My Mammalian Middle Brain

I finally watched the final episode of The Good Wife. There wasn’t enough Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and 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 the final night of 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 the corners worn and the metal clasp left open. It held his glasses, phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper, his wallet, his watch and a handful of blank checks from Mutual Trust Bank. His eyeglass frames were heavy, like holding a half-full coffee mug, and his wallet had pictures of his first two granddaughters in it.

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. It happened two years after my father – his first born son – drowned at age 26. The local newspaper reported that 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 ever since I read them twenty years ago in my library’s historical records room, scrolling through microfiche film of local newspapers from May of 1977.

Last Saturday marked 39 years since my dad died. I spent the day with his side of the family, first at a graduation party, then later with another of my cousins, eating sushi with our daughters.

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 mentioning it or saying his name.”

Last week, I read the following passage from Lani Leary’s book “No One Has to Die Alone ” aloud, 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 perform “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.”

Bowie died. Prince died. Pat Conroy died. Lou Reed and Jim Carroll are both dead. 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. I get it. My grandma who called me Amos Lucille, and kept me every single weekend of my youth, letting me eat ice cream covered with Hershey syrup poured from a can while we watched The Love Boat and Fantasy Island together – 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 page-down through my Facebook feed, getting mildly annoyed by people I don’t know well enough to wave to if I saw them across the produce section. 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 an abnormally prolonged state of suffering – 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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