The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning, edited by George Bowering and Jean Baird, Random House Canada, 2009. 351 pp.
The Heart Does Break is a Canadian anthology of personal stories on grief and mourning that immediately attracted my attention since I experienced a heart breaking loss myself a few years ago.
In his Introduction, “May I Bring You Tea?,” George Bowering, Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, explains that this book came out of a personal need. His wife, Jean Baird, a well-known magazine publisher, lost her thirty-five-year-old daughter, Bronwyn, in a tragic car accident in June 2005, a loss that continues to affect their daily lives deeply. As Bowering notes, people who become impatient with mourners and say “get over it” (something I have experienced too) don’t understand the grieving process. After doing some research on the literature available and finding little in Canadian publications, the couple decided to collaborate on this project.
They began by commissioning Canadian writers of various degrees of fame to share their own experiences with loss. Many declined to contribute due to the difficulty of the subject. The stories now gathered in this book are uneven in literary quality but are powerful, some more eloquent, intimate, perceptive than others. Overall, each writer offers some insight that illuminates the darkness that is mourning a mother, a father, a sister, a longtime friend, and most painful of all, a child (whether adult or unborn.)
In The Heart Does Break, similar reactions are shared among the writers, for example, how death changes the perception of time, how there is no more “ordinary” time since the death of the loved one. And time doesn’t ease much of the pain in recollection. The mourner, whatever her or his age, experiences a profound identity crisis.
The late Paul Quarrington, the prize-winning novelist, musician and film maker, who died in January of this year of lung cancer, wrote “The Bluesman”, a personal story that reads like a meditation on the death of his mother when he was a teen. Her death made him feel “abandonned and monstrous,” and angrily he told his father that he “wouldn’t cry.” Vulnerable, shunned at school, he fell under the spell of Paul, an adolescent who was a petty thief, in and out of prison. This Paul offered him some friendship but also his “first drink”, the alcohol that soothed his grief but turned into an addiction. As Quarrington remarks, he then became a “fifteen-year-old hard-drinking bluesman from Don Mills, Ontario.”
In a very different story, “Waiting to Grieve,” Montreal poet and playwright, Endre Farkas, writes about mourning in our contemporary society and how the funeral home has become a conglomerate cultural center with café, art exhibits and other activities. He questions the appropriateness of this trend to “celebrate” a death and presents the Jewish burial rituals in contrast. As a child, he reluctantly accompanied his family to the cemetery every year to mourn relatives such as his aunt Margit, a strong, hard-working woman who owned a “hole-in-the wall” restaurant on Prince Arthur Street where many Hungarian immigrants congregated to eat goulash, stuffed cabbage and other homemade dishes. To ease his sadness at her death, he wrote his own eulogy for her, “a satisfying act.”
Some of the writers suffer more than one loss in a short span of time which complicates the grieving process even more. Linda McNutt, a novelist and teacher, writes that the day of her father’s funeral, she learned that she was pregnant. This explained why she was ravenous at the funeral buffet. Months later, due “second trimester infant death,” she tragically gave birth to a lifeless baby. Like many of the contributors, McNutt notes how people say the wrong things or “platitudes” that fail to ease the grief. For her, anger is not a stage of grief, but what “keeps me alive. It feeds my hunger.”
Other similar experiences described in these stories are the physical reactions to the loss such as vertigo, panic attacks, or even breakdowns. Some write of vivid dreams of the deceased or supernatural occurences.
Austin Clarke, author of ten novels among other writings, and winner of the 2002 Giller Prize and the 2003 Trillium Prize for The Polished Hoe, describes in “There is no Good in a Black Night,” a poetic prose piece, how upon his return home to Toronto after the funeral for his mother in Brooklyn, the doorbell kept ringing. Though there was no one there, he felt certain it was his mother’s “presence.” An affecting picture of Gladys Irene Clarke Luke, Austin Clarke’s mother who died at ninety-two years old, shows her at a table eating, laughing, sponge hair curlers still on her head. Each contributions (save one) offers an accompanying photo of the deceased which adds visual poignancy.
Rituals for the dead are less traditional than in the past. There are still funerals and wakes but one ritual often described in this anthology is the disposal of the ashes of the dead. In Marni Jackson’s “Just Cremation,” in memory of her father Clyde Bruce Jackson, she describes with some dark humor, how she travelled with his ashes from southern Ontario to Saskatoon where she found the bridge her father, an engineer, helped build in 1930. “I had left behind the vase, thinking that a woman with a vase on a bridge might draw attention. The ashes, in a plastic bag tied with two garbage twists, were as heavy and big as two bricks.” As she empties the bag into the river with some difficulty, her cousin takes pictures with her disposable camera.
One of the most beautifully written stories is “On the Material, or, Gail’s Books”, by B.C. poet and teacher at Simon Fraser University, Stephen Collis. He remembers his sister, Gail Victoria Tulloch, who died of cancer in 2002. They shared a love of books and as they grew up, she was the first to make him feel that writing poetry mattered. As in many of the stories in this anthology, intimate details of the last days or even last moments are shared which may make for uncomfortable but powerful reading. In a style that might recall the strokes of an Impressionist painting, Hollis begins his story this way:
“Just after our parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary – an August day, garden sun, her flower print dress -my sister Gail learns she has cancer and I recall that dress her smile and the sun. On December 19, 2002, she dies. Enduring her final lucid moments trying to talk and something in her tongue seems gone and as a kind of resignation the only word that comes out again and again is “okay “okay.”
During the three-day wake, Hollis recalls how he sat in the room alone by her body and read verses from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass out loud. He includes poems that he wrote to his sister as a way to honor her and continue their relationship beyond death.
Other outstanding stories are by Erin Mouré, Brian Brett, Catherine Bush, George Elliott Clarke and others. I found The Heart Does Break to be an engrossing, disturbing ultimately beneficial book that can enlighten those of us who dare want to learn more about grief and mourning.