(Garden Studio, Anna Alma-Tadema)
At a memorial gathering for Laurence who has recently died, I started to tell a funny story about something that happened to Laurence and I when we first met, our first week in-country, and what was that woman’s name, that woman in HR who was such a pill? I turned to ask Laurence and remembered that I was at a gathering to celebrate his life – he has died and there is no one else who would remember that woman’s name. The pain of my loss comes home to me in a series of irregular but unending waves.
First it’s the shock of the news, then the hours of telling people, giving and receiving condolences, trying to organize some kind of memorial, figuring out who is dealing with his apartment and who will take came of his family members when they arrive. There’s a busyness – Emily Dickinson’s The Bustle in a House (below). And then, when there is nothing else to do, there is only the grief.
I don’t have a Stop all the Clocks (below) kind of grief – I have a who-do-I-ask-about-finding-a-good-eye-doctor kind of grief. Other kinds of sorrow are clear; saying “my father passed away” or “I lost my aunt” evokes a certain kind of response because those kinds of relationships have certain kinds of parameters.
Grieving an expat friend is different because friendships overseas are different. I don’t know the names of anyone in Laurence’s family; I don’t know the name of Laurence’s long-term, long-distance girlfriend. He didn’t want to talk about her and I did not want to pry. But our lives were enmeshed in the way that happens when you live in a small town in a foreign country, especially after going through Covid.
A week after Laurence’s death, I stood helplessly weeping in the bread aisle – his favorite kind was in stock and, for the first time in more than a decade, I didn’t need to call him to tell him.
I miss gossiping about the office with him and walking to the parking lot together as we did for more than 10 years but more important were all the ways we helped each other along in our small town.
From IKEA to coffee to Christmas decorations, we checked with each other and other friends before placing any order from another country. Laurence and I traded off buying Martin Cruz-Smiths. I gave him Grayson by Lynee Cox and all the Paul Dorion books; he got me hooked on Harry Bosch. Back when we couldn’t get streaming, I bought DVDs and passed them on to him to we went through Vera, Lewis, Endeavor and Shetland.
Our private lives stayed private but we shared all the practicalities of life – him trying to get me to drink ginger/ turmeric/ soy milk concoctions; me trying to get him to hire someone to dust all his books. Me telling him when there was sunscreen on his face or his tie was threadbare; him helping me find a new apartment. Me encouraging him to go to the dentist for a toothache; him giving me advice on dealing with egregious co-workers. The spices company I order from always sends samples, which I usually didn’t want and would give to Laurence. One of his friends would give him eggs from their chickens and he would give me some.
If I was going to the main pharmacy I texted him to see if he wanted anything – if he found the right kind of multi-vitamins, he texted me. For years we would figure out (in October) which Christmas cards to buy, how to get them delivered to us and once they were written, we would send them off in one package back home, where one of his friends or one of mine would put them in the mail.
Awhile ago I was putting together a package to send home and asked him if he wanted to add in anything – he gave me some letters. Because of how long the mail takes, those letters arrived weeks after he died.
Other deaths have left me looking backwards, remembering good times, but Laurence’s death makes me think of the future. Seeing the little table next to my front door reminds me that I will never again arrive home and find some random fruits or vegetables that he dropped off. No updates on Notre Dame’s sports teams; no texts about random events (Good morning! this is the 53rd anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon!)
The Bustle in a House by Emily Dickinson
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted opon Earth –
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –
Funeral Blues by W. H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Garden Studio, Anna Alma-Tadema