My Mammalian Middle Brain (or this is your brain on grief)

I finally watched the last episode of The Good Wife. They brought back a dead guy – the Good Wife’s unrequited love who was murdered a few seasons back. It was a cop out. You can’t bring dead people back to life no matter how many candles you burn, or seances you hold, or how often you look through old pictures and cry. I’ve tried.

Last October, I spent Dia de los Muertos with my cousin going through old papers that belonged to our grandfather. There were letters from lawyers and doctors, his marriage license, a pledge he signed, promising to stop playing “…poker, dice games and race horses.”

We read through his and our grandmother’s divorce contract, tax records with racehorse names listed as collateral, and a loan pay-off note with questionable terms.

There was an over-sized envelope from the coroner with all the things he had on him at the time of his death. His glasses, scraps of paper with unknown phone numbers scribbled across them, his wallet, his watch and a handful of blank checks from Mutual Trust Bank. His eyeglass frames were heavy, the weight of a half-full coffee mug, and his wallet had pictures of our two older cousins, both girls.

The watch’s second hand started ticking after I shook it.

Our grandfather died in November, 1979. He was working underneath his car when it rolled off the jack and crushed him. A neighbor drove by and found him like that, dead, underneath his car. Two years prior in May of 1977 his son (my dad) drowned at the age of 26.

The local newspaper reported my dad’s body had been recovered from the lake at Buffalo Trace Park by two “civilian divers.” Those words – civilian divers – have been stuck in my head for more than twenty years now after reading them for the first time from the microfiche film monitor in the local library’s historical records room.

Last Saturday marked 39 years since my dad died. I spent the day with my dad’s extended family, first at a graduation party, then later with another one of my cousins. We took our daughters out for sushi. On the way home from dinner, when it was just my daughter and me in the car, I told her my dad had died 39 years ago that very day.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I am, I just don’t want the day to go by without saying his name.”

Last week, I read the following passage from Lani Leary’s book “No One Has to Die Alone” out loud all by myself in my office.

Our bodies respond to the pain of separation from a loved one and express it through chemical and physiological changes and adjustment…When we are stressed or suffering from emotional pain, we operate from the more instinctive, mammalian middle brain. The executive functioning part of the brain that is responsible for analysis, adaptation, empathy, and future planning shuts down. Our brains and bodies adjust to a survival mode as we try to regain control.

I’ve had this passage about grief pinned to the cork board above my desk for more than a year. Just recently I’ve started my workdays listening to Lou Reed and Jim Carroll sing “People who died.” Before David Bowie died, I would start my day listening to him sing “Starman” back when he was Ziggy Stardust. But then, Lou Reed and Jim Carroll showed up in the “Up next” list on YouTube, and now I keep playing Carroll’s death tribute over and over.

“…those are people who died, died…They were all my friends, and they died.”

Lou Reed and Jim Carroll are both dead now. Bowie died. Prince died. Pat Conroy died. My dad’s been dead 39 years, his dad, 37 years. A guy I went to high school with had a heart attack and died a few years ago and people still post on his Facebook page how much they miss him. My grandmother who called me Amos Lucille, and who let me eat ice cream covered with Hershey syrup from a can while we watched The Love Boat and Fantasy Island together, the woman I lived with every weekend from the time I was a toddler until I was a teenager — she died four years ago and I still talk to her.

We’re all going to die. This is the only thing I know for sure about my future. And still, knowing death is a sure thing – I spend time worrying about what I won’t accomplish versus actually trying to accomplish something. Instead of writing, I scroll through Facebook, getting mildly annoyed by people I don’t know well enough to say “hi” to if I saw them in the produce section at Jay C. I shop for clothes I don’t need. I watch back-to-back episodes of The Good Wife.

When I mentioned my dad’s death to my daughter, I thought about my cousin and me going through our grandfather’s things, and then I pulled a thread through all of it – my dad’s death, our grandfather’s envelope of personal items, my daughter sitting there next to me asking if I’m okay. Me reading that quote about grief aloud to myself the other day, and fearing that my not writing is the result of some abnormally prolonged state of grief. That I have somehow gotten stuck in my mammalian middle brain.

The only thing I could think to do was write about it.

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