I had because they, too, were inadequate. I think back now: I had probably wanted to figure out, mindfully, what were tools and methods poets and artists had to say goodbye with the kind of grace and articulation they bring to their work, but I didn’t have the wherewithal or the forethought, obviously, because of the shock and gravity of the situation. And it didn’t matter, really, because I couldn’t come up with anything to really say except to hold my anger and grief dear and close to me. I couldn’t find anything to hold onto except people’s arms, and that wasn’t enough. And holding Dale while he was losing consciousness was so hard. His eyes looked at me with a fury and strength that hurt my being because I couldn’t imagine what he was experiencing and I had to let him go.
I found what I wrote him after he received his diagnosis. This is what I wrote him in November:
November 23, 2014
I have been writing to you for such a long time that I stopped writing and was speaking to you. I was speaking to you before you even started drinking your coffee and you kept pleading with me to wait until you finished. “Could you give me a minute? I am listening to you. I listen to every word, not just every three.” It’s true. I didn’t write poems to you anymore because I have you in my company and in my company I have you and I have to understand what it means to have your company. Does it mean I just talk to you until you die? Until you don’t know what I’m saying and I can’t say it anymore? Is this why I have to write poems now? Because if I can’t talk to you anymore I won’t know what to do with myself.
Even during that last week of hospice when my father read from the Vedic scriptures—the Bhagavad Gita—which felt inadequate even though it was so beautiful, appropriate to the ritual, and required, too; and to listen to my dear father, a Hindu priest, who married us and had to conduct the cremation ceremony, and during the ceremony instructed me to put flowers on the parts of body meant only for the wife—how unbearable and lovely and true. And Dale’s dear sister Jody who washed his body before the ceremony, to his daughter Aja who held him day in and day out and nursed him tenderly those last months.
I couldn’t bear to hold him and I felt so helpless. I took in the strength of my family and was grateful for the family Dale “Eddie” had given me. I had the bewilderment of feeling—this is because saying goodbye to loved ones is an impossible task and will never have closure. And as I write I have no grace of poetry here and I feel inadequate as a poet and writer, too. But as I write this I shrug my shoulders and tell myself that it cannot be helped.
For me closure happens through talking. Or rather closure isn’t closure but openings. I am learning to let Dale guide me through grieving by opening myself up to everything he liked and integrating the attributes of his life and beliefs that gave him joy. Therefore, this blog will be full of associations. It’s going to be freer than it should be, which, I believe punctuates this past year for me. Through the grieving process I’ve learned to navigate my self-expression differently, and have learned more about myself and about community than I ever thought possible.
I am exploring the in-between state of sentient feelings and hope it’s okay to take this to such a public space. And yet, after reading the performance art work and watching the documentary videos of Linda Montano’s work and rituals, I’ve been feeling the welcoming of the private self to the public domain, and now I’m thinking about what it would be like to “talk” here and let this be my art—its own talking cure.
We learn so much about our attachment to love and to people. Poetry, I hope, is a kind of learned articulation and sentient expression of attachment to an everything we put into it. I hope. I hope to hold both love, art, grieving and mourning. All are happening for me and I think back to when I couldn’t imagine this to be true, one full year ago.